Tag Archives: travel

In travels, strangers’ love can mean the world

When you’re traveling alone, it’s the chance interactions you share with others that keep you going. A tiny glimmer of a smile. A slight nod. Small talk about where you’re from or where you’re heading. At home, these moments seem trivial, easily unnoticed as we move about our busy, insular lives.

But when that’s all you have, these tiny moments, you’re only left with yourself. While time alone can be reinvigorating, it’s equally terrifying and overwhelming. You’re forced to reckon with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, some of which can be uncomfortable.

Life is being lived all around, except now you’re merely an observer to an unfamiliar world spinning madly in front of you. It’s quiet, really quiet. The silence that comes with traveling alone will make you love yourself at some points and dislike yourself at others.

One moment you’re stupidly proud of yourself for lugging a 30-pound backpack around for miles in search of a hostel. And when you find that secret, little corner booth at a cozy café far from where tourists have set afoot, you feel like a conqueror.

In these moments, it’s as though we’re invincible. The alluring lights of an unfamiliar city, no matter how big or how small, tend to have that effect. It’s rather silly. There are thousands of streets, thousands of people, but you feel like everyone knows your name.

But no one does. As darkness falls, we each head back to our little rooms in remote pockets of these metropolises alone. That is when the emotional reckoning happens.

One question weighs heavier than most: Am I significant? Sit there pondering long enough, and it will tear you up.

Thankfully, you have these random strangers to pull you back up again even though they owe you nothing. After all, our days are all fragmented and numbered.

Strangers have no idea where you’ve been. They don’t know your proudest moment or your biggest regret. They’re not required to care.

To truly get an idea of what strangers are like as people, ride among them on any form of public transportation. You’ll uncomfortably shift in your seat, pitifully grasping for human connection, however brief, as friends still lie sleeping in faraway time zones.

There will be the people who cut through your shy smile with callous turns of the head in the opposite direction. But just as you sorely resign to isolation, there will people who miraculously smile back.

Sometimes, actually, they’ll smile at you first. They’ll stir up random conversations about the stupidest things, like your shoes. Curiously enough, you feel your blood flowing through you again in these moments.

It happens when two guys notice you sitting alone on top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and invite you on a wild hiking adventure.

It’s when a woman offers to walk 30 minutes with you to the bus station in Seville because she figures you could use the company.

And it’ll happen when a teenager with wild piercings in Amsterdam makes you stop listening to your iPod just so he can introduce himself and ask if you’re enjoying your time there.

The love of family and friends is wonderful, but familiar love can be messy. Expectations, motives, conditions and stipulations can sometimes complicate an otherwise beautiful thing.

But with strangers’ love, there’s no pretense. They have just overcome a great struggle to say hello, wondering if it’s OK to stir up a conversation with you.

“Is it the right time? Is it the right place? Will she think I’m weird?” After all, we’re warned not to talk to strangers.

But these people smile, wave and say your shoes are neat anyway. Why? Because they don’t see you as just anybody  they see you as somebody.

They don’t know your past, your future or even your name, but they appreciate your existence.

Every now and then, we find ourselves walking alone in this world. We wonder if we’re worth loving. We need strangers to teach us that we are. We so are.

Strangers like me: Meet 60-year-old Andries

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you find yourself talking to a random person 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.

Andries

Meet Andries from Oostburg, Netherlands

Where’d I meet him? 
Bruges, Belgium

Why is he traveling? 
He likes to make a trip to Bruges once a week to visit its library.

What was the happiest time of his life? 
“I bought a $50 car. I started near Boston, and in the beginning I had no breaks. The door would fall down, so I would use the other door. Some of the tires were not round and already (worn down to) iron. I drove so many thousands of miles with it, and then I bought some secondhand tires and stuff. I’m sleeping in Yellowstone secretly at night. What was nice for me, I drove over the San Francisco bridge. I said, ‘Yeahhh, I made it.'”

What’s on his bucket list? 
“No, no special things. You see I lost my job a lot of times, so I feel OK with the life I have now. I can survive with a little bit of social money. I don’t have big expectations. If I can, I drink a coffee. I can read a book. I’m not bothered by people.”

Why does he value wisdom? 
“I’ve met a lot of kind people and good people and clever people, but really wise? Not so much. A lot of people tell stories, but it is not the real thing.”

“Whats the wisest thing anyone has ever said to you?”

“A guy, he was the father of my best friend, said, ‘The truth? You don’t want to hear it.'”

What are his thoughts on his country, the Netherlands, which is ranked fourth in the United Nation’s 2013 World Happiness Report?
“The people have a feeling of working together. In the 15th century, there was not a very big difference between the noble people and the lower people … Of course, we have a long coastline. Fishermen have small boats, so when you work in the boat, you have to work together. You have to work. If not, you die.”

Thrill seekers converge at Running of the Bulls

The smell of sangria and cigarette smoke clings to the 7:30 a.m. air. It’s persistent, much like the lively crowd of revelers, adorned head to toe in white and red, vying for the best seats in the arena.

If their shirts splattered with the red Spanish cocktail are of any fortuitous and symbolic indication, there will be blood — just how much and whose, there’s no telling.

It’s July 10 and just as in the past eight centuries, hundreds of people will risk their lives for the thrill of feeling six bulls’ hot breath against their backs — and some ridiculous bragging rights.

The Fiesta de San Fermín is best known for its gory morning spectacle, El Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The event takes place every year from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, Spain.

Though a long-established local tradition, it was author Ernest Hemingway who helped the festival gain international recognition with his depiction of the event in his book “The Sun Also Rises.” He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals running together at once, one with two legs, the other on four.

To run with the bulls is the ultimate bucket list item that few are brave enough — or reckless, depending on your take — to cross off.

July 9

Of all the festivals I’m attending this summer, Fiesta de San Fermín has received the most hype.

Mom says our health insurance plan doesn’t cover stupidity. If the bulls don’t kill me, she will. Dad says he’d join me for a brisk, little run in northern Spain if he had the time and money.

As someone who has auditioned for “American Idol” on a dare and gotten into a pit with a 13-foot alligator, I am my thrill-junkie father’s daughter. But then again, I’m in Pamplona by myself with no one nearby who loves me enough to drop off a “Get well soon” balloon. That’s kind of sad.

My mind is telling me no, but my feet, my feet, are telling me “yes.” (Read to the tune of R. Kelly’s “Bump ‘N Grind” as that it is how it was written. You’re welcome.)

While on the bus to the campsite I’ll be staying at during the festivities, a tour guide has a few sobering words of warning.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it,” he says.

This, of course, comes from a man who has run once himself. But no one who makes a pilgrimage to Pamplona simply goes for the heck of it. Ask anyone around here, local or tourist, and they’ve at least toyed with the idea.

For some, those who have dived off cliffs and swum with sharks, the decision is as natural as deciding what cereal to eat for breakfast.

For others, myself included, there are much weightier questions to consider: Do overpronated feet excuse me from the Running of the Bulls like it once excluded men from military service during World War II? Is risking my life worth the street cred? Do I want to be buried or cremated? Have I ever heard of the Book of Mormon? Do I know where I’ll spend eternity?

No matter how acquainted you are with the half-mile course, which starts near the river and ends in the center of the city at the bullfighting arena, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away from the mad dash unscathed.

Upon arrival to the campground, word gets around that an American man who co-wrote the book “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored today — a slicing bit of irony. Bill Hillmann has long been seen as one of the best young American runners. Another man’s trachea was pierced in the same run.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it.”

Maybe I’ll run after I watch it once from the barricaded sidelines or on the big screens of the bullfighting arena. Yeah, yeah, you know, I can pick up on the best techniques that way.

July 10

I’ve determined that to wait would be the best game plan as I head into the arena for the fourth day of the Encierro, which is my first. After all, I have two more opportunities to run if not today.

In the moments leading up to the run, participants can be seen engaging in a warm-up stretches and rituals. Many jog and jump in place. Some cross their chests and look up to the sky. One man draws a long puff from a cigar.

First-time spectators quickly learn that the run is a sport, one that you must take seriously — or the seasoned attendees will have your hide.

Before the run even begins, two men and a woman run into the arena early and are pelted with trash as the crowd chants “tonto, tonto,” meaning “stupid” in Spanish. To the crowd, those who only pretend like they’ve just ran for their lives are better off gored.

Stadium crowd
More than a million people are estimated to attend the festival every July, but the city isn’t that large. It’s home to just under 200,000 people.

After the unfashionably early are escorted out by police, pictures of the six bulls that will be taking part in the day’s festivities flash up on the big screen along with their weights. The cheers getting louder as the size of the bull increases.

Soon, hundreds of red scarves appear in the air as the run is about to start.

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición,” the runners sing, asking the saint for his blessing.

The festival actually has surprisingly religious ties. San Fermín, the patron saint of the Spanish region of Navarra, was beheaded after becoming Pamplona’s first Christian bishop. The red scarves, or pañuelos, are said to represent his blood and sacrifice, while the white outfits are symbolic of his holiness.

It doesn’t take long for the first shot to be fired, signaling the release of six bulls and six  steers from the pin, but few of the runners move. They wait for the bulls to barrel at them before they start to run. If you’re going to cheat death, make sure you cheat it right.

Before officials even get the chance to shoot off the second rocket, signaling the bulls’ contact with the runners, a man is flipped upside down by a bull that’s run astray 21 seconds in. That’s one man down out of dozens who are generally injured each year.

Some runners carry rolled-up newspapers to divert the attention and ultimately the horns of the color-blind bulls. I wonder if they’ve bothered to read about the previous day’s injuries on the front page.

Maybe it’s not print that’s dying but those who don’t read it, those who don’t head its warnings.

Runners come flooding in the stadium and bulls barrel closely behind them. Thunder erupts from the hooves of the horned animals galloping triumphantly against the arena’s sand, embracing their believed victory. But with bull fights scheduled each night of the festival, all bulls will ultimately lose the battle.

Human participants celebrate by whipping out their GoPros and smartphones for post-run “selfies,” making me wonder what compelled people to run before their still-in-tact guts could be glorified with 200 “Likes” on Facebook.

Post-run selfie
Many runners take selfies once the run is over, but doing so during the run could mean harsh penalties to the tune of about $2,050.

To the first-time viewer, any run is gawked at as a gory and violent one. But it could be worse. Thankfully, no one died on the race’s course today, and no one has since 2009. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1924.

Perhaps the odds of surviving are quite good given that there are thousands of people who run every year.

For now, the few brave souls who ran earlier in the morning — some of whom were inspired by a bit of last night’s liquid courage — stare blankly ahead pondering at their accomplishment in wonderment, the adrenaline still pulsating through their shaking fingers and legs.

They collectively agree that it was the most thrilling moment of their lives but one not worth repeating. It’s a good day to be alive.

Maybe I’ll be missing out if I don’t feel this thrill for myself. Perhaps I’ll run tomorrow.

July 11, the run

I decide to catch the earliest ride out in the morning to see if I still have a shot securing a good spot to watch the run. Though I’m on the fence, everyone else on board is running.

Much to the dismay of their girlfriends, Darren Stone and Anthony Mogridge are among them.

They’re two of the many Australians I befriended this week, convincing me that once you can get past a continent’s deadly pythons, dingoes and sharks, nothing truly phases you anymore. If there’s one concrete lesson I’ve taken away from my time in Pamplona, it’s this: Live every day like you’re Australian.

Taking on Pamplona
Cheers to the great group of friends I made from Australia and all the hours we spent laughing over inside jokes about Michael Jordan and Adam’s apples!

A survey conducted this year by the Pamplona City Hall has found that the majority — about 56 percent — of those who now participate in the festival are foreigners.

“It’s starting to rain. Does that make you nervous?” I ask Stone as droplets of rain collect on the bus windows at 6 a.m.

“Now it does,” he replies.

“Dear diary, today I just died,” Mogridge says as a form of greeting when boarding the bus.

Our laughter, though earnest, is uneasy. We’ll laugh harder if the number of people who boarded the bus this morning is the same on the return trip.

“Dear diary, today I just died.”

Upon arriving at Calle Estafeta, the main stretch of the run where I will watch it all unfold, Stone and Mogridge leave me. I tell them I’ll see them later, I hope.

Waiting for the run to begin, I chat with a man who ran the day prior. He said he didn’t let his family or friends know that he was running until after he did so, a common course of action among many participants I spoke with.

Before they’re even out of the gate, today’s bulls already have a reputation for their viciousness — they hail from the notorious Jandilla Ranch. The last time someone was killed in the Running of the Bulls, July 10, 2009, was at the horn of Capuchino, one of the ranch’s bulls.

Aside from a bull and runners losing their footing, particularly around Dead Man’s Corner, a tight bend where Calle Mercaderes meets Calle Estafeta, the run is much calmer and less memorable than the previous day’s.

There are no gorings to report, only seven trauma injuries — not a bad day. But many expert runners say a run is only good when you can feel the bulls’ breath against your back for multiple seconds at a time. Today’s bulls kept their distance.

Waiting on the bus to head back to the campsite, I’m relieved to see Mogridge hop on.

“Hey, you survived,” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of sad news, actually,” Mogridge says.

I then become intensely aware that Stone did not return to the bus with him.

“Oh my God, where’s Darren? Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine. I mean that I didn’t get to run. The police saw my GoPro and threw me out,” Mogridge says.

With more phones and cameras floating about than ever before, Pamplona police now has a zero-tolerance policy for technology use among runners in an effort to keep the event, albeit an event where bulls run wild, safe.

July 11, the fight

Stone and the other runners might have been spared a trip to the hospital, but the day won’t be free of carnage. There’s still the evening’s bullfight.

Always a step away from becoming a vegetarian, I was initially hesitant to go to a bullfight. I actually had a nightmare two nights before the event that all the addictingly spicy crawfish I had ever eaten avenged me by taking my life.

But in order to make a remark about a culture, you must first experience it.

The atmosphere inside the bullfighting arena isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced at any college basketball game or MLB game. Fans are cheering and chanting, but for whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Are people cheering for the bull, hoping it’ll give the man seeking to kill it a good scare with its horns? Are they hoping the matador finishes off the bull with one clean strike of his sword? Are they cheering only because so many did the same before them?

Spain’s relationship with its bulls is a complicated and divisive one.

To many, the bull is revered as a strong and beautiful creature. The matador, the man who fights it, is responsible for showing off its strengths before its demise.

Locals who run often rub their hands along the length of the bulls’ backs but will not touch their horns, out of reverence for their power.

The power dynamic can be confusing for just about any non-Spaniard, but even locals grapple with mixed emotions about all the bloody pomp and circumstance.

Bullfighting tradition in Spain is largely associated with the country’s former dictator  Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

During his contentious rule, the sport was a state sanctioned activity steeped in patriotism. Disapproval for Franco and bullfighting grew simultaneously in the push for democracy.

Catalonia, an autonomous and relatively progressive region of Spain, drew a line in the bullfighting ring sand when it banned the sport in 2010.

Curious but cautious, I asked Spaniards about their thoughts on the fights, but I find that they only answer me with questions, wanting to know my thoughts on the matter as an American.

Some I speak with say that bullfighting is deeply embedded in Spain’s culture, without it there’d be a gaping hole. Others say it’s senseless violence and sad to watch.

Regardless of our differing stances, we sit among each other in the stands.

With a pretty blue bow tied around its neck, each bull goes into the fight alone. It’s not long after it comes barreling out of the gate that its shoulders are washed with seeping blood.

First come the picadors, the matador’s assistants who ride on armored horses. One delivers the first blow by lancing the back of the bull to make its back muscles weaker.

Then the banderilleros follow. These men are on foot and are responsible for driving several barbed stakes into its back.

With each strike, the bull’s movements become increasingly labored. Now the animal is too weak to furiously ram its head against the barricade.

In his brightly colored suit, with its sequins glinting in the setting sun, the matador makes his way to the center of the ring to finish the job.

Matador and the bull
Six bulls are killed each evening. Three matadors take turns fighting them.

He gracefully twirls his cape, taunting the bull to dodge forward. Behind it, he hides his long sword that he’ll use shortly. Again and again, he pulls the cape up as the bull dizzily runs back and forth.

Finally, the matador pulls out the sword, gives it a light toss in his hand and stabs it right through the bull’s back. If he is lucky, he’ll pierce the bull’s heart in one strike and will be met with the adoration of the crowd. The bull in that case will be lucky, too, finally being put out of its misery.

With the animal’s every twitch, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. As it struggles to breathe, so do I.

The bull takes a mighty bow to his matador before he plummets to the ground, front hooves first.

If it’s a good fight, its ears and tail are cut off to be given to the matador. The carcass is promptly tied up and dragged behind a set of horses for one last circle around the ring.

Then it’s on to the next bull and the one after that and the one after that. As rowdy attendees cheer on from the cheap seats and throw sangria on one another, I sit in silent reverence for the fallen beasts.

I don’t know if I’ll understand the bullfighting, but I do know one time watching is enough for me.

July 12

I board yet another 6 a.m. bus after getting four hours of sleep, the same amount as the two previous nights.

Eyes drooping and patience wearing thin, I begin to wonder how Spaniards have the stamina for partying until dawn days in a row. Not much into nightlife myself, I feel exhausted for them.

Again, I find myself on the sidelines instead of the frontlines of today’s run. It’s raining yet again, which helps me rationalize that it probably isn’t the safest of days for a run. Those darn weather patterns.

Much to my surprise, the run goes pretty smoothly. Just as in Friday’s run, there are no gorings. Only a couple of bulls threatened to charge some runners. You never can tell how the day’s run is going to be until after it’s over.

I guess I’ll stick to risking my self-respect — instead of my life to a bull’s horn — by streaking public places and competing on televised karaoke programs. Yeah, that sounds good. Well, for now anyway. Ask me again next week.

IF YOU GO

Where to watch: There’s a bull run at 8 a.m. each day of the festival. Late-night revelers hyped on sangria extend their party into the morning, snagging all the good vantage points on the sidelines by 6 a.m. If you can’t beat them, join them — or buy a cheap ticket to watch the run unfold from the safe grandstands of the bullfighting arena.

What to eat: La Mañueta, a 140-year-old churrería,  is a rare, authentic find among a dying breed of establishments selling the traditional Spanish breakfast item. Here, churros are fried and hand-sprinkled with sugar right before your eyes. With the long line of people outside, the place is easy to spot. Buy a cup of thick hot chocolate for €2 next door.

When to run: Daredevils be warned. There’s never a truly safe day to run. To lessen your chances of getting gored, run mid-week when festival attendance drops and on a day with nice weather. Rain makes the course’s stones slippery.

Strangers like me: Meet 19-year-old Cristina

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. 

Cristina

Meet Cristina from Bern, Switzerland

Where’d I meet her?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why is she traveling? 
“After high school, I just started with university, so I never took a gap year, and I never went traveling. I really thought I was missing something,” says Cristina, who is backpacking now for three weeks. “I decided to travel alone because I thought that I’m not so self-confident, and I thought that this would probably help me.”

Where else would she like to go?
Madagascar

What is on her bucket list?
“It’s something really small. I just. One day — I don’t really, I don’t really think it’s something — .”

“Just say it.”

“I want to find a job or something that when I wake up or go to bed that I’ll look forward to waking up the next morning. That’s not really a thing you can put on a list. But I always see so many people complaining about, ‘Ugh, I have to get up tomorrow morning and go to work.’ I want to find something that makes me so happy to work on.”

What makes her happy?
Playing piano, a pastime she shares with her dad.

What are her thoughts on her country, Switzerland, which is ranked third in the United Nation’s 2013 World Happiness Report?
“I think (people there) are not as happy as they could be or should be. We have everything. We have a good educational system. We are a rich country. We’re not in war. I think people should be much happier than they actually are … In Africa for example, I think people enjoy little things more than in Europe, and that makes them happier. You can’t generalize it of course, but I think there are other countries that are happier than Switzerland.”

Strangers like me: Meet Jeanine and Raph

I’ve had my fair share of travel snafus the past couple of weeks, from sleeping on the street in Pamplona to only having one minute (!!!) to catch my train from Milan to Vienna after my first train had technical problems.

It’s all a part of the grand adventure, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been pitying myself for my transportation complications. Leave it to the strangers I meet to help me realize how lucky I truly am in my life. That’s why I hold this week’s edition of “The Strangers Like Me” very closely to my heart.

When Jeanine and Raph, an adorably loving Dutch couple, walked into my hostel room Monday night, they were full smiles, eager to introduce themselves. After Jeanine asked me for directions to the city center, it wasn’t long that she opened up to me about their story. You see, Jeanine and Raph are both deaf, but that’s not stopping them from traveling, something they both love immensely.

It’s phenomenal to me that Jeanine speaks Dutch, French and English despite her disability when I struggle just to speak Spanish as a second language. Sure, sometimes effectively communicating what train I need at the ticket counter is a challenge, but it pales in comparison to the extra effort Jeanine and Raph must apply when doing the same. (They type up potential questions and detailed requests on little sheets of paper to hand to people just in case others don’t understand what they’re saying.) 

Despite their challenges, these two have some of the warmest personalities of anyone I’ve ever met. I just knew I had to feature them in this week’s post. Below, you’ll just find Jeanine’s responses since Raph doesn’t speak much English. At least laughter and hugs know no language barrier. They might have started off as strangers, but then I realized they’re strangers … like me. 

Jeanine and Ralph

Meet Jeanine and Raph from Nijmegen, Netherlands. 

Where’d I meet them? 
Vienna, Austria

Where else would Jeanine like to go?
When her best friend paid a trip to Australia, she was overcome with envy when hearing how amazing the continent is. A go-getter, she’s now planning a trip to the “Land Down Under” for 2016.

What’s on Jeanine’s bucket list? 
She’s sees her bucket list as more of a wish list and wants to go whitewater rafting and buy a house.

What makes her happy? 
“Him,” she points to Raph, laughing.

“Why’s that?”

“In the wintertime, we were on the beach in the Netherlands in the evening. He said, ‘Come on, come swimming with me.’ We were fighting, and then I got a teddy bear from him. I felt very lucky. I got two teddy bears from him  no, three. One said ‘Love you’ and another said ‘Hug me.’ Then two weeks ago, he had something for me, asking ‘What do you think?’ A ring. We will get married, but not now. It’s so early.”

“How long have you been dating?”

“For two years. He was my first boyfriend. I was 22 years old.”

What’s it like to travel with a hearing disability? 
“My ability to communicate is not good. It is not easy traveling alone  or with a friend.”

“But you still think it’s beautiful?”

“Yes.”

Is it hard for her to learn new languages given her disability? 
“French is not easy to speak well. Dutch, I can speak Dutch. It’s easy for me in Germany and Austria.”

Does traveling scare her? 
“When I travel, I feel free. When I’m at home in the Netherlands? No. People see that I’m deaf and walk away. I feel lucky to communicate with people here.”

Photo Gallery: Falling for Italy all over again

Ask anyone where they would most like to visit in the world. I’d say Italy is at the top of the list for the majority of the people you ask. What’s not to love? It’s a country meant for the senses.

Taste the bubbling, fresh mozzarella that somehow sneaks its way into so many dishes. Feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. Let your nose be overcome with the scent of the abundant roses and sunflowers. It’s no wonder why many find themselves lingering in this beautiful place.

I was so happy I got to visit Italy for a second time. While I went to Venice, Florence and Rome last year, this go-round I stuck to Florence and Cinque Terre. While I found heaven in Cinque Terre’s hikes, paradise can also be discovered in Florence’s markets and gardens. Take a virtual saunter around one of my favorite places in the whole world:

5 great mobile apps that entertain during travel

OK, so you’ve got five hours to kill on your train and no WiFi. No, this isn’t one of those hypothetical life survival scenarios, this is the life you live when backpacking through Europe. When you can only endure so many rounds of solitare, try these top mobile apps to entertain yourself  no internet access required.

Pocket: Getting cultured doesn’t have to end when your train rolls up to the platform. When surfing the web, save news articles and long-form pieces to this handy app. They’ll still be there to read later when you lose your internet.

OverDrive Media Console: Another reading app, OverDrive lets you check out books from your local library to read digitally. Since carting around physical books in your backpack isn’t practical, this app saves space and money.

TripAdvisor City Guides: Scroll through other travelers’ attraction and restaurant recommendations before arriving to your next destination. Bonus: This app is GPS-enabled and will point you directly to top city spots, no 3G required.

Spotify: If your favorite songs change as quickly as the weather, a Spotify Premium account will allow you to make and mix up your own musical playlist that you can take offline.

Duolingo: Find out exactly what locals are saying about you with this language learning app. A heads-up: The app does have offline capabilities, but only about an hour’s worth of lessons can be downloaded at one time.

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.

IMG_1354

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 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!'”