That time I was just another tourist where they filmed Game of Thrones

Photo of Lovrijenac Fortress, Dubrovnik, Croatia with blue and cloudy sky

I look around, and I barely see what I came here to see. Instead, I see unimpressed and pasty old white people straight off an expensive cruise, coupled up like they’re on a buddy system.

Source: That time I was just another tourist where they filmed Game of Thrones

 

I JUMP OFF THE PACKED PUBLIC BUS at the Old City walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the tourism hits me all at once. As I jostle for a space on the sidewalk, I’m accosted by strangers leaning over makeshift podiums, screaming gimmicks at me, their smiles plastered on insincere faces.

Hi there! Are you interested in a Game of Thrones tour? Wine and bike rides? Kayak tours? Dalmatian tours? Explore Dubrovnik by boat? Etc, etc?

How does one reply to all of this unwanted attention, this breach of private space? My New York breeding taught me to keep my head down. Don’t make eye contact. Keep walking. The tourism workers don’t seem to like that. I get called rude as I pass by. Some make passive aggressive comments.

Oh, so you’re not interested? That’s fine. Have a nice day.

I walk with the throngs of other tourists towards the city walls, but then I beeline towards a sliver of water I see beyond a bit of the old fortress. I’m searching desperately for a semblance of normalcy, to gaze out at the ocean and not at a sea of other assholes like me, toting a camera, hat, water bottle. Dressed in comfortable, quick dry clothes and ugly, easy-to-walk-in shoes. The whole ensemble that screams: I’m foreign! Take advantage of me!

There is a line to get to the wall that looks out at the ocean. I stand on my tiptoes to see that people are lining up to take a shot with one of the ultimate King’s Landing views. I don’t actually know what I’m looking at. A later Google search tells me that it’s the Pile Gate and the Fort Lovrijenac. Tourists are hastily snapping selfies and posing before someone obliviously steps in front of their shot. I push my way in to take a cheeky pano of the scene before I am pushed away by others eager to do the same.

I walk away from this disturbed ocean view to see what the fuss is about inside the city walls. Each movement is held up by the need to say “Excuse me” to more strangers as I awkwardly stroll-duck through their pictures. I look at them as I pass, the fascination of Dubrovnik’s fortress completely lost to me in my horror at what tourists like me have done to its assumed charm. Some posers pose excitedly, some look away nonchalantly — perfect for Insta. Some stand there grudgingly, looking truly over the experience of proving that they went somewhere by standing in front of it and every other person just like them. I feel their pain.

What the fuck am I even doing here? You hear the name ‘Dubrovnik’ on the Balkan backpacking trail often enough. It’s the next stop after Kotor, Montenegro. You Google image the city, get a feel for it. You think it looks cool. Incredible, really. You need to see it for yourself. Some people warn you that it’s touristy. A few backpackers at your last hostel or at a bar in Skopje tell you something along the lines of: When I was there a few years ago, Dubrovnik was just a small, cute town. Game of Thrones ruined it. And, it’s pricey. But worth a look.

I knew all this, yet here I am with the others. We, the tourists, flock in heinous amounts like pseudo-traveller drones. I wonder if anyone here even knows anything about Dubrovnik or Croatia? I realize that my own knowledge is slim. I’ve been moving around so much, jumping from place to place, that I keep catching myself in a new city without even knowing what the currency exchange is or how to say “thank you.” The Old City is amazing, architecturally speaking, but what am I even looking at? What am I snapping photos of? I feel as though I had better take a picture of the stately structures elevated around me because a photo will last longer than my meager impressions of this city on display, bared to appease the demands of the Almighty Tourist.

I could be anywhere in the world right now. I look around, and I barely see what I came here to see. Instead, I see unimpressed and pasty old white people straight off an expensive cruise, coupled up like they’re on a buddy system. I see Asian tourists with masks on, and loud, overweight American families toting frozen beverages. I see other backpackers like me, staring upward and eating ice cream. A lot of people are eating ice cream. The only locals I see are the ones who serve the ice cream.

I’m overstimulated. I stop at a cafe for an espresso. You know a place is touristy if you can pay with a credit card, at least in this corner of the world. Extra points if all the signs are in English, and if the menu is in six different languages.

I take my time using the cafe’s wifi. I’m scouring Wikipedia for historical context about Dubrovnik. It’s a Croatian city on the Adriatic in the Dalmatian region. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Maritime trade increased the prosperity of the city. City walls constructed from 12th to 17th centuries. Never been breached. The Republic of Ragusa existed from 1358 to 1808 and was a commercial hub that acted independently, despite being a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. The people mainly spoke Latin. Their motto was “Liberty is not well sold for all the gold.”

Fabulous.

I pay my bill and move along, searching for a route to the holes in the wall. Someone told me you can jump into the water from there. I didn’t bring my suit. In my quest, I find a slightly more quiet part of town, so I sit on one of the old fortress walls and try to look out for a sign of these holes. The stone is hot from the sun, and I pull my hat down over my eyes for a bit of extra shade as I look out at the bay. I think this view may have been in Game of Thrones, too, but I can’t remember. The sound of water gently lapping against the sand and the tranquility of the small fishing boats, so neatly lined up before the small beach, calm my senses and help me think about why I even travel. Man, this city is starting to break me.

Ok, why do I travel?

I travel because I get to have genuine experiences every day. I get to be free, to roam as I please. That’s why I like to stay a bit off the beaten track. If my experiences aren’t genuine, then what am I doing traveling? It’s more about what I’m not doing. Like not working, not making commitments. As I ponder my existential crisis, I wonder how all of the people touching and sitting on this ancient stone is affecting its longevity.

I walk back into the main strip of the Old Town, the Placa, to get my bearings again as I continue my search. As I look around, I get the sense that I’m at the Eiffel Tower combined with Six Flags on a Saturday in the summer. Some place that would warrant and forgive an influx of tourism to this magnitude. Only I’m meant to be in a city still. But it’s an “old city” so every stone is a monument, every alley is art.

Armed with my Olympus, I snap photos with a grudge. I think I’m getting closer to the hole in the wall. I’m walking around that bay that I had looked out at earlier, contemplating my traveling woes. The smell of the sea is comforting, and the Adriatic is a sapphire. I walk close enough to the edge for my feet to feel the spray and occasional crash of salty water. Three local fishermen sit together on a bench, a beer in each one’s hand. The smell of fish emanates from their direction. They look dirty and weathered compared to their fresh tourist counterparts, but not because they’ve been working. They look exhausted from watching all of us walk past all day. What must they think of us? They look at me as I walk by, seemingly ready to make a cheeky comment that reinforces their sense of manhood. I stop in front of them and ask to take their picture. Two of them smile accordingly. One covers his face with his hands. I take the photo anyway and look at the picture on my camera screen to make sure no tourist walked into my shot.

Fishermen on bench in Dubrovnik

Almost every photo is ruined by the tourist, so I start taking photos of the tourists. One point for an awkward solo photo. Two points for a photo of a tourist petting a stray cat. Three points for a photo of a tourist taking a photo of a stray cat.

Tourist taking a photo of a stray cat in Dubrovnik, Croatia

This entertains me until I reach the holes in the wall. I walk through some quiet back alleys where laundry hangs between the buildings, and this visual gives me hope. I don’t know if I’ve actually made it to the alleged “holes”, but there is access to the sea, and surprisingly few have stripped off their clothes to jump in. I figure, why not? I’m here. Better than taking photos of tourists. I take off my quick dry clothes, my cheap sunglasses, my baseball cap that says ‘Godzilla.’ I put down my chunky camera, cover it with my clothes, and jump in. The water is fresh, salty enough to restore me. Suddenly, I’m a traveler again, living in the moment, going with the flow. I smile at the child who has jumped in after me, at the couple who share a wet kiss as they tread water next to me. Because at the end of the day, the essence of traveling is realized in small moments, like when you look up at the sky as you float on your back and realize how lucky you are to be bobbing away on this particular body of water.

Hole in the wall Dubrovnik, Croatia

by Rebecca Bellan

How to prepare yourself for a big jump

Steps to preparing yourself for a big jump.

You’re thinking of making a life change, but something’s holding you back. In this post, I equate that fear with my fear of bungee jumping. There were a lot of excuses, but in the end, I just jumped. The lesson? Don’t wait until you’re “ready,” because you may not ever get there. That’s why they call it a JUMP, not a step!

 

Part 1: The Story

It felt as though I were watching through someone else’s eyes as the distance between the ground and my feet grew and the tan, tiled roofs of Cusco spread out before me. I was in a steel-caged cherry picker bound to slowly ascend 122 meters only to plummet without it. This was my first bungee jumping experience, and while it’s easy to say you’d love to try it, it’s a whole other story when you’re actually about to jump to your potential death. The harness attached to my ankles, hips and neck was heavy and slightly suffocating, but I was glad for its existence. It made me feel supported. My guide Raul chattered away in Spanish behind me, giving me instructions that I only half listened to and asking small talk questions that I responded to like an automaton.

I gazed calmly at the portion of the Peruvian Andes in my field of vision, infinite and brown. Tall Eucalyptus trees surrounded the adventure park I had decided on coming to only an hour or two before. I could see my Irish friend Laura, whom I met while volunteering at a hostel in Ecuador, standing a safe distance away, snapping pictures with my iPhone, awaiting her turn at this adrenaline rush. I focused on my feet, which were planted to the base of the cherry picker, and my hands, frozen and clamped to metal bars on either side of me. If I let myself think about all that could go wrong, or even picture myself jumping, I might have backed out. So instead I denied my purpose for this ascension and breathed long and deep, nodding my head at Raul but otherwise standing still as a statue. Then the cage came to a sudden halt, and panic filled every muscle in my body. Logic was no match for my body’s survival instincts, and when Raul opened the steel door in front of me and instructed me to step out until my toes were over the edge, I couldn’t make my legs move. My whole body felt heavy and my hiking boots were glued to the floor.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

“OK, so you need to walk to the edge now.”

“OK,” I said, and stayed where I was.

He told me that the longer I waited, the more scared I would be.

“Just jump!” he said. “Let yourself go.”

I almost threw up in my mouth. His hand gently nudged my back forward, but I remained rigid.

“Do you want to go back down?” he said.

I considered it. How bad would it be, really, if I just admitted I was too afraid and went the safe way down? Nobody would hold it against me or call me a coward. Nobody but myself. I thought back to how I ended up in Peru, trying to force myself to be fearless, both mentally and physically.

Just a few months earlier, I was shacked up with an ex-boyfriend whom I loved very much. We were partners, planning out a comfortable and snug future together. The more we planned, the more I felt panic similar to my current vertigo. Seeing my future laid out before me meant that there was less room for new possibilities, for experiences that were my own. I was 22 and the man I loved had no desire to travel, yet somehow our lives and desires were supposed to be bound together forever. It was suffocating, but I was just as scared of giving up a good thing for the unknown as I was of committing to this ordinary future. In the end, I couldn’t see myself as just a half of a whole. I wanted to be whole, independent of anyone else. When I confessed to him that I had more living to do on my own before I settled down with him, I knew that I had to see that claim through. If I didn’t, I would never forgive myself or him for missing out on the life I truly wanted to live.

I moved out of our apartment and bought a one way ticket to Ecuador where I started my four month solo backpacking trip through South America. Did I want to cancel the flight and run home to my man? Of course I did. I was scared of a life without him, scared of having only myself to rely on. None of my friends or family would have blamed me or thought it strange if I went back to him. Half of them didn’t understand why we broke up when we were so in love. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy with myself unless I took the risks that I had only dreamt about until then. Just like I knew that if I didn’t jump off my perch in the sky, I would never forgive myself.

Raul asked again if I wanted to go back down, but I didn’t come all the way up here to wuss out. I knew the risks of jumping. They had made me sign a waiver before they harnessed me. But to hell with them! There was only one way I was descending, and it wasn’t on the cherry picker. I took a step with my left foot, then dragged my right one to meet it, my hands still on the railings beside me. Raul looked over my shoulder and told me that I needed to move up a little more so my toes were over the edge. Again, that feeling that I would throw up in my mouth, only this time it was coupled with the feeling that I would crap my pants. At Raul’s behest, I took a deep breath and moved my toes over the edge.

“Good,” he said as he grabbed hold of my harness from behind. “Now, you need to release your grip on the rail.”

I did as I was told, feeling incredibly unstable, balanced as I was on the edge.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Breathe,” he said.

I took a deep breath, felt a gentle push, and jumped with it.

Part 2: The helpful steps

  1. The Buildup– You’re scared and you’re scaring yourself more by thinking about all the things that can go wrong. Maybe you’ve even researched what can go wrong. Eye injuries are most common when bungee jumping because of the pressure of the snap? Most common? I don’t want to do anything that will commonly injure me. So, you decide against it because it’s not worth the risk. Whenever I’ve contemplated bungee jumping, I’ve always said that I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have enough money, or I have a bad back and I was worried about what the snap of the bungee would do to it. Excuses, excuses.
  2. The Nagging– Despite your better judgment, there is still that nagging curiosity about what is on the other side of that wall you put up. All those other world-class travelers have gone bungee jumping. Your old high school friend went bungee jumping AND skydiving. You’re going to miss out if you don’t at least try it. Would I have ever forgiven myself for making it to the top of that cherry picker and then taking the long way down? Absolutely not.
  3. The Dreamer- You start to envision what would happen if the risk you were about to take goes well. You’re peeking over the wall and the grass is definitely greener. When I pictured how freeing it would be to soar through the air and get butterflies in my stomach, I got excited and couldn’t wait to feel the adrenaline. Plus, how cool would it be to be able to say you went bungee jumping?!
  4. The Objectivity- You allow yourself to be aware of the potentially bad outcome, but not to let it touch you. After all, part of what makes fear so strong is that we fear what we do not know. When you accept both good and bad potential consequences, at least you know what’s on the other side. So maybe my retinas will explode or I’ll be sore tomorrow. I’m tough enough to handle a few battle scars. Even if I did feel like I got hit by a truck the next day.
  5. The Bragging- Once you’ve decided that you’re going to take the plunge, you have to say it to yourself and say it to others so that it becomes real. After Laura and I signed up for our bungee jump, I posted a status on Facebook asking friends to wish me luck, I texted my mom and my best friend, and I repeated to myself “I am going bungee jumping,” like a mantra inside my head.
  6. The Jump- It’s time. You’ve made it this far and there is no going back. The only direction to move now is forward. So you jump. Once I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to back down, I took a step with my left foot to the very edge of the cherry picker, then dragged my right one to meet it. I immediately felt like throwing up and releasing my bowels, but instead I took a deep breath and peeled my hands off the safety of the railing. Then there was only one thing left to do. “Just jump!” My guide, Raul, told me. So I jumped, and I’ll never be sorry that I did.
  7. Yes- Now that you’ve pushed through one fear, you can allow yourself to experience all of the possibilities that open up to you when you start to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ I took my first big, scary leap when I left everything I knew and loved to travel around the world solo. I’ve tried to fill my travels with as much adventure as possible, and not just because things like bungee jumping or surfing lessons are cheaper in other countries. After I conquered my fear of free falling 122 meters, I realized that the only thing standing in between me and everything I’ve ever thought of trying was myself. So I said yes to learning how to kite surf, yes to hang gliding, yes to surfing and yes to all my future adventures.

 

Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

Israeli flag blows in the breeze

“Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but non

Source: Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

“ISRAEL IS FOR THE JEWS. It is a Jewish state,” said Anan, our Birthright group leader. I had liked him a lot before he uttered those words. I wasn’t prepared for this subtle prejudice, but realized then that I had been overlooking comments like these for ten days.

We were nearing the end of our free trip around Israel. Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but nonetheless drill into your head, is that they want you to “make Aliyah,” to return to the Holy Land and increase Israel’s numbers.

The first few days of our trip had me thinking that I could really move to Israel. The nature of the country alone was startlingly beautiful. Every landscape seemed limitless, despite the fact that Israel is such a small country. Immediately off the plane, our group was boarded onto a coach bus and driven to the tip of the Golan Heights. We stood on the border, looking out at Lebanon to our left, listening to bombs going off in Syria to our right.

For ten restless days, we toured the country on that bus, from the Tel Aviv to the Negev Desert, from the Banias Nature Reserve to Jerusalem. We went from stop to stop, climbing mountains before noon and sleeping somewhere different every night. One night in a hostel in Jerusalem, another night in a kibbutz by the Dead Sea, another in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Almost every time I took my seat on the bus, I’d fall asleep, like everyone else, only to be awoken by sweet Anan saying, “Wakey, wakey, everyone. Kosher food and eggs.”

My days and nights blended together. We moved around so much that I couldn’t keep track of which day we kayaked on the Jordan River and which day we watched the sun rise on the Masada. It didn’t matter. I was making close friends and falling in love with the State of Israel.

Of course, I had been to Israel a few times before with my family, but never as a Jew. My father, a Christian Arab, is an Israeli citizen. He is the youngest of eight siblings, and therefore, the only one who can say that he was born in Israel, and not Palestine. Since my American-born mother is Jewish, I am a Jew, and was thus eligible to go on Birthright. When my group arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, jet lagged and awkward around each other, Israelis all over the airport called out to us. “Hey, Taglit! Welcome home,” they said. And I knew they meant it.

I’ve never been religious, or even a believer in God. However, there’s something about being raised Jewish that sticks with you. It’s cultural, and unless you’re in the tribe, you don’t get it. For years I had been the token Jew among my friends, enduring jokes about my curly hair or being cheap with a smirk and an equally racist remark. Now, in Israel, I loved how Jewish everything was. After being raised in a Puritan-based society where citizens question President Obama’s Christianity as a condition of his presidency, it was refreshing to suddenly be somewhere where the norm is to party on Thursday night because Friday night is the start of the Shabbat, and Saturday is the day of rest. It was easier to eat kosher than not, and I didn’t feel like I was teaching people about my heritage if I referred to anything I learned in Hebrew school.

We all shared an identity, a system of values that is old and traditional and ours. Who knew I was just an online application and an intense airport interrogation away from being stuck on a bus with 40 other Jews, all of us kvetching about the heat and sharing medicines from our personal pharmacies? I felt like I belonged, like I was with family. Who cares that there were packs of young soldiers with machine guns wandering about everywhere we went? There was a war going on, after all, and they were only protecting their country, right?

I was so caught up in enjoying this opportunity to be among “my people” that I almost forgot about my other people, my Arab side. An experience in Jerusalem provided me with a small reminder of just how unacceptable it is to be Arab in a Jewish state.

When our group arrived in the Holy City, an American man who had made Aliyah greeted us. He had a long beard and wore a kippah and was married to a conservative Jewish woman. Her hair and skin were covered and her hands rested on a stroller that carried their little Israeli citizen. I wasn’t listening to whatever lesson the man was trying to impart on us anyway, so I strolled to a nearby shop for an iced coffee. Every other time I had been to Israel, I always spoke in Arabic. So when I began to greet the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t have been much older than I, in the same tongue, she looked at me with hostility, like I was a terrorist.

Ma?” She asked. “What?”

“An iced coffee, please?” I tried in English.

Her face broke out into a relieved smile. “Of course,” she responded in English. “5 shekel, please.”

I walked away feeling uneasy. It was odd to me that this woman would speak English over Arabic, considering that every Arab in Israel most likely speaks Hebrew, and that until 1948, possibly later, the primary language spoken in this region was Arabic. It was also odd to me just how many Israelis spoke English very well. I later learned that Jews begin English lessons in elementary school. Arabs in the same country don’t begin their English lessons until middle school.

For the moment, I let that encounter roll off my shoulders. Our Israeli soldiers had arrived to join us for the rest of our trip, a part of the trip called Mifgash, and I was eager to meet them.

I got close to one in particular; he reminded me of family. His name was Noam, he was from Be’er Sheva, and he looked like an Arab — dark skin, black facial hair, hazel eyes. He said his family had lived in Be’er Sheva for centuries, hence his Middle Eastern features. Noam and I became fast friends as he took it upon himself to be my personal translator and haggler at the colorful and humming Machane Yehuda Market. Noam introduced me to a Jerusalem mixed grill, made of chicken hearts, liver and spleen and stuffed lovingly in a pita with salad and other fixings. He led the way into the caves of the archeological site, the City of David, and sang Destiny’s Child in the dark to make me laugh. My mother would have nudged me in his direction and told me he was “a nice Jewish boy.”

Noam spoke perfect English, but only a little Arabic. He knew enough to say, “Step out of the car, please.” “Lift your shirt.” And, “Close the door.” Things a soldier would say to the enemy. He was also fairly religious for a young, Friends-watching Israeli. On Friday night, we held a Havdalah service, a ceremony that marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. Noam piously explained to me that the ceremony is meant to stimulate all five senses. We light a special havdalah candle to see the flame and feel its heat, we pass a cup of wine around to taste, we smell a bag of spices, and we hear the prayers.

On the day we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Noam and I cried like babies while we watched videos from survivors. We held hands and walked through the museum a little ways back from the rest of the group.

“I am happy to live in a world where Jews finally have a home,” he said.

I pretended to tie my shoe so that I could dislodge my hand from his grasp. I was thinking about my father, my grandmother, my family who call Israel home, yet are not Jewish. This was my first trip to Israel where I noticed a distinguished absence of Arabs, Muslim or Christian, from my prevailing Israeli landscape.

“Right, I’m grateful for that too,” I said. “Especially after World War II. But what about the Arabs who lived here peacefully with Jews and Christians for centuries before Great Britain carved up the land with little regard for cultural territories?”

He smiled at me like I was a child who had asked an adorable question with an obvious answer.

“The Arabs have their land,” said Noam. “God blessed Ishmael and his sons and promised them that their descendants would have a great nation. But Israel is for the Jews, the chosen people.”

“You’re quoting the Bible now?” I asked, incredulous.

“Of course,” he replied with a furrowed brow. “God has given us the State of Israel. It was prophesied that we would lose Israel for our sins, which we have, but we would have to fight for our land, which would one day be restored to us, which it has. Didn’t they teach you anything in Hebrew school?”

“Do you know what we call people who use the Bible as a basis for a social and political argument in my country?” I asked.

He looked at me, waiting.

“Idiots!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you have separation of church and state, or whatever?”

“No, we are a Jewish state.”

“And my family? All those who remain here, degraded to near second-class citizens?”

“They are not second class,” he said, defensively. “Arabs can practice whatever religion they want and live among us. But they will live under our law.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know quite how I felt about this conflict inside me. Noam seemed brain washed. Now that I thought about it, many of the Israelis we met seemed ignorantly one-sided. Not necessarily outright hateful, but definitely nationalistic, which history tells us is never a good quality for a population to have. I suppose you might need to feel that way if you were risking your life for your country and there was no way out of it. We had had many group discussions about the importance of the Israeli draft, something Arab citizens are exempt from, and the general consensus among our young Israelis was that they were proud to serve their country and protect their borders.

Noam and I walked silently back to the group, hands at our sides.

After Yad Vashem, our group leaders drove us to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. We paid our respects to the thousands of neat, gardened plots and rock-anointed graves that covered military casualties, some very recent. Anan led us over to a large patch of grass among the gravestones.

“Does anyone know why there is so much open space here?” he asked, arms stretched wide.

One of the girls in the group raised her hand and said, “To make room for more bodies.”

“Exactly,” said Anan. “Our war is far from over.”

That day, the Israelis left our group for their respective homes. Noam promised to keep in touch and try to visit me, which to his credit, he did, but I wasn’t as interested in being his friend. His views felt like an attack on a large part of me. I was proud to be a Jew, but I was also proud to be an Arab.

On the bus, Anan was on one of his spiels, so I was somewhere between staring out the window and dozing off. I perked up when he said, “Israel is for the Jews. It is a Jewish state.”

Again with this? I thought. Anan was sitting on his knees facing the seat behind him across the aisle from me. I don’t remember whom he was trying to brainwash.

“Anan,” I called. He looked at me from under his cowboy hat. “I’ve told you about my father before, haven’t I? He is a Christian Arab and he and his family have lived here in Israel, well, it was Palestine before, for generations. How do you fit Christians who call this land home into your Jewish state?”

“The Arabs don’t want to be a part of the State of Israel,” he said, throwing his hands into the air. “They cannot assimilate.”

“Why should they have to assimilate? They’ve lived here longer than all of the European Jews who immigrated here after the War.”

He started wagging his forefinger at me, smirked, and said, “Arabs are loyal to Arabs over the State of Israel. You ask your father where he lives, and he will say, ‘Israel.’ You ask him what he is, what his identity is, and he will say ‘I am an Arab.’”

A few days later, Birthright was over, and I had extended my stay in the country to visit my family in Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in lower Galilee, where you’re just as likely to be woken up by church bells as by the mosque’s call to prayer. My dad moved back home a few years ago, so this would be the first time I saw him. After a tearful reunion, we set off towards the Israel that I was used to.

Kafr Kanna was a lot smaller than I remembered it, and a lot uglier than the beautiful Jewish towns and cities we had visited during our tour. The streets were tight with sand-colored buildings and old cars. Everything from the shops and restaurants to the clothes people in the streets wore seemed like hand-me-downs. After spending time among the snow-white stone temples in Tzfat and the metropolitan haven of Tel Aviv, Kanna felt like kind of a dump. But this dump was home, and I was happy to be back with my family.

Later that night, over a meal of jaaj maashi, stuffed chicken, I asked my father, “Where do you live?”

“I live in Israel,” he said, with an indulgent smile.

“And what are you? What is your identity?”

“I am an Israeli citizen, habibti.” 

8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

notched bow, archery, ITH big bear mountain adventure lodge

“#3. You’ll learn something new: You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer.”

Source: 8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

 

1. Accommodation is going to be cheaper for you.

Now, I’ve only used Workaway and HelpX as a source for my work exchanges. (Something about the different website layouts for each country’s WWOOF page is displeasing to my eye, and I don’t really care for children.) But each host only expected me to work an average of five hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, I’d get a bed to sleep in and at least breakfast, sometimes lunch or dinner. Not a bad deal, right?

I can’t imagine the amount of money I saved by working for my bed. Last year, I worked for two weeks at a bed and breakfast on Santa Marianita beach outside of Manta in Ecuador, a location I already wanted to visit for its sick kite surfing culture. If I had stayed in the dorm rooms for $15 per night, I’d have spent $210, not to mention the cost of ordering off their delicious breakfast menu every morning. Instead, I saved an average of $300, which I spent on kite surfing lessons, and got to feast on breakfast burritos and stuffed french toast every morning, prepared by the hotel’s charming Ecuadorean cook, Martiza.

2. It’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Most hosts ask their volunteers to stay and work for an average of one month, sometimes more and sometimes less. In this time, you’re not merely stopping in a city for a weekend, seeing the touristy sites, and going on your merry way. You can truly embrace “slow travel” because you have the time and the resources to really get to know the place and the people who live in it full time.

I did my first work exchange at a hostel in Catania, Sicily. I stayed for two months, which was a little more than I needed at the time, but there were other volunteers who had been there for nearly a year. One British girl, George, in particular was practically Sicilian by the time she left, complete with big hand gestures, homemade pasta and recommending horse meat as a delicacy.

By staying in Catania for an extended period of time and not just passing through, I felt that I was able to assimilate a little more into the Sicilian culture, and therefore, adopt a little of that culture into myself. In general, I learned to slow my roll a little bit. I’d wake up in the morning and stroll to the bakery for some fresh bread to put on the table for the guests. The baker would help me practice my Italian by asking me if I’d like a little something sweet for myself, to which I’d demurely refuse until she asked if I was sure, and then I’d say, forse solo uno.

After the bakery, I’d stop at the fruit stand on the street, buy whatever the young man working there recommended, refuse his marriage proposals and head back up to the kitchen to lay out my purchases and make espressos for the guests.

I even spent enough time there that the manager, Rosario, had his mother come in and teach me how to make pasta a la Norma and a traditional tomato sauce, with just a touch of heat. I’d spend my days buying the freshest tomatoes and seafood from the outdoor market, stirring a simmering pot of sauce or soup that I’d serve to the guests for dinner, and putting laundry out on the line to dry, all the while staring off into the sea and listening to the hostel’s neighbor practice his cello for the Catania orchestra.

3. You’ll learn something new.

You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer. Whether it’s learning everything there is about horse maintenance on a Midwestern ranch or excavating an archaeological monument in Siberia, you will walk away with more than what you arrived with.

If you’re like me, and basically the entire American millennial population, you’re not quite sure what career path you should be on. And that’s fine, work exchanges are a great way to try out different jobs and explore your interests.

It’s always been a far off dream of mine to open my own hostel, so that’s why I gravitate toward hostel work. As I write this, I’m volunteering at my third hostel, ITH Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear, California. Due to my past experience working in hostels coupled with my general hospitality expertise, the managers here trust me to basically run the place while they’re away. I understand the flow of this industry, and now I’m learning how to use different booking software. Not to mention they have me splitting wood and teaching guests archery. I had no idea how to do either of those things until I got here. And I got to learn all these rugged and useful skills for free.

Last year, I volunteered with a family in the jungle in Peru. The other volunteers and I tended to their land, planting crops, feeding chickens and contributing to the compost pile. But mainly, we spent a ton of time digging an irrigation ditch that would hopefully redirect the heavy rainfall that completely flooded their house the year before. I learned a lot about the struggles of the residents of the Peruvian Amazon and got to contribute to the family’s well being. Not to mention how cool it was to have monkeys for neighbors, the Tambopata River as my personal bath, and fresh papaya to pick off the trees for breakfast.

4. Even though it is work, you can really just take a break.

If you’ve been moving non-stop around the world, living out of your backpack and in a new hostel every third night, you’ll definitely enjoy a chance to stop and rest for a while. It will feel good to have a purpose again other than just going and going, not to mention the wonderful feeling of being able to unpack without knowing that you’ll immediately have to roll and stuff everything into your bag again and hoist it on your shoulders within a few days.

As I travel, I always know that work exchanges are an option for when I’m just too tired to go on. Here at my current Workaway, a nice Swiss boy has just arrived. He’s been traveling around the States for a little over two months and hasn’t stayed in one city for more than five days. For the first two days of his arrival here, he couldn’t stop exclaiming how happy he is to get back to a routine that includes a normal work, exercise and eating schedule. He now has the responsibility of splitting wood and he says he couldn’t be happier.

And guess what, you can leave again whenever you want.

5. Work exchanges are also a really good way to start your trip.

Maybe you’ve never traveled solo before, or maybe you haven’t been to this particular part of the world before. Doing a quick work exchange will help you acclimate to being in a new environment.

When I graduated university two years ago and decided that I wanted to travel, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So I checked out Workaway’s website to see what opportunities different countries had to offer. I had been to Italy before, but only for ten days. If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that ten days isn’t nearly enough time. I could spend my life in that gorgeous country getting fat off pasta. So when I saw a post about a unique hostel where volunteers live with the guests and contribute to the running of the place, I thought it would be a great way to start my travels. I would know exactly where I was going and have a support system while away from home.

6. There’s going to be people from all over the world working alongside you.

Even if you’re the only volunteer at a farm in Nowheresville, Albania, you’ll still meet new people who will contribute to your sense of self. At hostels, obviously, the amount of people you meet is much more varied. I have so enjoyed comparing small traditions with people I’ve met from other countries, sharing stories about our different holiday experiences or hearing about what they eat for meals in their own countries. It never gets old when my German friend, Lara, complains about the amount of meat we eat in America and that we don’t know how to make bread.

Also, the people you meet can provide unique and valuable information for your future travels. They can recommend a great hostel or restaurant where they just were in Vietnam, or give you detailed notes about what you must see while you’re traveling the Rhine Valley, photos and all.

7. You can learn a new language, or practice a second or third language.

Many work exchange programs are specific to language exchange. If you search the Au Pair websites, you’ll see that many European families want to host native English speakers to speak to their children in English. At the same time, you’ll definitely get a chance to practice your French.

I loved volunteering in South America because I am passionate about becoming fluent in Spanish. The language is so beautiful and so useful to know. Speaking Spanish has helped me both abroad and back home. In fact, one of the reasons my work exchange in Ecuador hired me was because they desperately needed a translator. I’m not fluent, but dealing with vendors and guests forced me to practice my Spanish and even learn some new words, rather than just getting by on smiles and hand gestures.

8. You can use your host as a home base while you work on other important things.

Every morning, one of my fellow volunteers in California, Kaja, from Poland, wakes up to Skype with clients from home. She has her own marketing business which funds her travels, and she can keep up with her workload online.

That’s the great thing about these work exchanges, or at least the ones I have engaged in. Your free time is your free time. After my shift is up, or when I have a day off, I take time to write or edit photos and videos. I am currently enrolled in a few online classes that I feel I can dedicate more time to here than if I were back home, chasing money and keeping up with my social life. I feel as though I am living in some world that is separate from the real world, a world where I have the time and the freedom to explore any interest and dedicate time to it. 

9 Tips for New Travelers

Traveling for the first time can bring you a whirlwind of emotions, from excitement to fear. So I offer you a bit of advice to help you take that first step into the wonderful world.

 

I’m talking about long-term, solo travel, here. Just because you spent a week by the pool at a resort in Mexico, getting drunk off margaritas and riding ATVs on the beach, doesn’t mean you’ve truly been to Mexico or traveled. So for the individual looking for a more real experience, but who is maybe afraid to take the plunge, keep reading.

I’m no expert, and I certainly have a lot to learn, but I’ve figured out a few things that I wish I had known when I first started traveling.

1) While saving up money as a fallback is a good idea, you don’t need to be rich to travel. So many people that I talk to back home are always saying how they’d love to do what I do, but they don’t have the money. And I do? You just have to want it. What’s the point in slaving away at a job you hate, living the same life every week, just to scrape by? Hell, I can just scrape by anywhere in the world, but at least I’ll be adding experiences to my belt, possibly on a beach somewhere…

2) No, hostels aren’t gross and scary places. I don’t know if it was that ridiculous horror flick Hostel or what that has made so many of my fellow Americans fear hostels, but many of my friends and acquaintances back home have been horrified by either my staying in hostels or my suggesting that they stay in hostels. Either they think they’re bound to be dirty places, filled with leering foreign men who are just waiting to rape you or rob you in your sleep, or they are just not thrilled with the prospect of sharing a room with 11 other people. My advice? Get over it. Hostels, in my experience, are often the highlight of a trip. Sure there are some shitty ones, but for the most part they offer a home away from home and are a great way to meet other travelers and find things to do. You needn’t worry about privacy, either. There is definitely some unspoken rule about reading other people’s energies. If you want to be left alone, your new roommates will pick up on that and stay clear, and if you want to make friends, the possibilities are endless.

3) Learn a trade. I can bartend, serve and generally work in any sector of the hospitality industry. I am also a writer and possess a fair knowledge of social media, brand marketing, research, etc. These skills have helped me find places to work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. And when the day comes that I can stop moving, I’m sure that these skills could also provide me with a paid job in a foreign country. Sites like workaway, helpx and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are great sources to find volunteer work in exchange for room and board and at least one meal a day. From working the front desk at a hip hostel in Santiago, Chile, to picking grapes in a vineyard in Italy to helping at a zoo in India, the opportunities are endless.

4) Trust people. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans seem to generally not trust foreigners. Our media has instilled us with such fear of “the other” that many Americans are afraid to branch out. “You’re going to Colombia?!?!” Friends and family would ask me. “But it’s so dangerous. Don’t get your head chopped off!” Ok, Mom. Colombia was a grand old time, and I felt perfectly safe there. The whole world is dangerous, even America. That doesn’t mean that everyone is out to get you. Using sites like workaway and helpx is a good way to realize that the world is full of good people, just like you, who want to help you and welcome you into their country. Couchsurfing also promotes building bonds with strangers. Obviously, keep your wits about you and trust your gut, but you won’t immerse yourself in any culture if you stay hidden in your bubble.

5) Embrace the journey, not just the destination. I get it. You’re eager to make it to the next city. But what about all that space in between? You may not save time, but you’ll certainly save money and gain experience if you take the long way. Instead of flying, try booking passage via boats, buses or trains. You get to see much more of a country when you take your time moving through it, and you train yourself in the art of patience along the way.

6) Enjoy just being somewhere new. Every traveler knows that small thrill in the pit of your stomach, that quiver just below your ribs and into your heart that bubbles up and out of your throat, manifesting itself into a giddy giggle. It’s the excitement of being somewhere new, anywhere. It could be a pit stop in the middle of Colombia or a big city in Vietnam. Every place on Earth that you haven’t been before is new and offers fresh stimulation that should be celebrated.

7) Learn to be low-maintenance. When you’re backpacking or traveling for a long period of time, chances are, you’re trying to save money. You’re probably also trying to save luggage space. Many people aren’t good at traveling because they find it difficult to live without their comforts. If you’re serious about seeing the world, then you need to learn to be comfortable with less. I wouldn’t call it “survival,” but it’s damn near close. Carry the essentials and be thankful when you get a bed or a hammock to lie down in. Accept any free meals offered to you. When it comes down to it, you’re not going to need all the things you think you’ll need, and chances are, you can buy whatever you’re lacking in your backpack along the way. This lesson never became more clear to me than when I was backpacking in South America with only a handful of comfortable outfits, no makeup and a kindle. As long as I can stretch my legs and read a book, I can be comfortable anywhere.

8) Plan, but also be spontaneous. Resist the urge to spend hours scouring the internet and planning out an exact itinerary. Don’t only rely on your guidebook. If you’re going for a long period of time, planning out everything will only serve to limit you. With each new hostel or town you enter, you will meet so many people, locals and travelers alike, who will tell you where they went and show you pictures, so that you’re now wishing you didn’t bother buying that flight to Santiago out of Cusco, and you’d much rather have more time in Peru so you can see some other cities, maybe venture into Bolivia… The point is, you’re free and you can go wherever you want. Your choices and your plans will constantly change. Accept it, and go with it.

9) Embrace your freedom. Travel solo. Maybe you disagree, but I don’t think that you’re truly free if you have to worry about someone else’s wishes. For this reason, I prefer to travel alone, and I think that new travelers should learn to go it alone, as well. I’ve noticed, from traveling with others and from talking with people I’ve met in hostels, that traveling with a best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend can often harm your friendship and your experience abroad. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every friendship or relationship, but I’ve found that when you travel with someone you’re comfortable with, you tend to complain more to them about the strains of travel, and they complain back, fueling a circle of negativity. When shit hits the fan, you’re more likely to blame each other than keep a cool head and just figure it out. When you’re alone, you have no one to blame but yourself if something goes wrong, so you just move forward because, in a foreign country, you don’t want to dwell on hiccups and attract attention to whatever situation you’ve gotten yourself into. Another issue comes up when you want to do different things. Maybe your friend wants to stay up all night getting drunk with those cute Argentinian boys, but you want to get a good night’s rest so you guys can make that 8 am tour of a waterfall. Maybe you want to talk to that Swedish nice girl with the guitar, but your friend hates her because she was loud in the dorm rooms that morning and woke her up. Somebody either has to trudge along unhappily to something they’re not interested in, or you guys split up for a few hours.

There are good parts of traveling with others, of course, including having someone to watch your bag at the bus station while you go to the bathroom or rub your aching shoulders. However, I’d prefer, at least in this stage of my life, not to be tied down by anyone or anything, and to have the freedom to do whatever I feel like, wherever I feel like doing it.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

A Day in New York City

New York City street, Freedom Tower

A day of unconventional sightseeing in New York City

Showing my friends around lower Manhattan and feeding them the best bagels, pizza and halal that the city has to offer.

My Australian friend, Greer, whom I met in Colombia, has been traveling around the States with her boyfriend Jeremy, aka “Jez,” and made a stop in my hometown. I had a day off work in Boston, so I decided to drive down to give them a glorious day in New York City that they couldn’t get from reading guidebooks. Most of it included food, but isn’t that the best part of traveling?

Bagels

A trip to New York is not complete without trying a “real” bagel. The bagel, created in Krakow, Poland around the 15th century, came to the United States with immigrant Polish-Jews who created a thriving business of the delicious doughy circles in New York City. While it’s nearly impossible to get a bad bagel in New York, one of my favorite midtown haunts is Ess-a-Bagel, on the corner of 52nd street and 3rd avenue.

Ess-a-Bagel, New York
Ess-a-Bagel from the outside
Ess-A-Bagel from the inside, New York City
Ess-A-Bagel from the inside

Jez held down a table while Greer and I waited on the long, but fast moving, line. She exclaimed gleeful surprise at the amount of cheese selections at the deli and pointed to knishes asking if they were bagels, and then, asked what knishes are. I ordered three different bagel sandwiches for them to try- cinnamon raisin with Oreo cream cheese, an everything bagel with chicken salad, and a whole wheat everything with bacon, egg and cheese and salt, pepper, ketchup. Needless to say, they were impressed, and as we munched happily, I listened like a worried parent as they explained their desire to try crack while in the Big Apple, and I laughed at their astonishment at the idea of cheese in a can. I almost choked on my latté when Greer asked me quite seriously if I had ever had Snapple.

bagels and spreads at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagels and spreads at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagel sandwiches at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagel sandwiches of bacon-egg-and-cheese on a whole wheat everything, Oreo cream cheese on a cinnamon raisin, and chicken salad on an everything at Ess-a-Bagel, New York

Ess-a-Bagel831 3rd. Avenue, 212-980-1010

The High Line

high line in spring, nyc
The High Line in Spring

Unoriginal, I’m aware. Since the historic freight train site was converted into a park in 2009, the High Line has been added to the list of Manhattan must sees. I hadn’t seen it yet either, so I figured we’d mozy on over to the West Side to see what so many of my New York friends had been instagraming.

the High Line sign from the street, New York City
the High Line sign from the street, New York City

According to a sign at the site, the High Line, “was built by the New York Central Railroad between 1929 and 1934 to lift dangerous freight trains from Manhattan’s streets.”

old train tracks at the High Line, New York City
old train tracks at the High Line, New York City

It is now a public park that runs above the streets on the West Side overlooking the Hudson River.

tourists overlooking the Hudson River from the High Line in New York City
Greer and Jez overlooking the Hudson River from the High Line in New York City

The park is quite bare in the winter, so not the best for taking photos, but I have some photos from friends that show it is lovely and lush in the warmer seasons.

the High Line, New York City
the High Line, New York City
People lounging at the High Line, New York City
People lounging at the High Line, New York City
street performers at the High Line, New York City
street performers at the High Line, New York City

Despite the slight chill to the air, many New Yorkers were lounging on wooden benches and enjoying the sunlight. The Australians scavenged the melting snow banks to throw snow balls at each other like a couple of 10 year olds.

Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City

The Spotted Pig and the West Village

The West Village of Manhattan is a truly dynamic part of the city, made up mainly of 18th century brick buildings with great, clean stoops.

on a stoop in the West Village, Manhattan
Stoop kid’s afraid to leave the stoop!

Historically an artsy and bohemian neighborhood, but now home to more upper-middle class residents, the western-most portion of Greenwich Village is “bougie” to the core, and no other restaurant is as perfect an example of this characteristic than The Spotted Pig. The famous restaurant is one of New York’s first gastropubs and boasts a focus on simple food made well with straightforward ingredients, a serious wine list, and offerings of cask beers.

The Spotted Pig facade, New York City, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Romance
The Spotted Pig facade, New York City, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Romance

The restaurant itself is two floors and made of warm wooden furnishings, with an impressive variety of pig tchotchkes and paintings about. The rickety, antique-like furniture and small amount of space make coming in with little more than a handbag somewhat stressful, and the menu definitely doesn’t think about your wallet’s feelings when it decides what to charge. Nonetheless, we ordered up some “apps,” a term the Aussies thought was adorably American, of deviled eggs, shoestring rosemary fries, and paté on crusty bread.

whiskey smash and cask beer over shoestring fries at the Spotted Pig
whiskey smash and cask beer over shoestring fries at the Spotted Pig
The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
pig decor at The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
pig decor at The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan

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The Spotted Pig, 314 W. 11th Street, 212-620-0393

Union Square

As a kid, I always loved to take the train to Union Square, often for Improv Everywhere events, “a New York based prank collective that causes scenes of joy and chaos in public places,” like the giant pillow fight of 2008 or a silent rave.

Improv Everywhere giant pillow fight in Union Square, New York City
Improv Everywhere giant pillow fight in Union Square, New York City

However, I love Union Square on any day for its clean pathways, the groups of people hanging out on the stairs, the farmer’s market, and the statue of a guy on a horse.

Union Square, New York City
Union Square, New York City, from inetours.com

Greer, Jez and I walked from the West Village to Union Square, where we then branched off so I could show them a couple of stores I like to waste time in, New York Costumes and The Strand Bookstore.

helping old lady cross street at Union Square, New York
Couldn’t resist showing this pic of Greer helping a cute old lady cross the street by Union Square

New York Costumes is a hilarious year-round costume shop with two large floors of endless entertainment. From spooky statues to skanky costumes to realistic props, I could easily spend an hour playing with all of the toys and taking selfies with scary masks.

selfie at New York Costumes, East Village, New York City
selfie at New York Costumes, New York City
Native American key table, New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
Native American key table, New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
peacock feathers at New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
Greer and Jez balancing peacock feathers at New York Costumes

The Strand is a book-lover’s dream. 18 miles worth of books, lined up in tight aisles that smell like the best kind of mold, the kind that grows on pages and makes you want to stick your nose between the binding and breath in deep.They sell new, used and out-of-print books. I love taking my little sister here and watching her climb the rolling staircases to discover new books hidden on higher shelves or sit on the floor in a quiet corner making “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles. I knew Greer was an avid reader, so I thought she’d appreciate the sheer quantity of books offered at this amazing store.

bookshelves at The Strand, East Village, New York City
bookshelves at The Strand, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City

I’d have loved to take them to my third personal must-visit spot in Union Square, the restaurant Max Brenner, for some seriously sick chocolate creations, but I was trying to save room in our stomachs for more important New York food staples.

New York Costumes, 104 4th Ave., 212-673-4546

The Strand, 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452

East Village, Noho, NYU area

St. Marks Place, Noho, East Village, New York City
St. Marks Place, Noho, East Village, New York City

While the far West Village is good for trendy happenings and overpriced wines, the East Village, Noho and the general area around New York University is where you go to get drunk, get a piercing or get a vibrator, or all three.

tattoo, piercing shops, East Village, Manhattan
East Village, Manhattan

I wanted Greer and Jez to get a sense of the sense of freedom in the neighborhoods, so first I walked them down St. Marks Place and Avenue A to enjoy the regurgitation of youth culture in the neighborhood that once housed starving artists and the birth of punk rock. From St. Marks, we made our way back west towards Cooper Square and strolled slowly down St Marks between Cooper and 2nd Ave, eyeing the displays of beautiful blown glass, considering getting tattoos, and debating whether to stop for pizza or hot dogs. In the end, 2 Bros Pizza and their $1 per slice deal won out over Papaya King Hotdogs, though I highly suggest trying both New York delicacies if you have the time and the stomach.

2 Bros Pizza, Manhattan
2 Bros Pizza, Manhattan

We stuffed our faces and chugged a quick street beer and then headed over to Washington Square Park near NYU to sightsee a bit. It was a warm day for winter, and the sun was beginning to set as the usual frolicking of different strokes continued in the park. Small children clapped excitingly over big bubbles, old men played chess and checkers, a man in skirt played ragtime on a piano under the Triumphal Arch dedicated to George Washington’s 100th anniversary of inauguration as the President of the United States, and we stood watching all of it as we munched on Maple and Bacon kettle cooked chips, an odd flavor of potato chips that Greer and Jez couldn’t walk past without trying.

bubbles in Washington Square Park, New York City
bubbles in Washington Square Park, New York City
pianist playing ragtime in Washington Square Park, New York City
pianist playing ragtime in Washington Square Park, New York City
Australian tourists eating Maple Bacon chips at Washington Square Park, New York City
Greer and Jez eating Maple Bacon chips and watching the scene in Washington Square Park

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Triumphal Arch, Washington Square Park, New York City
Triumphal Arch, Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, New York City

If we had had the time or the stomach space, I would have delighted in taking Greer and Jez to sample one of New York’s famous Jewish delis, specifically Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street near the recently departed Empanada Mama (RIP- I will never forget the Viagra Empanada you fed me one time at 4 in the morning.) Katz’s has been a cash-only deli since 1888 with the fattest sandwiches it will ever be your pleasure to unhinge your jaw for. You can order any corned beef or pastrami sandwich, and your taste buds and soul will thank you kindly. But don’t limit yourself. Have some chicken soup or a potato knish with deli mustard to round out your meal.

corned beef or pastrami sandwich, from Katz's Deli's website
*drools*- delicious photo of either corned beef or pastrami sandwich, probably on rye, from Katz’s Deli’s website

Katz’s Deli, 205 E. Houston Street, 212-254-2246

I’d also have taken my friends to one of the cool bars down there, like One-and-One on the corner of 1st Street and 1st Avenue to dance to some Top 40, or to Hair of the Dog on Orchard and Stanton for the young crowd and beer pong tables, or even to Pianos on Ludlow for lounge vibes and 90s hip hop. But alas, Jez didn’t know about the whole ID-ing thing, and we had to trek all the way back up to their hostel in Harlem to get his passport.

On our way back up town, we made sure to stop at the iconic Halal Guys food stand on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue for a mixed chicken and lamb platter with rice, salad, and white sauce (hold the hot sauce). That warm, aromatic platter didn’t stand a chance.

Blunts and 40s

The day I met up with the Australians in New York was also the day that Biggie Smalls, Notorious BIG, died in 1997.

Notorious BIG, Biggie Smalls
Notorious BIG, Biggie Smalls, RIP

In honor of this great man, I taught Greer and Jez what a blunt was, how to roll one by two-stepping, and introduced them to 40 oz. bottles of beer and malt liquor. After we were rolled up and ready, with a 40 of Old English, we poured some out for our fallen homie and made our way back downtown.

40 of Old English, New York City
Greer enjoying her first 40 of Old English

I would like to say that even though we properly brown-bagged our bottles, open container laws in New York still apply, and you really shouldn’t be out and about with an open bottle of any alcoholic beverage, lest you get a fine from the pigs of $25 or up to 5 days imprisonment. I got a little spooked while we were drinking a tall boy of Rolling Rock on the street and a cop car seemed to stop and notice.

Rolling Rock, New York City
Rolling Rock tall boy on the streets of NYC

Unfortunately, my first reaction was to chuck the can and tell Greer and Jez to scatter while I ducked into a convenience store. I didn’t need the Stop-and-Frisk police to decide they have reasonable suspicion that I am committing or about to commit a crime, such as the one I neatly rolled into a cigar wrap. Word to the wise, if a New York police officer asks to search you, your things or your vehicle, you do not have to give consent and you do not have to say anything. If he or she asks you to turn out your pockets, you can refuse (and should if you have drugs in them) because they can really only bag you if you show them your stash. Ask if you are being arrested or if you are free to leave. For more tips on how to survive an encounter with the New York Pig Department, check out what the New York Civil Liberties Union has to say.

Hookah

I don’t know about anyone else, but before I moved to Boston, one of my favorite pastimes would be to go into the city with friends for some hookah and snacks in the village. I took my friends to Pergola Restaurant, a somewhat classier place than the super downtown, smoke-filled hookah dives with cushion-laden corners that I was accustomed to. We snacked on an octopus salad and a plate of warm pita and cold dips of babaganoush, hummus and tapenade as we blew out mandarin and mint tobacco from a large glass water pipe. It was the perfect way to settle our super full stomachs and wind down after a very full day.

pita and dips plate at Pergola Restaurant, New York
pita and dips plate and octopus salad at Pergola Restaurant, New York
Pergola Restaurant, New York City
Pergola Restaurant, New York City

 

I had an awesome time being a tour guide for my foreign friends, and hope that this recounting of our day together can serve as a guide for other tourists who want to spend a splendid, slightly off the beaten tracks, day in Manhattan!

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

 

 

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

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The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

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Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Coastin’ with some bad bitches

girls hanging by the pool at Dreamers Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia

The people you meet traveling are half the fun.

I loved having the chance to make lasting friendships with a great group of Australian girls in Colombia.

I was sitting in the courtyard of my Cartagena hostel, el Viajero, sweating through my yoga pants, when the baddest girls I ever met caught my attention. There were five of them holding grocery bags, the thin blonde in front donning some kind of a grim reaper marijuana t-shirt. I remember wondering how these apparent backpackers had the means to be rocking cute outfits and makeup, whereas I only packed comfy staples and some tinted lip balm.

Later that day, I ran into the girls again in the hostel’s subpar kitchen while we made our respective dinners. I admired the way they all chipped in together, comparing their collective process to the countless times I had single-handedly prepared meals for my culinary-challenged friends. They were unexpectedly kind in offering me up their knives to use to cut up my red pepper and onion and were even more surprisingly friendly when I interrupted their meal to ask for a lighter to light the stove. As I handed the lighter back, I looked at the blonde one and said, “I like your shirt. If you’re ever in need, let me know.” I smiled and walked away, happy that I had already found a connect and wasn’t offering up an empty promise, and satisfied that they looked at me with hope rather than disgust.

I didn’t see the girls again until I was heading out to smoke a joint around the corner from the hostel. The tallest one with the most piercing blue eyes, Greer, was walking back to her room where I could hear the other girls howling with laughter. We acknowledged each other, she looking graceful in an Amazonian way in her long skirt that I soon found out were a staple of hers. I showed her the joint and asked if she’d like to come along, to which she happily agreed.

“You wanna invite your bitches?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t be offended that I called them bitches. She didn’t flinch.

“Nah, they’ll just smoke all your stuff,” she replied.

I don’t remember what we talked about while we passed the joint back and forth, but I remember that she was easy to talk to. Long story short, the rest of her crew welcomed me into their group so seamlessly, I wondered how I hadn’t met them before or why I couldn’t find a group of girlfriends this laidback in the states. The last few nights we spent in Cartagena, lounging on chairs in the courtyard and chatting, I was astonished by how sweet and giving these girls were to each other. There was no cattiness, no jealousy. Just a few bad bitches having a good time, and I was honored to be one of them for the time being.

There was Katarina, or Kat, with curly brown hair and a septum piercing. Hanging with her was like being near a reiki masseuse; she somehow could always read and adapt to your energy, and she really took the time to make sure her friends knew they were loved and at peace. Greer, whom I mentioned prior, is nicknamed Groel, which is perfect for her if you’ve ever met her. She’s tall and a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve never seen such a small waist consume so much food and beer. Leah, whom they call Wrecky because she’s always wrecked (not really though), is the blonde with the grim reaper marijuana shirt. She’s thin and beautiful with bright blue eyes and the best Australian accent I’ve ever heard, and she’s always quick to dole out compliments. Julia, or Jules, is sweet, thoughtful and affectionate. She’s the type of person who goes with the flow and seems to never lose her temper, and you know you’re being taken care of when you’re in her company. Elise, or Leisy, is Jules’s sister, a fact what no one had to tell me- I could tell just from noticing their many identical gestures and mannerisms. Leisy’s got a raspy voice and a husky laugh and she is all heart. When I had to leave the girls in paradise to fly back home, Leisy carried my bags to the bus and hugged me about a million times before we finally said goodbye.

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The girls by the pool in Santa Marta- (left to right) Leah, Kat, Elise, Jules, Greer

Since we had all planned to make Santa Marta the next stop after Cartagena, the girls excitedly and genuinely invited me to join them. I was skeptical of the easiness with which they included me at first, but it was all in my head. We ended up at the most beautiful hostel, the Dreamers, in the city that doesn’t offer much but a stopping ground to the rest of the coast, Parque Tayrona, and the Sierra Nevadas.

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In the week I spent basking in their insanely good energy and superb, unparalleled, frat-boy-meets-celebrity style party skills, we sat around in hammocks and were lazy by the pool, drinking mojitos and beers and ordering pasta from the hostel restaurant.

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We trekked to the forest in Minca, a small town nearby, to visit the waterfall at Pozo Azul, and we stayed at the Dreamers in Palomino where the only activity we truly engaged in was trying to stand up in the freakishly strong current of the ocean nearby.

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beach in palomino
beach in palomino

They showed me an awesome time at a nightclub overlooking the bay of Taganga, called el Mirador, and kept me awake yet asleep on my feet, way past my bedtime, at an after party that lasted well past sunrise. I listened intently as they told me about their small town in Australia called Geelong, and watched with amusement a zombie apocalypse tourism campaign done by their crazy mayor whom they all voted for out of humor.

I politely accepted or declined bumps, shared clothes, talked about boys, exchanged travel stories, cooked meals, brainstormed on different uses for vegemite, got drunk, passed cigarettes, had heart to hearts. They even gave me a nickname, Bec, to match all of theirs, which I found very touching.

pasta dinner
pasta dinner…i don’t know that guy who’s photo bombing
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure

I guess this isn’t a post on things to do in Colombia, but this is what I did my last week of my backpacking trip. I found some good girls and rolled with it, because it’s not always about climbing every mountain or visiting every national park or joining every tour. More often than not, traveling is about the people you meet and what they teach you about yourself. These girls taught me that it’s ok to just chill and enjoy the company around you. They showed me that it’s possible to be accepted as family just by being a good person, and they helped me recognize that I have worth and that I am loved.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

28 Signs You’ve Been to South America

Llamas in Chile are like cows in the US

Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.

If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.

I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!

You know you’ve been to South America when…

  • You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.

    Arepa con huevo, a Colombian delicacy
    Arepa con huevo, egg arepa, from Cartagena, Colombia
  • you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
  • muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
  • you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
photo credit- Blake Matich
photo credit- Blake Matich
  • you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
  • you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.

    Only costs a few soles to hold a baby alpaca in Peru
    Holding a baby alpaca in Cusco, Peru.
Alpaca hair makes a warm material for clothing in Peru.
Rocking my warm alpaca sweater from Peru.
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posing with a llama in Chile
Alpaca dinner
Alpaca dinner
  • you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
  • you’ve never been so sunburnt.

    Intense sunburn from an Ecuadorean sun.
    Nearly a year later, and I still have those tan lines.
  • you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
  • you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
  • you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
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Chilean money
  • you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
mmmmmm
mmmmmm
  • coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
  • you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
  • you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
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not as bad as the people who look like they’ve had a herpes outbreak on their calves, but still
  • you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
  • if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
  • you were seriously impressed by the street produce.

    Large avocados found in Medellin, Colombia
    AVOCADOS THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD
  • the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
  • you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
  • you don’t fear insects anymore.
  • you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
  • you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
  • someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
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kill me
  • you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
  • your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
  • ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
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being a weirdo with matching ponchos
  • you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
Found a dog to play with in Salento, Colombia
Made good friends with this good boy in Salento, Colombia
Randall, the house pup of HI Arica
Posing with Randall, whom I met in Chile.

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by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

Eureka for Arica

Arica, Chile is a chill beach town on the border of Peru.

Enjoy perfectly sunny days by the salty Pacific.

The small beach town of Arica, known as the city of eternal spring, was the perfect place to recuperate after a month of jungle, high altitude, and constant learning about Inca culture. I couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, work on my tan, and rub salt water from my eyes.

Laura and I took the night bus from Puno to Tacna, a small desert town near the border of Chile, and then took a cramped colectivo (Colectivos change from city to city. This one was a 4-door that fit 5 passengers) across the border into Chile. After a few immigration procedures (Note to self: If you ever go back to Peru, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, lose the customs form you get when you enter the country. You will have to pay a fine upon leaving.) that were oddly strict about bringing in fruit from the other side, I was again sandwiched between the driver and Laura in the front seat of the taxi. Three pushy Peruvian women with bags of groceries and God knows what else hogged the back seat.

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The air in Chile was already different than the air in Peru. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the oxygen levels, maybe it was our proximity to endless ocean, but it felt simply more pleasant. I would soon learn that the people were, in my opinion, kinder and more patient than many people I dealt with in Peru. The sun was bright as it rose over the desert we were driving through at record speed. The driver began to point out a blue fog to our right, claiming it was the sea. I got butterflies. You could see a city and a tall, sandy cliff forming through the mist. Arica. Where flat square buildings painted bright orange, yellow, and pink studded the streets before the impossibly calm, light blue ocean and old ladies swept the sand from their tiled front porches. I couldn’t wait to strip off my many layers and slip into a pair of flip flops and a bikini.

We booked at Hostelling International Dona Ines, due to the good reviews about the staff and breakfast on Hostelworld. While the hostel is a little outside the main part of town, we chose this hostel over one closer to town due to the importance of having wifi in bed.

The main mode of transport in Arica is via colectivo, albeit slightly different from the colectivo that took us across the border and the one that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. These shared taxis are more organized than desperate Peruvian colectivos. Each passenger pays 600 pesos (about $1) to ride in the assigned route of the shared taxi. (PS- Yeah, spending thousands of pesos each day took a lot of math and a lot of getting used to, especially when we’re talking big numbers in another language.) The colectivos that we’d get to know so well were the A and the 4, which passed through the town center, the bus station, and took us more or less directly to our hostel at the corner of Chapiquiuna and Blest Gana.

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A door in the middle of a cool mural opened to reveal an outdoor space filled with colorful art, a Christmas light covered tree, and a pool table. The walls were covered by notes to the hostel and funny jokes or insightful quotes, to which we naturally added. We were greeted by an old brown pitbull named Randolf and a long haired, sleepy-eyed Chilean named Brian. I dumped my multiple bags on the nearest table, removed my poncho, and sat on the floor to pet the good boy.

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We checked in quickly to a three-bed dorm with a hungover, sleeping Frenchman, a mini-kitchen and a private bathroom, raced into our swimsuits, and walked a half an hour in the sun to the beach, getting honked and whistled at the whole way. Normally, the raging feminist in me would have gotten mad at the audacity of these pigs forcing unwanted attention on me. But, I was in a good mood that day, so I smiled and waved at passing cars, feeling like an utter celebrity when they stopped to let Laura and me walk across the street rather than almost run us over like the drivers in Peru.

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our room

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walking over to the beach
walking over to the beach

The beach in Arica was windy and the water was cold, but Laura and I convinced ourselves that our blood could handle it. We were Northerners, after all, used to braving the nearly arctic Atlantic waters of New York and Ireland. Well, this water can’t have been much colder than what we were used to, but the wind chill made the 70 degree air feel like 60 degree air, and here we were without a towel or change of clothes. We air-dried as we walked the length of the beach and into town, stopping every ten minutes or so to apply baby powder to our chub rubs whenever we were in areas free of leering Chileans. (To be clear, I was never creeped out by the Chilean men, and never felt threatened. They only looked and said hello. Everyone here seemed too nice to cause harm or to offend.)

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The walk along the pavement was filled with bright colored street art and buildings to contrast the hazy, light brown sand. The city center was pretty chilled out. We found the main streets where one can dine or buy things one doesn’t need, both of which we did. Calle 21 de Mayo is a long, white-tiled pedestrian street. Restaurants, bars and stores line the sides while the pathway comes alive with shoppers, skaters, locals, tourists, and people selling handmade jewelry or bouncy balls or homemade sandwiches. The cliff, known simply as El Morro, which I hear offers a beautiful view of the city and sea, greets you near the bottom of the downhill commercial center, towering high and tan.

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These sites were enough to keep us entertained for our first day, so we set off back to the hostel, stopping first at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients for dinner.

Brian is a good DJ, and the chill waves of indie electro were already bumping when we returned. The over-excited, very friendly host Robert, who refers to every female as his “future ex-wife,” explained to us that we were going to party that night. So, after dinner, Laura and I put on makeup for the first time in a month and a half. I wore a dress that I hadn’t worn before or since. It felt nice looking like a real person instead of a hairy-legged, baggy-eyed, harem pants-clad traveler. Oh, did I mention that this was also the first time I bothered to engage in leg hair removal on this trip?

The four or five other guests all began to filter into the courtyard, along with a few older friends of Robert’s. One very large man I recall roared an awful lot. Rib-flavored Lays potato chips and airy cheese puffs were passed around as bottles of vodka, rum and whiskey were slowly emptied. When I wasn’t sitting quietly and happily, munching on free chips and listening to the conversations around me, I made my rounds, having engaging discussions with guests and visitors alike. I spoke to a Bolivian guest about threats to the rainforest, argued with an Aussie about who the best characters are from A Song of Ice and Fire, dabbled with the idea of letting Brian tattoo a wave on my back, and learned about the specifics of paragliding from one of Robert’s pilot friends. My hosts were gracious and generous, and wonderfully 420 friendly, and I slept peacefully after a night of good food and good company.

The next few days, Laura and I really took it easy. We went back to the beach and rented boogie boards from Punto Surf. The waves were too small to ride and we were soon too cold and freaked out by the giant jellyfish to continue playing. We checked out a smaller beach past the cliff, walked with our feet in the clear water, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on our skin. When we got hungry, we found a restaurant called Cafe del Mar on 21 de Mayo, which we returned to the next day because the food was so delicious. I highly recommend any of the crepes and the Churrasco, a steak sandwich that is very popular in Chile.

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churrasco sandwich
churrasco sandwich
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes

For us, Arica was a chance to chill out. When you’re traveling and constantly moving, it’s nice to afford yourself some time to be lazy, walk along the beach, and take advantage of strong wifi. Our next adventure would come in a few days with our trek to the beautiful desert of San Pedro de Atacama. Stay tuned!

 

Below you will find our additions to our dorm room wall:

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by Rebecca Bellan