To the right, to the right

Even though I brought gym clothes with me to work out after work yesterday, I ended up taking a detour to Pike Place Market along the waterfront of Seattle last night. I felt a little like I was being extra brave, given the terrorist attack that happened just the night before at the Christmas markets in Berlin. I thought to myself as I walked, “Take that, terrorists.”

Of course, after the events in Berlin this week (so similar to those in Nice in July, it’s scary), I thought back to the same line of thinking I had when I wrote another recent post, Marked safe. Why should I get to go to Pike Place Market and be safe, when 12 other people went to the markets across the world and they weren’t? Sometimes, it’s just not fucking fair.

I thought of the fire in Oakland’s Ghost Ship, which happened the night I arrived in Berkeley, Oakland’s neighbor, earlier this month. How those 36 people went about a perfectly mundane night listening to music, making art, supporting other artists, and how that night ended. It felt realer and closer because I was in town over that weekend, and maybe partially because my mother knew I’d be there and was so worried I was in the fire, she made me call her to prove I was safe.

Monday night at the gym, watching the results of the electoral college (which, by the way, proved itself completely worthless and useless) voting that day, I started hate stationary-biking. I’m so fucking sick of seeing the name Trump, of seeing his chubby turkey neck and stupid schmuck look on his face all over the news/media. I’d hoped we’d have a Hillary win, and he could fade into obscurity via shame spiral, but that was not to be. Thanks, ‘Murica. Since my hate biking, I’ve tried to limit my exposure to news/media because the state of world, if it wasn’t getting to me before, is surely getting to me now.

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I know I shouldn’t hate. It brings me down to the level of everyone else rooted in hate – the KKK, anti-LGBTQ initiatives and  supporters, and so much more. But I fucking hate Trump and all that he stands for. I hate the team of people he’s selected for his cabinet. They might as well call his team the Bad News Bears. Cruella DeVil for animal protection. Bill Cosby for women’s rights. For real. I’m sickened to live in a country that voted for him. To be clear, I did not.

But in limiting my exposure to news, I still managed to read something which resonated with me. I usually try to cite my sources when I can, but unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read about this idea.

There is a global trend toward right wing ideologies inspired by the waves of terrorism increasing in frequency and amplitude everywhere. That’s how ISIS was supposedly inserting itself in nearly every country. By performing acts of terrorism in not only war-torn middle eastern countries, but also the US, Europe, etc., ISIS was effectively attacking democracy and the very foundational ideals on which the western world exists. Brexit was a British right-wing response; Trump winning the election was the US’s right-wing response to terrorism; as was the socialist president of France deciding not to seek re-election due to an unfavorable climate, stepping aside to make way for more conservative republicans who have broader favor with the French people. France had its fair share of horrible terrorist attacks recently, with the most recent attack in Nice on Bastille Day, November 2015 with shootings at multiple crowded locations before that, and shootings at Charlie Hebdo before that. And the French people are leaning more conservatively now, as a result.

Russia hacking and influencing the US’s election of Trump was the pinnacle of attack on democracy, and I did read an article that John McCain, of all people, is making a case for a special investigation into the cyberwarfare. McCain advocates that, “A committee is necessary to look at ‘the whole issue of cyber warfare, where we have no strategy or no policy’ because it is ‘perhaps the only area where our adversaries have an advantage over us.’” Cybersecurity is where America is weakest and potentially not #1, thus that is where we must build our defenses.

The global political climate leaning more and more to the right actually induces way more fear in me than I thought possible. I always felt safe in San Francisco, slightly less so in Sydney but to be fair, I was also outside the country and thus outside my comfort zone there. I feel pretty darn safe in Seattle. Having a president-elect who believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese also terrifies me, because this is a crucial point to continue and even ramp up environmental protections to save this planet from mass self-destruction. But, I digress.

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But it’s like countries who have been fucked with by conservative terrorists want a conservative no-more-chances response from government. So in a way, the terrorists ARE winning and everywhere is falling into the plans they had all along. They wanted us to react with hate, and fear, and conservative views on all kinds of topics from immigration to jobs to welfare. So good job everyone. *slow clap*

Being more conservative aligns more closely with terrorist views and how they want things. In my best Beyoncé voice, “to the right, to the right.” I’m not saying by any means that electing Trump was the right thing to do. Rather, in the game of chess, we’ve been played. Check-mate. We lost. Unless the sane part of the world comes up with a genius response to unwind all of this soon, where we’re heading is not good.

Despite raging against the dying of the light by going to the Seattle markets last night, most of the stalls were closing up as I got there. I didn’t get what I went there for – gifts for family and friends. I felt better for going, though. I felt I had to, despite the cold, despite my limping on a sore knee and foot that won’t go away from a gym injury a few weeks ago. Because some people who went Monday night in Berlin couldn’t finish their time there. So, that one was for you, you 12 souls lost, who have yet to be named. Trying to patronize stalls of local artisans instead of ordering everything through Amazon Prime was for you, lost souls of Ghost Ship in Oakland. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. I am not perfect, and even I am susceptible to hate. But my gift is my actions, and that one was for you.


Les catacombs: Empire of the Dead

I cannot remove the eeriness of the catacombs 20 meters beneath the streets of Paris from my mind. My pictures are haunting, but do not do them justice. I did some background reading on what I saw yesterday, and didn’t realize there are remains of somewhere between 6 and 7 million people down there.

I descended the 130 stairs down into the 14°C/57°F darkness, not sure what I was in store for. I had no idea what the catacombs would be like. I had previously rewatched Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, so perhaps I expected full skeletons left unmoved in seated positions next to a dark river winding through a cavernous hall. Or perhaps, with a twist of Goonies, like the skeleton of Chester Copperpot near a fountain where people none the wiser had thrown pennies in exchange for wishes granted.

One of the quotes on my Quotes page reads, “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what that means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”

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I think of each one of those 6-7 million people and what life must have been like for them. I think of the sadness, the hopelessness, and maybe some moments of happiness they had, too.

As it turns out, the removal of rock from beneath Paris happened in order to build Notre Dame cathedral, and the Louvre, among other structures. This left open holes underground in the quarry where rock had been extracted. In the 18th century, this empty quarry was converted to an ossuary, thus the birth of the catacombs. Remains of many were moved down there for health reasons.

The public is only allowed access to a very limited portion of the maze of narrow passages; a good 80-90% is not open to the public. Those who venture the catacombs illegally at night in the prohibited areas risk stiff penalties if caught, but it leaves much to my imagination of that 80-90% they don’t want the public to see.

Included in what I did see were beautiful carvings of miniature versions of cities. Some had carved intricate ports that look like the stuff of a Barbie playhouse in rough limestone. When I post the photos to my Flickr site, you can take a look at a few of them. I’ve uploaded a handful that should suffice for now.

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Many of the signs in the catacombs contain the date April 1786. That is when a mass movement of remains were brought down from the Cemetary of the Innocents (cimetière des Innocents) graveyard to the ossuary. 

Close your eyes. Can you imagine a procession of black cloth-covered wagons from the cemetery to the ossuary that didn’t stop for two years as all the remains from that cemetery were moved? What it would be like to be a teenager, in the prime of your life, employed moving dead bodies?

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When was the last time you heard of anyone’s remains in a cemetery being moved? When we bury our loved ones now, we assume blindly that will be their final resting place… what if that is not the case for you if you chose to be buried? Some of quotes in French underground were macabre at best, but I remember one of them loosely translated came to something like what you are bearing witness to now may be the same fate someone in the future will bear witness to for you. That got to me. On a very deep level.

There are famous, talented people; there are nameless, penniless gypsies. They were rich; they were poor. They were remembered individually; they were easily forgotten. Then, they were moved to a mass grave. If some humans come thousands of years after us, and happen upon this site long after the current human race has been wiped out, they may postulate a mass genocide occurred there. 6-7 million bodies. Good grief.

The walls have been vandalized, and some skulls are obviously missing. Who would steal someone’s bones as a memento of a trip to Paris? 

Loose bones abound, and no grave is marked. These people were killed in battle, died of disease, plague, famine, wars, and also include remains from hospitals and morgues.

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Now, millions of tourists flock to this attraction every year, and pass under the sign at the ossuary entry, with the inscription, “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”.)

It reminds me of that saying:

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Ah, ah, ah – en Français

My friend and I arrived in Paris via the Eurorail on Thursday, May 21, as apparently did all the rest of London. There was a queue longer than the longest airport security line I’ve ever been in at LAX. Looks like many others had the same idea to get away for a long weekend. It turned out to be Pentecost, which when I looked up on Wikipedia, can best be summarized as the birthday of the church. That means many Europeans with any religious affiliation were out en masse in Paris during our time here. Thanks tourists… now move, you’re in my way.

We managed to shuffle through customs in a somewhat orderly fashion, when departing London, and managed not to embarrass ourselves too badly on the ride here. Thanks to the little kid who watched Cars without headphones at full volume on his iPad in front of us, the pregnant woman doing pliés in the aisle to alleviate her swollen feet, and to my partner in crime for letting rip a lip-rippling Homer Simpson burp into the annoying people in front of us.

Upon arriving in Paris on the Eurorail, we purchased a pack of 10 metro tickets to last throughout our time traipsing through the city for only 14,1€, and were on our way to our Airbnb near République station in the heart of central Paris. The underground metro had its moments of urine and feces olfactory sensations that were highly unwanted and unpleasant, but for the most part, I quite liked the underground metro. It’s efficient, easy to navigate, and the best part: unlike London’s tube, it has air flow and a breeze! On top of that, every once in a while, a guy with an accordion will jump on and play songs while singing along, then ask for change when he is done. It creates quite an atmosphere for aspiring musicians, and tourists alike. One can tell right away – there is culture everywhere here.

We had to wait a while to meet our host from Airbnb for the keys, but don’t worry, we found a café right away and ordered what else? A bottle of champagne. We proceeded to have the worst conversation of any French person’s life with the cook who was working in the kitchen near our table at the back. That’s right – they put us riff raff in the back. But we didn’t mind. We had champagne, and each other, to thoroughly amuse ourselves.

Once we finished the champagne, we made our way up to our host’s flat. We scored a 1 bedroom, 1 bath with a sleeper sofa and full kitchen with washing machine and dishwasher for only 52€ per night. Sweet deal.

We wasted no time in passing out early that night, and by we, I mean my friend. He may have had a little too much champagne on the train and in the café, and proceeded to fall asleep on me in the middle of watching a show on his laptop.

Our first full day in Paris was a big one – we decided to hike up Montmartre to Sacré-Cœur, and take in the views of the city. We went around the back as well, and had a peep at the gardens in back. We meandered through the cobblestone streets to Place de Tertre, where the starving artists draw and paint patrons on the sidewalk, or sell art they’ve created already. I decided to have a portrait drawn of myself as a gift for my mother, but the artist in no way captured my essence. Whatever, my mother will still add it to her shrine, I’m sure.

We moved along at a great pace using the metro (while most tourists suffered the taxis and buses) and arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. The queue was too long to go up to the top, and I easily satisfied myself with street view pictures, and those from beneath it. We strolled down the Champs-Élysées, taking in the shops and brand names, wondering who in the hell would really buy a car from a showroom in this part of town. We stumbled upon a cart selling baguettes and decided that was a fantastic idea to chomp on after a long day so far, then meandered to the south bank of the Seine, still soaking in the city. Along the Seine, there are many great places to have a sit-down and a cheeky glass of something bubbly while people-watching. In no time, we had given ourselves a double case of the giggles after drinking and judging people (“great shoes, great hair, bad sweatpants” or “tiny dog, stupid pants, what the fuck makeup?”)

That’s when it finally sunk in that this was a great city, and just the place where our kind of people would have fun. And by our kind of people, I mean those who drink wine and judge people. Plus, everywhere you looked was something beautiful to see – a French flag here, a beautiful person there, a clean blue green river there, and so on.

The second full day, Saturday the 23rd, we started out by heading to the square at République to grab breakfast. We saw the monument where the candlelight vigils were held for the reporter at Charlie Hebdo, which had been defaced everywhere with “Je suis Charlie” and such. We weren’t expecting that when we got to the square, but it was quite moving to see. I remember when that shooting happened – it wasn’t long after the siege in a Sydney Lindt with a similar enemy (see my post about the Sydney siege **here**.)

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Next up, we went to the Bastille, which I was surprised to see was only a solitary monument/obelisk with a golden angel statue up top. But I guess that is all that is left from the storming of the Bastille… Probably should have paid more attention in World History class in my school days…

From the Bastile monument, we walked to Notre Dame cathedral. There were beautiful homes and neighborhoods to be seen; quaint little streets with old architecture taking one back centuries. We opted to pass on going to the top of Notre Dame, and instead just walked through the main church area on the ground floor. That was still breathtaking; don’t get me wrong. I was completely taken with the stained glass, the high ceilings, and the dark, gothic columns.

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I recently rewatched the Hunchback of Notre Dame and even spotted the gargoyles which inspired the characters in the Disney interpretation of the story. I had to keep myself from yelling, “Sanctuary!” at the top of my lungs when entering – after all, it is a church, and still holds mass for those with spirituality and religion. I paid 2€ and lit a candle as well, as it appears that is what one does there.

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After already seeing so much that Saturday, we managed to finally go to the Eiffel Tower by midday. We’d sort of been building up since our arrival, and I didn’t want to go see it the first day. As I’d never seen it before, I wanted the first time I saw it up close and personal to be special. I wanted to look up its skirt to see if it was a boy or a girl, and really enjoy the tower for all its beauty. I did not want to be rushed or take it for granted. Dark skinned Senegalese men were everywhere, hawking faking statues and selfie sticks for the tourists. After about an hour of wandering around, the clouds broke and some blue sky poked out, leaving us with some fantastic photo opportunities.

It warmed up quickly, and if you’ve ever travelled with me, you know when I get hot, I get cranky. We left after we had had enough of the assault on our senses there, to head back for a rest in our apartment. However, that didn’t last long, as we soon decided to buy a bottle of champagne and have a mini picnic in the gardens across from the Eiffel Tower with the fountains that are usually in all the great postcard pictures.

We planted ourselves as drunks on steps and people watched until the sun went down, waiting for the Eiffel Tower to light up at night. We watched some Parisians running a scam called “Find the Ball” under 3 cups which they shuffled quickly. We watched long enough to see who in the crowd was in on it, and who the mark was they were trying to get to throw in cash. The same 7 people circled around when he set up and took down the scam, and we even saw a mother with her baby and a stroller in on it. It takes all kinds, I suppose…

We watched lovers and families, friends, and large groups. We saw teenagers skateboarding precariously close to the ground, and generally pretty fast, down the slight decline heading toward the Tower. Finally, the lights on the Tower came on and I got a few good snaps.

Next, we moved to the Blanche metro stop where the Moulin Rouge is situated. I had to also stop myself from breaking into song in front of it. We passed up on going inside. By this point in time, we have crowned ourselves the king and queen of doing things on the cheap here. There’s no reason to waste money when we create our own entertainment anywhere we go. So, a few pictures, and we headed home to sleep it off, once more.

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It is now Sunday. We had hoped to visit Versailles today, but with it being Pentecost, all tickets were sold out. Good thing we checked online before heading an hour out of town to go find out for ourselves in person. So instead, we opted to go deep into the city, underground, to the catacombs. I had read, not too long ago, about people going through the catacombs illegally, as there is a whole network of tunnels under the city much like the New York subway stations no one knows about. There is a whole underground world down there.

Unfortunately, we waited nearly 3 hours to get into the catacombs, despite arriving when they should have opened. There was a line around the block. However, it ended up being very worth the wait. I was struck by the sheer volume of organized rows of bones down there – femurs and skulls, and other barely discernable parts. So many people are laid to rest underground there. It was eerie yet peaceful, cool, and contemplative. Some of the best pictures I’ve taken in this city was down there today. I don’t even think I’ll need to edit or modify them.

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Paris has also been a grand adventure in learning to use my DSLR camera. I invested in a nice Canon Rebel T5 and whole accoutrement of accessories/lenses/tripods, and such. I didn’t really photograph anything in London, but I have been loving my camera and what I’ve been able to do with it here. I’m still very much a novice, but I don’t think I’ve taken a bad picture yet. There were some frustrating moments in the catacombs where the photo simply would take due to lack of light or inability to focus. So I’ll definitely have some more learning to do to capture what I want. I’ll soon be uploading albums to a new Flickr site I’ve set up, see the Photography section of my blog site for the link.

If you haven’t been to Paris, I highly recommend it. The French are not rude or arrogant at all; in fact all have been quite nice. I never learned French in school, but they appreciate that I try. I say bonjour and bonsoir, monsieur and mademoiselle and madam, and they usually know enough English to put together what I’m asking for. They are polite, contrary to popular belief.

The feel of the city, that je ne sais quoi, it’s simply happiness-inducing. I had no expectations; I was not disappointed. I am only disappointed I don’t have more time here to do Versailles.

We will likely stroll along the Canal St. Martin this evening, and spend a good portion of tomorrow in the Louvre. After my art history course on the Renaissance in college, I know I could easily spend a week at the Louvre and still not see it all. I don’t just want to see the Mona Lisa. There are so many amazing pieces here, not to mention the Louvre pyramid itself.

So there, dear reader, is Paris in a nutshell for me. Or should I say, in a baguette for me?

Looking forward to leaving

Life has been a little busier than normal lately, between work and basic things like eating and sleeping. I’ve been working quite a lot as it’s my busiest time of year at work. There is an end in sight though, and that end is May 5. That is the date I go on leave for 2 months and head to Europe.

I don’t think I’ve shared my full itinerary with you yet, dear reader. I’ve only just hinted at bits and pieces. Perhaps I shall clue you in now, as it’s one of the main things on my mind, getting me through the days and nights.

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On May 5, I shall board a flight I acquired through use of United award miles for an ungodly low amount, and head to London, UK (1) as my first stop. There I will visit a friend and my former flatmate from Sydney who lives there now. I went to London in 2009 and saw many of the tourist attractions then – Kensington Palace, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Tate Modern; I even saw the crown jewels of Henry VIII that was on display at the time. Therefore, London is about unwinding, detoxing, acclimating to a new time zone, and seeing good people. I’ll have time to deprogram from work and I’ll call London home for about 2 weeks. Then the real adventures begin to countries and cities I have not yet visited.

I depart London on May 21 for 5 days in Paris, France (2), with said flatmate from Sydney. He spoke French in school, and knows many things about the culture. I know next to nothing. I’ve never been to Paris. I was holding out on Paris and most of Italy until I had a romantic significant other, to make the experience that much more enjoyable. However, life is too short to hold out any longer, so I figured it’s time. On the docket in Paris is the Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, Notre-Dame cathedral, Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Louvre, Moulin Rouge, and possibly the catacombs (though I’ve heard the last one is actually somewhat illegal, so forget I mentioned that.) I shan’t forget the wine tasting experiences and food to try either – though I doubt escargot will make an appearance. Snails are for throwing, not for eating…

After Paris, my flatmate and I will take a train for 5 days in Rome, Italy (3). After reading the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I knew just what I wanted to see in Rome – and it’s a loooong list. Too long to include here, but rest assured, I’m going to see the hell out of the city, all the things, and probably get lost a few times, too. There will be pizza, pasta, carbs of all shapes and sizes, balsamic vinegar, serrano ham, buffalo mozzarella, and all kinds of amazing food and drink.

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From Rome, we’ll head back to London for 1 night, and then my flatmate returns to work while I venture elsewhere. I hope to not have a tearful goodbye; rather, I hope to have many more memories of hilarious moments and funny accents with him. Retreating back to London after our Paris/Rome debauchery also allows me to travel lighter in those two locales, and leave my larger luggage in London at his place. I’ll repack my bags and head off on June 1 to Helsinki via Oslo.

In Helsinki, Finland (4), on June 1, I will meet up with a travel buddy from Sydney, a friend I’ve mentioned in my blogs before called “Hank Moody”. Hank and I have a couple days to explore Helsinki, with its Bronze Age historical sites and unique cafes, and then will meet up with my aunt (also formerly mentioned in another blog post), “Auntie Chianti”, before we board a train to St. Petersburg, Russia (5).

I’m very excited for St. Petersburg. I’ve written posts on Russia and the Anastasia adventure I want to have there. The excitement of having obtained a Russian visa, and the contact drunk from being near so much vodka, crescendos with tickets to a Russian ballet production, just a single day after Russia’s national Dostoevsky Day on June 3. While we only have a couple days in Russia, I hope to see the beautiful unique architecture, and hear the husky accents en masse. That is, of course, if they let me in.

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From St. Petersburg, we’ll head back to Helsinki via train for one more night, and then the following day we’ll depart for Stockholm, Sweden (6) via ferry. It’s an overnight ferry, and in my imagination, it’s a giant Viking ship with a beautiful wooden mermaid at the front, which I’ll stand behind wearing Viking horns, pretending I’m flying on the Titanic. In the land of IKEA and meatballs, I hope to see much more beautiful architecture. We have nearly a full week there to let our hair down and experience the local flavors.

From Stockholm, we’ll take a train to Oslo, Norway (7). In Oslo, Auntie Chianti will go her separate way onto Budapest to visit family living near there, giving me a total of 2 weeks with my aunt abroad. The last time we travelled together internationally was over 10 years ago, to Mexico. For two people who enjoy it so, that is much too long. Hank Moody and I will enjoy a bit of Oslo and then depart for Berlin, Germany (8) for a brief weekend.

I’ve heard amazing things about Berlin, from people who’ve visited and even from someone raised there. The wall came down when I was only 8 years old, and I didn’t have an appreciation at the time what that meant. I learned about the Holocaust in history classes, which I admit to halfheartedly committing to memory, and have since read a couple great books and seen a couple great movies which depict stories about that time. I highly recommend the book “Not Me” and the film “The Book Thief”, if you haven’t seen them. Also a huge influencer in my life is Pink Floyd’s video for the entire “The Wall” album, which is artistically fashioned with Germanic references.

After experiencing what Berlin has to offer Hank and me, we’ll fly back to Oslo in time to catch a train to Bergen, Norway (9). The train from Oslo to Bergen, east to west, weaves throughout the fjords and offers amazing views. I’m more excited for the ride than the destination, if I’m honest. However, most of this trip’s accommodation will be spent in hostels and backpackers, which is also a first for me. The first hotel I’ll get to enjoy is a Best Western in Rome, Italy, and won’t enjoy those creature comforts again until 1 month later in Bergen. Hank and I splurged on a cozy bed and breakfast hotel with chunky wooden furniture and a very homey feel.

We waive bye-bye to Bergen on June 24, and jump half of the Atlantic to rest our laurels in Reykjavik, Iceland (10). I’m probably most excited for this locale. The inner geology rock nerd I let out every so often is going to have a field day there. Geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes, the Blue Lagoon, northern lights, glaciers, and a spa day at an eclectic and hip hostel in the center of the city. We plan on doing day trips and tours to see everything we can while on that tiny island.

From Reykjavik, I fly home to San Francisco on June 30, adding 9 new locations in 8 new countries to my travel experience. I want to learn how to train my dragon, possibly get a dragon tattoo (or maybe not), visit Rasputin with a cute little bat named Bartok, hopefully not fall on some ice, ride a pretend Viking ship/ferry, and take train rides through beautiful scenery, all while experiencing a backpacker lifestyle with friends and family.

What I started out planning, and what I ended up with all said and done, are two very different trips. I anticipated using the time to be with myself, think through things, rediscover what makes me happy, write some blogs, take some photos, and grow from the new experiences. While I won’t be as solitary as initially intended, I have a chance to make great new memories with people I truly care about. I can soul-search another time, sans Viking horn hat. After all, Nicaragua is calling… but I digress.