Tag Archives: female solo travel

Punakaiki – Where Mountains Meet Sea

Three months on the West Coast have come and gone. Punakaiki, my home for one New Zealand summer, is a beautiful place framed between the Tasman Sea and the lush rain forest of the Paparoa mountains. Nature has kept me very busy yet relaxed and joyful – I sleep well, eat well and feel great.

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Typical look of the West Coast.

In early January I arrived to the small settlement of Punakaiki to begin three months of casual work and living on New Zealand’s West Coast. The nature-lover in me was curious to live near rocky ocean cliffs, lush forests, caves, and golden-green Paparoa mountains. Initially concerned about living in a very remote area, this place has made quite an impression on me and I am sad to leave it. Lucky for me, I had scored a job with a six short work days, meaning I had聽loads of free time to hike (I averaged 13 kilometers a day in February), cook (I can bake bread now), learn about the ocean, read (my favorite leisure activity) and study a foreign language.

Here are some of the highlights of my time, and why, if you have the chance, you ought to stay a while in Punakaiki:

To the annoyance of my roommates, a beloved morning activity was hiking into the Paparoa National Park to watch the sunrise. Watching the light flow the Pororari favorite river canyon is indescribable. Sunsets were just as stunning. The area hosts an unbelievable amount of great viewpoints for the twice-daily show put on by mother nature. I have traveled a lot and my eyes have experienced some very special lighting and color but in Punakaiki I was always impressed. The sky color was so varied with clouds sometimes cast in light opposite the color wheel.

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Purple tidal pools during sunset.


Orange is the color of summertime along the West Coast. A mix of Nasturtiums and Montbretia flowers grow in the grasses separating the sea from the limestone karst formations that dominate the landscape. Early January, at the height of summer, was a bit hard on my eyes – the bright New Zealand sun and the flame orange flowers up against a blue sky was a huge contrast. Even in rain and fog the bright floral hues decorated the landscape.

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On the West Coast just a five mile hike can take you from a rugged seaside with diverse ocean wildlife to a tussock mountainscape with views of snow capped alps in the distance. New Zealand has felt very safe to me and I always feel empowered to take off on the trails. It’s very freeing and I have been more independent than ever. Some days I just walk out the door with no plan and wander until I have to turn around in order to make it home by dark. This picture is from the Croesus Track, one of my favorite walks from my time in New Zealand. To get to the starting point required hitching hiking and I really appreciated the local people that bothered to pick me up and helped make an incredible experience possible. Many other times local people shared stories and route suggestions with me or helped me in other ways. Some of the things locals would talk to me about, like working hard jobs or farming, and spending free time hunting, fishing and camping reminded me a bit of Minnesota, so maybe I related to it a little more than I expected. I had heard a lot of negative stories about the West Coast and but I’m glad to say my experiences were overwhelmingly positive.

I did Croesus Track as a day hike as some of the trail is being incorporated into New Zealand’s next Great Walk, Pike29 Memorial Track and not open to the public. I was so sad to learn the opening of the great walk has been delayed. The original opening date was March 2019 and I would have loved to have done the walk while living in Punakaiki; I know it’s going to be a gorgeous route. Heading up the thick forest of the mountainside was a challenge with chest high grass reclaiming part of the trail and few downed trees to climb over. Once above the treeline the path i more rolling with occasional stretches of loose rock. The views are stunning and it’s completely worth the hard work.

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Happy with the fantastic view.


In the past I’ve fallen in love with the the karst landscapes of Southeast Asia and Europe even though I was not able to spend time exploring them in depth. Walking into the canyons, caves and caverns of the West Coast was one of my favorite activities and requires a lot of respect for nature. The landscape is mysterious and dangerous – deep caves, snaking rivers that suddenly disappear underground, and high tree-lined cliffs. Staying on route is key. My favorite hike followed the Paparoa National Park’s Inland Pack Track to Fossil Creek and finally to the Fox River. This was an intense full day of treading on slippery and muddy trails, climbing over downed trees stranded in the creek and wading through 20-ish river crossings for 25 kms. I loved every minute of it and spending so much time in cool knee high water prevented leg soreness – I’ve never felt better after a full day hike.

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It was a very interesting experiment seeing how I spent all the free time that came with my situation. I’ve always been a nature-lover but my respect for natural systems has only increased here. I have never in my life spent so much time near a healthy coast. When I needed peace and quiet I went watch the tide pools during evening low tide and observed a whole new underwater world. Each night hundreds of small creatures make their way by; of all colors, in all shapes and at every speed. My neighbors are yellow, orange and red starfish, anemones, crabs, jellyfish and even dolphins. I was pretty ignorant about things like tidal cycles and sea creatures when I arrived but now I can tell you exactly how tides work and what different animals eat and how the move, all from observation. I have been so lucky to be able to use my free time this way and it’s been a lot of fun. The big hold out for me are the Penguins. Apparently they live in the area but I am yet to spot one, or even their little tracks in the sand.

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Punakaiki is know for unique rock formations called the Pancake Rocks. A lot of visitors blow through the area and spend an hour checking them out.聽I’m not the best at describing geological processes but these formations are what happens when limestone is eroded by waves, salty air and other beachfront forces and there are varying layers of sediment and matter within the rock.

The Pancake Rocks may be the big draw but just to the south on a beautiful beach similar but more colorful rocks stand open to exploration at your own pace. I particularly liked visiting the rocks in the evening when sunset aligned with low tide. It’s an odd place that feels a bit out of this world but very memorable.

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The Truman Track beach was essentially my backyard. The steep pebbled beach has a waterfall, rocky cliffs, caverns and is a joy to explore at low tide. Iwas treated to two super moons while in Punakaiki. On both occasions I got up very early to observe a combination extreme low tide and sunrise. The seaside is truly a privileged place to watch the sun, moon and stars. Many animals are especially active at dawn and dusk and as tides are effected by lunar events it made watching nature really cool and colorful. In what for me will be a once in a lifetime event, I witnessed Hector’s dolphins swimming during a sunset (I only saw them once).

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Aside from the nature I’ve had a busy time learning languages, meeting people and learning how to cook awesome food. I am sad to be soon leaving to explore more of New Zealand but know more magic is on the way.

Thanks for reading about my temporary home. If you think you will ever visit New Zealand, I recommend the West Coast. The nature will blow you away and if you visit for long enough you will fall in love with it.

I want to give a special thank you to the people who suggested I go to New Zealand as a worker in the first place, I would have never thought of the idea on my own, as well as everyone who is enthusiastic about hearing what I’m up to. It’s really hard to leave your home at the age of 31 to go live the backpacker life on the other side of the world and it requires knowing that your friends and family are your cheerleaders. 馃檪

Ruby

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Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, C贸rdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between C贸rdoba and Granada.

Seville to C贸rdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almod贸var del R铆o.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to C贸rdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to C贸rdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almod贸var del R铆o. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached C贸rdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

C贸rdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering C贸rdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcal谩 al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

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Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Four)

Riding the final 40 km stretch of highway N120 to Lagos went quickly with the last half downhill. I rode straight to the little harbor and to Castelo de Lagos. From there I walked the bike to Miradouro Praia da Batata to enjoy a view of the cliffs before headed to my guesthouse.聽 Ten days after leaving chilly Porto I’s finally reached the end of my journey through Portugal. Over the last week and a half I’d covered 700 km and it was time to enjoy a break from cycling, to swim in the ocean, put my feet up and eat more delicious Portuguese food. Although I was anticipating colorful waters and rugged coast, I did not expecting to love it so much. This little stretch of Portuguese coast was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. The cliffs of Lagos, specifically Ponta da Piedadel, are just breathtaking. The colorful and massive rock formations are dramatically set against the blues and greens of the shallow ocean. Trekking paths intertwine along the cliffs above seven beaches (more if you’re brave).

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Aside from the beaches and cliffs, Lagos also has historic old town, enclosed by massive old city walls that have seen several centuries of ups and downs. Lagos has a long history, some of which is tragic; the first African slave market in Europe was in the city and the original building remains. The city played a big role during the Portuguese Age of Discovery and was destroyed during the same earthquake and tsunami that decimated Lisbon in 1755.聽 Most of the historic sights are clustered around the waterfront near the Castle and can he visited in one day.

The city feels distinctly touristy and is very much a resort town. The contrast between both Lisbon and Porto is striking – the human made infrastructure, the local culture and the natural features. The cliffs, caves and beaches along the waterfront and free and open to enjoy. Visiting at low tide will give more access to all of the natural features while going early in the morning avoids the crowds. In mid-day when the sun is strongest, the water takes on different jewel tones.

Lagos made a nice ending to a long cycling trip down the Atlantic coast. Even though it was early May, most of the five rest days had warm weather and sunshine. The beaches were not yet fully packed and guesthouses charged off season rates.

With full sunshine the waters are bright blue and green.

What began as an attempt to ride along the Eurovelo 1 down the coast turned into a completely independent and self directed tour of Atlantic Portugal. At times a bit chaotic, I really enjoyed the journey.聽 Update: Two years after this trip, I am told that the Eurovelo 1 now has markings along the Portuguese sections. I don’t know if this is true, or how clear these signs are to see. I would highly recommend fixing your own back up course in the case that the route is not easy to follow.

Thank you for reading!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Three)

After a day of cycling through Lisbon from Cascais and taking a ferry south across the Tagus River we reached Parque Natural da Arr谩bida. The quiet preserve consists of two main forested peaks and cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a pleasant surprise so close to the city. We set up out tent in the cozy wooded Picheleiros Campground which was home for two nights and relaxed with a barbecue and settled in to the first day off from cycling (yay). Although some stretches of the ride so far have been through nature, those sections have been uncommon. The bikes are always on a paved road and the sounds of traffic and daily life are usually around. Inside the park was the first chance to really get away for a meaningful amount of time. It felt great to put down our things, rest our legs and just stop carrying things. A hike up to the Nook Arr谩bida for a view of the sea was enough for me.

Flowers on the cliffs of Parque Natural da Arr谩bida.

After two nights and a full rest day we rode downhill from Parque Natural da Arr谩bida to Set煤bal and took another ferry over the Rio Sado and adjacent marshes. A ticket for the ferry is just over three Euros and bikes are allowed for free. After boarding I was struck by how many cyclists were on our connection. The riders seemed to have come from all sorts of places and ranged from day trippers from the Lisbon metro area to long distance travels who had cycled from across Europe.

From the landing in Troia we followed a flat highway road for almost 50 kilometers. Not having stop to check the map for so long took away a lot of stress and freed up my mind to wander and take聽 in the landscape. To our right sand dunes reflected the afternoon sun and the noise of the sea crashing against cliffs droned on. To our left a patchwork of agricultural plots layered in front of inland hills. I loved the scenery and found it more relaxing and beautiful than the constant string of resort towns between Porto and Lisbon.

Colorful spring fields lined the route.

Our day of travel ended at a campsite near Reserva Natural das Lagoas de Santo Andr茅 e Sancha. Known for the various birds that call it home the lagoon is a beautiful contrast to the wild sea and I made an evening visit at low tide and wandered around in the ankle deep warm water. Just as I was headed back to the campsite it started to rain and the absence of the sun made me feel suddenly cold. Since it being mid April and very much still low season, the little town was near empty and there wasn’t any place to get food. The last grocery stop had been made just before reaching the Arr谩bida reserve two nights ago. Fortunately the campsite had a modest cafe and bar with a mock living room set up. The place was full of mostly British retirees who spend the winters living in caravans at the grounds and everyone was happy to be sitting inside enjoying a pint with a book or watching the football game on the TV.聽 We had been very lucky over the last week or so and hadn’t experienced much rain so I couldn’t be upset about the weather turning.

Zambujeira do Mar

Preservation areas like Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Nature Park protect the shoreline from development. This also means the bike route occasionally intersects both the Rota Vincentina and Fisherman’s Trail. I saw traveler(s) many days in a row as we passed each other on our respective journeys.

The rocky coast just north of Zambujeira do Mar was stunning in both hard evening rain and the following morning’s sunshine.

Springtime weather in southwest Portugal is mixed and changes quickly. Everyday had an hour or two of both hard rain and strong, full sunshine. Sometimes wind was strong enough to push the bike around while other times very still. It was tricky to figure out how to dress for more than a few hours at a time and the back end of the bike always had discarded clothing pieces strapped down, flapping wildly as I went along. Mornings usually began with a dread of leaving the warm tent and stepping into cold or rain but I got used to it and learned to laze around a little waiting for the late morning burst of sun and temperatures as high as 23/74.

Looking down at Aljezur from within the old castle walls. Monchique hills in background. I especially liked visiting the cliffs and beaches at Zambujeira do Mar and climbing to the 700-year-old castle ruins in Aljezur.

After ten days following along 650 kilometers of the Atlantic coast it was time to cut inland towards Lagos on the southern coast for a long break in the Algarve region. I’m excited to tell you about it soon.

Thank you for reading!

Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises聽of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country 鈥 an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing b煤n ch岷 where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of 鈥渢ip鈥 sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming).聽I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I鈥檓 always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – ph峄, ch岷 c谩, b谩nh mi, c峄憁 and b煤n cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word ph峄 as they should for the word聽鈥溎懫搬粷ng ph峄, which means 鈥渟treet.鈥 Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

HanoiSTreets

The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also聽 on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent.聽Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air 鈥 I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently 鈥 be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn鈥檛 get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I鈥檝e had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao B岷眓g, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!

 

Thailand in Pictures

My first visit to Asia, originally a five week trip, turned into twelve and has kept me too busy to update this blog. Now that things are coming to a close I am able to finally share what I’ve been doing in Thailand and the other places that have been a part of my winter.

Thailand was a mixed bag for me. It was full of trash, smoggy cities and the sky was smoky from crop fires. I felt a constant stress from being badgered by peddlers or needing to salvage a situation after a business promised something it couldn’t deliver – not something you want on a holiday. On the positive side, I met many kind and amazing travelers and Thai people who I hope will remain friends into the future. I ate the variety of delicious food found throughout the country and every city felt generally safe to be a woman traveling alone. Like most visitors to Thailand, I really enjoyed the colorful nature and animals.

The following are images of Thailand that best highlight the journey – there is so much to recap and it was hard to pick just and a few memories.

Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. I skipped seeing captive elephants, deciding it best to spend money on parks and infrastructure keeping these creatures living free. For about $30 I traveled to Kui Buri National Park and, with a guide in a truck, played “elephant hide and seek,” driving slowly in the park with binoculars glued to my face. We were very lucky to spot a few small groups including one with a baby (!) and a few solo elephants – one was an aggressive male that spotted us from 300 meters away and stamped around a bit to show who is in charge.

A friend and I had a great time biking around the forest and roughly 200 ruins that make up Sukhothai Park. The structures date from the 13th and 14th centuries CE. We enjoyed comparing the differences in architecture and decorative details of the well preserved pieces. Some corners of the park are free of people and make nice places to just relax.

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Erawan National Park hosts a river with a seven tiered waterfall. Each level has clear-blue pools available to visitors for wading or swimming. This was the first major nature area I visited and loved it! Reaching the top tier was challenging as the path became increasingly reclaimed by nature but it was the most fun I had on a hike.

I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok but the complex of temples around and including Wat Arun is gorgeous and worth an afternoon boat ride across the river. I actually visited twice, once around noon to see architectural details in full sunlight and once again in the evening to enjoy sunset over the city.

A trip to see Huay Mae Sai Waterfall in Chaing Rai turned into a hike in the hills. Behind the waterfall a trail leads into the surrounding mountains with no end in sight. The path zigzags through pastures and forests. I wish I’d had enough time to see where it went.

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Prachuap Khiri Khan, a half day train ride from Bangkok, was my overall favorite location in Thailand. It’s the most beautiful and quiet seaside town. Adorable natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Ao Manao Lime Bay (inside an air force base! Visitors allowed in for free). Everything is affordable and the few travelers I met were all outgoing and friendly. After a few days the place felt like home.

I’m not a pretentious eater and just dove right into whatever I saw. Street food, evening markets and small Thai cafes helped make my $25 a day budget possible. My favorites were fresh lime juice, coconut ice cream (pictured), pumpkin curries (pictured) and pork larb. Only once did I eat something too spicy and only twice did I get a Thai whiskey hangover.

Thailand has layers in every part of life, just like anywhere else. You can really do anything and build the travel experience that works for you while getting to know the culture. I’m glad I was able to see the huge metropolis that is Bangkok, tiny island villages, mountains, rivers, jungle, 1000-year-old temples, modern arts, take a swim in the ocean, go biking, do aerobics in Limphini Park with 300 other people, eat something totally new, binge on Oreos and other familiar treats, make new friends from every continent, visit English learning classrooms and meet students, and stay with a Thai family. Spending five weeks was enough time to get a feel for the country.

I’ve appreciated some of the challenges of the last few months. It’s an amazing privilege to go half way across the world and see how things work and people live in another place, even if it’s not always wonderful.

Goodbye, Thailand! Maybe I’ll be back again some day.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

Bangkok, Thailand!

My聽five-week visit to Thailand and Vietnam has just begun. This trip is my first to Asia and likely the last multi-week adventure abroad for a while* so I鈥檓 really excited for the experience to play out. The itinerary is scattered but includes, Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Cao Bang. Each day I hear about something new to see, eat or do so plans are sure to change.

I wasn鈥檛 sure how to prepare for this trip since it would be so different from anything I’ve done before and especially Bangkok, home to more than 8 million people and thus the largest city I’ve visited. I’m happy to say I found that Bangkok isn’t intimidating, public transportation is easy to figure out, I generally feel safe (drivers are very scary though) and it feels like a fusion of other metropoles I’ve visited giving it a comfortable somewhat-familiar vibe for me. I like seeing the way space is used here and I’m very excited to slowly explore various areas of town and become acquainted.

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The first few nights I’m staying in a hostel in the Phaya Thai district. Not necessarily near the main sights but a refreshing location. Through past travel experience I’ve come to understand that sometimes I don’t enjoy staying in areas reliant on foreign visitors or tourism as they tend to be more expensive, have plenty of trendy restaurants but few food shops, and can be a bit “fast” or full of people lacking respect for the neighborhood. I’ve had some great stays while in areas that are built for daily life of the local population. Bangkok is the second most visited city in the world so everything is going to be geared towards the experience of the tourist, for better or worse, for some of us. Bangkok has a lot of sex tourism and many travelers come to party but I’m not interested so I’ll keep a bit outside the main tourist zones where this is facilitated and encouraged and likely not the most comfortable place for a woman to be on her own.

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The little alley leading to the hostel. Closer to the main road food stalls line the alleyway and a man with a fruit cart makes his way down, bells ringing, twice a day.

I’m pleased with the hostel I found- $10 a night which is actually a middle price point for the city. It’s quiet, has a coffee shop on the first floor and a very friendly French Bulldog loafing around. The shared bedroom is an interesting little space – a large room is portioned off into four smaller areas for each person, kind of like an office cubical space but way more attractive and cozy. I haven’t seen any other Americans staying here yet but it’s only been two days, and I was able to get some trip tips from a fellow guest already! Happy about that! Language barriers haven’t caused any issues yet but little bumps are sure to come up once more complicated interactions are needed for daily activities.

I feel like I’ve already done so much even though things are just getting started. This afternoon was spent in Chatuchak Park admiring the flora and being frightened by the fauna, specifically big monitor lizards! When it started raining I ducked into J. J Mall and browsed around for a while and tried some spicy lemon candy (it was good) and had a coffee. Yesterday I got a foot massage, ate some great food and checked out two beautiful temples. Tonight I plan to read (thank God the hostel has a book exchange) and rest up.

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From Queen Sirikit Park, which was so empty it felt like my own place.

The 30 hour journey to BKK from MSP wasn’t as brutal as I feared; I was able to get at least some sleep and the airline, although considered budget, fed me plenty, had good movies and was on time. In Bangkok I feel that I’m mostly adjusted to the time change but the heat, 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) greater than the temperature in Minneapolis when I left, is tiring and I probably won’t acclimate. I do know that soon in Chiang Mai and Vietnam it will feel a little more comfortable and I just try to think about that every time I start to sweat.

That’s all for now after 48 hours in Bangkok.

Thank you for reading!

*I’ve begun the visa process for a job located in Harbin, China! More details to come on that.

Lovran and the U膷ka Mountains

With so many national parks, islands and beautiful cities, I struggled to narrow down where to spend my last three nights in Croatia. After experiencing so much difficulty with transportation near Plitvice Lakes National Park, it made sense to visit a more populated area with a local bus system to use as a base for back to back day hikes. I researched the big northern nature sites and decided on U膷ka Nature Park and the coastal town of Lovran. I’d never seen the Adriatic and wanted to get more time on the sea before wrapping up my travels. Early September being past peak season meant three nights in a comfy guesthouse and a bus ticket from Plitvice was within my budget. Also, getting from Lovran to Ljubljana (my next stop) via train is easy and straightforward.

A small vacation town west of Rijeka, Lovran has no grand old city center or major attractions. It’s a place you go to rest by the sea and maybe head into the mountains for the day.聽 This stretch of coast is beautiful and quiet enough to have peace after a day of hard activity. The salty smell of the Adriatic Sea hangs in the air and the sky puts on a nice show of pinks and blues every sunset.

I stayed uphill from the coast with a nice sea view and a 15 minute walk down to the coast where cafes and shops are clustered. After checking in I headed down to the supermarket and picked up my day-hike usual: yogurt, fruit and a local beer to have in the evening afterwards.聽Although much warmer than the inland, the weather was still rainy. I got pretty sick of sitting indoors for several days during storms in Plitvice and decided to hike whatever the weather happened to be on my first full day. I picked out a basic route up Mt. Vojak with the goal of beginning at the sea shore in Lovran front and climbing the 1,400 m to the top of Croatia’s third highest peak.

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U膷ka park can be reached on foot or bicycle from the city, no map required with regular signage marking the route. A paved road goes all the way to the summit and would be one hell of a bike ride on a nice day. Once at the park, the maze of trails within offer wonderful views of the sea, several islands and Istrian Peninsula. Supposedly in clear weather you can see Venice but I wasn’t so fortunate although I loved the view.聽

The hike up was brutally steep yet fun and beautiful in some ways. Remnants of old settlements are hidden in the forest and rock formations form obstacles as you go. The mountain range has more vegetation than other coast mountains of Croatia. The forest is thick and there is no view of the sea until over 1,000 m. I loved seeing all the colorful newts crawling under leaf piles or poking out from mossy tree roots; on a rainy cool day the wooded slopes where full of flashes of bright orange and yellow.

Morning on the beach before climbing Mt. Vojak.

At the top fog wrapped around me like a chilly blanket and hid anything more than 3 meters away. I was happy to be at the top anyways and proud of finishing such a tough grade. Sweaty, wet and cold, I bounded almost all the way down – and experienced my first hiking injury. A slip that bruised up my right forearm pretty badly. Turning 30 on this trip, I’ve realized hard physical activity isn’t as easy as it used to be and it really need to make time to recover and rest when needed (like sleeping 9-10 hours most nights).聽

On day two I decided that since I’d enjoyed the hike so much that I would walk up the same mountain but along a route with a less severe grade and longer distance. The skies were clear with Cres and Krk islands visible from summit lookout point. It may seem silly to visit the same point twice but the hikes were two totally different experiences. One was physically intense and focused on the nature of the forest. Up and down I was completely engaged in what I was doing. The other was slower and more about the destination and view points along the route. Day two was probably the toughest hike I’ve done just because I was so sore and tired from day one and it look look a lot of mental work to remain motivated. The fog had masked some of incline the first time up and the second day I was painfully aware of how steep and long the climb really was.

Aside from hiking, the people seemed nice and language wasn’t an issue. Bus drivers, grocery workers and people working in tourism know some English or German and are willing to communicate with you using multiple languages in one transaction if needed. Croatia uses it’s own currency, the Kuna, and I stuck to budget drawing from the same 600 Kuna (about $93 US at the time) that I withdrew upon arrival in Zagreb. This covered groceries, meals, park entry tickets and small souvenirs for the week while I used my credit card to book accommodation and regional transportation.

I must say wasn’t impressed with the restaurants I visited in Croatia; the food always felt聽 overpriced for the quality, granted I was in the tourist hot spots. The routine of enjoying a local meal for dinner after a long hike wasn’t the usual highlight. The best dish of the trip was black risotto. I ended up having pizza more times than I would have liked but it was easy to find and familiar. On a happy note, several Croatian beers are pretty good! I brought an amber beer back home with me to share with friends.

Thanks for reading!

Central Europe: Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia聽

After four weeks traveling around Central Europe I finally found time to share what I’ve been seeing and doing. My plans have undergone numerous changes, most notably skipping the Tatras, but I have been having a great time with most days spent hiking or wandering cities. Either way, a lot of time spent outside!

I avoided coming to this part of Europe before because the language is really different from what I know and have studied. However, like most languages, you start to notice patterns quickly and it’s not impossible and depending on what you’re up to, your vocabulary might work across a few borders in the region (Vodopad is used in multiple languages in central Europe for the noun waterfall,聽pivo/piwo for beer,聽 and聽good sounds similar, so greetings like good morning, good day etc will sound similar). I would advise against relying on a general translation app, like Google for more than individual words because it’s incapable of changing grammar structures so a full sentence will come out a little weird. Young people are always helpful as the younger a person is the more likely it is that they will have studied English or had some informal exposure to it. There seems to be very low expectations for travelers’ Polish, Czech, Slovak or Croatian language skills but per usual, a good rule is to learn how to say please, thank you, hello, goodbye, yes and no.聽聽I noticed that culturally, the people in Central Europe appreciate a modest and polite traveler; if they interpret your behavior as condescending they will not do anything for you, even if they are someone who would generally helps strangers.

I haven’t run into any safety issues. I see less other women traveling alone in these areas than Western or Southern Europe but we cross paths from time to time. For the most part getting around is easy using public transportation apps. Actually, I’m really impressed with the public bus networks of Poland and Czech Republic! It’s possible to stay in one central location and take a bus, quite cheaply, to any number of national forests, national park or other nature areas. Sometimes it takes one to two hours but the time goes quickly with a book or at the end of the day, just recovering. This is a great service and you see all kinds of people out hiking or biking – because wonderful natural areas are so accessible! What a dream it would be if I could do this at home and hop on a bus in Minneapolis and end up 40 miles away at one of the Minnesota state or regional parks!聽

August was a heavy hiking month with about 400 kilometers covered in three countries. Forest, wetlands, mountains and sandstone labyrinths were my playgrounds. All the hiking meant an excuse to try a new beer almost every night and a wide variety of traditional and contemporary fusion dishes. My favorite things included blueberry ice cream and roasted duck.

Adr拧pach-Teplice Rocks National Park in Czech Republic is full of gorgeous blue lakes and sandstone formations (I loved the polar bear rock). This was one of the most crowded natural areas I visited but it was definitely worth seeing. I visited on a day with on-and-off rain which made all the colors of moss and lichen throughout the park pop.

View from the top of Sn臎啪ka聽(1602 m) which is the highest mountain in the Czech Republic. Located in Krkono拧e National Park which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve it offers sweeping views over both Czech Republic and Poland. The mountain range and park offer numerous (and absolutely free) hiking opportunuties and I covered about 75 kilometers in three days on the lovely trails.

Enjoying the view after a 1,000 meter ascent. Turning 30 at the end of August meant an interest in abusing my knees and hips while they were still “young.”

A view of Cesky Krumlov, UNESCO Heritage Site and the number two tourist destination in Czech Republic. A very beautiful and charming city with a castle set on a winding river. This was the perfect setting for relaxing outside after a long day of hiking the nearby wood trails.

The castle tower in Cesky Krumlov with beautiful coloring and ornate reliefs. It apparently has the nickname “Birthday Cake.”

A picture from the Wawel Castle grounds in Krakow. I have avoided this city in the past do to its popularity; I feared it would feel very crowded. The old town is heavily trafficked but there is much to see, do and eat while still feeling like you’re getting a modern, authentic experience. The older parts of the city are nice for wandering and have a rich yet disturbing history.

A view of Bratislava Castle. I spent a long weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia and found it to be more enjoyable than some of the other major cities I’ve visited. Notably the smaller crowds, cleaner streets and very efficient public transportation. History blends perfectly with modern urban life here. Also the surrounding forests are a nice place to spend a day getting lost on foot or cycling.

Right now I’m in Croatia waiting out a long rain spell and recovering from 19 hour travel marathon to arrive at Plitvice Lakes National Park. I’m beyond excited to visit this park and share the experience.

Thanks for reading!