La Gloria, Mexico: Volunteering with Unity 4 Orphans

U4O-8984Last weekend I had the opportunity to head down to La Gloria, Mexico with Unity 4 Orphans. U4O is an incredible organization that has partnered with an extremely needy orphanage in Mexico. A woman by the name of Edith started by taking in a couple kids. Then a few more. Then a lot more. Now the orphanage, which she runs by herself with only the help of volunteers like Unity 4 Orphans, provides refuge for 70 children. She told us that she will never tell a child that they can’t stay with her any longer, that they will never be told there’s not enough food (even if supplies are actually running short), and that she will never ever turn a child away. This woman is described as “one big heart,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Meet Brisa: 3 years old and at least part Chinese. She wasn’t at the orphanage during the trip 2 months ago. Maybe her parents have just dropped her off temporarily. Perhaps they will never return. It’s very likely that we will never know. But this little girl just wanted to be loved. She pulled on my leg to be picked up and wouldn’t let go of me for a good portion of the day.

And she is one of seventy kids that just want one thing: love. The amazing thing is that this place, which could easily be a place of sorrow, is a place filled with love. Edith loves each and every kid. The kids love and take care of each other. And the volunteers, even though it’s just for a few hours once or twice a month, bring even more love and laughter to this home. What an incredible place, organization, and experience to be a part of!

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Storytelling Festival: An East Coast Adventure With Grandma

My brother and I packed up our bags, headed to the airport, and jumped on a redeye flight to Asheville, North Carolina. We endured crying babies, a middle of the night layover in DC (the coldest airport of all time), more crying babies, and a one hour drive before finally reaching the house of our grandparents. We almost fell asleep in the lunch that was promptly put before us. Watching us fight to keep our eyes open led our grandmother to show us down to our rooms. I didn’t even get under the covers before my eyes closed and what would turn into a five hour nap began. My brother Brooks and I woke up as new people, and our vacation was finally able to begin.

We drove out to Jonesborough, Tennessee for the 43rd annual storytelling festival. Professional storytellers gather from all over the world to tell tales – some true, some made up; some serious, some funny. To be honest, most of the “jokes” didn’t transcend generations. My brother and I spent much of the weekend looking around at the crowd of senior citizens chuckling and wondering what we missed. However, there was one storyteller, Bil Lepp, whose made up tales left the entire crowd with sore cheeks from laughing. We ended up following him around from tent to tent.

We had a great time though. The highlight of the trip: the family time.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

My boyfriend and I extended the Labor Day Holiday weekend earlier this month and took a five day trip down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We stayed at a gorgeous, all inclusive resort in Nuevo Vallarta – a 20 minute cab ride from the city center where resort after resort lines the beach.

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Each and every day went something like this: sleep in until 10 or 11am, claim lounge chairs by the pool, enjoy brunch and mimosas, lay out by the pool, jump into the refreshing water once it got too hot, float over to the swim-up bar, enjoy a piña colada, and call it a day once the daily thunder and lightning storms rolled in. Watching the lighting strike over the ocean was absolutely stunning and presented the perfect opportunity to shower and transition to the evening.

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Two of the nights we simply hung out around the resort. One night we braved the storm and went to an “authentic” Mexican restaurant which ended up being a touristy trap – but a touristy trap with great guacamole and margaritas! And we had blast singing “Sweet Caroline” and “Margaritaville” with the mariachi band.

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Our final night in Mexico was a gift – dark clouds were threatening, but no actual rain drops allowed us to finally explore the cobblestoned streets of the historic old town of Puerto Vallarta. We watched street performers entertain gathering crowds, enjoyed a drink at a small little bar on the beach, and tried to find a restaurant that sadly ended up being closed. However, we ended up at a gorgeous restaurant right on the water that was one of the best meals of the trip! Our table was literally on the sand, the waves lapping up just a few yards away. We both kicked off our shoes and dug our toes into the sand while enjoying guacamole, ceviche, shrimp and potatoes, and fish tacos.

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Our flight home Monday wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we ended our trip with a three hour lunch at Sonora Prime Grill – a recommendation from Paul’s brother and sister-in-law. Our dinner the previous night was delicious and by far the best setting of the trip, however when it came to the food, we saved the best for last. The meal started with homemade chips, a hot bean dip, and an assortment of salsas. We munched on these while looking over the menu and finally decided on ordering three appetizers: a sea carpaccio consisting of tuna, swordfish, and octopus; a salmon tartar; and a beef tongue stew. We then ordered a bottle of champagne to sip on while we digested our first course. A little while later, we resumed our feast by ordering a grilled artichoke and jicama octopus tacos. Paul got a dessert – which came just in time for us to realize we needed to hustle out and make our flight. With so much amazing food to pick from and slowly relish, we lost track of time. We hustled to the airport, walked right onto the plane, and deemed our time in Mexico a success!

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Yosemite & Sequoia: An Impromptu Adventure

I always joke that this is a “vacation blog.” Whenever I have vacation time from school, I dive back in to blogging, photography, reading, and Netflix. I am being 100% serious when I say I don’t even have time for Netflix these days, which kills me because Gilmore Girls is the hot topic between classes right now.

Time is always the issue – the fact that there never seems to be enough of it. So when one of my best childhood friends and I decided we wanted to go to Yosemite (I had never been), late November, early December was the soonest we both had a weekend free… a perfect time of year if you want to freeze to death in your tent. “Well, I could go this coming weekend…“

And so it began. Our plan was simply to not have a plan. We would put the back seats of her Jeep down to make a fort to sleep in and we’d apply for last-minute lottery permits to hike Half Dome. And anything after that, we’d figure out along the way.

DAY ONE: The Drive To Yosemite

5am, 5:01, and 5:02 alarms just barely encouraged us out of bed. But we hit the road by 5:30 and were stuck in LA traffic by 7am. The good news: the sunrise was beautiful and we stopped for yummy food at Urth Caffe. After that, time actually passed quite quickly. We spent the remaining hours blasting music, sharing funny anecdotes, and calling to reserve a camp for that evening.

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Once we arrived at Yosemite, we drove up to Glacier Point and I got my first view of Half Dome. As soon as we hit the trail and began walking up the slightest of inclines, I could immediately tell that we were no longer at sea level since I was out of breath after a few short minutes. Fortunately, the trail wasn’t long and the viewpoint was STUNNING and worth the embarrassment of gasping for air. And to top it off, we climbed over the Do Not Enter railing to take some incredible pictures (sorry Mom).

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A family friend had recommended to call Housekeeping Camp on our way up to see if they had a last-minute vacancy. She called it a “refugee camp,” but promised it would be better than sleeping in the car as it provided a bathroom, light, and an outlet. We didn’t quite understand what she meant by a refugee camp until we arrived and saw this:

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Obviously, the only logical thing to do when you’ve walked into your sleeping quarters which consist of metal rod bunks is to break out the alcohol, bag of Doritos, and deck of cards. And when it’s time to go find the bathroom, one must wear their headlamp. (Duh!)

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DAY TWO: The Hike

Unfortunately, we didn’t win the lottery for a Half Dome permit. But we decided to hit the trail early anyways to see how far we could get. In the end, we hiked TWELVE FREAKING MILES. We had lunch at the top of Nevada Fall, reached the base camp for Half Dome, and then took a detour past Vernal Fall on the way back. Our legs were furiously shaking by the end. So as soon as we reached the car, we collapsed into folding chairs right in the middle of the parking lot.

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Once feeling began to return to our feet, we decided that we couldn’t sit in the parking lot forever. And because we didn’t have a place to stay that night as the entire park was sold out, we would either need to make fast friends and bum off someone else’s campsite… or we could go spend the night in Fresno and hit Sequoia National Park on the way home. The latter option (which also happened to promise a hot shower) was the winner.

DAY THREE: Sequoia National Park

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetLet me just jump straight to the best part: we saw FIVE BEARS – two of which were cubs with their mama! They fearlessly joined us and our many fellow hikers on the paved path. The mom literally hopped through the fence and then sauntered down the road with her cubs chasing after her as people hollered, “Watch out! Bear!” The babies were so darn cute that I was tempted to give one a hug… but given that the mama bear would have killed me, I scratched that idea. Instead, I managed to take this epic selfie. (That black thing on the path is the mama bear!)

We also hugged some big-@$$ trees, had an epic fail as I tried to get on Ali’s shoulders to take a picture in front of General Sherman (the largest sequoia in existence), and trekked the 400+ stairs to the top of Moro Rock which offers a 360 degree view of Sequoia National Park and Forest. It was BREATHTAKING!

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Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetYes, it was a lot of hours in a car considering we only had the equivalent of two full days of exploration. But I would do it all over again! In fact, we are already planning our next hiking adventure! We’re thinking either Antelope Canyon or the Grand Canyon, both out in Arizona.

Does anyone have any suggestions? Favorite places to spend weekends hiking? We want to hear them!

Travel Is The Ultimate Form Of Therapy

As my summer of travels comes to a close, I have a lot to reflect on. I have been reminded of the power of serious perseverance (thank you visa disaster), the instant love and support of family and friends doled out during times of need (thanks to all who have let me sleep on their air mattresses, pull out sofas, couches, or simply shared their bed with me), and that when it comes down to it, most people (even strangers) are more than willing to help if you ask.

There’s something about getting lost in multiple countries, communicating in various languages, navigating new airports, adapting to new cultures, starting a new job, and being exposed to a countless amount of new people – all over the course of just three months – that changes you. In order to survive the constant tug and pull of a nomadic life, you all of a sudden have to abandon your innate desire to plan everything all the time (well, I do anyways). I am a list person, so much so that my mom thinks a very practical present for any occasion is a long skinny notepad ideal for jotting down my never ending to-do list. This began when I was maybe 10 years old and hasn’t yet to come to an end, probably because I actually use all of them! (Thanks Mom!)

I’m not going to try and say that I am no longer a Type A personality because that would be a lie, but one of the most amazing things about travel is that it really brings to the surface all of your personal characteristics – the good, the bad, and the ugly, and forces you to change for the better. Or at least turn on and off certain skills so they work for you instead of against you. Being a planner and semi-professional list maker is great for getting good grades at school and coordinating what some would consider to be way too many extracurricular activities, but adds unnecessary stress when the reality of planning an entire summer of travels proves to be impossible. And being a neat freak is awesome when you are home and often have company show up unannounced, but not ideal when you are sharing a room at a hostel with 11 other (mostly dirty) people.

Over the past two years which have consisted of studying abroad, traveling through Europe, flying back and forth to Madrid, visiting family all over the country, and now working in London for the summer, I have had the opportunity to do some serious self-work. No one is perfect, and being able to let go of the desire to plan everything all the time has been such a gift. Now I LOVE agreeing to last minute trips, figuring things out as I go, and walking out the door in a place I have never been, actually HOPING to get lost! Other people’s messes don’t bother me quite as much these days. I’ve also noticed that my patience has increased and I’m more open-minded. My tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt, which was already present, has gotten even stronger (maybe that slow driver is a tourist – I’ve been there!). Oh, and I’m WAY less dependent on technology. Unplugging during a meeting here and there is one thing, but I’ve discovered that I absolutely LOVE not having a phone with a data plan and being able to actually disconnect whenever I’m away from Wi-Fi!

But through all of this openness and willingness to change, it’s crucial to dig deep and find out who you are as a person so that the tug and pull of a life spent traveling doesn’t eliminate your sense of self. Taking the time to journal, blog, sit in a park alone and reflect (or while on a long flight)… all of those things are extremely important so that as I bend and flow with the world around me, I never lose hold of my core values of positivity, optimism, honesty, and desire to never stop learning.

I could go on forever about all the ways travel has made me a better person, a better daughter, a better sister, and a better friend… but most importantly, it has helped mold me into someone who I look at in the mirror each day and am really happy with. Travel connects you with the present and with yourself in a way unlike anything else, making it the ultimate form of therapy.

Now it’s time to catch my flight home. San Diego, I’ll see you later today!

24 Hours In: Bristol & Bath

When the opportunity to catch a coach to Bristol and spend the weekend attending the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta arose, I couldn’t say no. Plus I’d be staying with my old roommate from Madrid and it would be great to catch up and brush up on my Spanish. As I clicked “buy” and confirmed my ticket, a day dream of a sunny weekend at a carnival, indulging in fair food and watching hot air balloons dot the sky played in my mind. It looked something like this:

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What actually happened? The one weekend I book an impromptu trip to a festival of course happens to be the weekend of the most miserable weather since I’ve arrived in London. As soon as my coach dropped me in the center of Bristol in the late afternoon, we bought a few ciders and took off towards the festival. After two hours of exploring, drinking, and finally settling on a grassy patch to wait, the dreaded rain began. Rain is actually an understatement. We got caught in a full-on downpour and hid under a tree until it lightened up enough for us to dash to the fudge tent. As much as I love chocolate (and I LOVE chocolate), this treat did little to the disappointment that washed over me as they announced the 6pm launch was officially canceled and the 9:30pm launch would be weather permitting. The thick, black clouds weren’t promising. As we trekked the two and a half miles home in our soggy shoes, all I could think was, “nothing says Bristol International Balloon Fiesta like a downpour and no hot air balloons.”

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Well, there were hot air balloons. As soon as we made it back to my old roommate’s house, the skies parted and the howling winds turned to mere whispers. So what did they do at 9:30? They launched the hot air balloons! And where were we? Eating mediocre Mexican food at My Burrito.

Luckily I live in San Diego and grew up in an area where we saw hot air balloons on an almost nightly basis every summer. What we don’t have in San Diego are ancient cities, so off to Bath we went on Sunday morning. We had to duck into a restaurant for coffee at one point when the rain decided to make a reappearance. But for the most part, the clouds rolled over this tiny town to do their damage elsewhere and allowed me to be a tourist and take all these photos:

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Sure, the weather wasn’t ideal. But I suppose a summer in England with almost no rain was pushing my luck. The forecast is predicting rain day in and day out until I leave next Wednesday… maybe this is England’s way of telling me it really is time to start packing up for sunny San Diego?

Throwback Thursday: A Day In Oxford

It’s been almost two weeks since two of my fellow travelers and I hopped on a bus to Oxford for a quick day trip. Part of my delay in blogging about the adventure is due to the fact that I packed the wrong camera lens with me during my hectic attempt to stuff everything I needed for three months in Europe all into one bag way back in May. I have my little f/1.8 50mm lens which is what I use for food photography and is awesome… but not ideal for travel due to zero versatility as it’s a prime lens. Ok, enough techy camera details. Moral of the story is I was bouncing between my iPhone and camera, all while trying to not spill tea on myself or my various equipment (there were multiple close calls). But I’ve finally uploaded all the photos and sorted through everything. This is the result:

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We had an incredible trip despite multiple main attractions being closed and getting caught in a downpour. Oxford is a charming, tiny town with endless history, gorgeous architecture, and home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world. And there was a gluten free crepe cart! (Is it terrible that was just as memorable as the university tour?)

Some Oxford fun facts:
– Oxford University is the oldest university of the English speaking world
– The city is the birthplace of the Oxford English Dictionary and is where the recent debate to add “twerk” as an official word was located (unfortunately, it’s now a permanent part of the English language)
– The university was established by monks, for monks and subjects besides theology were introduced relatively recently
Oxford 5– From 1878 through the 1920’s women were allowed to study at Oxford, but they were only allowed to be part-time students which meant they didn’t take exams (awesome) but also never received a degree (not cool)
– The Oxford dining hall was the inspiration for Harry Potter
Blackwell is the largest book store in the UK and has over 5 miles worth of shelving and a basement that runs under multiple buildings in the city

If you find yourself in London for an extended period of time, be sure to schedule in a day trip to Oxford! But, an insider tip: book the Bodleian Library in advance – space is VERY limited and is almost impossible to score a spot same-day! We unfortunately missed it! Maybe I’ll go back one day…

Eating My Way Through London

Whoever said London has terrible food was going to the wrong places! This amazing city has everything from world-renowned cuisine served in breathtaking restaurants to hole-in-the-wall dives where you grab your delicious grub and run. Dishes from each and every country can be found dotted throughout the city – and you don’t necessarily have to leave central London to enjoy truly authentic and unique culinary experiences.

Greenwich Nutella Mini PancakesThis weekend I turned twenty-two and between all the sightseeing, I filled my time refueling with new and exciting food. Day one was spent exploring along the south bank and eating Brazilian food, then catching a boat down the river to Greenwich where I noshed on mini pancakes generously draped in nutella and strawberries, all before heading to the weirdest meal of my life.

Famous for serving the “most unusual food in London,” Archipelago didn’t disappoint. We were escorted to the dimly lit basement where we sat at a table that had a huge bouquet of peacock feathers – these were relocated in order to allow cross-table conversion which mostly consisted of commenting on the eclectic decor. Mini towels were placed in a bowl and then topped with hot water, which upon contact expanded into hand-towels. As we browsed the menu, I inquired about the lovebug salad – but once it was discovered that the “wildlife” served on top of the greens was a variety of insects, we decided to steer clear of that particular dish. Instead we opted to start with zebra, crocodile, and python. Surprisingly, the jerked zebra was the crowd favorite. The crocodile wrapped in vine leaves was nice, but didn’t really taste like anything unusual. And the python carpaccio was more salty than any of us preferred. For mains, we decided to go with more mainstream dishes – bison rump and duck confit. These were yummy – but the overall verdict is that you reserve a table at Archipelago for the experience and bragging rights more than the food quality.

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Day two was spent perusing the shops on Upper Street. I fell in love with the quirky independent stores which housed everything from clothing and stationary to odd cooking gadgets and funny gifts. All that window shopping of course called for brunch. We stopped into La Farola, an adorable Spanish restaurant which had a brunch menu consisting of just five options – but five delicious options! I chose a vegetable pisto topped with broiled mozzarella and two poach eggs, served with a side salad and spiced breakfast potatoes. Delicious!!! Fried eggs and chorizo, a cured ham, cheese, and fried egg toastie, tea, and coffee also made their way to our table. At just £6 a person, this is definitely a place to return to!

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Oh and we obviously had to stop into the gluten free bakery!!!

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The day continued with more shopping through Old Spitalfields Market and wandering through London, all of which had me starving by the time dinner came around. I met up with family friends who took me out for a birthday dinner at Balthazar. We had lovely dinner which kicked off with pommes frites instead of bread (my ultimate weakness), followed by an octopus, tomato, and basil salad speckled with olives and shallots, all tossed in a light lemon dressing. For my main dish, I selected sea bass “en papillotte” with Jerusalem artichoke, mussels, fennel, and tarragon. And anyone who knows me is well aware that you don’t have to twist my arm to order dessert. Out came a pavlova which was wrapped around vanilla bean ice cream and sat on top of fresh strawberry sauce – with a little happy birthday message written in chocolate. I blew out my birthday candle and called my birthday celebration to a close. Don’t tell, but I wished that I could eat like this every weekend!

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Seeing London Through New Eyes

Life is all about perspective – in order to see the detail of some things, one must look closely. But other times, stepping back is the only way to see something clearly. In addition, the lens through which one looks can make all the difference.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon on an Alternative Walking Tour of East London. I joined the group as a naïve American tourist hoping to learn a few fun facts, but as the tour began my perspective shifted and I was suddenly seeing things in a different way, noticing things I never would have before. And it was all thanks to this guy:

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Our tour guide, an East London artist originally from Australia, spoke with deep passion about the creativity that surrounded us as we wove through side streets and admired artwork. He had profound appreciation for the architecture that set the scene for his tour and raw admiration of religious structures that had survived periods of brutally violent history and made it out alive, although sometimes as homes for different religions. Some of the artwork was done illegally, but much of the artwork was done with permission – allowing artists to visually communicate with whoever was willing to walk by and actually see.

IMG_5814Take for example what is known as a Jonesy. These tiny, yet extraordinarily detailed sculptured are placed on the top of street signs, only to be noticed and appreciated by by those who truly have their eyes open. It’s amazing how many times we walk through the day with our eyes open, but not really seeing anything. I can’t tell you how many times I look at my phone to see if I have a new text message only to have the a blank screen with the time on it. But then 30 seconds later I have to look back at my phone because I didn’t actually see the time, just the lack of text messages!

The amount of creativity and innovation was incredible. Once my eyes were opened and I was able to see through the proper lens, East London transformed before me. Knowing that the blue building below is number eleven and a half because the house was split into two due to the lack of affordability at the time changes everything. And the mural below of an unknown man was made by drilling away at parts of the concrete. Our tour guide summed it up perfectly when he said, “destroying something to create something is the essence of what graffiti is.” Graffiti, street art, creativity, or whatever you want to call it – it is absolutely breathtaking.

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After two hours of engrossing ourselves in East London culture, Laura and I wandered back towards Old Spitalfields Market with the group, tipped our guide, and headed to dinner. It was on the way that I found this amazing old car.

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We ended up going to Dishoom, a Bombay Café home to the most delicious Indian food I have ever had. I was so hungry I forgot to photograph the dishes, but I did manage to get a shot of the table behind us with this awesome clock and a sneaky shot of the kitchen where fresh naan was being prepared..

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Yesterday was an awesome day of experiencing London culture and indulging in ethnic food. And it really made me think about using my sight to actually see the world around me – It’s all about perspective.

Travel Detour Part Two: NYC

I’d like to think that when things don’t go as planned, that’s simply the greater force of the world redirecting you onto your true path. Perhaps that’s a naïve, optimistic way to look at life – or perhaps it’s the truth. At the very least, it’s my philosophy. So when my long-term relationship abruptly ended and took my summer plans down with it, I got “redirected” to North Carolina to visit my grandmother for her birthday and then “redirected” once again to NYC.

New York City. My place of birth. The city that never sleeps. A place of vibrant life and terrible tragedy. A complex city that magically kneads together history, luxury, poverty, tranquility, constant activity, and so much more onto one small island. When you step into Central Park, the hum of the city fades away, transporting you into a serene escape. You can easily walk from one neighborhood to the next, each oozing with their respective culture. And for such a small island, it is ridiculously easy to get lost. It is this entanglement of all walks of life that has made me fall head over heels in love. New York City, I’m coming for you after graduation!

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