Tiny House, Big Stomachs

I drove up to Asheville last weekend to celebrate Chris turning 21 on January 11th. Chris’s family moved from my hometown of Jacksonville, NC to Asheville, NC when Chris and I started college. I remember feeling so upset- would we remain close living 6 hours away and going to different colleges? (Spoiler: 3 years has passed, and the answer is a resounding yes.) Since then, I’ve visited Asheville handfuls of times, and I’ve slowly fallen in love with its eccentricity, vibrant culture, foodie paradises, and stunning landscapes. I really want my family to come up and take a trip to explore it with me, because none of them have ever been to Asheville, and I know they’d love it too. I’ll keep persuading.

On my way up, I drove through some of the most torrential downpours I’ve ever experienced. I almost had a panic attack on the interstate, but I stopped for some coffee and continued on my way (albeit slowly). Once I reached the outskirts of Asheville, the clouds melted away and the most dazzling sunset emerged from the gloominess. I had to laugh a little bit- it’s as if the weather wanted to welcome me back to one of the most magical cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time in.

I made it to Chris’s, unpacked, and we headed to dinner. He took me to HomeGrown, a quirky local joint that opened in 2010 and prides itself on serving up affordable plates of locally-grown goodness. HomeGrown’s motto is “Slow Food Right Quick.” According to their website, their philosophy is that “everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and, consequently, the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible.” Their menu changes daily. I chose a cup of the tomato basil soup to warm up, and followed it with blackened mountain trout topped with a saffron drizzle. Chris tried HomeGrown’s take on fried chicken and paired it with cheesy grits (which were PHENOMENAL).

HomeGrown: http://www.slowfoodrightquick.com

After dinner, we drove up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, pulled over at a quiet overlook, and got out to watch the stars. Clouds were rolling into the valley below us, looking like cotton in the bright moonlight. We soaked in the quiet peacefulness of the chilly evening and looked down the mountain at the bright, glittering lights of Asheville.

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(Picture by Houck M. Medford http://houckmedford.com/two-national-parks-a-night-sky-the-soul-tree-and-the-poet-laureate-of-the-blue-ridge-parkway/)

On Saturday morning, we awoke, lazed around for a while, and then headed over to West Asheville to Biscuit Head for some brunch. Biscuit Head opened in 2013, and has quickly become one of Asheville’s favorite tourist destinations. It’s become so popular that there are now two locations. As you can imagine, Biscuit Head serves biscuits– some of the BIGGEST, fluffiest biscuits you’ve ever tasted. In true Asheville style, the biscuits come every way imaginable: As a side in the Full Breakfast (cornmeal-crusted catfish as a side!!!!!), topped with homemade jams and butters (Spiced orange jam with rosemary, anyone? Raspberry truffle butter?), under a smothering of pulled pork, jalapeño pimento cheese, a poached egg, bacon, and maple syrup (the Pulled Pork biscuit), or as the classic breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese. I got the Half Breakfast, which consisted of a biscuit and a side of goat cheese grits. Chris got the Full Breakfast with a biscuit, andouille sausage, and catfish. I had a fit over the jam and butter bar.

Biscuit Head: http://www.biscuitheads.com

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(Pictures from the Biscuit Head website)

After our brunch, we headed to get even more food (look, I’m a little ashamed, but I have no regrets. NONE.). This time, we drove over to Hole: Hot Doughnuts and Fresh Coffee. Hole began as a food truck and picked up momentum- FAST. They have only one dough recipe, which takes 24 hours to prepare. All of the ingredients are (surprise!) local and organic. The Hole ladies fry each doughnut to order and top it with one of four options: Vanilla Glaze, Cardamom Buttermilk Glaze, Cocoa Rub, and Sesame Toasted Almond. Occasionally, they will add a surprise flavor to switch up the offering. Hole is housed in the cutest rustic building with gorgeous reclaimed wood and a subdued color palette of blues, greens, and browns. I chose the Vanilla Glaze doughnut, and Chris got his favorite, the Cocoa Rub. It was super fun to watch our doughnuts being made. When I tasted mine, I literally….got teary. I may have cried in a doughnut shop. Actually, let me correct myself: I DID cry in a doughnut shop. Call me ridiculous, call me embarrassing, or call me a Hole doughnut convert.

Hole: https://www.facebook.com/holedoughnuts/

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It was an absolutely lovely Saturday, so after our doughnut indulgences, we headed to West Asheville’s River Arts District to do some studio exploring. Asheville is home to some absolutely incredible artists (many world-renowned). We filtered in and out of ceramics studios, chair caning studios, glass-blowing studios, and fine art studios. Two of my favorites were the art studio of the famed Jonas Gerard and the inspirational and nature-inspired clay artwork of a lady named Chiwa, who we were fortunate enough to meet.

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Jonas Gerard: http://www.jonasgerard.com

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Chiwa: http://www.riverartsdistrict.com/clay-and-ceramics/3096-2/

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We headed back to Chris’s, packed up the car with our overnight bags, and I drove us toward the weekend’s highlight and Chris’s birthday present: A night in a tiny house in the nearby township of Candler, NC. I booked the tiny house on AirBnB as a surprise for Chris, who is enthralled with the idea of tiny house living. When we turned the corner on a windy mountain road and caught our first glimpse of the tiny house, Chris became SO excited. The place was so much tinier than I expected– the photos didn’t quite do it justice! It was adorable!

Tiny House Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/98squared/

Tiny House AirBnB Listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8200122?s=HCnvyyD0

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We followed the instructions from our host to retrieve the key and made our way inside the tiny abode. I was absolutely amazed at how gorgeous the interior was and how carefully the space was designed. At 98 sq. ft., there isn’t much room to stretch out; however, the tiny house consisted of a living area with a couch/bed; a propane fireplace; a fully stocked kitchenette with gas burners, a sink, and a toaster oven; a bathroom with a stainless steel shower and a compost toilet; a sleeping loft with a full bed; WiFi and a speaker system; bookcases full of books and board games; beautiful windows all around; and, most interestingly, monkey bars on the ceiling! Our host left a bevy of informational index cards around the house, which explained more about the house’s energy efficiency and provided instructions for the appliances.

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We spent the afternoon relaxing before taking a trip to the grocery store to pick up dinner supplies. We decided to make one of our favorite dishes, Pad Thai. To make it extra special, we bought some NC shrimp. Our host provided us with organic eggs, which were absolutely delicious and a nice inclusion in our dish. We blasted some tunes and set to work cooking our dinner together. Cooking with Chris is one of my favorite activities for us to do together; we always have wonderful conversations and laughs as we prepare our food, and it is a very connective experience to share a meal you have both put your heart into. After enjoying our bowls of Pad Thai, we did a little bit of dancing in front of the fireplace, and eventually retired up to the loft to watch some episodes of The Office and Portlandia.

We awoke on Sunday to a beautiful dusting of snow outside of the tiny house.

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Chris got the fireplace going and cooked some breakfast for us while I struggled to get moving. We spent a little time cleaning up before (reluctantly) returning our key and leaving the sweet little tiny house. On our way back to Chris’s house, we discussed our thoughts about tiny house living. The experience reinforced and reassured Chris’s desire to live in a tiny house; however, we both agreed that for practicality, the house would need to be about three times bigger than the one we stayed in. We spent the afternoon watching the Panthers game (KEEP POUNDING, BOYS!). I worked on a scholarship application. Later, Chris’s dad gave us a little money to go get dinner, and we decided on an Indian restaurant, Chai Pani, that neither of us had tried.

Chai Pani is inspired by Indian street food and has amassed quite the following in Asheville. The chef, Meherwan Irani, was born in Mumbai, India. In 2014, he was nominated for a James Beard Culinary Award for Best Chef of the Southeast. Once again, this restaurant prides itself on its commitment to using local ingredients! We began our dinner with the Matchstick Okra Fries, julienned okra tossed with lime, salt, and seasoning. They were crisp, flavorful, and delicious. I ordered a Mango Lassi to drink (a yogurt drink with mango pulp and cardamom), while Chris ordered the Lime Ricky (house-made raspberry syrup, soda water, and fresh lime juice). We both fell head over heels for the Mango Lassi- it was sweet and smooth while also boasting a nice flavor from the spice.

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For our main dish, we split the Red Curry Thali, which came with a bowl of red chicken curry, two different kinds of soup, basmati rice, a special type of slaw, a yogurt dill sauce, two kinds of bread, and a tiny bowl of rice pudding. It was a FLAVOR EXPLOSION! Every part of the meal complemented the next. The food was sweet, spicy, tangy, and cool, all at once. The atmosphere of Chai Pani added to the excellence of the meal; the walls were painted vibrant colors and covered with colorful prints of the people and places of India.

Chai Pani: http://www.chaipaniasheville.com

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After dinner, it was too freezing to walk around downtown, so we picked up some cheesecake for dessert at Whole Foods and headed back to the house. After spending some time with Chris’s parents, we headed downstairs to eat our dessert and watch the Wes Anderson film “Moonrise Kingdom.” It was a beautiful, artsy, and thoughtful film, and I really connected to the two main characters, Sam and Suzy.

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Monday morning startled me with its frigid temperatures: Although it was beautiful outside, the thermometer hovered at about 18 degrees. Chris cooked me breakfast before I packed up all of my stuff and sluggishly prepared to leave to head back to school. I wish we had been able to do some more outdoorsy activities over the weekend, but it was just a little too cold. Ah, well. Now I just need to find the motivation to burn off all the calories I ate.

I always hate having to say goodbye, but it only means a new adventure is waiting for us down the road. I can’t wait to see what it entails.

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Be kind, be curious, and keep your heart open,

Summer

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Coast to Coast: Chronicles of a Road Trip

Hi Everyone!

It has been months since I have written a post on my travel blog, so I am very excited to create this one! After I returned from my study abroad semester, I had an incurable case of wanderlust (Europe will do that to you). However, after six months of “playtime” abroad, travel didn’t seem very present in my future forecast, thanks to school and responsibilities (and a drained bank account).

For months, my BFF/BF Chris had been planning to take a cross-country camping road trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Death Valley in California, Arches National Park in Utah, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Chris had taken a solo road trip earlier this year that struck him with a case of wanderlust similar to mine, and he was eager to embark on this new adventure. Chris is an environmental science/ecology major at UNC Asheville. He has such a deep and steadfast love for the outdoors and for nature, something I have had little time to explore alongside him.

A few weeks ago, as I was busy wrapping up the rest of my semester, Chris asked if I would like to come on the trip. I instantly said no– after all, my family was expecting me home for winter break, two weeks away seemed like much too long, my camping experience was limited to two summers at Bonnaroo Music Festival, and the weather forecasts for some of the places on his itinerary were enough to scare ANYONE away. Nineteen degrees at night? In a tent? In the mountains? So not me. 🙂

As I went about finishing up my final papers and taking my exams, the idea of his trip began to gnaw at me. First off, I didn’t want him to take the trip alone. Second, since the trip was already planned, it was practically a free ticket to see the country I call home. In a moment of craziness, I called Chris on the phone and told him I was in. What did I have to lose? I had no idea what was in store, but I was ready for the challenge. I headed to REI to buy some warm hiking clothes and a good pair of hiking boots durable enough to brave the elements.

I received quite a bit of opposition from some of my family members about the trip. They tried to convince me out of it due to safety concerns and uncertainty. Fortunately, both of my parents were on board, and their support was extremely appreciated as I tried to carefully navigate the fine line between appeasing others and making myself happy. I am a strong-willed person who refuses to back down from something I am passionate about, so I chose to keep moving forward with very few second thoughts.


I packed up and drove to Asheville from Greensboro. I spent a night with one of my great friends, Britton, before heading over to Chris’s house the next afternoon. Britton and I went to dinner at Heiwa Shokudo, an incredible little gem of a sushi restaurant in downtown Asheville. My Godzilla Roll included brown rice, tempura asparagus and sweet potato, almond butter, tofu, and pickled veggies. It was INCREDIBLE.

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The night before our trip, Chris and I went out for a hearty dinner at Moe’s Original BBQ. We are both obsessed with ribs, and Moe’s did not disappoint.

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That night, I could NOT fall asleep, because I had so many thoughts running through my head. After much tossing and turning, the alarm jolted us out of bed. Chris’s mom woke up and made us a delicious breakfast of bacon and waffles to see us off (she’s the absolute sweetest), and we were gone before the sun came up.


We drove eleven hours to reach our first destination, Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville, Arkansas. We passed through the cities of Nashville, Memphis, and Little Rock on the way.

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We drove through the Great Smoky Mountains (so mystically beautiful in the early-morning light) and crossed the Mississippi River.

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We reached Lake Dardanelle right as the sun was sinking below the hills, granting us the gift of watching a spellbinding sunset.

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We set up the tent, bundled up in some warm clothes, and had dinner around the campfire. I struggled to sleep that night, because it was my first night in a tent in the “real” outdoors. Every leaf crunch startled me awake.


The next morning, we were up early again, ready to continue our journey onward (Chris and I had our first experience packing up the campsite together; we eventually got it down to a 15-minute speed routine). This day of driving took us through Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas, where our second stop was located. We arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park mid-afternoon, which gave us time to set up camp and take a short hike before dark. Having never seen anything like it before, I was blown away at the size and beauty of the canyon.

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As we were hiking and noticing the abundance of coyote and deer tracks on the trail, we ran into a female doe grazing in some bushes. Rather than running away, she proceeded to stare at us as we quietly crept closer. She was a beautiful animal and it was a very magical moment to observe her in her natural habitat. That night, as we lay in the tent, I heard my first coyote calls from the other side of the canyon. To put it lightly, I was a bit frightened– Chris had to calm me down and assure me of our safety.

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The next day brought along another lengthy drive as we headed toward the Grand Canyon National Park outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. We reached New Mexico as the sun was rising, and it was an incredible sight; the vegetation was sparse and low, the clay was terra-cotta red, and the giant plateaus seemed to emit an aura of wonder and wisdom. Chris put on his favorite album, Beck’s “Morning Phase,” and we observed the surroundings in quiet awe.

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Beck- Morning

We drove through Albuquerque and made shameless pitstops at Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s respective houses from the TV show Breaking Bad.

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After our big fan moment, we headed onward into Arizona. Chris was extremely surprised at the vast quantity of mountains throughout New Mexico and Arizona. After driving through the Navajo Nation (which was spectacular in itself), we reached the Grand Canyon as the sun was beginning to hang low in the afternoon sky. We reached the first overlook, Desert View, and the feeling was indescribable. Having seen commercials and videos and pictures of the Grand Canyon before, I thought I knew what to expect; however, when I stood against the railing and stared down and out at the Canyon’s remarkable depth and crevices, I felt myself become completely mesmerized. I felt an instant connection to the world around me, and yet I had never felt so small and insignificant before. It was such a special moment to see Chris’s reaction to the Canyon; he was overcome with emotion.

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Grand Canyon View

As the sun set, we headed the twenty or so miles into the park to Mather Campground, our temporary home.

The next morning, we drove to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and headed out on the South Rim Trail, stopping at overlooks and admiring our surroundings. The South Rim Trail simply runs along the southern rim of the Canyon; it is paved and has exhibit signs along the way.

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We were looking for a more authentic hiking experience, however, which we found on the Blue Angel Trail, which took us down into the Canyon itself. We stopped along the way and had lunch while watching two mule deer graze and interact right below us. I nicknamed them “Rob and Debbie,” and it was bizarre to see “Rob” trying to push the mating moves on “Debbie.” She was not interested and kept ducking his advances.

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I began to tire and so we headed back up the Canyon (a very rigorous and steep hike for a very long distance). Wintery-looking clouds began to gather, and we thought it might rain, so we tried to hurry our ascent; however, we were not fast enough, and found ourselves in the middle of a hail storm! I was not in a great mood once we finished our hike, because the cold had become unbearable. I was frustrated that the only shelter we had was a tent and some blankets– I definitely envied all of the other Grand Canyon visitors that were staying in the resort lodges! However, after a pit stop at the resort deli for some hot chocolate, I felt better, and warming up in the tent after a hot shower was what I looked forward to.

When we awoke the next morning, we opened up the tent to discover something incredible: SNOW! It was snowing in the Grand Canyon! The campground looked beautiful under a light dusting of pure white ice crystals.

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Chris made the decision that we needed to go ahead and leave the Canyon a day early to avoid getting trapped in a snowstorm. This ended up being a GREAT move on his part, because as we drove out of the park, the snow turned from a light flurry into a full blizzard.

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We didn’t realize how dangerous it was becoming, however, until we reached the backwoods highway, which had not been salted or plowed. Cars were pulling off the road every few seconds; the line of traffic was creeping along at fifteen miles an hour. Across the highway, we could see multiple-car pile-up accidents awaiting emergency personnel. We were tense, frustrated, and worried. Chris’s windshield cracked the entire way across due to the temperature difference inside and outside of the car. We crossed our fingers that we would make it the last ten miles to the interstate without getting stuck. Fortunately, we made it, and the interstate was much clearer. An hour after driving on the interstate, we were completely out of the snowstorm and headed into the sunny blue skies of the Nevada desert.


We decided to book a motel room in Las Vegas for the night. Our motel was right on the Strip, so we spent the entire afternoon and evening walking all over the area, exploring each lavish hotel and casino. The first casino we entered, the Cosmopolitan, completely blew us out of the water. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had never seen anything so gaudily opulent and extravagant in my entire life. Glittery ceilings displayed crystal chandeliers, clouds of cigar smoke surrounded tables of high-rolling poker players, and the floors were crammed full of bright and colorful slot machines. We explored the MGM Grand while a UFC fight was taking place.

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Bellagio Las Vegas Fountain Show


The next morning, Chris woke up early and snuck out of the motel to explore some more casinos. He returned with breakfast for the both of us (lil’ sweetie) before we drove the remaining four hours to Death Valley National Park in California. When we hit the California state line, we rolled the windows down and blared the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The desert landscape unfolded before our eyes; dry, cracked earth harbored very little plant life, and rocky, sandy mountains loomed in the distance.

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We checked in at the Furnace Creek visitor center and campground, set up camp, and went separate ways to explore and read a little on our own. A roadrunner came up and greeted us!

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Death Valley was under a wind advisory, which was alright, except for the fact that a wind advisory in the desert brings a thick layer of sandy dirt and dust along with it. We had to put a tarp on top of our tent to try to keep it out.

The next day, we set out to explore the desert. Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth; temperatures in the summertime easily reach 120 degrees, making the winter the park’s busiest season. We hiked a four mile trail to Gower Gulch, which brought us over hills with abandoned borax mines, through dried up river beds, and past small canyons with crevices begging to be explored.

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We stopped at the highest part of the hike to eat a packed lunch and read our books; I was reading “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris and Chris was reading “Don Quixote” by Cervantes.

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That night, we discovered the best part of Death Valley: The stars. Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, and we just so happened to be there on the peak night of a meteor shower. Chris and I stretched out on the picnic table and watched the shooting stars stream across the Milky Way with their fiery tails. It was magical.

We traveled about 20 miles away from our campsite to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes the next morning. The dunes, created from eroded sediment from the nearby mountains that had collected in the valley, posed a big challenge for us as we began to traipse over them. The wind storm Death Valley was experiencing created a sand storm in the dunes, so we had to hike through them while covering our eyes from the stinging sand.

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After our trek, we explored the old resort town of Stovepipe Wells, where we did a little souvenir shopping. That evening, we snuck into the Furnace Creek Resort pool showers, did some laundry at the 24 hour laundromat, and went out to dinner at the Furnace Creek Saloon. We had a great conversation and enjoyed a delicious pizza topped with chorizo, jalepeños, bell pepper, and red onion. After living off of dollar menu fast food, tuna packets, and Chex Mix, dinner at a restaurant was the equivalent of heaven.


The next morning, we got word from Chris’s father about a snowstorm hitting the midwest. We needed to go south to avoid the storm, so our plans to visit Arches National Park and the Rockies were foiled. Chris decided to drive us down through Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, to Saguaro National Park.

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Saguaros are giant cacti in the Sonoran Desert that can grow to be over four stories tall and 200 years old. Driving into the park was surreal. I had never seen such large cacti before– they looked like they were straight out of a cartoon!

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We toured the visitor center and learned some interesting information about the desert and its plant and animal life before setting up our campsite at the nearby Gilbert Ray campground.

When we woke up the next day, we drove up to Signal Hill and hiked up its short trail until we reached the top. The rocks that cover the hill are decorated with 800-year-old Hohokam Native American petroglyphs, designs created by rock poundings. The designs included intricate spirals, suns, animals, and unidentifiable symbols. It was absolutely mind-boggling to think that the art was created that long ago. The park experts are unsure WHY the designs were created; they could have had spiritual purpose, been used as record keeping or story-telling, or simply served as ancient graffiti.

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After lots of ooh-ing and ahh-ing, we prepared for a 6.4 mile hike on the nearby Sendero Esperanza Trail. The trail wove us through the desert, up mountains, and around many species of desert cacti. Animals made burrows at the base of the plants to escape the desert heat and seek protection. Animals that frequent the park include bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, javelina (desert pigs), Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, and rattlesnakes; unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the animal), we did not encounter any.

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The sun was beating down on us from overhead as we hiked, and I was beginning to get tired. We descended a mountain and came to another trailhead, which caused us to quickly realize that we had gone the wrong way. Because of our mistake, we had to hike an additional 3 miles back to where our car was located. This was frustrating, but we counted down from 100 in a rhythmic cadence to keep ourselves distracted and moving. Finally, we made it back to the car, and I can’t tell you just how happy I was to be finished with that hike!! We fell asleep that evening listening to a lonely coyote calling out for his friends. There was no response from the pack… However, later that night, I woke up to the pack howling very close to our campsite. The sound of coyotes became something I looked forward to on the trip; there’s something oddly special about being in a tent in a vast expanse of desert, listening to the symphony of the animals that call it home.

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Hours before the sun arose the next day, we were awake, packed up, and once again on the road. We drove the quiet Arizona highways, entered New Mexico, and made our way east. As we crept closer to the US/Mexican border, we had to stop at a border control checkpoint. After being cleared, we made it to El Paso, Texas, around lunchtime. We could see the Mexican border and Ciudad Juarez on the other side of it. Chris has never been to another country, so it was pretty exciting to him that he could see into Mexico! I found an authentic Mexican restaurant right off of the highway, El Taquito, with a five star rating. We stopped for some lunch.

El Taquito is a tiny gem of a place with only a few tables. It has a very “dive-y” feel to it. The menu is small and the waitress immediately pointed to what we should get. The lunch special consisted of a huge bowl of tortilla soup, an entree with rice and beans, and a choice of a drink, all for $6.99. Chris got the beef brisket tacos, which he immediately proclaimed as the best tacos he’d ever eaten. I chose the beef brisket flautas, tightly-rolled and fried corn tortillas stuffed with beef, topped with cabbage, and smothered in a sour cream sauce. We both ordered horchata to drink. The food was unbelievable- the quality and flavor was so incredible, my mouth is watering just thinking about it now. I don’t think we stopped smiling the entire meal.

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After our stop for lunch, we continued onward to White’s City, New Mexico, a small area at the base of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. When we got to White’s City, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The “city” we were expecting was a ghost town! There was one restaurant, an old motel, a campground, and a creepy grocery store/ gift shop. The last census listed the population of White’s City as a whopping total of 7 people. Because the area was so abandoned, we went to the motel to try to get a room, but the rate was $100 a night! We checked into the campground inside of the gift shop, went and set up our tent (we were the only ones camping), and headed into Carlsbad Caverns National Park to go check out the visitor center and get some info.

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When we returned to the campground, we encountered 20-30 deer grazing near us: bucks with huge sets of antlers, does, and lots of young deer. It was a treat to watch them. Later, as we were gathered around the dusky campfire, Chris alerted me to something running towards our campsite. We jumped on top of the picnic table as two huge and hairy animals approached. When they got close enough, we realized that they were javelina, or desert pigs! They saw us and snorted, and I was afraid that they were going to charge towards us (like boars, javelina are not very friendly). However, after a staredown, they sauntered off past our campsite and began rolling around in the dusty dirt. Eventually, they disappeared from sight, and we were in the clear.

The next day, we were at the visitor center by 8 AM to get our tickets for the caverns. The entrance fee was free with Chris’s annual parks pass, but we chose to pay for the additional King’s Palace Guided Tour. The caverns opened at 8:30, and we were some of the first people to make our way to the cave’s natural entrance, a huge hole in the bottom of a hill.

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Carlsbad Caverns was discovered in the late 1890’s by a cowboy named Jim White. Jim was doing some fencing work and thought he saw smoke coming out from the bottom of a hill. When he went to investigate, he discovered the natural entrance of the cave; the “smoke” he was seeing was really thousands upon thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats exiting the cave to feed! Jim created a ladder out of fencing wire and sticks, lit oil in a coffeepot, and made his way into the cave, where he discovered miles of undisturbed and unexplored passageways, beautiful formations, and absolute darkness. The caves were mined for bat guano for many years after their discovery. Jim White made the push for Carlsbad Caverns to be protected, and he led many of the first tours into the caves.

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When we entered the cave, we were shocked by the scale of it. It was huge, the ceilings were extremely high, and the trail zig-zagged down into oblivion. We were amazed by the vast number of speleothems (formations) we encountered: Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, cave pearls, and cave popcorn. The King’s Palace Tour took us into some of the most beautiful rooms in the cave. Our tour guide, a park ranger from Kentucky, was incredibly knowledgable about the caverns and taught us a wealth of information that really heightened our overall experience. He took us into the Queen’s Chamber Room, where we sat down and he turned out all of the lights. Not a single bit of light entered the room, and the only sound that could be heard was the slow drip-drip-drip of calcite. After the King’s Palace Tour, we made our way into the “Big Room,” the largest (and probably the most impressive) part of the cave. Two US Capitol buildings can fit inside of the Big Room.

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Carlsbad Caverns’ most impressive cave, however, is unopened to the public. Lechuguilla Cave was discovered in the 1980s. So far, over 136 miles have been mapped by researchers. Its location is kept a complete secret due to the rare bacteria found in Lechuguilla’s mineral pools (apparently, these bacteria can help cure cancer). Only the most skilled and careful cave researchers are permitted to enter; according to one park ranger we talked to, it takes the cavers 24 hours of walking to reach their campsite! Lechuguilla is nicknamed “The Most Beautiful Cave in the World” due to its rare and intricate crystal formations, which include 20-foot gypsum chandeliers. While Lechuguilla has surpassed Carlsbad Caverns in length, no room has been found inside of it that even remotely compares to the size of the Big Room.

When we finished our cave spelunking, we made the grueling hike back up the caverns and into the sunlight (way too bright). We headed back to camp, packed up most of our stuff, ate some dinner, showered, and were in our tent at 6 pm. We had an 11 hour drive the next day, and Chris wanted us to start it as early as possible. It was a little difficult to fall asleep due to the wide variety of strange sounds coming from outside of the tent. When I had to walk over to the bathrooms, Chris carried me so I didn’t have to put my hiking boots on and so I would be safe from any animals lurking around (he’s adorable).


4:30 AM came quickly the next morning. By working as a team, we had our clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, and tent put away in less than 20 minutes, and we were out of there by 5 am.

We drove across New Mexico and back into Texas. We made our way to Dallas for lunch; we had decided to stop at the Pecan Lodge, rated number two in the US for barbecue. The Pecan Lodge was also featured on the TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” with Guy Fieri. Driving through Dallas was really fun. The restaurant was actually a little bit outside of the city center in an arts and entertainment area called Deep Ellum.

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The line at the Pecan Lodge was wrapped around the restaurant, but we waited patiently until it was our turn to order. I ordered the two-meat plate with pork ribs, beef brisket, and jalapeño-bacon mac and cheese. Chris ordered the same thing. When our barbecue was ready, we grabbed our plates from the counter and dug in. WOWZA. It was by far the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted; the meat was tender, juicy, and full of delicious smoky flavor. The barbecue sauce was the perfect mixture of tangy and sweet, and the mac and cheese had the perfect spicy kick and bacon-y crunch.

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After our barbecue refueling, we continued onward to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we had booked a motel room. When we finally made it there, the sun had set, we were grumpy and tired, and the motel we had booked was not going to cut it. It was in a sketchy area and the parking lot reeked of weed. We decided to drive to the next pull-off and get a motel room at a well-lit and more centralized place. The motel room was pretty disgusting, but we were so tired that we just placed our own blankets and pillows on top of the motel’s and crashed.


In the morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast from the motel lobby and continued our east-bound journey. This ride went much faster than the others, and our spirits were raised, because we would soon be back in Asheville! We passed through Memphis again, stopped outside of Nashville to pick up some lunch, and we were back in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains by dinnertime. Pulling up at Chris’s house was a great feeling; it was awesome to be back to his family, his dogs, and a comfy bed! We went out to dinner with his family and told them all about our experiences. His parents gave me a Christmas present, which was ridiculously sweet of them, and then we retired downstairs and prepared for a night of quality, undisturbed rest.

When I woke up, I was so excited to head home and see my family, but I was extremely sad to leave. Going on a two-week road trip with someone means that arguments and frustrations will be inevitable. Chris and I definitely had our fair share of those during the journey, but we came out stronger and more connected than ever.

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I am so thankful for the opportunity to take this trip. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone, challenged me to get back to my roots, encouraged me to immerse myself within the natural beauty of my surroundings, and allowed me to explore some of the true wonders of our world. Best of all, I was able to do all of that with an amazing partner.

I hope everyone who is skimming/reading this (I know this was a ridiculously lengthy post!!!) had a peaceful and meaningful holiday season, full of quality time with loved ones.

Now, as my suitcase stares at me from the corner of the room…… Where to next?

Love and adventures,

Summer

Goodbye.

Well, this is it.

Five months have gone and passed in the blink of an eye and a rush of chilly England wind.

As I sit here and stare at my overflowing suitcases, haphazardly and halfheartedly packed on my bedroom floor, a heavy lump nestles itself into the base of my throat.

How do I begin to prepare myself to say goodbye to this place? This coastal English city that quietly built me into a better and stronger person than I was before?

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Facing any major transition in life conjures up an incredibly surreal feeling. This feeling overwhelmed me before I left the familiarity of home to come here, and it overwhelms me again as I stare out my window at the buildings and streets I’ve grown to love.

I could have never fathomed how deeply this semester would change me.

I have faced some of the toughest struggles of my entire life in these past five months. Shortly after I arrived, my parents decided to separate and work towards a divorce. My house went up for sale. My parents took the family dog to the animal shelter. I had to face these painful realities in relative solidarity halfway around the world. It would have been easiest to break down and let my emotions consume me. And while there were nights that they did take over, the bonds I have formed with my friends here have served as the best lifeboat.

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My friends. How special and irreplaceable each of them have become to me. The memories of our time together dance in my head in streaming color. The endless laughter, the hours of stories, the long days of traveling, the delicious meals… They all weave together and envelop my heart. I will cherish the beautiful and fleeting moments in which pieces of the deepest parts of their souls were revealed to me in late-night bus ride conversations, post-party discussions, or shared smiles.

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That has been my favorite part of study abroad, by far. Sure, the traveling was incredible, and the sights were unlike any other; but crossing paths with people from every country and walk of life has been unforgettable. I have learned the true power of love and friendship. It defies differences in language, political systems, religious beliefs, culture, land borders, economic status, and color. At the core, we are all the same. We are all passionate about something and fearful of something. We all experience pain and darkness. We all cry. We all feel happiness and we all smile. We all want to feel wanted and valued. We all seek purpose and adventure. That is basic human nature, and whether we are born in South Korea or South Carolina, we are all connected by it.

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Saying goodbye to my friends is the most difficult part of this imminent departure. For some of them, this is where our connections fizzle out. Although it’s hard to think about, I must face the fact that I will not see some of these friends again. I am simply thankful that we had five memorable months together and that they were given a few pages to write in the book of my life. For others, our relationships will continue to develop. The future is vast and uncertain, so I refuse to say goodbye forever. But leaving with a “see you later” feels wrong also. How do you part ways with people who have such a deep home in your heart? How do you tie the ends together nicely and cleanly? How do you convey to them in that last moment together the impact they’ve had upon you? These feelings are brutally painful, but there is underlying beauty in the fact that we can feel emotions so deeply. While the final hugs and waves feel like glass shards, I can’t help but be thankful that my heart is open and vulnerable enough to feel that. Because if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have felt the extreme highs of our time together.

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I can’t help but think about how much I’ve changed as a person. I am now unafraid of uncertainty. I can approach anyone and ask for help. I can cook for myself. I can budget my money. I can effectively navigate around a country that speaks another language. I can function on no sleep. However, living in and experiencing European culture has made me much more critical of America. I’m increasingly intolerant when it comes to political or religious ignorance. I am ashamed of America’s gun policies and the blatant racism that runs rampant in the South. I am so appreciative of Europe’s healthier food products and effective public transportation. I am angered at the greed that runs corporate business. I am furious that American airline companies charge a fortune for airplane tickets, when RyanAir offers Europeans flights to other countries for less than twenty dollars. How much better would our world be if CEOs could put their money hunger aside and families could actually afford to travel and see other countries? How much more accepting and tolerant would our societies be if they made trips like mine a reality? How much more connected would we feel to one another?

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Coming home is going to be both a blessing and a curse. It will be incredible to see my family again and to make new memories with my American friends. However, it will be difficult to walk around and realize how little has changed while I was away. Here I am, a complete 180 from the person I was in January, coming home to a city that still can’t time the stoplights right and still has the same high schoolers working at the grocery store. That sounds incredibly selfish, and maybe it is. But maybe I am also just bitter that my long-awaited study abroad adventure is coming to a close.

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However, if my time in Plymouth has taught me anything at all, it has been that there is always another adventure to be had. As long as you are ready to go after them, to seek them and to chase them, your journey and life will be filled with endless opportunities. My next adventure may not include a hike in Scotland or a croissant in France, but I am positive that it will have an equal effect on me. I am so unbelievably, immeasurably, indescribably thankful to have had this opportunity. I feel so lucky and I promise to use what I have learned to bring light and love to others.

For now, though, I savor the view outside of my window; the drunk first year students laughing and stumbling in the streets, the music filtering down from the floor above me, the dim lights from the inside of the pubs, and the chilly England air raising goosebumps on my neck. I may never experience it again, but I am immersed in it right now, and I won’t let it escape me.

I shall leave a part of my heart in this city, buried deep beneath the green grass on the Hoe, overlooking the sailboat-filled Plymouth Sound. I will bring a little bit of England and Europe back with me in its place; the smooth blue sea glass from the beach at Newquay, the little bottle of Plymouth Gin wrapped inside of the socks in my suitcase, the German beer mugs, the Dutch receipt from the Amsterdam sandwich shop… But most of all, I will bring back the feeling of being surrounded by the most amazing people in the entire world, united here together for one brief semester of love, laughter, and life-changing adventure. ❤

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A Wee Trip to Edinburgh

I knew that I had to visit Scotland before leaving the UK. I wanted to find out for myself if kilts are normal attire, if bagpipes are really that prevalent, and to hear the accent up close.

WELL, I finally have the answers to all of those questions after my quick trip to Edinburgh with Cori and Olivia. Kilts are typical Scottish wear, and I can’t lie, I couldn’t stop grinning when we passed two kilt-wearing men throwing some back outside of a Scottish pub. I think I will fall asleep with the sound of bagpipes in my head, because they are played all over the city.

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The bagpipe is a tremendously interesting instrument with a lot of incredible history (for instance… Scottish armies would play the bagpipes as they marched toward their enemy, ready for battle. It intimidated the opposing forces and the sound carried for miles). But y’all… THE ACCENT. It’s absolutely gorgeous and completely unique.

I didn’t know if we would make it to Edinburgh in the first place, to be honest. We thought we had scheduled each leg of our journey with enough breathing room in between, but we were wrong. Our Megabus to London was about fifteen minutes late due to some wicked after-work city traffic. This caused us to miss our shuttle bus to Stansted Airport. The shuttle buses normally come every half hour, but the next one didn’t come for a FULL hour, and it was then that I knew that we would probably not make our flight. We decided to take that shuttle bus and simply try our luck and catching the plane. We got there, ran through security, and when we finally arrived at the gate, the plane had been departed for about five minutes. Talk about ALMOST.

We tried to look into other options, like an overnight bus to Edinburgh, a train, or other flights that night. Everything was incredibly expensive and uncertain. Our options were running out. While waiting at a customer service desk, I spotted a girl a few people ahead of us in line who said she had missed her flight to Edinburgh. I stopped her and she joined forces with us. Her name was Ramsay, and she was a girl from Maine studying abroad in Paris.

We all decided upon a flight at seven the next morning. Even though the circumstances were beyond our control, we were unable to receive a refund for our original plane tickets, so our wallets felt the blow of the unexpected additional ticket. That left us with an entire night in the airport. Exhausted, we tried to find spots on couches in the coffee shop to rest. I found a great area, but was awoken by a staff member when they had to close the area for cleaning. We all realized that we weren’t going to get any sleep, and we decided to just stay awake.


We made the flight in the morning and arrived in Edinburgh a little after eight. We were greeted with biting 35 degree weather. Ramsay parted ways with us and we went to our different hostels. After a few bumps in the check-in process, we went to our rooms, showered, and took a nap.

Cori and I had a bowl of soup and a sandwich in the hostel cafe before embarking upon a special hike. We walked about a mile and a half from the hostel to where our ascent began. We were hiking up to Arthur’s Seat, the 822 foot peak of a set of hills forming most of Holyrood Park. Arthur’s Seat was formed from a Carboniferous Era volcano over 350 million years ago and shaped by a glacier over two million years ago.

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We chose to hike up a rocky side of the hill, which posed a precarious and cautionary challenge. After reaching the peak, we were met with incredible panoramic views of Edinburgh.

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Our descent was far more difficult (well, for me, anyways. Cori was a pro), but after finding ourselves back at the bottom, we felt positively exhilarated.

On our walk back to the hostel, we stumbled across the insanely adorable Hula Juice Bar and Gallery. We stopped in for a fresh fruit smoothie and a small treat (I chose the peanut butter brownie).

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After some more resting time, we changed out of our workout gear and met Olivia at The Elephant House Cafe. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book at a table overlooking the Edinburgh Castle. Thus, the cafe is aptly known as the “birthplace of Harry Potter,” and is frequented and loved by tourists. I ordered the portabello and goat cheese focaccia sandwich and finished off my meal with a slice of Victoria sponge cake (which, if you’ve never had it, tastes exactly like a British cream tea- scone, cream, and strawberry jam).

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We headed back to the hostel for an early night, stopping first at the Greyfriars Bobby statue. Bobby was a Skye terrier who became famous in nineteenth-century Scotland for spending fourteen years guarding his owner’s grave. The dog became a legend and is the star of a variety of novels and films. Touching his nose is good luck!

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A breakfast of greek yogurt, fruit, granola, and a croissant greeted me in the hostel bar the next morning. It was the perfect fuel for a busy start to the day. The first thing we did was venture up to the Edinburgh Castle, located on Castle Rock.

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A royal castle has had origins on the Rock since the twelfth century, and evidence of settlement dates back to the Bronze Age and Iron Age, but most of the current castle structures date to the sixteenth century. The castle was JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts, and it is the most-visited tourist attraction in Edinburgh.

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Due to the hefty admittance fee, we decided not to go inside the castle, but to walk around it, walk through the gates, and take lots of pictures.

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Some souvenir shopping followed. Scotland is famous for its tweed, cashmere, and tartan plaid, and every shop has it in high supply. We crossed over the tracks at Waverly Station and went to the “other side” of Edinburgh with lots of shopping and restaurants nearby, choosing first to stop at the Scott Monument. Opened in 1844, the Scott Monument, dedicated to writer Sir Walter Scott, is the largest monument to a writer in the world (60 meters tall!).

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To find a place for lunch, we headed down Rose Street, a strip with lots of unique restaurants and kitschy shops. After some menu examinations, we stumbled across a neon-lit sign for The Boozy Cow, a decently-priced and charismatic burger joint. Hungry, we popped inside. The interior of the restaurant was grungy and industrial- there was graffiti, exposed piping, and lots of metal details around.

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The menu had a variety of unique burger selections. Olivia chose the special, which was a Coca-Cola-marinated rib burger. I chose the “kickass macaroni waffle” topped with cheese sauce, chili, jalapeños, and a drizzle of American mustard. Cori chose the vegetarian version of the macaroni waffle, served with fried pickles. Olivia and I settled for the skinny fries.

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The food was INCREDIBLE. OUT OF THIS WORLD. FABULOUS. DROOL-INSPIRING. Think of macaroni noodles packed together, doused in breadcrumbs, and fried into a waffle shape. What could be bad about that?

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After stuffing ourselves full of the delicious, calorie-packed goodness, we headed back over the tracks, zig-zagged up the side of Castle Rock, and wound up back near the Castle, where our next attraction was located: The Scotch Whisky Experience.

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Scotland has four distinct regions of whisky production. The Highlands area produces a smooth and floral malt, the Lowlands region is known for its light freshness, the Speyside area produces fruity whisky, and the Islay region’s malt is very smoky. The Scotch Whisky Experience tour took us through the basics of whisky production, followed by a whisky tasting in a room that contains the largest Scotch whisky collection in the entire world.

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When our whisky experience ended, we popped into a few boutiques to browse and window shop. An adorable little gelato shop called Mary’s Milk Bar caught our eye, and we decided to pop in for a mid-afternoon treat.

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Mary’s Milk Bar sells gelato and fine chocolates, homemade daily by owner Mary. The interior is very retro, streamlined, and no-frills, and the employees wear vintage dresses! I chose one scoop of the salted caramel gelato and one scoop of the lime, rum, and coconut water ice. Both were total knockouts!

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To decide on our plans for the evening ahead, we went back to the hostel for a quick rest and some online research. On a whim, we bought tickets for a 7:30 play at the local Traverse Theatre.

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Called “Mermaids,” the play was a brilliant culmination of dance, song, and acting. The storyline was a twisted version of “The Little Mermaid,” testifying to the brutal struggle of fame, femininity, and societal expectations. This was my personal highlight to the trip. I am still mentally comprehending all of the flawlessly-executed effects and the deeply-ingrained metaphors within the piece. We finished off the rest of the night with dinner and drinks in the hostel bar.

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The entirety of the next day was devoted to traveling back to Plymouth. Edinburgh was a stunningly beautiful city, inhabited by extremely warm and friendly people. The area had such an eclectic mix of activities and cultures, and I only wish we had a few more days to spend there!

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I end this post with a heavy heart. The next plane I board is headed homebound, and in exactly two weeks, I will wake up (probably extremely disoriented) in my own bed in North Carolina. The feelings that are currently swirling around in my mind are difficult to describe. There’s sheer elation at the prospect of seeing my family and friends, excitement to be reunited with some of the comforts of home, and then a deep, painful sense of longing for England. While I am anticipating my return home, I have to constantly remind myself to put my excitement and future gaze aside and savor every last moment…. because the truth is, I will miss this place desperately.

Full Schedule, Full Stomach, and a Fuller Heart

The three-week Easter break at Plymouth University presented me with the incredible opportunity to do some consistent traveling. First was London, then came Paris, and after a short few days to relax back in Plymouth, I embarked upon a ten-day journey to Italy and Germany. On my list: Rome, Florence, Venice, and Munich.

With my carry-on and my backpack heavy with clothes, toiletries, and my itineraries, I took the train to London to meet up with Cori, who was arriving on a bus from Cardiff. We took a shuttle bus to London Stansted Airport, where we caught our flight to Rome Ciampino Airport. Our adventure had begun.


We stayed at a hostel called Hostella Female Only, located only a few minutes from Rome’s Termini Station. The hostel was quiet, safe, and relaxed, with only three people to a room. After unloading our luggage, we followed a recommendation given to us by a man on the street and ate at La Famiglia, a reasonably-priced and traditional Italian restaurant. After a delicious salad and a wonderful basket of vegetable-stuffed rolls, I enjoyed a plate of homemade gnocchi in a rich four-cheese sauce. I was amazed at the flavor and quality of my food.

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Because we only had one full day in Rome to explore, we got busy sightseeing early the next morning.

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After a leisurely walk through town, we arrived at the Colosseum. Completed by the Romans in 80 AD, under Emperor Vespasian, the Colosseum housed 55,000 spectators, eager to watch the bloody gladiator fights and wild animal attacks that took place within it. The building was unbelievably massive and impressive. It has been preserved incredibly well for thousands of years of exposure to the elements. The stage floor has since disintegrated, revealing the maze of rooms underground that held the fighters, the animals, and the supplies.

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A quick walk from the Colosseum brought us to the gates of the Roman Forum. The Forum was an open area where the Romans would socialize, shop, make business negotiations, and even attend school. The edges of the Forum were lined with temples, basilicas, shops, and all varieties of ornate buildings. The Forum included the ruins of both Emperor Augustus’s palace and Julius Caesar’s palace, mixed in with the beautiful blooms of the lush green landscape. It was like walking in the world’s most historical park.

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After our tour of the Forum, we grabbed lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant away from the well-trodden path of the tourists. I had a chicken Caesar salad. We treated ourselves to our first cups of Italian gelato at the gelateria next door.

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A walk along the river and over a bridge led us to Europe’s largest open-air market.

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We arrived right as the vendors were beginning to pack up. There were tables of handbags, jewelry, secondhand clothing, shoes, hats, scarves… Everywhere we walked, the vendors were trying to haggle with us. Being someone who prefers to shop alone to begin with, it was a little intimidating feeling the pressure coming from each booth.

We snaked back through the Roman streets and ended up at the Pantheon. While it was extremely crowded and a bit overwhelming, this was probably my favorite stop of the day, because the Pantheon is just so incredibly iconic to me. The Pantheon was built in 27 BC by Emperor Augustus’s close friend, Marcus Agrippa. It burnt down, and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in 118 AD. It is the most well-preserved building in Rome. Originally built as a temple for the Roman pagan gods, it was reclaimed as a Catholic church in 608 AD. The Pantheon is famous for its incredible dome, which is completely one-of-a-kind and renowned for its remarkable unreinforced construction. The oculus of the dome remains open to this day; when it rains, the water pours inside the building, runs down the slightly slanted floor tiles, and is carried away by the original Roman drainpipes underneath.

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After leaving the Pantheon, I stopped and bought a bag inside an original Italian leather shop. The shop’s owner was sitting at a desk making the bags, and it impressed me so much that I HAD to buy one. 😉 It’s a beautiful bag and will last forever; best of all, it will always remind me of the beauty of Italy. Cori and I faced bitter disappointment when we arrived at the legendary Trevi Fountain, just to find that it was closed for renovation! We decided that the solution is simple: We must return to Rome to see it again. 🙂 Our walk back to the hostel was colored by the ripe oranges hanging from the multitude of orange trees lining the Roman streets.

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For dinner, we followed up on a recommendation from our hostel receptionist. It was extremely expensive, because European restaurants charge for things that we Americans assume are free: water, bread, and service. I ordered the pumpkin and sage ravioli, and Cori and I split a bottle of the house white wine. Paying for dinner was definitely a bit easier since we were tipsy… It also helped mask the realization that we were still hungry. NEVER FEAR- the most popular gelato shop in Rome was only a few buildings away! After a long wait in line, we indulged in a cup of creamy homemade gelato and a warm Nutella crepe apiece.


The next morning, we made our way to Termini Station, where we caught a high-speed train to Florence, or Firenze, as the Italians say. When we arrived at Santa Maria Novella Station, we were hit with a heat wave! The weather was absolutely gorgeous in Florence, and as we walked through the streets with our luggage to find our hostel, I found myself in awe of Florence’s quintessential Italian charm.

Checking into our hostel was quite an experience. We stayed at The Queen’s, and while the location was incredible (right in the middle of EVERYTHING, and a two-minute walk to the Duomo!), the place was just.. SKETCHY, to say the least. To get to our bedroom, which had four beds, we had to walk through another bedroom. We were instructed to keep all of the connecting doors open at all times. When I sat down on my bed, the mattress fell through. It was held onto the bed frame by loose 2x4s, which had fallen through the frame and left the bed a death trap. I cautiously fixed the boards and the mattress, and then noticed that all of my sheets and blankets felt- and looked- dirty. Fortunately, the good thing about a crappy hostel is that you aren’t likely to be spending very much time inside of it!

We changed into some lighter clothes and grabbed an outdoor table at Little David, a restaurant with an extensive pizza menu. After an appetizer of fresh bruschetta, my pizza arrived. It was a traditional Etruscan recipe that consisted of an olive oil base, multiple cheeses, honey, and walnuts. It was HEAVENLY! After a gelato stop and an afternoon of walking around, we ducked into the quaint and quiet Leonardo da Vinci museum. The museum consisted of drawings and explanations of Leonardo’s greatest inventions, which were all built and recreated in life-size wood form. This made for an incredible visiting experience, because it allowed us to see what each contraption really looked like, how it worked, and why it was useful. This is obvious, but the man was an absolute genius in a multitude of fields.

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After surviving the first night in the hostel without contracting bed bugs or falling through the bed frame again, we grabbed a croissant and waited in line at the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, also known as the Duomo. Being abroad has afforded me the opportunity of touring a variety of breathtaking cathedrals and churches. This one, however, was the cathedral with the most ornate exterior I have ever seen. It was gorgeous on so many levels, and my pictures simply do not do it any justice. It was free to tour the inside of the building, and we ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the gorgeous paintings on the ceiling of the dome.

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A walk through some of Florence’s quieter streets brought us to the Casa Buonarroti, the house that belonged to the sculptor Michelangelo and his family.

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After taking a few pictures of it, we walked another short distance and ended up at the Basilica of Santa Croce.

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After paying a small entrance fee to this equally impressive church, we were able to enter and see the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Dante Alighieri (of Inferno fame). Umm.. can you talk about being starstruck?!?!

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After crossing over the Ponte Vecchio bridge, we stumbled across a shoebox of a sandwich shop, where we bought a take-away lunch. I chose a combination of Tuscan salami, mature pecorino cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes sandwiched between fresh focaccia bread. Cori had a vegetarian sandwich that sported fresh pesto, salad leaves, a special kind of cheese, and grilled eggplant.

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We took our packed lunches and took the long climb up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where one can overlook all of Florence. We sat on some stairs and took our time relishing the incredible flavors of our sandwiches, enjoying the view of a Florentine hill covered with grapevines and a snaking Roman wall.

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This meal was by far my favorite in Florence- not only was it the cheapest, but it was the most genuine. Once we finished eating, we took lots of pictures of the panoramic view from the Piazzale and soaked in some of the warm sunlight.

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After a quick rest at the top of the hill, we sauntered back to the city to wait in line at the Uffizi Art Gallery. After an hour, however, the line hadn’t moved an inch, and we decided to try our luck at the Galleria dell’Accademia instead. We bought our tickets and spent a good hour and a half marveling over the incredible Florentine art. The best piece? Michelangelo’s “David” in all of its pristine glory. Because my background is not in art, it takes something really beautiful or unique to catch my eye… I spent a good fifteen minutes sitting underneath of David and noting every minuscule detail, down to the perfectly-sculpted hand veins.

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Dinner that evening was pesto and pine nut fusilli pasta at L’Opera Caffè. Bedtime followed shortly after, because while our time in Florence was coming to a close, our time in Venice was awaiting us.


After a beautiful and scenic train ride through the Italian countryside, we arrived at Venezia Mestre Station. The station was located off of the island of Venice, as was our hostel, so we got to see a quiet area frequented mostly by locals. The trees were blooming, and dandelion fuzz covered the whole of the sidewalks. Once we checked into our hostel, Hotel Belvedere, we used the free WiFi to book a gondola ride for the afternoon and to decide upon a lunch joint.

We took the bus into Venice, and when we got off of it, were were instantly whisked into “canal culture.” Venice is an absolute maze built upon an intricately-woven system of rivers, canals, and waterways.

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Because so much of the city is water, the buildings are barely feet apart from one another. We had a lot of fun trying to navigate through it all with our map. We stopped for lunch at a very basic deli, and we ate our sandwiches on the dock of a nearby canal. An authentic gelateria with rave reviews from locals was next on our list. The owner, Carlo, makes his gelato daily. Instead of having the creamy texture of some of the gelato we had tasted, this had a texture very similar to Chik-fil-a ice cream (that’s probably a terrible comparison, but I think Chik-fil-a ice cream is delicious, so it’s meant to be a good one).

We twisted and turned every which way and wound up in front of the Royal Gardens, near St. Mark’s Square, where our gondola tour guide was supposed to meet us. We had some time to kill, so we did some people-watching inside of the gardens, observing as couples, school groups, and locals strolled past. Finally, our tour guide arrived, and we embarked upon a thirty-minute gondola ride throughout some of Venice’s smallest canals. The gondoliers all wear stripes and hats, and many of them sing as they propel the narrow boats through the narrower waterways. We shared a boat with an older couple from Manchester, and it was nice to share some of our experiences and stories with them. The thirty minutes was over in the blink of an eye, and we were back on land before we could even say “Bravo!”

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A tour of St. Mark’s Basilica followed. The church is a stunning example of the some of the finest Byzantine architecture in the world. While the exterior is admirable, the interior is absolutely mind-blowing; golden mosaics cover over 8,000 meters of the building’s ceilings. These mosaics intricately depict Biblical scenes and, where the light hits them, give the entire church a gilded shimmer.

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Because Venice is a water city, its public transportation mainly consists of a series of boat ‘buses.’ We hopped aboard one and explored a small island across the waterway, coming back to the main island to search for dinner. We chose a small cafe-type restaurant that was serving aperitifs, a drink and appetizer special that’s extremely popular in the early evening in most Italian cities. For five Euros, we were given a glass of “spritz” apiece (similar to sangria; wine with oranges and olives), a bowl of potato chips, some crostini topped with carpaccio (thinly-sliced raw ham) and cheese, and some mini tuna sandwiches. Everything was delicious, and for our actual meals, we chose some yummy sandwiches behind the deli counter. Dessert was gelato and a crepe, of course, from a place down the street. We returned to our hostel to prepare for the next day.

We spent the following day exploring two islands a short boat ride from Venice: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its original glass-blowing artists, many of whom live and work on the island. Burano, on the other hand, is known for its lace makers.

Murano was a pretty quiet and residential island. We toured many glass shops, where we laid eyes on some of the most gorgeous creations imaginable (an intricate colored-glass floral chandelier, anyone?). Lunch was a pizza topped with grilled veggies before we caught the ferry boat to Burano.

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Burano captured my heart the moment I set foot onto the island. Every building is painted a different bright color, making the streets look like one gorgeous, chaotic fiesta. Pinks, purples, greens, blues, oranges, reds, yellows… My mood was instantly boosted just looking around!

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Burano’s “city center” was filled with adorable restaurants, cafes, patisseries, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and, of course, LACE SHOPS. Each lace shop was covered wall-to-wall with ornate lace tablecloths, clothing, doilies, curtains…. Many sported the actual lace-makers sitting on stools, carefully sewing the beautiful designs for visitors to see. We grabbed some desserts at a small patisserie shop and ate them with our legs dangling over the water on the island’s edge.

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When we returned to the island of Venice, we were saddened that our time in Italy was coming to a close (or so we thought…..KEEP READING!). We grabbed a quick sandwich for dinner, our “last” cup of gelato for dessert, and made our way back to the hostel. When we began packing our bags to leave for our early flight the next morning, however, we realized something… Our flight was a day later than we expected! We had booked the wrong flight!! A slight freak-out and a few Bellinis later, we chatted with our hostel receptionist, who booked us in for another night. We canceled the reservation for our first night in Munich, and then we pondered upon where we could go the next day!

We decided to take a day trip to Verona, a city an hour away from Venice. Famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the city has an authentic Italian charm and some incredible Roman ruins. We spent our day there visiting many of the sites listed on our tourist map.They included a Roman arena eerily similar in architecture to the Colosseum, a Roman amphitheater, some gorgeous piazzas, and a beautiful bridge.

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We visited the Casa de Giulietta (Juliet’s house), where we saw the famous balcony from which Juliet pined for Romeo.

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The tomb of Juliet was located in a nearby church, and we visited that, as well.

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For dinner, we wandered into the city center, where a huge outdoor market was set up! There were vendors selling cheese, meats of all kinds, olives, wine, beer, risotto, gnocchi, desserts and cannolis…

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I had a bowl of seafood paella and a fresh pork sandwich. We ate our dinner underneath a tent where an Italian school band was giving a spring concert. It was the perfect way to end an unexpected day trip.

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We caught our train back to Venice and began to pack up (again) for our trip to Munich.


4:45 came way too early the next morning as we arose for our traveling. We quickly dressed and headed out into the chilly morning air. We went to the bus stop at the train station and bought a ticket for the airport shuttle bus. After about half an hour of waiting, the only buses that had come were two shuttle buses to the other airport in Venice. We were running out of time to get where we needed to go. Annoyed, we ran to the taxi rank and got a taxi to drive us the twenty minutes to the airport. We had to pay him 35 Euros, which wiped us both clean of our cash, but if study abroad has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you have to be prepared for an alternative solution. We checked in for our 6:50 flight and boarded the plane.

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The flight only lasted an hour, and we landed at Munich International Airport. I was amazed at how clean and advanced the terminal was; instead of an information desk, they had information podiums, where one could activate a webcam feature and chat with an airport staff member via camera. The airport also had a spacious shower area for travelers to “freshen up” after their flights.

We took the city’s train/metro service into the city center, where we changed lines and took the route to lead us to our hostel. While we waited for the metro, we bought breakfast; I bought an apple pastry that was OUT OF THIS WORLD.

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We had booked a night at Jugendherberge München-Park, located near the Munich Zoo. After an early check-in around 9, we dropped off our luggage, used the WiFi to figure out more public transportation, and we embarked upon a trip to Dachau Concentration Camp.

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I have always been fascinated by World War II history, including the Holocaust. I have read many memoirs and firsthand accounts of the terrors of the Nazi Party, and so it has always been an interest of mine to visit a concentration camp and see everything for myself. When we arrived at Dachau, I was overcome with instantaneous goosebumps. They were partly from the cold wind that was blowing and partly from the heavy emotion hanging thick in the air. We entered through the gates where the prisoners were first brought into the camp.

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I noticed immediately the large number of guard towers built amongst the layers of thick razor wire lining the rectangular camp. Dachau was the first concentration camp, and it became a “model” for all of the others; it was also in use the longest. We toured the inside of the camp’s prison; the cells were not big enough to lay down inside of, and yet prisoners were kept there (in the dark) for up to eight months at a time.

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We walked through some of the barracks (meant to hold 4,000 prisoners but accommodated 33,000), the onsite museum, and then, at the end, the crematorium.

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There was a succession of rooms we passed through; the first was a room where the prisoners were held and told they were going to take showers; the second was the room where they undressed; the third room was the “shower” room, or the gas chamber; the next was the room where all of the corpses were piled; and the last was the room with the four crematory ovens.

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Standing there in silence and looking at those ovens is a moment I will never forget. The inhumane, terrifying, and excruciating torture and slaughter that took place at Dachau is literally unfathomable to me. The sky was blue and the birds were chirping, and it felt completely wrong. It was also bone-chilling to realize how close by real civilization was; houses were literally only a stone’s throw from the camp’s walls. Leaving Dachau, I did not have much to say; instead, I was more content quietly contemplating the entire experience.

Because we only had an afternoon left in Munich, we grabbed some lunch (I had bratwurst!) and headed into the city center.

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We took a walk to the Englischer Garten, which was absolutely beautiful. A river ran through the middle of the park as families and individuals biked, picnicked, ran, and enjoyed the sunny weather.

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We heard some music and followed it to the center of the park, where we found the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower) and biergarten. A biergarten is an open air facility where drinks and food are bought and enjoyed at picnic tables by large groups of people. We grabbed half a liter of beer apiece and split a huge pretzel, enjoying the music being played by the band in the top of the Turm. This was my favorite moment in Munich; it felt joyous, connective, and quintessentially German.

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On our walk back to the center of the city, we passed by a bridge where surfers ride the churning river waters underneath. We stopped and watched them surf, amazed at how incredible they were, before continuing about our afternoon.

After a bit of souvenir shopping (I bought two German beer mugs, one for me and my mom) and browsing of the Viktualienmarkt (farmer’s market), we popped into a German restaurant for a traditional Bavarian dinner.

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I chose the roast suckling pig with dumplings and cole slaw, which was recommended by the waiter. It was tender, juicy, and a unique combination of flavors.

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Because we were exhausted from our day of traveling and walking, we headed back to the hostel soon after dinner (which, by the way, had a PIZZA vending machine. Like… What). I was able to FaceTime with some of my family and catch up with some friends, as well as converse with a fellow American staying in the same room (she was from D.C. and was studying in Germany!).


In the morning, we caught a two-hour shuttle bus to Allgäu Airport, where we ate a light breakfast and boarded our Ryanair flight back to London Stansted. We did not realize that the airport was so far from Munich until the night before; it was actually in a town called Memmingen. Our flight was around an hour and a half. When we arrived at the London airport, we both had a very nasty encounter with the UK Border Control staff. I could complain about their lack of professionalism and unnecessary harassment for hours, but I’ll spare you the reading. We made it back into the UK, and that’s all that matters.

After all of that traveling, we still had a six hour bus ride back to Plymouth. It dragged on, but when we finally stepped out of the bus at Bretonside Bus Station, I think we both heaved a giant sigh of relief. I did not realize how exhausting traveling can be; day after day of walking, sightseeing, and constant to/fro can really wear you down.


Our trip was absolutely life-changing. This whole study abroad experience has been, but there’s something particularly testing about tackling Europe with just one other person. We battled getting lost, communication and language boundaries, messed-up flight itineraries, sketchy hostels, and lots of pushy vendors and beggars. We gained weight from all of the fresh pasta and from having dessert multiple times a day. We got tired with one another, we got frustrated at times, and we made compromises. We saw so many beautiful places in such a short amount of time. We got tipsy, we cried at Border Control, we got cursed by a gypsy woman… We made memories that we will never, ever forget. I returned to Plymouth relieved to have peace and relaxation, but also with a renewed sense of love and appreciation for the world around me. The Earth has so much to offer us and to teach us, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to answer that call. I truly believe that if everyone had the ability to travel, the human race would be filled with many more generous, kind-hearted, and open-minded souls.

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For now, it’s back to the gym and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches… And, I almost forgot…Schoolwork. 🙂

Parlez-vous Français?

Hello, everyone! I’m so behind on all of my posting. I’ve been seeing and experiencing so much, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you!

I last left you with a post about my trip to London with my mother and grandmother. As soon as they left on their flight home, I packed up my bags and hopped on a bus to head to Paris! The ride was ten hours, but it went smoothly and passed pretty quickly.

We arrived at the Paris Bercy coach station. A friend I met at Plymouth, Antoni, lives right outside of Paris in a town called Orsay, and he was kind enough to offer Cori and I free accommodation for our first night. Because we had no idea where to go, Antoni met us at Bercy and helped us buy metro tickets. He had told us before we arrived that his father had free entrance passes to a Yael Naim concert, and he asked us if we were interested in going. Yael Naim’s most popular song, New Soul, was quite famous in the States, and so I was excited at the prospect of seeing her!

Well, we were in for one crazy surprise. Antoni’s father is actually a sound engineer for many music artists (he was once the sound engineer for Prince!!), and so the concert we were attending was actually a PRIVATE concert inside an extremely beautiful- and expensive- flat in the center of Paris. When we arrived at the flat, Antoni conversed with the lady managing the guest list. Someone took our luggage and coats to a storage room, and we were ushered inside of the entryway, into a scene of complete glitz and glamour.

The flat was packed with Paris’s elite, dressed to the nines in designer fashion and conversing over free champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Here Cori and I were, two Americans in the middle of a very posh and private French party, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, our hair tangled from a 10 hour bus ride, our makeup practically melted off. We felt INSTANTLY out of place and embarrassed, because we had not received the designer-clothing memo. Antoni shuffled us through the crowd to get us free drinks and risotto, and we made our way into the living room, where a small performance area had been set up. The first performance was by Christophe Willem, who won the French version of American Idol in 2006. His voice is absolutely gorgeous, and his music was a lot of fun.

Yael Naim was next. She has a jazzy, soulful voice, and her music is influenced by multiple cultures. I was so impressed with her.

After cake and more champagne, the party ended, and we waited for Antoni’s father to pack up all of the equipment. We got to talk with Yael, and I was absolutely starstruck! I leaned over and whispered to Cori, “It is our first night in Paris, and we are at the most exclusive event in Paris.” I was so thankful to Antoni and his father for their generosity, and I will never forget the fun we had.

The next day was (unfortunately) a miserable one. On the way to the train station, I lost my debit card. I discovered this when I went to pay for my train ticket. I ran all the way back to Antoni’s house, about a mile, searching the streets in vain for the little piece of plastic. It started to pour the rain, I was soaking wet, and I almost got lost. Cori paid for my train ticket (she is seriously the coolest), and we made our way to our hostel in Paris, where we got some food in the lobby’s restaurant and I contacted my mother. She called Wells Fargo, but they were unable to ship me a new card without me calling directly. The hostel’s receptionists were SO FRIENDLY and let me use the front desk phone for 45 minutes while I stressed out on hold with my bank. I transferred money from my account to Cori’s account, so that she could take it out at the ATM and I would have cash for our visit.

The hostel we stayed in was my favorite, by far. It was called St. Christopher’s Inn, and it was fresh, clean, decorative, and bustling with activity. The receptionists sold tickets for Paris attractions, so we were able to consult them for directions and advice, ask for recommendations, and buy tickets for various sites to skip the long lines.

While in Paris, we visited many interesting places. Since my trip was a while ago and I have done some extensive traveling since then, it’s hard for me to remember everything we did on a day-by-day basis, but I’ll try my best.

We started off the next day on a fresh page, beginning with a visit to the Sacre-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica in the district of Montmartre. It was an absolutely stunning church with intricately painted ceilings.

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The view from the outside of the church was a beautiful panorama of France.

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On our way down, we fell into a very violating tourist trap; two African men stopped us, forcefully grabbed our wrists and slipped on string bracelets, and demanded money for them. It was not a fun experience, and it still makes my blood boil and my stomach hurt thinking about it. To recover, we stopped at a restaurant for a quattro-formaggi (four-cheese) pizza.

Our next adventure was a trip to the Paris Catacombs. This ended up being one of my favorite attractions in all of my study-abroad experience. We got to skip the line with our tickets, and we entered the amazing maze of underground tunnels located deep beneath the Paris streets. The walls of the catacombs were just piles of bones and skulls, something I did not expect. There were no fences or boundaries up, so you were literally walking amongst thousands and thousands of skeletons. I was in complete awe. Even though it was prohibited, I found it impossible to keep from touching a few skulls (part of me was really compelled to steal a tooth as a souvenir, because in all actuality, HOW COOL would that be to show your grandkids one day?, but my morality kept me in check).

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After the Catacombs, we made our way to the famous and posh avenue, Champs-Élysées, lined with designer stores. We stopped at the Arc de Triomphe for a photo op before buying some of the famous macarons at Ladurée and heading back to the hostel for a quick rest.

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Dinner that night was at a traditional French restaurant in Montmartre. I indulged in some kind of seafood pasta, which was filled with mussels. We were seated next to a woman traveling alone from America, and we thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours in deep conversation with her.

The next morning, we braved the hour-long line in the cold at the Louvre Museum.

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After finally gaining entrance, we saw the Mona Lisa, some of Michelangelo’s sculptures, and a variety of other beautiful art pieces. The Louvre is so busy, crowded, and MASSIVE, however, so we didn’t stay for long.

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We grabbed lunch at Chartier, a famous French restaurant recommended to us by the hostel. There was a hefty line outside, but it moved quickly. The menu was completely in French, so I picked a dish that I assumed contained chicken. It ended up being roasted chicken and french fries. It was delicious.

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Soon after, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to take lots of pictures. The Eiffel Tower is something I assumed would be a bit overrated, but it isn’t. Believe me. It’s so much bigger than I thought it would be, and it’s constructed in such ornate and romantic detail.

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The area around the Tower is full of gorgeous gardens. No wonder so many people propose there.

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Afterward, we indulged in my new favorite dessert of all time… a French Nutella crepe.

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We weren’t hungry for dinner after our late lunch and and crepe, so we headed back to the hostel and took a little nap. Later, we went down to the lobby’s restaurant, split a delicious wrap, and shared a bottle of wine. We wanted to enjoy ourselves, because the next day consisted of a 20-hour bus ride back to Plymouth.

I hope you just cringed when you read that.

20 hours.

I’m not typing that wrong.

Because this is my blog and I am in charge of it and can write whatever I want, I’m going to be honest with you. Paris did not impress me quite as much as I expected it to. This makes me a little sad. However, I think a few outside factors contributed to this feeling- the loss of my debit card, the stress of trying to order a new one, the weather (it was cold and rainy for the majority of the time), and the constant tourist traps and swindlers at every main attraction. On top of that, Paris was the first place I visited where language and culture was really a strong barrier. Many of the French people we encountered were difficult to approach, and it made things complicated when we were confused or lost. Despite these few stumbling blocks, however, our trip to Paris did result in some incredible memories. The French are experts at bread, and from this trip forward, I will always crave a fresh French croissant and a baguette. They were cheap, they were delicious, and they were everywhere. I found it impossible to refrain from constantly buying them. 🙂

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I hope everyone reading this is having a wonderful day, and I just wanted to give a quick shoutout and tell you how thankful I am that you care enough about me and my experiences to read my ramblings about them. xx

4/5ths London + 1/5th Paris + Platform 9 3/4 + 3 Generations = 10/10

Hello everyone!! I haven’t blogged much recently, but that’s because I’ve been so busy traveling. I’m currently in the midst of a five-day relaxation period before I have to hop a plane to Italy, so I figured it would be an opportune time to write about my latest adventures to London and Paris.


Last Thursday, I gave a presentation for my history class and booked it out of there as fast as I could once I was finished. I had a bus to catch to London! Since I am living in England, it would probably be safe to assume that I’ve spent a lot of time in London, but that is far from actuality. Plymouth is a good six hours by bus from London, and so the only time I had spent there was the day my plane to the UK arrived.

I boarded my Megabus Gold coach alone and the journey began. Six hours later, the bus was passing through the streets of London, the buildings lit up in stunning contrast against the black of the night. Once the bus parked at Victoria Coach Station, it was around 9:45 at night. I found my way to the taxi rank and gave the address of Kelly’s flat (Kelly is a family friend living in the heart of London that I have been so fortunate to be able to stay with). Once I arrived at Kelly’s and took a shower, I hopped in bed, ready for the coming day. My heart was racing and I could barely fall asleep, because my mother and grandmother were currently on a flight to London!!

When I awoke in the morning, I had some breakfast at Kelly’s, and then took the city bus to Paddington Station to meet my mom and grandma as they arrived on the Express train from Heathrow. When I made it into the station, I was overwhelmed. There were so many people wandering around inside of Paddington, I felt that it would be absolutely impossible to find my family members. I decided to walk towards the waiting area in the middle of the station, and after standing and scanning the crowd for a few minutes, my mom jumped right in front of me! I was so thankful she had spotted me. It was an amazing and hasty reunion as I guided both of them to the taxi rank and we traveled back to Kelly’s.

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They slept for a little while at Kelly’s to try and recover from the lack of sleep on the plane. Once they had awoken and showered, we grabbed a quick hot chocolate at a café and headed to the British Museum! The British Museum has one of the largest collections of artifacts anywhere in the world. It’s a massive building, so we spent about an hour and a half touring some of the exhibits.

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We were most excited to see the Ancient Egypt exhibit, which displays some incredible mummies. I came face to face with the mummy and sarcophagus of Cleopatra (I’m still secretly fangirling on the inside).

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Our appetites were all worked up for our high tea reservation at the Museum’s Grand Court restaurant. High tea was a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach. It included glasses of Prosecco, a pot of tea (I chose a berry flavor), a plain scone, a fruit scone, clotted cream and strawberry jam, four different varieties of finger sandwiches, and a selection of two-bite desserts, including a mousse, a brownie, a tart, and more. We sat, ate, and chatted for a very long time, simply enjoying each others’ company.

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When we made it back to Kelly’s, she was just sitting down for dinner. We partook in some lasagna and Chardonnay and conversed with her and her daughter, Sophie. Soon, it was time for bed!

The next morning, after Kelly’s husband treated to local pastries for breakfast, we bought tickets for the Big Bus London sightseeing bus tour. This proved to be one of the best decisions we made on our trip. The tour consists of a a bunch of double-decker buses that you can hop-on or hop-off of at dozens of convenient stops. Live tour guides reveal little-known history and fun tidbits of information as the bus navigates around the city.

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This was an excellent way for us to see some of the most iconic sights in London (the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament) without having to push our way around a crowd of people.

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Rumbles in our tummies resulted in lunch at a traditional British pub, where Mom had her first authentic meal of fish and chips (Grandma had soup, which she thought was fabulous)! We walked over to Buckingham Palace and took tons of pictures, including one of Grandma “waving up to the Queen!”

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A short stroll landed us at Westminster Abbey around 2:30 pm. The Abbey was closed to visitors, but a queue was forming for the 3 pm choral evensong service. We joined the line and were soon inside of the Abbey’s dazzling interior.

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I find Catholic services to be on the dry side, but it was an experience I will never forget. The Westminster Abbey choir filled every inch of the massive space with hauntingly beautiful harmonies. While the service was going, I found myself thinking about the Abbey’s illustrious history. So many legendary people have celebrated, mourned, and worshiped in that same space. Princess Diana’s funeral was in the Abbey, as was the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

After the service ended and we discussed our thoughts, Mom, Grandma, and I boarded the tour bus once more and headed to our next destination, Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus (circus simply means circle) is known for its luxury shops and busy streets. We ooohed and aaahed over all of the designer names, did some shopping at SuperDry, and then put our names down on a list to eat at Jamie Oliver’s Italian. We had quite a long wait, but it felt minimal with all of the shopping around us.

Our dinner started with an artisan bread basket and some drinks (a local lager for Mom, a glass of wine for Grandma, and a mojito for me). I ordered the restaurant’s famous prawn linguine, topped with chilli peppers and fresh rocket lettuce.

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Mom’s dish was the porcini mushroom fettuccine, and Grandma feasted on the vegetable rotolo al forno, similar to a veggie lasagna. After dinner, we split a slice of lemon meringue mascarpone cheesecake topped with blackcurrant sauce. I will NEVER forget that cheesecake. As I’m typing this, my stomach is grumbling in agreement.

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When we awoke on Sunday morning, Kelly made us lattes and brioche French toast with berries. She was the kindest host we could have ever asked for, and an incredible cook. Based on her recommendation, we took the sightseeing bus to the Winston Churchill War Rooms. This was a unique museum housed in the underground bunker where Churchill and the government operated during WWII. The rooms are preserved in the exact condition they were left in when the war ended. A new museum addition gave us insight into the powerful leader Churchill was. I left with a new-found inspiration for Churchill and a book of his wisest life advice. Here’s a quote for you: “How little we should worry about anything except doing our best.” See? He’s a gem.

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Once our visit to the War Rooms was over, we retrieved our luggage from Kelly’s, said our goodbyes, and went to check into the Hilton Doubletree hotel next to Victoria Station. We retrieved our welcome cookie from the front desk and retreated to our room to freshen up for dinner.

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Our dinner reservations were made at The Wolseley, a fancy restaurant in a gorgeous building across from the Ritz. A fully-suited doorman opened our taxi doors for us and brought us inside the restaurant, where our table was waiting. Mom ordered a bottle of Riesling for us to share, and as we nibbled on a basket of bread while we mulled over the menu. I ordered scallops with cauliflower puree, golden raisins, and pine nut dressing, along with a side dish of zucchini. Grandma settled on the deep fried scampi with tartar sauce, and Mom chose the filet steak with béarnaise sauce, gem heart salad, and pommes frites. For dessert, we shared the crème brulee, sticky toffee pudding with ginger ice cream, and a slice of vanilla cheesecake that was given to us on the house.

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While our food was impeccable, the experience was heightened immeasurably when we recognized two famous diners. One was the lead singer of Soft Cell, Marc Almond (“OOOOH, tainted love”), and the other was political commentator James Carville, who happened to be sitting right beside us.

James Carville (sneaky shot)

James Carville (sneaky shot)

We spent our dinner chatting with him and his companion. We left feeling tipsy, extremely full, and ridiculously excited.

Monday morning began at 4 am, when we awoke for a guided day trip to Paris. We traveled on the Eurostar, the high-speed bullet train that gets you to Paris in two and a half hours. We met a lovely family on the same tour as us; two girls, Alyssa and Kayla, and their mom, Robin. Alyssa is currently studying abroad in England, as well. When we arrived in Paris, we hopped on a coach bus with our tour guide, John Paul. He was incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, and explained a lot about our surroundings as we drove through the city.

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The tour included entrance to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, where the views of France were breathtakingly spectacular.

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An hour-long river cruise on the Seine showcased the romantic bridges and the massive Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Admittance into the Louvre museum gave us the opportunity to see the Mona Lisa firsthand (along with a crowd of hundreds of pushy others).

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The day was jam-packed. When arrived back in London that night, we spent some time talking, unwinding, and eating in hotel room (Um, helloooo macarons!).

We awoke Tuesday still fascinated by our whirlwind day in Paris, and yet ready to see more of London. Our hotel had the most incredible breakfast buffet. It included fruit, yogurt, many varieties of pastries, a full English breakfast, and meats and cheeses. We gorged ourselves (as was common on most of the trip) and then hopped on the Underground to get to Harrods. Harrods was a feast for the eyes and not so much for the wallet.

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We enjoyed browsing all of the designer clothes, avoiding looks from snooty employees, and seeing the gorgeous Princess Diana memorial on the ground floor.

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We quickly headed across the street to Topshop to shop where we could actually afford some things. Lunch at a patisserie and sandwich shop called Paul fueled us up for our next adventures. We split off; Grandma headed back to the hotel to relax before taking advantage of a fourth-row center seat to see Wicked, and Mom and I made our way on the Underground to Watford Junction, where we caught our shuttle bus to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour.

Housed in the actual studios where the movies were filmed, the Studio Tour was a dream come true for a lifelong Harry Potter fan like me. It contained the original sets, props, and costumes used in the movies and revealed much of the “magic” behind some of the most memorable scenes. Even though Mom has never read the books, she’s seen many of the movies, and she was still “spellbound” with the tour!

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After stocking up on some souvenirs and heading back to our hotel, Mom and I decided that we wanted to go out for some late-night food and beverages. Grandma was still at her play, so we got a bit refreshed, walked around looking for a restaurant, and settled on the Wetherspoon pub, located right next to the Wicked theater!

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One pulled pork sandwich and pint later, we saw Grandma leaving the theater and walking back to the hotel. I ran out and caught her attention, and she came and had a glass of wine with both of us. She told us all about the amazing night she had, and we shared stories about our Harry Potter tour. None of us wanted to think about the next morning, the morning of departure, which was weighing heavily in the backs of our minds.

When we awoke early on on Wednesday morning, I helped Mom and Grandma finish their packing, and we shared one last breakfast together in the hotel lobby. I walked them outside of the hotel, where the taxi rank loomed in the distance. We said quick and tearful goodbyes, and I begrudgingly headed back up to the hotel room to shower and do some packing of my own, because I was soon leaving for…… PARIS!


I will describe my trip to Paris in the next post. All in all, my trip to London was one of the most memorable parts of my study abroad experience so far. It was so wonderful to spend time with my mother and grandmother, to share the English culture with them, and to explore London’s streets together. I miss them so much already, but I will be seeing them again in less than two months. ❤

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Amsterdam

PRE-READING WARNING: PEOPLE. If you want to go somewhere that will change your life, book a ticket to Amsterdam. No joke. After traveling to this magnificent city, I have decided that Amsterdam is where I will be proposed to/get married/honeymoon/live/die. If you don’t want to get swept up in the aura of incredible-ness that Amsterdam exudes, don’t read any farther. But on a serious note, please do read farther. I didn’t write this for nothing.


The trip I took to Amsterdam was organized by ESN Plymouth. ESN (Erasmus Student Network) is an organization that deals specifically with international students. The ESN club here puts on a bunch of amazing events for all of its members, including Chat and Beer sessions at the pub, day trips, parties, and weekend escapes.

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My backpack ready for the weekend (with a full pillow and blanket attached for luxury coach comfort)

I boarded the bus on a Thursday afternoon at four in the afternoon. I managed to luck out and have an empty seat beside me (I may or may not have given people boarding the bus semi-dirty looks to prohibit them from sitting next to me), getting as close as possible to comfortable for the overnight journey. The bus drove until midnight, when we made it to the ferry port in Dover. Funny side note: When we arrived in Dover, I looked out the window and noticed these incredible and majestic cliffs looming over the road. I didn’t realize until later I had been looking at the legitimate “Cliffs of Dover.” We made it through the security checkpoint and drove onto the ferry. We weren’t allowed to stay on the coach bus during the ferry ride, so we made our way upstairs and snagged a table. We were all incredibly exhausted already, and the ferry made a lot of our motion sickness worse. At around two in the morning, the ferry finished its journey and we exited the ferry port in Dunkerque, France. The rest of the bus ride was silent as people tried to catch some elusive shut-eye.

At seven or so in the morning, our ESN leader, Michael, told us all to wake up, because we had finally arrived in AMSTERDAM! (Let me tell you- we were excited, but after practically no sleep, we weren’t exactly oozing joy.) We hobbled off of the bus like zombies and stepped into the chilly Amsterdam air. ESN guides walked us to our hostel so we could drop our luggage off in the storage room. My first impression of the city was one of calm appreciation. Since none of the businesses were open yet, there wasn’t much foot traffic.

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Biking in Amsterdam is the preferred method of transportation, and the cycle lanes are almost bigger than the roads themselves. Bikers have the right-of-way over pedestrians, so they WILL hit you if you do not move out of their way or get out of their lane. I must say that the huge number of bikes gives Amsterdam a very unique and quirky feel that’s completely and utterly charming. It’s also a lot friendlier to hear bike bells chiming than horns honking. In addition to driving and biking, Amsterdam sees a lot of Vespa scooters (cue nostalgic memories of The Lizzie McGuire Movie), as well as utilizing a very quiet and sustainable electric tram system.


DAY ONE

After dropping off our bags, my friends and I decided to check off the top item on our itinerary: A visit to the Anne Frank House (or Huis, if you prefer Dutch). The House opens daily at 9 am, and the lines are famously long. Making it there by 8:30 put us almost at the front of the line. The visit was solemn, striking, and immensely powerful. While the building is the actual house the Franks hid inside for two years, new add-ons make for a more museum-like experience. The walls in the museum portion were empty except for quotes from Anne’s diary. I saw some of Anne’s original school drawings, some of her sister Margot’s Latin assignments, and some of her father Otto’s workbooks. After the first museum-like exhibits, we made it into the actual quarters the Franks called home. The actual bookcase blocking the hidden entryway, still filled with the same books as the fateful day the Franks were betrayed, was right in front of me. My breath left my body.

Upstairs, the floors were creaky, the rooms were stripped of all furniture, and a haunting air was all that remained. We walked silently from room to room: The kitchen area, the bathroom with the same toilet and sink, the loft. When I entered Anne’s room, I was overcome with emotion. The walls were still plastered with her postcards and favorite magazine cutouts of celebrities. There was a picture of Ginger Rogers. It hit me: This was real. A family lived here for two years, unable to open the curtains an inch, unable to go outside, unable to make a single noise. When I came to the part of the House that showcased Anne’s actual diary, I had goosebumps. There it was, the famed document I’d learned about all through my years at school. There was her real handwriting, translating her thoughts and dreams, crammed onto tiny lines on pages between stained plaid covers. I felt connected to Anne, drawn in by her eloquent writing, moved by the gleam of her ever-present optimism. I sat alone for some self-reflection. Anne’s story is loved worldwide, but Anne was only one of the millions of people humiliated, tortured, slaughtered, and dehumanized for their religious beliefs in the Holocaust.

After leaving the Anne Frank House, we stopped into Sara’s Pancake House for some traditional Dutch poffertjes, or miniature pancakes. Puffy, sweet, dense, and delectable, they paired perfectly with a bit of powdered sugar and some schenkstroop, or thick golden syrup. Leaving with only a half-full stomach, however, I stopped into the CUTEST bakery, Cup A La Cake, and ordered a warm Dutch apple turnover. It was love at first bite.

Poffertjes (and a fried egg)!

Poffertjes (and a fried egg)!

Next on the list was the Heineken Experience, a tour of the original brewery for one of the world’s most famous beers. The tour showed us the beginning of the brand, how Heineken is made, the impact it has made on the global market, and where the brand is going in the future. We did a Heineken tasting and had tokens to redeem for two free beers in the included bar. The experience was definitely aimed at tourists- there was more “entertainment” than “education”. My friends and I took advantage of the free photo booth and video-making stations.

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When our tour was finished, we made our way to Museumplein, a public area where most of Amsterdam’s famous museums are located. Also located there is a giant sign that says “iAmsterdam,” and us and the other ESN members took a huge group photo.

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The ESN UK group “Invading Amsterdam”!

We made it back to the hostel just in time to check in. There were six beds in each room. I shared a room with three of my close friends and two other girls from America that I had never met. We threw our stuff down and took a MUCH-NEEDED nap before we went to dinner. My friend Olivia has a passion for rock music, and she begged us to go to the Hard Rock Cafe. I wasn’t feeling the idea, because I wanted to go somewhere more authentic, but after my belly was finally filled, everything was right with the world.

That night, we decided to take a walk to the famed Red Light District. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. The Red Light District is an area where women stand in shop windows in lingerie and advertise their services. While it was definitely an interesting experience to walk up and down those streets, it wasn’t alarming in any way.

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I see some prostitutessss

Marijuana is also legal in Amsterdam, and it is sold in “coffee shops” (not to be confused with cafés).  You walk into a coffee shop, where people are sitting around at tables smoking, chatting, or actually drinking coffee. When you go up to the counter, the employees offer you a menu of their weed and hash products and are eager to help you, make recommendations, or answer any questions you may have. Smoking weed is only permitted in certain places, so it isn’t too prominent. I think it adds a really cool vibe to the culture of the city, as well as an incredible boost to the economy. We ventured into a coffee shop and ordered a hash-infused muffin, but that particular one wasn’t strong enough to give us any effects.

My friends and I returned to our hostel, utterly exhausted from our journey to the Netherlands and our jam-packed day. Sleep came almost immediately.


DAY TWO

In the morning, we took advantage of the free breakfast the hostel offered and then headed off to Museumplein to buy tickets for the Rijksmuseum. The tickets were expensive, but we realized why once we entered the collections galleries- the place is HUGE! I came face to face with original Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Monet masterpieces. It is an unbelievable feeling to stand in front of a frame that holds something worth an unfathomable fortune.

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Van Gogh

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Rembrandt

After the museum exploration, we split off into smaller groups. My friends Cori and Sarah and I stumbled upon the cutest place for lunch, Soup En Zo. The menu boasted fresh sandwiches, a huge list of soups, and a variety of fresh salad selections that could be chosen from and mixed. I ended up with a cup of the vegan peanut butter and banana soup, topped with bean sprouts and green onions; a smoked chicken, red pepper pesto, and avocado sandwich on fresh bread; and a bottle of fermented ginger cola. Cori and Sarah and I paid for our food and went and ate it at a picnic table overlooking a canal. The weather was breezy and spring-like, and it was a beautiful experience to share together.

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Some afternoon shopping ensued, including stops to browse in art galleries, thrift stores, and souvenir shops. We headed to Dam Square and roamed around De Bijenkorf, a luxury shopping center stocked with celebrity labels. We took a trip back to Cup A La Cake for some macarons, chocolates, and truffles, and popped into an enticing store for freshly-made stroopwafel (two thin waffle-like wafers with caramel in between).

Me, Sarah, and Cori

Me, Sarah, and Cori

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My friend and I decided to try the coffee shop experience one more time on the way back to the hostel, which resulted in the purchase of a slice of “spacecake”. We split the slice and expected to feel something within 45 minutes, which didn’t happen. We resigned to the fact that we had been cheated (or so we thought….).

We collected more friends back at the hostel, sat and chatted, and then headed to our dinner location, Café Het Molenpad. We waited a while for a table inside the dimly-lit restaurant, but it didn’t take too long before we were seated and our order was placed. Having eaten so many sweets that day, I ordered the salad with lukewarm duck breast, stewed pears, wild mushrooms, and sundried tomatoes. Others in the group ordered bitterballen, a traditional and savory Dutch meatball-like appetizer. The outside is crisp and crunchy, and the inside is similar to a thick gravy. The salad was impeccable. The duck was tender, the stewed pears added a hint of cinnamon, and the sundried tomatoes gave a zesty kick to round out the robust palette of flavors. I sat and focused on the candle in the center of the table, when suddenly, the spacecake kicked in, and WHOA, was it weird.

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Dinner ended late, so we walked back to the hostel, stopping to admire the lights glittering on the canal waters. Back in our room, I went to take a shower, but the effects from the spacecake had only gotten stronger, and my shower turned into the strangest experience I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure where the walls went, I couldn’t tell which way I was turning, and I felt like I had been washing myself for hours. I began to freak out a little bit, so I finished my shower and fell into bed. I listened to music for a little while before falling asleep, and in every song, all I could hear was the piano part. Soon, I was dead to the world.


DAY THREE

When I awoke the next morning, I couldn’t believe what had happened the night before. It made for a hilarious story and an experience I am glad I had. Breakfast was downed, our belongings were dropped back off in the luggage room to retrieve later, and we headed out for a quick last morning in Amsterdam.

The bestseller “The Fault In Our Stars,” written by Jon Green, had parts set in Amsterdam. In the movie version, the actors were filmed sitting on a bench overlooking a canal. We found the directions to the bench and walked to it. It was covered with love locks and quotes from the book that passerby had written. It was a pretty full-circle moment; when I saw the movie in theaters, I never would have guessed that I would end up sitting on the same bench in a city halfway around the world from home.

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We sauntered through the Rijksmuseum gardens, which were beautiful and contained some stunning sculptures, as well as unforgettable views of the majestic building.

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A statue of the season “Summer”

More walking landed us in Vondel Park, a popular recreational area for family and friends. We found a lovely climbing tree and took pictures sitting on it. The weather was incredible- our jackets weren’t a necessity, the sun was dazzling, the sky was bright blue, and the tulips were beginning to bud in the green grass.

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Our group disagreed on where to eat for lunch, so we decided to split up, pick our own food, and meet back at the hostel later to retrieve our luggage and make our way back to the bus. Cori and I stepped into a teeny-tiny sandwich shop called Cora. I ordered a fresh baguette with Dutch goat cheese, fig jam, and rocket lettuce. Cori ordered a baguette with tons of fresh grilled veggies. In addition to sandwiches, the shop made fresh-pressed fruit juices. After the woman behind the counter translated the options to English for me, I settled on a cup of fresh pineapple and pear juice, made right in front of my eyes. We took our lunch out in front of the shop and ate on a bench overlooking the water. The marriage of the flavors in my sandwich resulted in an explosion of taste. The cheese was the freshest I had ever had, and its tart aroma mingled well with the sweetness of the fig jam and the sharp cut of the rocket. The crunch of the fresh baguette and the tropical refreshment of the fruit juice made it my favorite meal in Amsterdam. I did not want to leave.

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We reluctantly collected our bags and made our way to the coach bus. The time in Amsterdam had flown by. Despite our valiant efforts and miles of walking, we didn’t even manage to see a fraction of the city’s treasures. I am hoping, however, that another trip to Amsterdam will be found in my future.

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The bus ride back was long and exhausting, as expected. We made it back to Plymouth at four in the morning, and my tired self did not even bother with attending my morning lecture. I was too busy dreaming about all I had seen and experienced, a collection of vibrant memories shared alongside some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

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Beautiful Bath and Bristol

(Quick note before reading: You can click on the pictures in this post to make them bigger)

Last weekend’s excursion was to two cities a few hours away from Plymouth: First, the city of Bath, and second, the neighboring city of Bristol. I traveled with my lovely companion Cori.

On Friday, after waking up, hastily packing our backpacks, and walking to the bus station, our bus left Plymouth at 6:45. We made it to Bristol a little after 10. When the bus dropped us off, we had no idea where we were or how we could catch a bus to Bath. We went inside of Colston Hall, Bristol’s largest concert hall, and asked a receptionist for directions. He informed us that the easiest way to get to Bath would be by train. He provided us with a super detailed map, and we began a 20 minute walk through the city to Bristol Temple Meads Train Station.

At Temple Meads, we bought our tickets for the next train to Bath, which left in five minutes. Perfect timing! We made our way to the platform, hopped on the train, and arrived at Bath Spa Train Station in ten minutes. Talk about a fast ride! I almost wish it had been a bit longer, because traveling through the English countryside is a scene of indescribable beauty. Not sure how beautiful we’re talking? Check out this view.

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When we exited Bath Spa, we meandered through the Bath city centre. The weather was brisk and cold, but the sun was out, which absolutely illuminated the buildings around us. We looked for a café in which we could enjoy some brunch, stopping at a place called Café Retro. I ordered the “American pancakes and bacon.” Folks, listen to me. When the British say “American pancakes,” don’t expect the familiar deliciousness of your hometown IHOP. The pancakes were thick with a strange rubbery consistency, nothing like what I was expecting. Hunger doesn’t discriminate, however, so those puppies were down in five minutes. The bacon was the best part- since most bacon here is back bacon, I reveled in the glory of finally having the precious taste of American “streaky” bacon.

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After our breakfast, we walked around some more, poking into some unique shops on our way to check into our hostel. Here is a solar-powered waving Queen you can buy for fifteen pounds.

We had booked beds in a 12-bed dorm at the Bath YMCA hostel. After finding the place, we were greeted with a big smile from the friendly receptionist. He got both of us situated and gave us the key code for our door. We went to check out the room, not having a clue what to expect.

Hostel staircase

Hostel staircase

The room contained four triple-bunk beds, each bunk containing wrap-around curtains, a lamp, a power socket, and a USB socket. There were lockers in between each bunk bed for storage of important belongings. The mattresses were surprisingly comfortable, and after fitting our bunks with the provided linens and storing our backpacks, we felt ready to go explore!

We toured the stunning interior of Bath Abbey, a centrally-located fixture of the city. There was a special guestbook and area set up in one of the Abbey’s chapels in remembrance of the four people fatally wounded in Bath when a 32-ton tipper truck, driving recklessly, collided with them and other vehicles. One of the victims was a four-year-old girl. The incident has caused much grief within the city, but has also served as a uniting force for its inhabitants. While the mood in the Abbey was somber, it was still an awe-inspiring visit.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

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Next on our itinerary was a trip to the Jane Austen Centre. Jane Austen, famous woman writer, spent five years living in Bath (1801-1806). Two of her most famous novels are set within the city. Jane never married, although she accepted a marriage proposal and revoked her acceptance a day later. She wrote with the rarest of eloquence, a sharp wit, and an uncanny ability to translate the human spirit onto paper. She died at the young age of 41. After learning about her life and works in the Centre, I felt a strange connection to her. I believe that there are inherent similarities in our observations and personalities. I feel a newfound inspiration to read her literary masterpieces.

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After our immersion in Jane Austen’s Bath, we headed for a late afternoon pick-me-up. We stopped at one of the oldest buildings in Bath (constructed in 1482), which served as the home of baker Sally Lunn in 1630. The lowest floor of the building dates back to 1150, and the burnt pink stone underneath it is a product of the great fire of 1137. Sally is famous for creating the iconic Bath bun, a delectable and fluffy creation brought to life by a variety of sweet or savory toppings. The Sally Lunn bun recipe has not changed over time, and it is kept as a secret to this day. Today, the building serves as a full-service restaurant and kitchen museum. I ordered a bun with butter and lemon curd, while Cori’s bun came with butter and milk jam (homemade caramel). HOLY WOW. I could not have anticipated JUST how delicious it was going to be. It was light, fluffy, perfectly toasted, and delicately enhanced by the flavors of the butter and the sweet and tangy lemon curd. I have a feeling that I am going to go the rest of my life craving another Sally Lunn bun. She better ship.

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Sally Lunn bun

Sally Lunn bun

After our Sally Lunn mouthgasms, we snapped some pics of Bath’s stunning sights.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Pulteney Bridge, Bath

The rest of our evening was spent relaxing some in the hostel, meeting some of our roommates, grabbing a late dinner at a place called All Bar One Bath, and enjoying the wonders that are hostel showers. I was able to sleep relatively well that night. I made this awesome set-up that drowned out every bit of extra noise in the room. I had my phone plugged in and charging, my fan app roaring in my headphones, and an eyemask eliminating all extra light. I think that even if someone had stood in the room continuously screaming as loud as they could, I would not have heard a word.

The next morning, we got up, got dressed, and headed downstairs for a free breakfast. The hostel provided fruit, cereal, yogurt, and toast and jam for all of its residents. We grabbed our bags, hit up Starbucks so Cori could grab a giant latte (she didn’t sleep well in the hostel), and made our way back to Bath Spa Station. After a short wait, we were back on a train to Bristol, and in ten minutes, we were there.

The ESN Club at Plymouth (Erasmus Student Network) had organized a day trip to Bristol that same day, so a huge number of our international friends were just arriving in Bristol when we were. Many of them were touring the S.S. Great Britain, so we didn’t get to see them. We met up with our friend Olivia and began our day of exploration.

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After some wandering around the city, we stopped for some lunch. I had a pulled pork ciabatta with cheese, red onion, and coleslaw. It was delicious.

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After our lunch, we treated ourselves to the world’s BEST gelato at Sundaes. This place serves crepes, waffles, and ice cream sundaes in addition to cups and cones of gelato. With so many options, I settled on a scoop of Snickers gelato and a scoop of strawberry cheesecake. The Snickers was mind-blowing.

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OH MY GOD

OH MY GOD

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After our eating expeditions, we went street-art hunting. Bristol is a very artsy city, showcasing incredible graffiti, architecture, and other street-art projects, such as the “Fog Bridge”.

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Bristol Fog Bridge (w/o the fog)

Bristol Fog Bridge (w/o the fog)

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Banksy, one of the most famous graffiti artists in the world, has quite a few different pieces around Bristol. We were fortunate enough to find one, the “Window Hanger,” on the side of a building on the outskirts of the city centre.

A Banksy original

A Banksy original

After our street-art bonanza, we took an hour walk to the other side of Bristol to find the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Fortunately, the sun was out for most of the walk. We spotted the bridge, which connects Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset, right as dark clouds started swirling overhead.

First bridge sighting! (And ominous clouds)

First bridge sighting! (And ominous clouds)

To get up to the level of the bridge, we had to walk up a very steep and winding trail. The skies opened up and it began to hail! It does not hail back home unless the weather is extremely severe, so the fact that it hails so nonchalantly here makes me laugh.

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Soon, it stopped hailing on the three of us, and we made it to the bridge. The views from the bridge were absolutely breathtaking, as were the views of the bridge itself.

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View from the bridge

View from the bridge

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A slow and leisurely walk back to the city centre tired us out, so we spent a good hour relaxing in a café.

It was dark by then, and we had to walk Olivia back to her bus stop to head back to Plymouth with the rest of the ESN group. Our bus didn’t leave for another two hours. Still too full from all of our food earlier, I stopped at Subway to grab a sandwich for the bus ride. We meandered through the city to get back to Colston Hall. An old rock band was performing that night, so the Hall was abuzz with hordes of people. We mingled amidst them and then found a table in the in-hall restaurant to relax. Cori drank some coffee and we chatted, thankful to be out of the bitter cold. We saw the bus approaching outside, and left to board it.

The bus ride back was a lot of fun. Cori and I chatted, tried to sleep, listened to music, and chatted some more, until we arrived back in Plymouth at around 11:30.

It felt SO GOOD to finally be back in my room. After two days full of traveling and walking, it was nice to finally have a chance to unwind and relax. Overall, it was such a fun adventure, and I fell in love with two more cities here in England (who would have guessed?).

Cliché telephone booth pic? Check.

Cliché telephone booth pic? Check.

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Newquay Half-Day

In case you were randomly wondering if waking up at 4:45 in the morning is an easy feat, let me provide you with a clear and concise answer.

No.

That’s what I did this morning, however, because sometimes… ADVENTURE CALLS. Today, I took a half-day trip to Newquay, a beachfront city about an hour and a half from Plymouth. Newquay is nicknamed “the surfing capital of the UK,” and rightly so; the city boasts a variety of beautiful beaches, frequented year-round with surfers ready to ride the waves that churn off of the shore.

Even though waking up that early is extremely difficult, there is something beautifully peaceful about waking up before the rest of the city. My walk to the bus station was cold, quiet, and still. The only people moving around were the men washing the outside of the mall windows. Kudos to you, men, for seeing 5 am EVERY morning, when most of us never actually see YOU.

The bus left the station at 5:45 with me, Olivia, and our Chinese friends Bob and Dylan on board. I’m having quite a difficulty adjusting to the driving patterns here in England. The bus is an excellent transportation option because it is cheap and efficient, but the ride never seems to be smooth. England’s roads tend to all come together in a variety of roundabouts, meaning that your coach bus is constantly turning in circles. It’s hard to keep your stomach in check. I had the brilliant idea to scarf down a bagel and a bottle of orange juice at the beginning of the bus journey. Halfway to Newquay, that bagel was no longer in my stomach. (Yikes.)

Once we arrived in Newquay around 7:15, the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon. The city was still fast asleep; nothing was open, not even a coffee shop. We made a beeline for the beach and spent an hour walking it.

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It was my friend Dylan’s first time seeing the ocean, so it was a delight to be able to be there and experience that with him. The beach here is very different from the familiarity of Emerald Isle back home. There are giant boulders all over the beach. Instead of sand dunes, there are massive rocky cliffs that plummet straight down to the shoreline. Tidal pools are created all around the rocks, far from the reaches of the waves themselves. Barnacles and mussels cover the rocks.

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The sand is not as fine as back home, and instead of seashells covering the shore, there are pebbles. We spent much of our walk combing through them. I found a large amount of colorful sea glass, which was really fascinating- sea glass is a treasured and semi-rare find back home! Dogs ran freely all over the quiet beach, chasing one another while their owners went on a morning walk. It was FREEZING, but as the sun lit up the water, we were overwhelmed by the beautiful landscape before us. I am so in love with the ocean, and it felt like I was looking at a piece of home. What amazed me the most was how fresh and clean the air was. It felt like we were inhaling pure, untainted oxygen.

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After our walk, we made our way to Oceans Café, where I had my first English breakfast. This breakfast consisted of a fried egg, a hash brown, a choice of beans or tomatoes, sausage, and a choice of fried bread or toast with butter. I chose the beans and the toast. Beans for breakfast is an idea unfamiliar to most Americans, but is something that is actually quite delicious! I was not a fan of the sausage, however- the taste was a little too different for my liking. Bob and Dylan spent some time telling us about typical Chinese breakfasts, which consist of dumplings and fried rice!

After breakfast, we went on a long and leisurely walk to the Newquay Zoo. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and the air was starting to warm up! It almost felt like spring was on its way!

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The zoo is a charity project for the city, and to be honest, I didn’t have high expectations when I paid my admission fee. I assumed that for such a small zoo, it wouldn’t have much to offer. Thankfully, I was wrong! The lemur exhibit was fantastic.

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I enjoyed watching the different types of marmoset monkeys jump around and play with one another. There were about a dozen otters, and I observed them exploring their enclosure and frolicking in the water. There were wildebeest in the savanna exhibit, and they were busy chasing each other around the field at incredible speed!

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I was ridiculously close to lions- two female and one male- as they dozed off in the sun. They were so powerfully majestic.

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I got a cute video of a peacock strutting its stuff and showing off its beautiful plumage.

We spent a very long time at the zoo, and it was both educational and entertaining. I’m very wary about zoos and how they treat animals, especially the lack of space and authentic habitats for them, but I was rather impressed with the way this zoo is run. Instead of crowding in as many animals as possible, the zoo trades higher animal numbers for adequate space for a smaller population.

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After our zoo visit, my friends and I took a stroll around the city, ending up for a waterfront lunch at Steam Bar and Grill. We snagged a table overlooking the vast expanse of blue ocean and enjoyed a midday pick-me-up together.

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The waves were filled with dozens of surfers bravely waging war against the cold water! We enjoyed watching them catch some good rides. (You can’t see them in this picture, but I swear they are there.)

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Our trip to Newquay was finished by a quick pass through the Newquay Parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel on our way back to the bus station.

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Even though the trip felt short and we were home by four, it was a great mini-escape from Plymouth. I enjoy every adventure I have with my friends here, because each one turns into a lifelong memory. Next time, though, I’ll try to book a ticket that doesn’t require me having to wake up at such an ungodly hour. 😉