Wanderlust: Spain

I’m not entirely sure why I chose Spain as the first European country I visited, but that’s where my parents and I went in the summer of 2015. It was more of a whim really, or maybe my brain though it’d be best to start somewhere where at least I speak the language (other than English, of course).

Seville Aqueduct System
Segovia aqueduct system

This trip was a truly spectacular adventure, as for the first time, instead of depending on friends or family to help us out, we traversed the land all on our own, renting a car and everything. In Madrid, we used public transportation to get around the city, visiting museums, gardens, and castles. We got to spend one day hitting up Barrio de las Letras, which is a neighborhood where famous writers of the past, like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega, resided when they lived. The storyteller in me couldn’t resist the call of those narrow alleys and old apartments, seeing how my ancestors once lived.

Night 2 in Madrid was spent being sent to a speak easy performance of a flamenco show. We didn’t know it was a speak easy/secret until we got there. We’d been sent tickets by a local restaurant owner who’d taken a liking to us as we patroned his place the first 2 nights in the country because it was right around the corner from our hotel. Going up to the hidden vendor inside the venue to be shown a secret entrance made me feel like I’d gone back in time to the prohibition era. The show was spectacular, as we all sat together in the dark, the only light coming from the halo around the dancer.

On day 3 we packed up our suitcases and took our rental out to the Spain highways, where we couldn’t quite read all the signs and made a bit of an error getting off our exit. Thankfully traffic in the area was nothing like it is here in Miami, and my dad had the chance to hit reverse and go the right way.

The next stop was Segovia, where we marveled at the aqueducts the people living there had made so long ago still holding up. We didn’t do anything to touristy here, as it was a pause on our way to visit an old friend of my dad’s who lived in Jaen. But that didn’t stop us from taking in the scenery and just walking the city’s streets, playing the part of the local even though we were foreigners.

We then doubled back to Toledo, where my alma mater followed me, as there were knights galore. Suits of armor decorated almost every establishment we entered. My favorite though was the cobbled streets and box alleys. Everything about Spain’s architecture and infrastructure was narrow and confined, but we never felt imprisoned (though we did nearly crash with a local driver later on). My dad and I took a ghost tour of the streets of Toledo, hearing the legends and lore that are the lifeblood of any town.

I can’t even count how many times we got lost on our adventures in Spain, but each wrong turn took us to new wonders. We found an old monastery up a hill that looked like we’d drop over the edge at any moment before finally leveling out. I picked grapes from the building’s vines, hoping no one was around to see my minor sin of theft.

Stolen grapes

In need of a place to stay the night during one of our lost moments, we found a beautiful hideaway, called La Casa de los Siete Cielos (The House of 7 Skies). Set inside a mountain cavern system and with a rooftop pool and garden, we truly couldn’t have asked for a better place to get lost.

In our search for the famous windmills of Campo de Criptana we accidentally wandered into La Mancha instead, a land best known from Cervante’s work of Don Quixote. We visited the Don’s windmills and then wound our way through the tiny streets of the town below to spend the night among the author’s people. Winding down on our last days, we found a museum dedicated to Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s love interest in the story.

Truth be told, it’s hard to remember every single thing that happened, because Spain was not a followed itinerary adventure. It was truly a trip filled with unexpected findings and wandering an unknown land, discovering it without constraints.

Where have you all traveled unplanned? Let me know in the comments!

Wanderlust: Washington, D.C., Summer

My first time in Washington, D.C. was in the summer. I can’t quite remember what year it was. Possibly 2012, just before I graduated from UCF. Regardless, my best friend joined me on another adventure to go to an audition, and my cousin graciously hosted us for 48 hours. I was up and awake for 23 of those.

Upon arriving at the airport, the first thing Cat and I did was get lost and come out of the wrong exit, sending my cousin’s husband on the hunt to find us for pickup. Once we were finally found though, I enjoyed the scenic drive to their apartment. I immediately noticed the separate bike paths that followed the same path as the roads for the cars, and thought, “That’s so smart! Why can’t Florida do that?”

Of course, being in such a historic city, we couldn’t just sit back and relax that first night. My cousin took us to Arlington Cemetery, where we went on a sweaty, 2-hour walk the night before I had to be up early for my audition. No regrets though, because seeing those graves of so many fallen soldiers and the results of war was a sobering experience. I still can’t imagine what it’s like to have such convictions, that you’d be willing to die for something you believe in. That’s not necessarily everyone’s mindset who goes to war, but there’s enough belief in some to make that kind of choice. I saw so many gravestones demarking the ground where kids my own age now lay buried beneath, while I walked the path to see where their beliefs brought them.

The next day started for me at 3 in the morning, as my cousin and best friend escorted me to the venue for my audition. Cat, being truly the most ride or die friend that any girl could ask for, went on the hunt for an open breakfast spot and found me a delicious chocolate almond croissant before leaving me to wait all day for 5 minutes of time with an audition judge.

Once I left the venue, I called up Cat to find out where she was so I could meet her. As always, it’s not a trip without getting lost at least once. I hopped on the right metro rail, but going in the wrong direction. Thankfully, I realized my mistake only one stop into the ride, so I immediatley hopped off, walked to the other side of the platform and got on the right train going in the right direction.

I met up with Cat just in time to go to the Library of Congress, because of course the history buff and writing nerd would want to see a bunch of old books. I got to see the Gutenberg Bible display that made my writer heart swell three sizes. We also saw some art pieces depicting the arrival of the British to the Americas in a much different light than a series I’d seen in Ecuador. It’s amazing how perspective can change the same story into two totally different tales.

The real drama started as we left the Library of Congress. Just as Cat and I were leaving by the gift shop exit, I noticed a police officer walking in talking into his walkie and heard something about a code block. We were barely through the door when others ahead of us started running, being urged by another police officer just outside the exit, who kept motioning for us to hurry up. I’m not a fast runner to begin with, but add the heeled boots I was wearing the full backpack on my back, and it was all just very stressful trying to oblige the police officer and run out of harm’s way. Getting down the slope to the curb and far enough away from the commotion seemed to take an eternity, but finally, we found a place called We the Pizza and stopped to stress eat some lunch. That was where I discovered Red’s Apple Ale and found my lifelong drink of choice. Also, the barbecue chicken pizza with shoestring onions was dope.

After that, we met up with my cousin at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where we saw terrifying prehistoric creatures. Seriously, how did human beings ever come to be when those monstrosities once existed? Once we’d had our fill of existential dread and scary (thankfully now-dead animals), we took a ride on the metro where a group of girls really wanted to let everyone know where they were going. We headed to Ben’s Chili Bowl for dinner, as when Cat and I kept looking up food to have in D.C., this place showed up on every list. We took it to go though, as I was so tired that by the time Daniel came around with the car to pick us up, I was falling asleep standing up and wobbling like a Mortal Kombat character who was about to get K.O’d. I barely remember getting back to my cousin’s apartment and eating my chili. I just know that right before I hit the guest bed and knocked out, my phone’s clock read 2:00, and my first thought was, “Dear God, I’ve been awake a whole day.”

The next day, my cousin and her husband took us to brunch in Alexandria at a place called Bilbo Baggins, which of course was Hobbit-themed. I had the richest french toast ever in my life, and no other french toast has ever compared since. Made from two thick slices of raisin bread and stuffed with a decadent cream cheese, that french toast was absolute heaven. I can’t wait to go back someday and have it again.

Wanderlust: Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador, 2011. Photo by Meagan Kimberly

In August 2011  I visited my father’s home country of Ecuador for the first time. I remember my excitement when I booked the airplane tickets for my dad, my mom, and me. Then the day came and boarding the plane to leave the country for the first time turned my stomach in the best way possible. As we approached the green mountains of Quito and flew in between the peaks to get to the city’s airport, the rain drops drizzled down the open plane window and I stopped breathing, our aircraft tilting to fit in the middle and avoid the most turbulence.

We were picked up by an old family member whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and suddenly I remembered the way he used to make me laugh at family holiday parties. My first time in my father’s country and I felt like I’d come home, my heart recognizing right away that the air I breathed and soil I walked on flowed through my veins. My father’s first time back in his home country in over 30 years and the part of his soul he’d thought long dormant came alive once more.

As we weaved our way through rain and traffic, in and out of road lanes, up and down hills, I realized why Miami drivers act the way they do. The lanes were more like guidelines. Cars honked and motorists yelled at one another just like in any other big city. Buses and taxis ruled the roadways, knowing their public status gave them the most leeway in erratic navigation.

The first day we took the bus around the city, I watched an old man, old enough to be my grandfather, hop off the public transit as it decreased speed to a slow cruise down an asphalt hill but never stopping. I gasped as I saw him stumble and fall on his backside, but he immediately popped back up and went on his way as if nothing had happened. I was glad we were getting off at their Port Authority so that the bus would actually stop, but I’ll admit, when we’d hopped on, I literally mean we’d hopped on. The buses barely slow down enough for passengers to get on and disembark, so anyone planning on taking a trip to Quito better be ready to hit the ground running.

For those who love to travel for the food, be ready to have a healthy serving of soup before every savory meal (lunch and dinner). It’s more than enough soup to serve as a meal itself, but save room for the rice and beans, plantains, and meats. The amount of food I ate never stuffed me for long though, as I did enough walking up and down hills throughout the city and at sites on the outskirts that I was always ravenous by the time the next meal came around. Recommended: start off the day with a bowl of cereal with yogurt, not milk. My personal favorite was the guanabana (soursop) with fruit loops, as its sweet and tart mix made for a refreshing morning start.

We visited sites like Pululahua, a crater left over from a volcano that had erupted many years before, and now housed a valley with a village of locals that made their lives there. Over in Baños, in the distance stands the Tungurahua, a still-active volcano that has destroyed the village at its edge that no matter how many times it crumbles is always rebuilt and the people go on living in their home. At the Mitad del Mundo we straddled the equator and for a moment stood in two places at once.

There’s too many words and memories of my time in Ecuador, and although it’s been six years since I saw it, I still see the waterfalls and green mountains so clearly, with the view of Cotopaxi’s peak the first image that greeted me every morning. Since the moment I boarded the plane that took me back home to Florida, I’ve been dying to step back on my father’s land. I imagine the longing I have is only a fraction of what he’s felt every day since he left, and I can’t wait until the day we both return.

For those lost to the cliffs

The following is a poem I wrote about an experience I had during my travels to Ireland. I’d shared a glimpse on my Instagram, but a fellow traveler whom I’d met on the trip requested to see the full poem, so here it is. Enjoy!

“For those lost to the cliffs.”

Is what the sign at the bottom of the trail read.
Yes, many a tourist stood too close to the edge
and with a gust of wind was blown over the tall
green and muddy rocks to the unforgiving waves.
Knowing this, and even in the chill gray rainy day
I set my boots to the slick brown mud, squelching
beneath my feet as every step created suction between
myself and the earth.

Up and up we trekked, staying safe behind the stone
barricade and sticking to the trail until it stopped and
opened up. We’d made it to the top…
Of the first cliff, at least, and that’s where my asthma
let me go. We walked no further, being on a time crunch
but, oh, what. A. Sight.

I ventured toward a sloped edge, my boots sliding, precarious
but I needed to see. Cold, frothy waves beat against the jagged
rocks, blue-grey over brown curtained with mossy green. My lungs
ached deliciously and the wind numbed my cheeks as I stared
down the long drop and spread my arms in praise. I breathed
in the clear air for the few short minutes we had and closed
my eyes, like praying.

The journey back down was slick, but I made it.
I made it back, but, oh, I was lost to the cliffs.

Wanderlust: Georgia

I went to Georgia during my birthday weekend back in college, junior year if I remember correctly. I was attending an open-call audition and Caitlin, Char’Lee, Lida and I packed into the Volkswagen for a chilly adventure. (Side note: traveling during my birthday always brings a weather surprise for me, as January in Florida is still hot as hell).

As with all proper road trips, we stocked up on snacks and tunes, ready to roll down the highway with classic rock and Pringles. Of course, keeping up the hype for over four hours is difficult, so after a while it became a napping party with Char’Lee behind the wheel, a true team player staying awake.

As we cruised the interstate though, nearing Atlanta but still on the outskirts, Columbus (the Volkswagen) started running low on gas, and every exit we took led to ghost towns with tumbleweeds rolling in the wind. No seriously, the first exit we took, the gas station looked like it’d been abandoned for years and there was brush and dirt just blowing in the breeze. The next stop was the same thing. It wasn’t until exit number three that we made human contact at a mom-and-pop garage.

Thankfully, they did not kill us as we suspected they might, and instead laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re not gonna find a working gas station for a while. Keep driving.” How was that possible near a mechanic’s garage? Columbus would just have to keep livin’ on a prayer until we reached the city.

We made it. Just barely, but we made it. Filled up and headed to the hotel where surprise, there’s a parking fee for the garage they hadn’t told us about when I’d first booked the hotel. Shout out to my mom for taking the extra charge. Other than that, I gotta admit, I don’t really remember the hotel. I just remember walking around Atlanta.

I don’t remember when we arrived, but while the city itself felt alive, there were hardly any passersby on the streets. It was like my friends and I were the only living souls left amid the breathing concrete and edifices. I’d never pictured Atlanta, GA being so devoid of people at any given time. It was a major city, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t it have been like NYC or Miami, with citizens bustling around at every goddamn hour of the day?

Eventually, my friends and I parted ways, leaving me behind to wait with the cattle call for auditions while they ventured into the city to explore. I got a text message saying, “We found Atlanta. Everyone’s at the aquarium lol.” Who knew the Atlanta Aquarium required reservations beforehand?

Fast forward through the auditions, because I spent the whole day there, mostly sitting and practicing and panicking, until it was all over and I was free to join my friends again. I believe the name of the restaurant we went to was called Pitty Pat’s Porch. The pecan pie is highly recommended. That damn dessert still haunts my dreams. Also, I had collared greens for the first time that night, and they were delicious.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

More food adventures were had the next day as we lunched at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, and oh, damn, were those ribs social media worthy. Atlanta was good for food. And for laughs, as we arrived in the Five Points neighborhood and Char’Lee had to get out of the driver’s seat to let me parallel park. Apparently I was the only one there who had some experience with that maneuver (Hialeah training, thank you!).

For the hipster and bohemian at heart, I say visiting Five Points is the way to go. Not so much my cup of tea, but the others enjoyed it a lot. Crazy jewelry purchases were made. Thrift shops were perused (because who goes to a place like Five Points and doesn’t go thrift shopping?). Record stores ogled. Yep, the perfect place for a writer to set up shop and start working on her observation skills.

Our final day in Georgia saw us through a tour of the Martin Luther King, Jr. community. It’s still surreal to me to walk down paths as an every day citizen in neighborhoods where such historical figures once walked themselves, and I wonder if they thought they were ordinary as well.

Wanderlust: North Carolina

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting North Carolina three times with my a cappella group for a conference called SoJam. The first two times, if I remember correctly, were at Duke University in Durham. I didn’t spend a great amount of time there because it was mostly spent on campus at the conference, but I do remember my awe at seeing orange leaves.

Durham, NC in November 2011
Durham, NC in November 2011

As a Florida girl, I’d mostly seen palm trees and varying degrees of green and brown, but never orange. It was like a candlelit forest, and their delicious crunch under my feet as my boots crackled over fallen piles satisfied me like a precisely executed harmony.

I always forgot to pack a chap stick with my things, so I can’t tell you how many I’ve bought on all my travels, but most of them came from North Carolina. The cold, still atmosphere that captured my breath mid air reminded me within an hour of walking around outside that chap stick was a necessity. My fingers would get stiff and achy without gloves, so I finally caved and bought a pair of those too. My hair loved the freezing temperatures though.

Okay, it wasn’t freezing. It was really only in the mid-40’s. That hardly counts as snow conditions, but it did delve deep into the bones. Good thing there were plenty of coffee shops to grab a hot cup of tea or cocoa, because at that time, I didn’t drink coffee yet. I remember one shop had board games and puzzles for patrons to pass the time indoors before venturing into the cold once more.

My favorite part of all these trips was always the nightly visit to a local Cookout. Late night treks with the crew to the little stand, putting in our orders at the window and sitting around on the dirty ground just really hit the spot. Gourmet milk shakes, hush puppies and delicious, greasy fast food is exactly what a college kid needs after a 10 hour bus ride into North Carolina.

There’s a lot of local flavor in the city, and I wish I could have seen more (and remember, but it’s been a few years now). I have these flashes of memory of a strange bull in the city center, restaurants lined up side by side serving chicken and waffles in one and exotic salads in another, world-famous ice pop joints even though I’d never heard of them, and a flurry of oh my god did we get on the right bus?!

Oh, and of course I can’t forget that North Carolina is where I learned about a certain turtle flavor of chocolate. Yeah, it’s called turtle and I was hella confused when the waitress asked me if I wanted it. (Just chocolate and caramel, guys, relax.)

I wouldn’t mind heading out that way again someday, with more time to devote to the scenery and local sites. I will say this though, as cold as the climate was, it sure felt like a warm welcome everywhere I went.

Wanderlust: New York City

Let’s start this travel blogging endeavor with the first trip I remember making that gave me the travel bug. I don’t count Puerto Rico at 1-year-old or Jersey at four because I have no memories of those trips.

nyc-scan-001
From my NYC trip 2000

No, my first official journey into the world of travel happened when I was 8-years-old and my parents took us, my brother and me, to New York City for the first time. My dad drove us the whole way in, in his graying, white Toyota Corolla with the thin blue stripes along the side.

We made our way through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, stopping a few times to take pictures and bathroom breaks. All the way we went until finally, our hotel in the heart of New York lay ahead of us, behind a flurry of white cold sheets of snow. We’d arrived in the middle of a blizzard.

My father never let on his terror of driving in that snow, but I never saw it as a threat. I stepped out of the car, eyes wide and tongue out, trying to catch a snowflake, and let those tiny icicles charged by wind fly into my face without a care. I’d never been in snow before that day, and it was as magical as the movies always made it out to be.

I remember warm, toasty nights in the hotel room, wearing our flannels and thermal underwear while we sat under the bed covers eating pizza and drinking hot chocolate. Back home we never got to eat this much junk food, but we were on vacation, so health and diet be damned.

We saw the usual tourist sites: Central Park, Rockefeller center with the tree all lit up, ice skaters gliding on the ponds and in the rinks like fairies coming through portals to another world, and even the Twin Towers. We’d visited NYC the year before they crashed down, and that was the day I realized I had a fear of heights as we reached the top and my brother pretended to tip me over the edge. I haven’t been able to climb high places ever since.

The day we took the ferry to Ellis Island was bitter cold, chilling straight through my layers of a fluffy coat, fleece sweater, turtle neck long sleeve shirt, mittens and scarf, as if Jack Frost laughed at my poor attempts at armor. As we pulled into the parking lot for the ferry dock, my brother and I pointed and laughed at a seagull trying to fly away, but only getting knocked back to the ground by a strong gust of wind.

That day Lady Liberty’s upper floors were closed, so we only made it through half the museum, but I still saw so many pictures of immigrants, in black and white and sepia tone, arriving at the island, wearing smiles, signing their names to the books, greeting relatives. I saw pictures of the very statue I stood in from the point of view of newcomers seeking refuge, prosperity and family, and even then I knew what that meant.

The thing that always stuck with me though about New York City was the rush. The city that never sleeps. Constantly bustling, I had to learn how to walk fast and keep up with the flow of bodies from bus station through streets to subway stations and back all over again. I even got to yell at a taxi that nearly hit me as I walked with the throngs through impatient, honking traffic.

The reeking smell of garbage as we hustled through construction zones never bothered me. Truth be told, I probably didn’t notice because I breathed through my mouth as I struggled to keep up with my family in such thick and heavy wardrobe. The pace and flow of New York City is not to be taken lightly.

I’ve been to New York a couple of more times since then, and every time I still feel like Dorothy as she approaches the Emerald City. I’m just always in complete awe of the blazing lights of Broadway, the obnoxious honks of horns in standstill traffic, street performers putting on a show like their lives depended on it, and the rushing bodies as the crowds swarm the sidewalks and streets making their way home or to school or to work, all the while never paying each other any mind.

It’s the perfect place to be if you want to be left alone but not feel alone.

Updated 2/16/17 with photo.