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Mission Accom-Polish-ed (and Some Other Eastern European Countries)

In the middle of March, I went on a week-long holiday to Eastern Europe with my friend Shelby. Our goals were simple: to eat and drink our way through all of the places we visited, and take great photos of every step of the way. And to do it all for under a collective $250. (Spoiler: all goals were accomplished. Or accom-Polish-ed, if I may…) I’m going to break this blog down by each place we went throughout the week!

Bratislava, Slovakia: We had a very short window in Bratislava, but planned to use the 18 hours to their fullest potential. We flew in, hopped on the first bus into the city, and made it to our hostel pretty easy (A Wild Elephants Hostel is where we stayed, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone!!!). The staff at the hostel took us on an “abandoned hospital sunset tour” and WOW. Just, wow. It was just Shelby and I on the tour, and a handful of volunteers from the hostel. We found our way to the top floor of a hospital that kinda could’ve definitely felt haunted if we were alone in there at night. But we sat on the roof (a free, incredible, view of the city of Bratislava), drank beer, and watched the sun set. Magic. We went out to dinner and hung out with some of the other guests of the hostel (and actually, literally, crushed the patriarchy that evening, but that’s another day’s story).

Prague, Czech Republic: What an incredible place. In a full day’s time, we were able to walk around and see all the major stuff the city has to offer. The astronomical clock and Old Town square, the John Lennon Wall, the Charles Bridge (we touched the good luck charm!), all of the incredible architecture, a lot of cool installation art scattered throughout the city, great (and cheap) food and drink. Prague is beautiful. (Side note, if you follow me on Snapchat, this is the city in which I posted a 5 minute long, very messy, story of Shelb and I trying Czech snacks and impersonating YouTube videos. Sorry, but also, not very sorry because we had a great night!)

Auschwitz/Birkenau: What an indescribable experience. I’ve struggled a lot on how to write about the visit to the museum/grounds, because it was so… Something. It was something. It was terrible. How could it not be? It gave me the same feeling as standing on top of the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor did. Or looking out of the Door of No Return on Goree Island in Senegal. It sucks. It’s uncomfortable. But I’m honored I had the opportunity to do it. To freely walk through the halls of a place that destroyed and ended so many lives—as an observant. Feeling nothing even close to what the million people that died there felt. Experiencing things like that—having such privilege to experience things like that—is horrifying and important. The tour guide I had said something right at the end of our tour that really stuck with me:  “Take what you see here, see it as a grain of salt on a bigger beach. This is a genocide we pay homage to, but it is not the only genocide that has ever happened. There is more than one genocide happening as I speak to you today. So be more than a visitor at a museum. Be more than a charitable donation. I hope today makes you want to do something, because I shouldn’t have to have a job at a former death camp. No one should have this job.”

Krakow, Poland: Probably my favorite place we stayed on this trip? We, again, saw a lot of the major sights in the full day we had there. The castle, the cathedral (and the dragon bones hanging over the door of the cathedral!), the old town square, the Jewish Quarter. We even rode in a horse drawn carriage (listen, it was cheap and we were feeling regal) through town square. The food was dangerously cheap, the people were interesting, and the hostel (Atlantis Hostel) was very nice. We had one roommate that we particularly enjoyed, an old man that had been everywhere in the world and was waiting for his papers to clear so he could return to his home in Ukraine. He bought us pizza while we were out one night, and gave it to us for breakfast the next morning. I love old people. I love Krakow.

Warsaw, Poland: Actually hardly saw the city at all. We had about an hour and a half to sight see, so we walked through old town (sensing a pattern here). We had heard mixed reviews about Warsaw, and ultimately ended up choosing to not spend a full day there. But after walking through old town, we have mild regret. Oh well, next time!

What a week it was. My disposable camera was filled with very stupid, lovely memories and my wallet was drained. Loved it. Be back soon.

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P.S. I Love You, Ireland Pt. 2

After leaving California in late January (and stopping over to see some friends in New York City for a couple days), I landed in Ireland with a hangover and high hopes. I was to be volunteering at a hostel in County Wicklow—just south of Dublin—for the next month.

Through the site WorkAway, I was able to secure a bed at a hostel along the Wicklow Way—work a couple hours of housekeeping 5 days a week in exchange for free accommodations and spend the other two days a week however/wherever I please. (I almost always chose Dublin). As per usual, I showed up winging it. Found out it was about an hour’s walk from any bus stop/convenience store/civilization of any sorts. I half-expected that, and really came to love the seclusion, but when I had to trek back in the morning after a long night in Dublin, it could be a bit much. Still, loved every day of it.

The area is truly a dream. Though it rained most days (and snowed a couple times!), I did get a few full hiking days; the days I got lost for a few hours without a phone or a worry in the world are the ones that will stick with me. If the weather was shit for most of the day, but cleared up even briefly, I would slip out the back and walk down to a small, secret gazebo none of the other volunteers knew about. From the looks of it, the people whose property it was on used it as a place to practice shooting—there were empty bottles and cans lining the edge of it and shell casings all over the ground. It was an oasis for me. I would go there to write or read or take photos or nap if it wasn’t freezing.

My days off in Dublin are what made this stint in Ireland so lovely. I met up with friends and explored new parts of the area I didn’t have time to see before (like Dun Laoghaire and Howth and Killiney Hill and, a bit further out, Bray). I drank a lot. Ate a lot of buffalo wings and eggs benedict. I spent Valentine’s Day bowling with Shelby and Irish Mother’s Day eating homemade apple tart with Ciaran’s family. I worked my first photography gig making everyone look glam at an event for Ciaran’s veterinary class. I even celebrated St Patrick’s Day in Dublin! I wish I had more to say about that day but I started celebrating when I woke up and didn’t stop until I fell asleep on a street corner at midnight. It was grand.

My last weekend was spent on a road trip to county Mayo in the west of Ireland. What is supposed to be the rainiest part of Ireland was sunny and not freezing. We visited Clew Bay (which is composed of 365 islands woah), Ciaran and I briefly explored the town of Westport and went to a party at one of his friend’s houses. It’s funny to see Irish people’s reaction to a three-hour road trip, because for me that’s a day-trip to Santa Cruz or the Bay. Within a day of driving back to Dublin, I was off on my next adventure.

If this blog seems brief considering how long I was in Ireland, apologies. I was way more focused on myself and having a good time with my friends than documenting my every move. And I really did enjoy myself. I fuckin’ love Ireland. In a lot of ways, most of which are impossible to articulate. On to my next adventure. Hope everyone’s great. Talk soon.

One (Very Merry) Night in Belgium

About a month ago, I was trying to figure out my flight path home from Spain. I knew I wanted to visit a Christmas market—everything I had heard about them sounded magical. So I asked Ciarán (worked at camp with me, we went to Malaysian Borneo together, he’s super Irish…Ring a bell?) for advice. Where should I go? Should I drop my bags in Ireland first or bring them with me? Will they have festive alcoholic beverage choices? The essentials.

Ciarán knows better than pretty much anyone that I love to wing it when it comes to travel—for example, because of my whimsical idea to use only a paper map in Borneo, we got lost on the road about 8 times a day (still sorry, Ciarán)—so he came up with an idea. He double checked when I wanted to go, when my flight to the States would be, and then went on his merry way BOOKING A TRIP TO A SECRET COUNTRY FOR ME TO VISIT A CHRISTMAS MARKET. I was not to find out until I got to the airport the morning of my flight. The only hint I got was that this country was known for its chips (not super helpful, seeing how everyone loves potatoes).

I had a month to look forward to this. And I really did. It would have been easy enough to cheat, look up flights out of Dublin on that day around the time he gave me and narrow it down. But I did not! I was up for the adventure. He checked in for me and printed the boarding passes, and stuck them in an envelope.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday morning. I had flown into Dublin the night before. Ciarán handed me the envelope and dared me not to take any luggage with me. I agreed, grabbed my camera, and walked out the door. All I had was my camera, wallet, phone/charger, and the envelope with the tickets.

I get to the airport, and the only aimlessly wandering person I could find was a confused old man. I asked if he could record me opening the envelope. His perplexed, disinterested glare I could see from over the tip of my phone as he recorded me made me nervous. I opened the envelope….BELGIUM! Brussels! I nervously thanked the man recording me and went through security. You get a lot of looks when you literally have nothing with you but cash and a camera. But I was pumped. Since I was a tad early, I got online and booked a hostel. I pulled out the note that Ciarán had put in the envelope with my boarding pass. There was a to-do list for while I was in Brussels. How. Cool. It included eating chips (French fries, my American friends!) and waffles and chocolate and drinking Belgian beer and making a friend and such.

I arrived right as it was getting dark. I took a shuttle bus into Brussels. Remember, at this point, I had still had very little time to research Brussels. So I get off at the last stop. It’s dark, it’s raining, I’m starving. I see Christmas lights in the distance and assume it’s got something to do with the Christmas market, so I start walking. I was wrong BUT there was a chips shop right where I stopped off. One item checked off the list. I connected to wifi and mapped out where I was and realized I had walked in the opposite direction of the market! Of course! I bought an umbrella and walked almost two miles across Brussels to the market. The walk, though extremely brisk and moist, was very cool. Brussels is the political capital of the European Union, so there are a lot of important looking buildings scattered throughout the city. The closer to the city center I got, the older and fancier the architecture got. The Grand Place (city center) is, quite honestly, one of the prettiest places I have had the chances to see in Europe thus far. The buildings are the actual definition of marvelous, there was a huge Christmas tree, and (I kid you not) it smelled like chocolate.

Just a little further was the Christmas market. It was JUST as magical as I had hoped. There were over a hundred food/drink/gift/stuff booths! I visited almost all of them. I drank Belgian beer (I still hate beer, so) and spiked hot chocolate, ate a bunch, bought gifts, and rode a huge Ferris wheel and got the greatest vantage point of the market and greater Brussels area.

The next day I walked around all day. Literally just walked around. Revisited the city center, walked around in the city’s biggest park, ate at the most famous fish & chips restaurant in Belgium, walked more. It was sunny and not crazy cold and seeing more of the city was great. I flew back to Dublin that evening and left the following morning. 6 flights in 5 days! This week’s been quite the ride.

In case I haven’t been vocal enough about how grateful I am for this whole secret-mission-Christmas-trip, I AM SO GRATEFUL. Best gift ever. No one tell Ciarán that he is awesome for this and for everything, he really doesn’t need any more of an ego-boost. I kid. Tell him. There’s a reason some of my favorite blog posts on here somehow connect to him. Thanks Ciarán!!

I AM HOME FOR A MONTH. That is all. Happy Holidays!