Where you go, Aygo

Back in September of last year, I was starting to feel a bit restless. I realized that I had absolute masses of use-it-or-lose it vacation time and that the end of the year was fast approaching, so I turned to the internet and started looking into all the places I want to go, places with decently priced tickets, places with good weather, and anywhere with pretty landscapes on Instagram.

And then I had to step away from my computer because I went into information overload and gave myself a headache.

When I was sufficiently recovered, I realized that one place kept jumping out at me throughout my research: England. So, I decided to focus my search there and see what I could come up with.

England has always been one of my favorite places, from my childhood when I was a castle and King Arthur obsessed daydreamer, to when I was 13 and lucky enough to move to London for a couple of years, and ever since. Even as I’ve spent more and more time in Scotland, England continues to have a hold on my heart (shoutout to one of my favorite bands from those magical tween years in the UK!). In the past few years I’ve been trying harder to see new places, instead of going back to places I’ve already been, but there are so many places in England that have been on my Dream to-do list for years, so this seemed like a good chance to get back to place I love and check some new things off my list.

Namely: Glastonbury Tor.

When my family was living in England, we took a weeklong holiday to Cornwall and Devon and, as a King Arthur fanatic, I was absolutely beside myself with excitement. I wandered around in awe of every ancient stone and could barely contain myself at both Tintagel and Slaughterbridge. The trip was going to culminate at Glastonbury Tor…and then we ran out of time. Suddenly it was time to get back to London and back to school and I never made it to Avalon. My poor little heart was broken and not even reading and re-reading my new favorite book (Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead) could console me on the drive home.

 

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Tintagel Castle, 1999

 

Anyway. Back in 2017 I, definitely not still sad and bitter about this giant injustice of my childhood, realized that maybe this could be my chance to finally get to Glastonbury! And throw in a few other new destinations while I was at it! A road trip, maybe?!

10 days later I found myself in the Enterprise car rental lot at Bristol Airport, having successfully navigated another WOW flight, standing across the counter from Allen (may or may not be his real name). Allen was very nice, but he was also very clearly calculating the likelihood of both me and the car surviving the whirlwind, five-day trip from Glastonbury to Plymouth and back I had planned. Allen looked skeptical. Still, Allen was a professional and after letting me know that he wouldn’t close out my transaction until I was SURE I didn’t want the GPS, he led me outside and told me to wait while he brought the car around. And then it was my turn to be skeptical.

I’m 5’2 and I was travelling by myself with only carryon luggage, and I’m moderately familiar with British roads so I wasn’t expecting anything big. But I also wasn’t exactly expecting the little Toyota Aygo Allen brought around – mostly because up until that point I was unaware that the Toyota Aygo is a thing that exists.

 

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Aygo!

 

Allen gave me some final instructions (eg, I now know that in the Aygo, drive is “E,” although I don’t know why), and then went back inside to help the next customers. I loaded up my suitcase (which took up the entirety of the boot [is it still a boot in a hatchback?]), turned on my GPS…and nothing happened. So, it was back inside to Allen who pulled out a rental GPS suspiciously quickly, as if he knew this would happen. He handed it to me with a quick nod, and barely a break in what he was telling the next family in line, and I went back outside. I turned on the GPS, put in the address of my Glastonbury B&B, turned the key….and nothing happened. Oh Allen?

It turned out that when Allen backed the car over to me, he left it in reverse when he turned it off, and I hadn’t realized so hadn’t thought to check if it was in neutral before trying to start it. No problem, GPS on, car in neutral, key turned….and nothing.

At this point I was starting to get concerned. How could such a little car be so problematic? How could my 16 years of driving leave me so unprepared for the mysteries of the Aygo? What would I do when Allen wasn’t there? Allen, by the way, was starting to look like he would rather be anywhere else.

It turns out that the ease with which Allen stopped the car in reverse should have been a clue – the Aygo, as far as I can tell, has no “park” gear. To stop, you put it in neutral and use the handbreak. So, the final problem I was encountering was that I, not being someone who frequently uses the handbreak, had forgotten to disengage it before trying to drive. This took a few minutes (that felt like an eternity) to figure out, because Allen would get into the car, release the handbreak, and start it up. Then he would stop, handbrake, and get out to let me try, at which point I wouldn’t think to do anything with the handbreak and so nothing would happen. We cycled through this more times than I care to admit, before Allen figured it out, gave the car one more sad lingering look as though it was the last time he expected to see it intact, and sent us both out into the world.

 

Spoiler: The Aygo and I, after bonding intensely over B roads and a few other design quirks, did in fact both make it back alive. And who was sitting behind the desk when we did, but Allen! He hid it well, but I know he was thrilled to see me again.

Joking aside, Enterprise was great, the Aygo was everything I needed (and then some), and Allen was so incredibly nice and helpful. I would absolutely fly to Bristol, rent from Enterprise, drive an Aygo, and interact with Allen again! The initial rental experience may have been a bit of a rocky start (entirely on my end), but it kicked off a trip that was pure happiness.

 

But more about that next time.

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Things I’m Loving

In honor of Valentine’s Day this past week (and more specifically, in honor of the leftover candy I’m sitting here eating), I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about some things I’m loving lately. Definitely taking full advantage of this sugar high to try and kick start a return to writing regularly! So, with that said…

1. SCUBA DIVING. I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice (or three times? Or maybe four? Etc…) how much I love swimming and how I firmly consider myself a water person. I’ve been a swimmer for as long as I can remember, but, weirdly, I’ve never tried scuba diving. I’m not sure if that was ever a conscious decision or if I just never got around to it, but as much as I love being in the water, I’ve only ever really spent time on the surface. For the most part, I have been fine with that, although largely thanks to following the artist Jason deCaires Taylor, I’ve become increasingly interested in diving over the past few years. Finally, in January, I decided to go for it, and signed up for the PADI eLearning course and the five initial contained dives through a local dive shop. The next day I had my shiny new flippers, mask, and snorkel in hand and was throwing myself into the first online lesson. I went full-on Hermione and devoured the online course, and on Day 1 of the pool dives, I took my first breath from the regulator (on land, even) and was instantly in love. I finished the pool dives and just need to do my four ocean dives to complete the PADI open water certification (allowing me to dive with a buddy to depths of up to 18 meters). The ocean dives can be completed locally or at a different site through a referral, which brings me to the next thing I’m currently loving…

2. TRAVEL PLANNING. January was a big month for me. While I was still just playing around with the idea of trying scuba, I was also talking with a friend about his plans to spend the spring in Indonesia. “If you’re looking for a travel buddy…” I told him, with exactly zero subtlety or chill. Luckily, this particular friend knows that I don’t offer to come unless I actually mean it. So approximately 24 hours after that first conversation, and after I had confirmed which island in Indonesia I should be flying into, I had my tickets to Bali booked and was researching dive shops “just in case” I decided to sign up for diving and needed a place to do my final dives.

 

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But for real

 

 

Now, about two weeks out, I’m still reading everything I can about the location, the history, the current events, and best places to eat…anything I can find (and I’ve identified my top two dive shop options). When I travel I want to know as much as I can about everything to do with my destination, and with Indonesia being in a brand-new part of the world for me, I’m loving every second of pre-trip reading. As much as I love solo travel, it also helps to have a friend going. There’s so much more time for fun reading, when I know my accommodation is already being handled. On a related subject…

3. FRIENDS. It wouldn’t be a Valentine’s Day (ish) post without getting a little bit mushy. I love my friends. This isn’t surprising or in any way new information to me, but recently it has truly hit me how many amazing people I have in my life. In the past month I have been lucky enough to celebrate birthdays, engagements, and new babies; I have had dinner, coffee, and gym dates; I have gone to late night concerts and early morning ski trips.

 

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SurfSet NYC with Aheli Wanders

 

I am so grateful that I have people who will help me book spontaneous trips to the other side of the world and who will offer to meet me at the airport when I get there. I am floored by the fact that while my upcoming trip involves only one such friend, I have multiple other people who would do the exact same thing if I happened to be in their part of the world. I am eternally grateful for the people, both local and afar, who know me as well as I know myself and for all the advice, support, and encouragement they offer me, and I only hope I am able to return the favor! I am amazed by this little global community I’ve managed to build for myself and while I hate that I can’t have all my people here with me all the time, I love knowing that they are out there, and it is beyond nice to confidently know that whenever I manage to see them next it will be like no time at all has passed.

4. MOVING. I feel like the past few months I have been almost constantly in motion – swimming, running, spinning, skiing, yoga, surfset – you name it, I’m happy to throw it into the mix. It started with a SwimTrek trip to Oman back in December. SwimTrek is basically my ideal lifestyle – this trip in particular consisted of daily boat rides on a traditional dhow into spectacular fjord-like sounds, 4k wild swimming in the morning, lunch on the dhow, 2k swimming in the afternoon, a boat ride back to the hotel, and fantastic nightly dinners. Waking up to Those Views, and spending the days in, on, and around the water was a dream, and the sense of accomplishment of finishing 6k daily was heady and addictive.

 

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Oman!

 

Back in the frigid New England winter, I couldn’t quite replicate the SwimTrek experience, but the need to spend my days moving and the bliss of collapsing into bed at the end of the day tired and aching in the best possible way haven’t gone away. Now, I know this isn’t necessarily sustainable and I know I have a tendency to go until I absolutely crash. I am also very aware that the yardage/mileage/whatever I’m putting in isn’t all the best quality; “junk miles” would apply to a lot of what I’m doing and there are definitely days I know I need to hold back because I haven’t fully recovered from the previous day. That said, I found 2017 really difficult – personally, politically, globally – and I spent a lot of time feeling stalled, stuck, or like I was working so unbelievably hard to break even and stay exactly where I was. 2018 has brought some relief, along with plenty of new worldwide heartbreak, but on a personal level I feel like I’ve been catapulted forward, and I am loving the sense of being in constant forward motion. My plan right now is to enjoy this until vacation and then use Indonesia to possibly re-set a bit so I’m not burning myself out. But for now? Onward!

5. WRITING. I haven’t written in a while. This is definitely a pattern with me – as always, life happened, I got busy…etc. Writing has always helped me organize my thoughts, but there were times last year when I just didn’t know where to begin, and so I kept falling further and further behind. However, in the later part of the year I managed to organize some trips to some places I was really excited about (England! Oman!) and it has been bothering me that I never managed to write them up or transfer the daily notes I took (seriously) into something more coherent than my frantic, handwritten stream of consciousness thoughts. So, I’m hoping to remedy that soon! With so many good memories I want to commit to a more permanent record, and so many exciting things coming up I know I won’t want to forget, this seems like the perfect time to try and get back into writing, and to try and commit to writing more regularly. It is truly something I love, and that definitely makes it worth effort.

Wandering

Aheli, of Aheli Wanders, is one of my dearest friends. You should all absolutely check out her blog and follow along as she travels the world and finds all the best meals both local (Brooklyn) and abroad (any and everywhere). Last week she was kind enough to let me wander with her, answering questions about travel and racing, as well as food, books, and dogs – basically all of my favorite things! While I will absolutely have her return the favor over here at some point, in the meantime I thought I would tell one of my favorite stories: How Aheli and I met, and the moment we knew we would be friends.

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In Fall 2007, I studied abroad in Edinburgh. I had been looking forward to study abroad since before I even started college and I couldn’t wait to get off that plane and dive into a totally new experience.

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My first night, I nonchalantly hung out in the hallway, ready to meet my new flatmates. I managed to find a group of girls, all standing in a circle talking about plans for the night. One of them asked if anyone planned on going to the Fresher’s Week pub night and I listened as everyone in the circle said no. As soon as it was my turn to speak I’m pretty sure I shouted YES, in typical loud, anything but subtle fashion. The only other girl going, the one who had originally asked, was Aheli and I instantly decided that she was going to be my friend.

I love telling this story with Aheli, because when you hear our individual internal monologues from the evening it’s even easier to truly understand why we are such a good friend match. Namely, we’re both ridiculous. While there was no way we were ever going to be anything but besties, both of us spent the evening second guessing everything and taking turns, not at all dramatically, thinking that omg this is my one shot at having a friend (…) and she already has an established group. WHAT NOW?

“Established group” being relative – we both knew other people in Edinburgh from our home universities, and we both exerted way too much energy trying to figure out what the other’s friend group dynamic was. It’s not even that having a group is a bad thing! Far from it, in fact! But another thing we discovered that we had in common was that we both wanted our study abroad experiences to be different than everyday life back home. The other students from my home university were great, but they were all people I could see anytime. Similarly, the people Aheli knew were all so kind and lovely – and we are actually all friends now! – but back then, I wanted to make sure I made the most of my four months in Scotland and I didn’t want to stick too close to people or things that were familiar – to me or to my new, definitely-going-to-be-my-best friend.

So anyway, we wandered over to the meeting place, in turn walking with other students from my university, other students from her university, a ton of students from our brand NEW university, and talking up a storm, realizing that we have an insane amount in common. Including, apparently, a need to not leave the bar until the party is completely over. Around the time the lights went on and people were making their way towards the door, Aheli and I realized that we had outlasted everyone else, and so the two of us began the trek back to the flat.

Except Aheli wasn’t actually staying at the flat. She had one more night booked in a hotel and so assuring me that it was “just over there” (it wasn’t) she wandered off into the night. I was a little skeptical about this, but realized that having just met her it would be creepy to tell her that this is how ripped from the headlines Law and Order episodes are born.

That would probably be a good enough “how we became friends” story, except the moment that solidified the friendship actually came the next day. I woke up still concerned that I had made a friend, and then sent her out alone into the night with all the drunks and monsters, so as soon as I managed to roll out of bed, I meandered down to her room to see if she had made it back ok. When she opened her door, I’m pretty sure I just went “Oh!”, pointed into her room, and then started quickly walking back down the hall gesturing at her to follow me. Against all reason, Aheli did, and when we got to my room, I flung open my door and just said “sheets!”

When I was getting myself ready to go to Scotland, my mom became fixated on the question of bedsheets. She was a bit nervous about my going abroad by myself and so channeled all her nerves into the idea that if I was only able to make my bed that first night, everything would be ok. As a result, she had me order the bedding package from the university; sheets, a duvet, and pillows would be packaged and waiting for me on arrival. But my mom was not going to leave anything to chance – what happened if there was a delay? A bedding shortage? A duvet heist? – and I didn’t have clean sheets waiting for me? WHAT THEN? So, she insisted that I also pack sheets in my checked luggage, just to have my bases (and bed) covered. “Fine,” I told her, completely out of patience with The Great Bedding Fiasco of 2007, “I’ll bring sheets. But I’m bringing the flamingo ones.”

When I looked into Aheli’s room that first morning in Scotland. I saw that she had also brought bed sheets with her. THE EXACT SAME FLAMINGO SHEETS. It would be one thing if we had both brought, say, pink sheets. But no – we both packed bedding that was green and white striped, with a pink flamingo overlay. And with that, we confirmed that we were absolutely kindred spirits, and have been friends ever since.

All thanks to absurdly wonderful flamingo sheets.

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Misery Loves Company

I signed up for the Misery Challenge at the end of March, around the time I was starting long for summer. I’ve always loved the ocean, but have only discovered open water swimming the in the past few years. The Misery Challenge seemed, appropriately, challenging but manageable. Plus, I’ll do just about anything for a fun t-shirt (I’m aware this isn’t something to brag about, but…) and with the promise of one proclaiming Misery, I was sold.

The night before the swim I woke up at 2am and frantically started Googling shark sightings in MA, so I was in a really good headspace… Still, the morning of the race I arrived early and checked in (“You’re number 63! Same as the water temperature!”), giving myself enough time to collect my family/bf (misery loves company, after all), wander around the staging area, and get my bearings. The pre-race instructions listed all the turns and buoys, but because we would start and finish in the harbor, there were a lot of turns and gates to keep us out of the boat channel. In theory that is great – more information is better than less, and I really didn’t want to end up in the path of a boat! – but in practice that meant that I found myself one of many people in the gazebo at the end of the pier looking for the various buoys while reciting turns to myself (“Right, gate, left, gate, right, right…was there a yellow one?”). I stopped short of writing them out on my hand, although I saw a few people who did that. Finally, I gave up and decided to do my best…and hope that the person in front of me was on track.

The cool thing about the Misery Challenge is that it is actually four races. There is the three-mile swim out to Misery Island and back and there is also a four mile course, which goes out to and around the island before turning back, for paddleboards, kayaks, and skulls (is…that what they’re called? I only lasted two weeks in crew before I remembered I’m short). I wriggled into my wetsuit as I watched the paddleboarders and kayakers set off, and then I wandered down to the beach for the pre-swim meeting.

20170715_081108Five minutes later, and we were off! It was a time trial start, so we lined up in pairs and went through the starting gate after our numbers had been taken down. The tide was low which made for a bit of a rocky start, but the race team did a great job of clearing the biggest rocks and sharpest shells from the path and laying down mats to walk on into the water. Still much more civilized than the mass starts I’ve done in the past! There’s something refreshing about starting a race without getting any elbows to the face.20170715_082505

As I started swimming, I was grateful for the wetsuit. I got a touch of brain freeze as I first dove under, but it went away quickly. And all those confusing turns? MUCH easier to figure out in the water! I was only a little confused when it turned out that Misery Island was a different Island than I initially thought, but once I figured that out I was good to go. I settled into a good pace and got a good song going in my head (“Rest of my life” by Town Meeting. Something about the line “cold water on my head and my face” seemed especially relevant…).

Because of the way we started, I was never in a pack of swimmers although I was never completely alone either. The water was calm throughout the race, with some subtle large, lazy, rolling waves during the longest stretch of straight swimming. I didn’t notice the waves lifting me up but as I came down the other side, it was be this weirdly unique feeling of swimming while being sort of sideways. I actually liked having those to think about since it broke up the stretch and kept me actively focused on the next buoy.

After the turnaround point (helpfully marked by a triangular buoy as opposed to the other round ones), it felt fairly quick getting back to the harbor. This was the only point at which the course got a little confusing since I was also seeing the buoys from the way out. I knew I needed to keep them mostly to my right, but it is a little weird to see buoys and not head towards them. Fortunately, there were a good number of support boats there to keep us all on track. They pointed out the correct direction and blocked off incorrect turns. At one point I heard a lot of whistle blowing, and while I immediately thought “Sharks! Eels! Lightening!” it was in fact none of the above – just a swimmer being directed back on track. But good to know the hierarchy of my swimming fears, I guess.

The swim ended on the beach closer to the mouth of the harbor than we had started and there was a short run to the finish. Again, the area was well marked and cleared of the biggest obstacles and while I was a little concerned about how my legs would do after three miles in the cold water, I managed to stand up and move without totally eating it. Which is sometimes all you can really ask for.20170715_093502

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At the finish, I found my people and peeled myself out of the wetsuit. I managed to change into real clothes without hitting my chafe marks too badly and wandered over to the finish festival for a bit before heading back home. Success! And not even a little bit Miserable!20170715_094859

Three miles is the longest I’ve ever swam continuously. I swim up to 2.5 in practice (inside) and while I probably came close to that distance on SwimTrek, we had water (and snack!) breaks and sometimes did the full distance over the course of the day, not in a single morning. So, you can imagine I was pretty happy to have finished this! I completed it in 1:23.21 which is a pace of about 1:34/100 yrds. One of the things I’m finding I really enjoy about open water swimming is how much the course and conditions impact the end result. I know that’s probably common sense, but I think it’s a nice change from pool swimming where I know my base pace and it remains fairly consistent. Much more of a challenge this way! And even better, it means I’m able to stay focused on the swimming and less on the numbers, which I enjoy more.

As for the race itself, I was really impressed with how well everything was run. I fully expected to get a paddle to the head with all the boats out in the water at the same time as me, but in reality, I never saw the kayakers or rowers in the water and I only saw a few paddleboarders silhouetted in the distance against the sky as I turned to breathe. It can’t be easy to coordinate that many vessels in order to prevent them from colliding, and yet the organizers of the Misery Challenge did.

I heard some complaints about the low tide and “long” run to the finish, and while I agree that higher tide would have been preferable, I also know that we took over an entire harbor, and so probably our timing was partially determined by safety from larger boats. If I had to choose between high tide and a boat-free course, I’ll take the boat-free course any day. And the run was actually kind of fun – it’s not every day I get to run around barefoot in the mud.

The only suggestion I might make for next year would be brighter swim caps. The women had silver caps, and while that fit with the overall grey Misery theme, I didn’t feel as visible as I might have liked. The men were slightly more visible in gold caps and I noticed a few people who switched to their own brighter caps. As I said, I never encountered any boats on the water and with all the course support I felt very safe throughout, so this was ultimately fine, but just as a thought on the small things I might change.

That aside, I was really happy with how this went. Manchester-By-The-Sea is beautiful and the race gave me a cool way of seeing it. I love the in-water perspective of new places! From talking to people before and after the swim, there are so many races I’d love to try next summer, but if the timing works out, I’d absolutely do Misery again.

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72 Hours in Scotland: The Reality

Alternate title: The Self Indulgent Nostalgia Post

I’ve talked about why I decided to do a long weekend in Scotland and my experience with WOW airline, but what does 72 hours in Scotland actually look like? Well…

Friday

10:20am: Flight lands at Edinburgh Airport; disembark.

10:30am: Stand in customs line for the first time in actual years. Remember I meant to sign up for Global Entry. About that…?

10:45am: In line for Citilink bus to city center. Line is expedited when I am launched towards the window by a quick turning tourist with a large backpack.

10:46am: Note, mid-air, that I consider myself very much not a tourist. OK with this.

11:10am: Get off the bus at Princes Street stop. Walk slowly looking around, very much like a tourist might. Regardless, I am HOME.

11:30am: Meander along Princes Street. Consider how difficult it would be to get a fascinator home if I were to buy one for the wedding. Options identified, further consideration required.

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I probably have more pictures of the Scott Monument than of anything else in Edinburgh. I am ok with that.

 

12:00pm: Stop in the Royal Mile Market in the old Tron church. I discovered this place, best described as a Victorian/vintage craft market with undertones of Steampunk, a few years ago. At that time, I tried a sample of seaweed shortbread (…would recommend for the experience, would not recommend for an actual dessert) and achieved peak nerd happiness when I bought an Outlander style wool shawl from a man dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow (but with skinny jeans) who told me that my hairstyle made my look like I belonged on Game of Thrones. I am pretty sure that will always be the highlight of my life.

12:30pm: MOSQUE KITCHEN. Let’s pause here for a second. When I was in Edinburgh for school I lived at the center of a triangle filled with delicious curry options: 10 to 10 in Delhi was my go-to for palak paneer, Red Fort had the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet with the BEST chicken korma (of which I consumed my weight after my first ever half marathon), and the Mosque Kitchen, which was perfect for hearty, generous portions at student prices. I won’t say that there aren’t good curry options around me now (recommendations in the Boston area? Please?), but I will say I don’t have quite the same selection within walking distance anymore. So when I got off that plane, I craved, I needed, I could not go on without a good curry lunch. I made my way to the Mosque kitchen and almost cried from happiness when I found out I could get TWO veggie options with rice for £5. I went for the saag aloo and aubergine, found a seat by the window, pulled out my book (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), and settled into a curry filled state of happiness.

1:00pm: Dragged myself out of my seat lest I fall asleep. Meandered up and down the Royal Mile and Cockburn Street. Cursed my impressively small personal item luggage for not allowing for shopping. Grabbed a bench in the Princes Street Gardens and pulled my book back out. Safer for my wallet that way.

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The biggest challenge to my shopping self control (shirt by Swish).

 

2:45pm: Train to Perth. I purchased my ticket far enough in advance that I was able to get a £5, nonstop ticket. My strategy was to choose a time that would most likely work, with the understanding that I could eat the cost of the ticket if my plans changed later. Fortunately, they did not and so off I went to Perth!

3:00pm: Arthur’s seat is stunning from across the firth.IMG_6404

3:20pm: The scenery probably continued to be stunning, but I would not know as I was solidly passed out.

3:55pm: Arrive in Perth! Meander (aka get slightly misplaced, but not horrifically so) on the way to the Salutation Inn. Check in, sit on bed. Continue to look longingly at bed as I drag myself back onto my feet. With only 72 hours total, I’ll sleep later. For now, I’m out to explore.

5:40pm: Make my way to the Black Watch Museum and Castle. It’s too late to go inside, but my real purpose for going is to see the Kelpies. The full-sized kelpies, designed by Andy Scott, are on my must-see dream list, but he also has smaller versions, the kelpie maquettes. I will probably just start sobbing when I finally see the full sized ones because the maquettes were breathtaking. I may or may not have taken a million pictures from every angle.IMG_6454

6:30pm: Did you know that everything in Perth closes at 6pm? I did not know that.

7:00pm: Tesco does not close at 6pm. I stocked up on snacks and went back to the hotel. I may have only had 72 hours, but I also had a wedding the next day where I’d be reunited with many of my favorite people and I wanted to be at my best. Pitch Perfect was on, and I was dead asleep by the time they sang Titanium.

Saturday

7:00am: Up at 7am, breakfast of Shreddies, sneakers on, out for a run. I wanted to see if I could find Scone Palace which was supposedly around 2 miles away from where I was staying. I did in fact make it to the gate, but it was locked and the palace itself was set back far enough that I couldn’t see it. Which I guess was the point of the gates. This peasant was successfully kept on the road and off the grounds.

9:00am: Back to the hotel, wedding prep commence!

12:00pm: Shuttle to the wedding. Best friends, warm sunshine, amazing food, all the champagne, ceilidh, ceilidh, ceilidh. Stomach full, heart happy.

11:45pm: “Nicely done with the second verse of All Star!” I’ve been working towards this moment since 1996 and boy was it worth it.

12:00am: Shuttle sing a long on the way home. BED.

Sunday

9:30am: Breakfast with friends at the hotel buffet. Contemplate the wisdom of eating haggis first thing after a night of drinking. Contemplate all the things that could go wrong. Contemplate the origins of haggis and how someone could possible come up with something that sounds so disgusting… Contemplate getting more because haggis is freaking delicious.

10:00am: Free morning! Head to Kinnoull hill. Higher elevation is my favorite.

10:30am: Realize I am alone, did not tell anyone where I was going, have a phone that only works with wifi, and am relying on screenshots of maps I pulled from the internet. Consider how many episodes of SVU involve a body in the woods. Pick up the pace.

11:10am: At the summit! Alive! Everything is beautiful.IMG_6529

11:20am: Continue on to Kinnoull Tower. Everything continues to be beautiful.IMG_6539

11:25am: OBSESS over hawk sculpture in the woods.IMG_6561

12:15pm: Annnd back in Perth. While (or maybe because) I am possibly the poster girl for bad decisions and what not to do in terms of hiking, I cannot speak highly enough of the route description from Walk Highlands. As mentioned I had no service and no GPS but every turn, every incline, and every fork were accounted for in the description. I am great at second guessing that I am in the correct place (usually because I am not) but the description noted enough easy to spot landmarks, that every time I started to wonder if I had gotten off track, I was reassured that I was still exactly where I needed to be.

1:00pm: Post wedding drinks with my people. Crowd is understandably, and somewhat thankfully, subdued.

3:00pm: Wander the city, read by the river, meander towards the train.

5:22pm: On the train, asleep almost immediately.

6:45pm: Back in Edinburgh!

6:50pm: Find the correct door in the correct alley that supposedly leads to my hostel. Once again question my decision-making capabilities and sense of self preservation.

6:55pm: Realize that the building actually contains three hostels, on three separate floors. Realize this when I arrive at the top floor hostel and am told that my hostel is actually on the second floor. Oh. Back down I go.

6:57pm: I am in the Baxter Hostel, which I believe is fairly new and is may be the most hipster hostel I’ve ever seen. The logo is the silhouette of a campfire, but all I see is an upside-down beard. Bunks are custom made with wrought iron frames. Am shown to my room, a nine-person, all women dorm.

7:05pm: “Here’s your key. Well, your room doesn’t actually have a lock right now, but since you need a key to enter the building, you’ll be safe.” Oh. Decide not to think too extensively on that.

7:10pm: Sunset isn’t until 10 and I sure as hell am not spending more time than necessary in the hostel so byeeeeeeee. Because clearly Kinnoull Hill wasn’t enough walking for one day (approximately four miles round trip) I decided to continue seeking out higher elevation by hiking Arthur’s Seat. In my flip flops. Have we discussed my decision making skills yet?IMG_6614

As always, Arthur’s Seat was a delight. Because of where the sun was at, the peak was flooded with light. It was warm, hazy, borderline mystical. As usual the peak was crowded but everyone was a little bit lost in the light giving everyone a bubble of gauzy tranquility amidst the madness.IMG_6601

8:30pm: Back beneath the clouds and HUNGRY. Book it to my favorite noodle place, Red Box. It is nothing special, but has been my go to for quick, filling student food since 2010 and it did not disappoint.

9:00pm: The sun is still up and I still refuse to go back to the hostel. Wander up to the castle, check out the beginnings of the construction for the Tattoo. Turn around and see the Royal Mile glowing in the sun and calmer than I’ve ever seen it before. I love this city. Continue meandering down the Mile, across Princes Street, along George Street, back over, around, up, down…all over, covering as much ground as possible.IMG_6628

11:00pm: Back to the Baxter, blistered, sun burnt, exhausted, completely content.

Monday

7:00am: I’ve been following the Bearded Baker on Instagram and could not leave the country without one of their donuts. So I got up early and wandered down to Rodney Street. The raspberry donut was everything I could have imagined and more.

8:20am: Pass Dublin Street. One time, my grandma read a regency romance novel that took place in Edinburgh and some of the most scandalous scenes took place on Dublin Street. She now asks me about it every time I’m there, so I make sure to walk by at least once each trip and check for gasping damsels or ripped bodices, or whatever, so I can report back.

8:30am: Back to the hostel to collect my things, just enough time get some more reading in the park time before getting back on the citilink bus. Snag one of the front top deck seats and try to soak in as much Edinburgh atmosphere as possible on my way back to the airport.

10:20am: Arrive back at the airport and manage to fit some last minute Cadbury’s in my tiny bag so my family will allow me to return home, closing out an almost exact 72 hour whirlwind of a trip.IMG_6619

72 Hours in Scotland: The How

Or should I say the WOW?

No, I know I shouldn’t say that. Please stay?

 

I talked before about how this trip to Scotland was a balancing act – an attempt to go back to a place I love, while not limiting my opportunities (aka time and funds) to go to new places on my must-see list. So I turned to WOW airlines.

I’ll admit, I was not super optimistic about WOW going in. I’ve flown Ryan Air and I’ve flown Spirit and I sort of imagined that WOW flights would be equivalent…and also longer. But WOW had the best prices, so, after poring over the restrictions, limitations, and fees, I decided to book, simultaneously deciding to get to Scotland and back on only the base fare, no extras.

I have an old laptop bag that I’ve always found a little unwieldy and far bulkier than I can imagine needing, but it turns out that it is the perfect size to count as a free personal item per WOW’s restrictions (WOW: 17x13x10in; My bag: 16x13x6in). I made it my mission – my Everest! – to fit everything I could possibly need for 72 hours (including the wedding) into the bag.

In the end, I did it. I had a wedding outfit, some running clothes, and a couple of other comfortable, casual outfits, along with general essentials, in my one bag. I won’t lie – I was pretty impressed with myself, at least until I showed up in Scotland and found myself in the middle of a heat wave. It turns out I was frequently a little overdressed with not many options. I also would have preferred to have something with two straps – the single strap wore on me a little bit over the course of the weekend. But, it was definitely doable and nice to have as a tried and true option.

As for the flight itself, I think the WOW stars must have aligned because I have no complaints. I was checked in quickly, none of my four flights over the course of the weekend were delayed, and despite having opted to not select my seats, I ended up with three window seats and an aisle. I…thought I was going to have a more interesting story about this part of the trip? In actuality, on my outbound flight I fell asleep before takeoff and woke up to most beautiful clouds I’ve ever seen. The return flight had fewer clouds, but I suppose that is still acceptable. So spoiled.

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So, would I fly WOW again? Yes, but with caveats. This trip worked because I didn’t need any of the extras. For a longer trip, or a trip that required more luggage, I probably would not. When I was comparing prices before booking, WOW had the cheapest fares, but luggage fees made the difference in price less significant.

Similarly, this flight worked because I was in the no frills, budget state of mind and I was fully prepared to muscle through on limited sleep/comfort. I was lucky in my seat selection, but if I wanted to pick my seat or if I wanted in-flight entertainment, I would look elsewhere. Can I get by without an in-flight movie? Sure, but they do make some of those longer flights go faster, and I put them soundly in the quality of flight/happiness on arrival category of extras.

That said, going in with no real expectations and the student-travel mentality, WOW was a delight. The planes seemed well maintained and the service was good. I did not experience delays, cancellations, or luggage issues. The food at KEF airport (because obviously I refused to purchase anything onboard) was good. Most importantly, I was able to get where I needed to be without losing time or wasting money and for this trip that was truly everything I needed.

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I did not take any pictures en route. No one needs to see me mid-flight…

72 Hours in Scotland: The Challenge

Scotland is like home to me. I fell in love with the country during a road trip with my family when I was 13 and I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along on business trips back to Edinburgh throughout high school. I went to the University of Edinburgh for a semester abroad in college and when I realized that four months was not nearly enough time (…and I didn’t want to grow up…) I went back for my postgraduate degree. In the years since graduation I have taken advantage of every chance/offer/barely legitimate reason to go back. Christmas market? Done. New flat with a spare room? Count me in. Fun race? Just let me grab my sneakers. Free afternoon and a story that’s better in person? Wait right there, I’m on my way. The trips have always been a mix of old and new – revisiting my favorite people and places and finding new areas to explore – and I’ve loved every second.

 

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Scott Monument in the distance

 

In the past few years, however, the events have slowed, the people have moved, and I’ve started seriously considering all the other places I want to see, forcing myself to start prioritizing some of the other places on my list (looking at you, Montenegro!). But then? I got the wedding invitation.

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There was never a chance I was going to miss this wedding. My giant group of friends in one of my favorite places AND a ceilidh? Obvious yes. But I still wanted to preserve some time/funds for other places/adventures on my list for this year, and so I decided that, in the spirit of reliving the glory of my university days, I’d do this trip student budget style: Budget airline, one tiny carryon (or, “personal item” – no fees!), three nights, public transport, and one hostel. In the end, it was a whirlwind of a weekend and an amazing time. Even for such a short trip, I have a ton to say about it, so stay tuned. I’ll be breaking down my itinerary and my thoughts on specific parts of it here over the next few posts. Just extending that Scotland nostalgia a little longer…

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Pretty Perth

I love that dirty water

Until this year, I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about NOT swimming in the Charles River. I knew it had been horribly polluted in the past and I knew (thanks to a friendly duck boat driver!) that in recent years it has gotten much cleaner. A certain kind of duck is back, meaning a certain kind of fish is back, meaning pollution levels are not where they used to be. Great! But still, it’s hard not to think of the Charles as kind of gross – it runs through a major city and has large, multi-laned roads on either side, but, maybe most importantly, the Standells’ “Dirty Water” is played frequently and sung along to enthusiastically throughout the bars, stadiums, and streets of the city. Since I first moved to the Boston area in 2004, I’ve been singing about that dirty water, meaning I’ve had 13 years of internalizing the fact that our river may be beloved, but it is best loved from a distance.

But then I found out about the annual Charles River One Mile Swim and quickly signed up. What better way to get over my lingering river issues?

The race is in its 9th year and is run by the Charles River Swimming Club, in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy and the DCR. It starts by the Hatch Shell on the esplanade and the course is a clockwise diamond between the Harvard (Mass Ave) and Longfellow Bridges.

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On the morning of the swim my Support Crew (aka parents and bf) and I parked over by Boston Common and it was a short, easy walk to the start. Check in was quick and I had a lot of time to stand in the sun, catch up with friends, and go through varying stages of panic at my preparedness. You know, the usual.

At a few minutes to 8:00am I joined the first of two waves and walked down to the start dock.

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Please note the Fin to the right

 

We all jumped in and treaded water until someone shouted “Go!” and then we were off! Being a mass water start, it was a little chaotic for a few minutes, but I did my best not to kick or be kicked in the face and having succeeded at that, I’d call it a success.

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The first leg had us swimming towards the Mass Ave Bridge, and one of the coolest things was looking up to breathe and seeing the Prudential Center get closer and closer. I spent some time contemplating the general murkiness (the verdict: no worse than other bodies of water I’ve been in) and singing to myself (Selena Gomez’s It Ain’t Me, for the win). It stayed fairly crowded for the first leg, but after the first turn, things opened up a bit and it was smooth swimming to the next buoy. The third stretch was hard in that we were swimming right into the sun and it took me awhile to find the buoy. I was also a touch distracted by someone who inexplicably insisted on swimming right on top of me, even though by that point everyone was pretty spread out. Necessary to touch my foot every stroke? Not so much. As a result, I overshot the buoy a little bit, but managed to get myself back on track fairly quickly when I realized.

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The final stretch was the hardest for me. I found the water a little choppier in that stretch – just enough so that it was hard to fall into a natural rhythm. But by that point the dock was in sight, so I just kept on and tried not to swallow too much water. The dock had a giant sensor on the end, so I just had to hit it with the hand that had my timing chip and I was done! I climbed up the ladder back onto the dock and was engulfed by my family and friends. There was coffee and food available after as well as, most importantly, “I swam the Charles” stickers, which you can bet I will display proudly.

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In the end, I finished in 33:20, about a 1:55 pace – a bit slower than I wanted, but not far off and solidly middle of the pack – certainly not bad for the first open water swim of the season. I would absolutely swim this again. The water was cooler than most years (around 65) but I was fine without a wetsuit and the event was so well run – friendly volunteers, plenty of pre-race information, lots of safety provisions (water quality checks in the days leading up to the race, lifeguard, kayak and boat support on the day of, an organized post-race check in process and optional Mylar blankets), and excellent support from start to finish.

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Around this time last year I was on a SwimTrek vacation, and while I can’t say that the Charles River necessarily compares to the fjords of Montenegro (what does?), there’s something about open water swimming that I find so relaxing. The water is my happy place, and I am thrilled to have found that same vacation feeling so close to home and in such an unexpected place. Having been submerged and spent 30+ minutes in it, I can confirm, without question, that I truly love that dirty water, and am happy to call Boston my home.

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Guayaba y Queso

In 2009, I studied abroad in Cuba. I applied on a whim during a slow day at an internship and pushed back my college graduation by a semester in order to go. My family and friends were surprised, concerned, and confused to varying degrees (“Are you a communist?” “Aren’t you scared you’ll be kidnapped?” “Just…why…?” No, no, and because it’s CUBA, y’all). My favorite question, though, was from my immediate family: “Are you just doing this for the food?”

It wasn’t a completely unreasonable question.

I love Cuban food. I love it to a degree that is probably concerning. My great-aunt stocks up on extra plantains for when I visit (the green ones, thanks) and one of my best friends, A, loves telling the super flattering story about the time she realized where she truly stands in my life. A few years ago, she and I split a platano appetizer where we would each get two pieces. As she reached for the last one, she, being a generally polite person, asked if that was in fact hers because she didn’t want to take my piece. I, without pausing replied that yes, it was hers, because if she had tried to take my piece I would have stabbed her.

Yes, stabbed her. My best friend. As I sputtered about how THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT and I would NEVER and I only meant I would maybe poke her gently with my fork, she laughed so hard she almost fell off her seat. And since then, she has proceeded to tell this story every chance she gets.

kolkata guava

And then A brought me to India and introduced me to white guava. And then, apparently, I turned into Gollum and hoarded it like it was a giant pile of precious guava rings to rule them all.

Ahem. Anyway. Given all this, my family was not wrong in that the food was part of my motivation. Not my ENTIRE motivation, of course, but I certainly wasn’t complaining about the prospect of three months of Cuban food.

I should pause here to include a brief note about Cuban food, specifically, its availability to actual Cubans, which is to say: it isn’t. I’ll only speak to what I heard/saw in 2009, but at that point, food was rationed. Rations were not large and often the amount rationed on paper did not necessarily correlate to the actual amount of the product available. Markets and other means of supplementing the rations cost money, which was also limited. Many people spoke of only having enough food for one good meal a day and of having to become resourceful to pick up extras where they could (the sustainable gardens/urban agriculture are particularly cool). As students there, my group was also subject to rations, but our rations were generally higher than those allotted to the Cuban people, and we were fortunate enough to have disposable income to go out or purchase extras. So if I sound like I’m overly glib about Cuban foods or my trip in general, please know that I am very aware that I was lucky. I still struggle with how to process what I experienced and talk about the trip in a way that recognizes the difficulties faced by the Cuban people, but does not focus the narrative on them to the exclusion of everything else and without coming across as condescending or wildly naïve. Eight years later it’s still an ongoing process, but I’m trying.

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So with that said: I had a lot of ideas about Cuban food going into the trip, but one thing I hadn’t considered? Guava. Total game changer. We had perfectly ripe, fresh guava at breakfast and guava juice with dinner in the evenings. As we traveled around the country, we also learned to hunt down the local panaderia for guava pastries – guava paste in flaky pastry dough, often with the option of a creamy cheese, like a combination guava danish/turnover. I was in love.1927650_604334142389_6824_n

I came home singing the praises of guava in all its forms* and word soon got out (by which I mean: my mom told my grandma who told the rest of the family [“Did you hear that Steph got back? She won’t tell me if she met any men, but apparently she likes guava now”], and I also got a snarky-but-not-unwarranted email from A along the lines of “Oh, do I need to worry about being stabbed for guava now too?”). My grandma’s friends all found this charming, for reasons I do not entirely understand but will not question, and so now whenever I visit, one of the abuelas will present me with my very own package of guava paste. Because my cooking skills leave something to be desired, I haven’t done anything especially creative with my guava paste in the past, but this past weekend, I was feeling bold, so I turned to the internet.

I found My Big Fat Cuban Family and it was everything I could ask for: fun storytelling, easy to follow directions, delicious product. The only thing I noticed was that my oven may run a little hotter (is that a thing?) than Marta’s because I took my pastries out at 25 minutes (the low end of the recommended range) and some of them were starting to get a little crispy. So next time I’ll know to check them earlier (which is a thing I suspect people who bake regularly might know to do anyway?). Regardless, the end result was delicious.

I waited as recommended so as not to scald my mouth on molten guava, but biting into the first one while it was still a little warm was truly heavenly and took me right back to 2009, sitting on the Malecon, not sure where I was headed next, but knowing that there had better be guava wherever it turned out to be.

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*1.5 exceptions: I recently found dried guava, which was fine in VERY small amounts. I also found dried chipotle guava, which is an unholy alliance if not ABOMINATION, and must be stopped.

Taking time to rest

I don’t like to admit when I’m sick. In fact, as I start to feel less myself – lower energy, sore throat (it’s ALWAYS a sore throat) – the more deliberately active I become, overcompensating to prove that I’m FINE, really! I stubbornly carry on as normal, becoming more and more visibly run down until finally even I can’t ignore it any longer. At that point, my whole body shuts down in protest, and I settle into the sickness, visibly and, not at all dramatically, wallowing in self-pity as I’m forced to take significantly longer to recover than if I’d just given myself a break in the first place.

In college, my then-boyfriend referred to this process as “Steph-sick.” As in, “I know you said you’re fine and you want to go out tonight, but do you think it’s possible you might be Steph-sick? You’ve lost your voice and you just fell asleep while you were putting on your shoes.”

If all this sounds ridiculous, over the top, and unhealthy, I don’t disagree with you. I’ve gotten better, over the years, at realizing I need a break sooner, and I’m generally not quite so deliberate about ignoring my body and pushing through. However, the general practice of going until I physically can’t anymore has become my default. This isn’t the worst thing in the last stages of a marathon, but in my day-to-day life? Not ideal.

And so, this long, Memorial Day weekend, after getting over my most recent cough, I gave myself permission to just exist. To move at my own pace, to say no, to take time to eat, to write, to read, to bake – all the things that become more rushed and ignored when I’m trying to move a million miles an hour.

I retreated to Rhode Island where life naturally moves a little slower. The coffee is excellent, the ocean is ever present, and it is not unheard of to meet a friend for coffee and, four hours later, still be sitting in the sun talking as the little shop closes for the day. I spent the first half of the weekend catching up, catching my breath, and catching some sun.FullSizeRender (1)

I have trouble sitting still. It’s not that I can’t relax, but more that there are too many things I want to do, and see, and experience, but not nearly enough time. As a result, the past couple of months have consisted of me going full speed until I hit a wall, breaking down, taking time to only just heal, and then taking off at full speed again. And again. And again.

But this weekend? This has been perfection and the best reminder that even though I want to do everything, I can’t actually do anything if I don’t take care of myself first. It doesn’t matter how relaxing I find all my favorite activities; if I try to fit them all in all the time, I’m still going to burn out. Common sense? Sure. But I seem to have been absent (probably sick) the day they were handing out this particular variety of common sense, so I’m still learning. And if I have to learn by watching Rhode Island sunrises, breakfasting on homemade guava pastries, and drinking coffee from my favorite mug (the Disney princess one that fits my hand perfectly)? Well, maybe I could get used to this “rest” thing after all.

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