Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Impressions of Budapest

We spent four days in Budapest, Hungary.  Here are my first and last impressions of the city that straddles the Danube.

First Impression:
Budapest is…not what I was expecting.  And the truth is, I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Budapest is a beautiful European city with culture and history.  I think in my head, I pictured something just a bit more…different.  After having been in Berlin and Prague so far, I feel that Budapest is in some ways a combination of the two.  It has a similar layout to Prague, with the river dividing the city and the castle up on the hill offering superb views of the rooftops.  And in a similar fashion to Berlin, much of the oldest architecture was destroyed in the War and has since been rebuilt in a variety of styles.  So while Prague boasts breathtaking buildings around each corner and some buildings dating back to the 15th century and beyond, St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest was built in 1905 in a style to mirror much older churches. 

I think when I originally thought of Budapest, I pictured a more “eastern” city somehow.  I’m not quite sure what I mean by eastern…mosques and Arabic arches?  Bright colors and sandy streets?  I think I pictured a darker city, too.  Less light gray concrete and more red brick and or stucco?  I just don’t know. 

Budapest has been nice so far.  HOT, and a long way to walk (we haven’t purchased public transportation yet—we’re holding out and saving money—and as a consequence, we probably walked at least 4-6 miles to get to our free tour’s meeting spot, walk the tour, then get ourselves home).  On feet that were already sore and in 35C heat, it makes for a tiring day.  Even though it’s Saturday in a city renowned for its nightlife, I think both Liz and I will be turning in early tonight in order to attack tomorrow with greater verve. 

Lasting impressions:
Budapest is a city that, for me at least, took some time to grow on me.  But thankfully for me, our second day in the city, we took a walking tour with an amazing local guide named Adam.  Adam told us in the beginning of his tour that his goal was to make us fall in love with his city, and…perhaps a bit surprisingly, he actually did.  He filled his tour with stories—oh, the stories I could pass on about the Opera House and the Chain Bridge now—that delighted me and stuck in my memory.  We ended up taking a second tour with him in the afternoon of the same day to see more of the city and learn about the city’s Communist history.  

We filled the next 2 days with a visit to the Central Market Hall, one of the city’s famous thermal baths, spending some time with the Swedish group we’d met in Prague (who met up with us in Budapest on our 3rd day there), and wandering about the city discovering new statues and buildings.  Budapest tucks its treasures around corners.  There’s not an attraction every direction that you look, but there is plenty to see, and enough to fill days. 

At the beginning, I thought four days might be too much in Budapest.  As we left, I found myself thinking that another day or two in the city wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  Budapest has its own special charm, and it stole my heart just as surely as Prague and Berlin did.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

3 Key Questions

“Where are you from?”
“Where have you been?”
“Where are you going next?”

They’re the three most common questions when meeting people while traveling.  Over the last 2 days, I feel like we’ve asked and answered them innumerable times as we met people on our first hostel stay of the trip in Prague. 

After a while, the questions get a bit tedious, but everyone has their own story, and you do have to get through the basics before you can get to the fun stuff—the reason for the travels, what life is like back home, and start getting to know the actual person. 

In Prague, we’ve met tons of interesting people.  A gaggle of Canadians who didn’t know each other at the beginning of the night, but were part of one big group by the end, a guy from Singapore who’s studying in Germany, Swedes on summer holiday, Brits celebrating university graduation, and two highly entertaining Americans who work for Chevron in Iraq and were on an all-expense paid trip in order to keep their travel visas relevant.  Together we sampled local dishes, got to know each other, visited new establishments, and laughed a lot.  While most of the people we’ve met we will probably not see again, the camaraderie and shared experiences are what traveling is all about, and it’s what has made Prague so entertaining for us.  Sure, the castle grounds were beautiful, and the Jewish quarter highly interesting, but what I will remember most about Prague is dinner of 2 half ducks and 2 pork knuckles split between 9 of us, the excited recounting of the fact that the men’s urinal at the restaurant had orange slices laid on clear glass, learning the made-up phrase “gizouloos” (any currency other than the US dollar), and a Texan modeling Swedish fashion by borrowing a hat, twirling a bit of his hair, and popping his collar. 

We leave for Budapest tonight at midnight, and I could not be more excited to meet the people who will share the next leg of our adventure with us. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

34 Hours Later...

Before we left for our adventure, I expressed nervousness about the first leg of our journey.  Just the first bit.  Our plan was this:  Fly to Amsterdam, take a train from the airport (after validating our eurail passes) to Berlin.  In Berlin (it would be about 9pm by this point), use the metro to arrive at the flat where our friend Heidi is letting us stay for a few days. 
That seemed like a lot of steps. 
Oh, how little I knew.

Our flights went well, and we arrived in Amsterdam on schedule.  When we validated our eurail passes and asked for the train to Berlin, we were informed that due to water levels, high speed trains were not running to Berlin, so we’d have to take a train to Hannover and then take regional trains from there—adding about 2 hours to our journey.  The woman at the ticket counter also couldn’t give us more specifics than that; we’d simply have to find out in Hannover.  So, we got on the first train, to Hilversum, just outside of Amsterdam.  There we’d change trains and go to Hannover.

Except, in Hilversum, as we waited for our next train, we began hearing sirens and seeing paramedics and other emergency personnel trot by us.  After being asked (in Dutch, but we sort of got the hint) to move by a paramedic, a young guy being herded in the same direction turned out to speak English and filled us in.  It seems someone jumped in front of a train (or fell in front of it, or something).  There’d been an accident, at any rate.  No one could tell us when trains would be running again.  An hour?  Three?  We had the option of taking a bus back to Amsterdam and trying to find an alternate route, but that didn’t seem promising.  One woman on the street told us Hilversum city center was a 5 minute walk, and our best bet was to go there, shop, eat, relax, and come back in an hour or so.  We did that a little, but were afraid to go too far since we had no idea when trains would start running.  Eventually we found a Starbucks and charged our global phone, so we could at least text the people who were supposed to let us in to the flat in Berlin and let them know we’d be very late. 

We ended up on a train out of Hilversum at 5:22, 2 hours later than anticipated, and instead of going all the way to Hannover, it took us as far as the German border—Bad Bentheim.  From there, we were told to board a local train for Onsabruck, and then find out once there where to go. 

It was almost 9pm by the time we got to Onsabruck.  We went to the information desk, and the man there informed us that he wasn’t sure why we’d been told to get off here, but there was really no way to get us to Berlin that night.  There was an 11pm train to Bielefeld, and from there a night train to Berlin that would put us in the city at 4:30am, but we didn’t have reservations (and it was too late to make them).  After a phone call to Bielefeld to check on the hotel situation in case we would need it, we were informed there were no rooms there due to a festival going on.  Our information helper told us that if we didn’t get on the night train, “McDonalds. Open 24 hours.”  But he also called the conductor in Bielefeld and let him know to watch for 2 American girls and 2 Indian guys (we weren’t the only ones in our predicament, and there’s strength in numbers, so we stuck with CK and Ashwin, who we’d met in the information office in Osnabruck, the rest of the night). 

When we arrived in Bielefeld, things finally started going our way.  The conductor there needed no explanation, recognizing us from our description.  “Berlin?” was the only phrase needed.  He pulled someone over to help translate and informed us that at 12:43, when the train was to leave, he’d come and escort us to the train, letting the drivers know it was okay for us to ride.  HOORAY! 

So after an hour’s wait (and a run-in with a drunk who insisted that since he was German and spoke English, and Liz was American, she must understand him when he spoke German), we boarded the night train to Berlin and were finally able to get some sleep.  We pulled in to Berlin around 5:30am, and we found a very helpful woman at an information desk at 6:00am.  We gave her the address to the flat, and she told us exactly which train and then which bus to board, and when to get off each.  And she printed off a street map so we’d be able to find it on foot after getting off our bus. 

By 7am, we had reached Heidi’s flat.  Her neighbor let us in and gave us our key, and we promptly took off our shoes and collapsed into a 5 hour nap.  34 hours after leaving La Crosse, we had finally arrived in Berlin. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

2 Girls, 2 Backpacks.

Today begins the story of 2 twenty-something sisters, equipped only with a backpack and a purse each, heading off to Europe for 30 days.  Our flight leaves at 7:30pm tonight, and I'm trying to keep my nerves as calm as possible.

We have our hostels booked, arrangements made with friends and couchsurfers, and therefore have accommodations in place for all but 2 nights of our journey.  Our international SIM card arrived in the mail today (in the nick of time!), and we've got our eurail passes and information on the cities we'll be visiting.

Our trip will take us to Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Rome, Trento (Italy), Verona, Venice, Geneva (Switzerland), Nancy (France), Paris, and Amsterdam.  It will be a whirlwind.  There will be adventures, probably a good share of mishaps, and definitively a heap of good stories.

I'll keep the blog updated as I can.  You can expect more detail and photos after I return from the trip, though.

Here we go!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Life is in transit at the moment.  I’m done with Puerto Rico, about to embark on a month-long adventure in Europe, and Guatemala is just around the corner.  My life, and this blog, will undergo some changes.

As for the blog, the changes will be minimal.  In fact, you may have already noticed the change in the title from Rocking that Tropical Paradise to Rocking that *International* Paradise.  While it could be argued that some or all of Guatemala is also tropical, I wanted to tip my hat to the fact that it’s a new experience, and also leave the possibility open to other international travels.  I’ve opted to leave the url the same to minimize confusion.  (So it will remain, even though I’m no longer in PR). 

As for the life changes…those are a little bit more monumental.  But it’s all good. 

I had a really amazing last week in Puerto Rico.  Rachel arrived on Tuesday night, and we had 2 days together before my parents arrived.  That woman…from the moment she arrived, it was as if she’d never left.  We were giggling uncontrollably and stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures of each other. 

At first when Rachel said she’d be visiting at the end of the year, I was disappointed that she’d be in town the same time my parents were visiting, because I thought I’d get to spend less time with each of them.  But it didn’t turn out that way at all.  Rachel simply joined my parents and I, slipping seamlessly into the temporarily vacant position of 2nd daughter for 4 days. 

I think playing tourist with my parents and Rachel my last week in PR was the perfect decision.  I spent time enjoying the beauty of the island and taking full advantage of where I was one last time, but because I wasn’t sitting on a beach with my friends from this year like I did most weekends, I wasn’t fixating on the fact that most of them will be back next year, and I’ll be missing.  Had my visitors not been there, I probably would have spent far more time moping and feeling nostalgic. 

Instead, I spent the last few days relaxing on Vieques, exploring new and pre-visited attractions, checking out caves and the lighthouse in Arecibo, and spending a really great day in Old San Juan.  (As a side note, if you ever go to the capital building in San Juan, it definitely pays to take the free tour with your parents, or any other “real adults”.  We got a waaaaay more thorough free tour than Lauren and I over spring break—including a trip to the 3rd floor to see the sun glint off the gold in the mosaics and a peek into the senate and hall of representatives). 

dentro del molino antiguo en Arroyo

Arecibo Lighthouse

arches at Cueva del Indio (these things are's hard to
get a feel for the scale here) 

From the ground floor, you can't see the
sun glinting off the gold in the mosaic like this.

Senate hall 

The drive from our hotel to the airport on Wednesday morning was hard, because I felt like I was seeing everything “one last time,” and as the plane took off, I had my face plastered to the window looking back at San Juan for as long as possible. 

But just because I was sad to leave does not mean that at the exact moment I was not also extremely excited for what life will bring next.  (How’s that for a sentence full of intentional double negatives?) 

Coming home felt, as always, good.  There’s just something about being in the place where around every corner is a well-known sight, where everything feels safe and familiar.  And there’s so much beauty where I live, too.  I will always say Puerto Rico is beautiful in all directions.  But the bluffs, the river, the farms, historic downtown…home is breathtaking too. 

Mist over the bluffs on a morning run in my hometown

I’ve had a great week here, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, shopping, ticking places off of my “La Crosse must-do” list, running in a refreshing 60 degree morning fog, and planning for Europe.  (Speaking of which, over the next month, expect a few short blog post updates until I can get back and write in more detail...and add pictures).  

My Dove promise this morning had it exactly right.  I know it’s true, and I count my blessings every moment.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Finding Black Sand

Last Sunday morning in Vieques, I realized why it’s so difficult for some people to find the black sand beach there.  If I had not had the knowledge that the path was coming up at Km 7 of Rte 201, I never would have guessed to stop at the gate or seen the spray-painted arrows. 

But knowing what to look for, finding the beach couldn’t have been simpler.  After parking, my parents and Rachel and I embarked down the path.  Right away we noticed there was a lot of horse manure scattered about.  And sure enough, a few minutes down the path, 4 horses came walking up from the direction of the beach.  We stepped to the side and let them pass, and 3 of them did, but the 4th was so scared by us that he doubled back and tried to find an alternate route around the path.  He didn’t have luck, and his buds were waiting for him, so he ended up running past us on the opposite side of path from us.  It was a little endearing, but also makes you wonder what humans may have done to him in his life to cause such fear.

The rest of the short walk to the beach was uneventful.  We saw several more horses, a lizard or two, and some pretty foliage.  And then the beach stretched before us! 

At first it wasn’t much to look at.  Rachel remarked, “we have sand like this in Guayama!”  But as we ventured down farther, the black sand became more pronounced and it was pretty cool.  Tide was up, or just going out, so the sand was all packed down, but we finally found a bit that was dry enough to scoop up without making mud, and Rachel collected some for her “sand around the world project.”  (The project didn’t have a name—until now.  I just dubbed it.) 

Playa Negra, Vieques

The trip to the black sand beach on Vieques was quick and easy, but I was very glad we’d decided to undertake it!  We got some great pictures, and we all got to experience something a little different from the norm.  

Playa Negra, Vieques

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cerro Gordo: A New Favorite

**Written a week ago...being posted now.**

Luck brought Rachel and Heisha and I to Cerro Gordo, a balneario (public beach) in Vega Alta.  We were looking for a beach we hadn't been to, on the north coast, preferably close to San Juan.  We found an article about Cerro Gordo, and it sounded great. 

And it was!
It’s too bad I’m leaving PR in 5 days, really, because Cerro Gordo could easily become my favorite beach on the island.

This beach has everything.

What do you want when you think of a good beach?
Soft sand?  Check.
Clear water?  Go ahead and study your toenails.
A bit of shade for when the sun gets too hot?  It’s got just enough. 
Picnic tables?  Plenty.
A lifeguard on duty?  He’s right there waving his green flag to let you know it’s safe.
Bathrooms?  Got ‘em!  Just have to bring your own toilet paper, or buy some there for $0.50 for a roll.
Showers?  They had some, though we didn’t test to see whether they worked. 
Somewhere to eat?  There’s a snack shop and also a restaurant across the street.
Great views and cliffs to explore?  YUP!
I don’t know, a place to camp?  It’s got that too!! 

Seriously, this beach was great.  It cost $3 to park, which was definitely worth it in this case.   The parking lot is nice and close to the beach, and the day we were there, it was nowhere near full, so we had a short walk from our car to the little tree where we set up for the day.  And like I said, the sand was soft (and groomed, so no annoying weeds poking up at you), and the water was crystal clear and the perfect temperature.  Since it’s a balneario, there’s a roped off swimming area, and lifeguards on duty.  It’s pretty comforting to know someone’s watching out for you. 

After a few hours of bobbing in the water and then laying in the sun, we went across the street to a little restaurant call Sol y Mar for a pina colada and some food.  Delicious on both counts!  Then we came back, laced up our tennis shoes, and set off towards the east side of the beach to go on a hike up the cliffs there.  We had to cross one little brownish stream.  It wasn’t very deep, but I decided to jump it rather than get my shoes wet.  I didn’t QUITE make it across the first time, but on the way back, I landed with no problems! 

At the top of the hiking path, there’s a camping area.  A few tents were set up the day we went, but not many.  Still, I can see how it’d be a beautiful place to camp.  Our destination, though, was the cliffs and the awesome views from up there.  We spent a good amount of time taking it in, climbing around on the rocks, and taking pictures.  (It’s good to have Rachel back in PR stopping to make us pose for pictures every 30 seconds.  I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that.) 

When we clambered down, it was nearly 4pm, so we packed up our things and set off.  We had a schedule to keep—we had to get to Heisha’s home to shower while it was still light (if we wanted to be able to enjoy the scenic views of mountains and rainforest where she lives), and then head back into San Juan in order to pick up my parents from the airport when their flight came in later that night.  I would have loved another hour or two to play in the water and relax on the sand.  If (when) I come back to the island, Cerro Gordo will definitely be on my list of places to go.  After all, it combines the best aspects of Playa Sucia and Crashboat Beach, and for us it’s a shorter drive than either of the other two!