25 Countries in 12 Months

Scholars argue reflection is the most critical part of the learning process. I don’t have a bucket list. I have a hard enough time getting my daily to-do list done. And I don’t really think in terms of milestones, unless it’s a buy-10-get-one free coffee card. But recently I had the luxury of reflecting as I hiked around an ice cap in Greenland, which just so happened to be the 25th country* I’ve overnighted in since last September. Because one day I may suffer from dementia, like my grandparents, I made a list of the highs and lows (finally, I get to use red italics) of the countries who let me in. Obviously the countries who did not let me in did not make the list. Their loss.

south-africaSouth Africa

  • Strolling at dusk with juvenile lions, unleashed and mischievous, before ending the evening playing with more purring attention whores: cheetah cubs.
  • Dining (or in my case, whining) at Carnivore, a bushmeat-themed restaurant outside of Johannesburg where men invade your personal space with swords piercing slabs of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, etc.

 

Rwanda rwanda

  • Cycling on the one, hilly paved road in Northern Rwanda, while the children in the villages shouted, “Rafiki, Rafeeeeeeeki!” after my guide, Team Africa Rising’s most beloved rider.
  • Crying myself to sleep at night in the hotel in Kigali. I was scared (watch Hotel Rwanda), alone, depressed (I went to the Genocide Museum straight from the airport) and exhaustipated (tired + constipated) after about two whirlwind weeks in South Africa.

greeceGreece

  • Feeding the wild animals in the streets of Old Town Rhodes and petting them until they purred. (Notice a recurring theme?)
  • Drowning in my Dramamine-induced dreams while on a Turkish gullet that was no match for the stormy waves.

 

Turkeyturkey

  • Swimming (in search of Coke Zero) from the gullet to a tiny island in the Aegean Sea occupied by a Swedish man with royal connections, a pet baboon and several adopted orphans with special needs.
  • Not following directions at the Turkish baths in Istanbul. (Do NOT lay directly on the hot stone slab. Lay on the threadbare towel they give you. Unless you want to be like me and have a nasty, bacterial burning rash for two weeks.)

irelandIreland

  • Reuniting with Sam, the Irish lad I fell in love with in 2009, and probably the only person in the world who could talk me into swimming in the Liffey which resulted in a few rounds of antibiotics, but I digress…
  • Walking through The Clarence without seeing Bono. Or the Edge. Or even the band members with normal names.

Northern Ireland northern-ireland

  • Whacking hundreds of balls at the driving range at Lough Erne. They have electronic tees that load the balls so you never have to bend over.
  • In Belfast, I was too preoccupied with The Troubles to visit the Titanic, recently named the top tourist attraction in Europe.

puerto-ricoPuerto Rico

  • Photographing the old man, gambling at a gas station, who once delivered takeout to Jackie Kennedy in New York and chatting with the chef who told me he could cure my Crohn’s with gemstones.
  • Getting hammered by the waves and spending a few days painfully picking embedded shreds of coral out of my tender palms.

 

mexican-tequilaMexico

  • Paddleboarding to a private cove so I could scare the rest of my group (a diverse microcosm who made me question my stereotyping) as they returned from their boat tour.
  • Leaving without the elusive bottle of Tequila Revolucion Anejo I tried so hard to find for David and Evelyn’s Cinco de Mayo party.

costa-ricaCosta Rica

  • Reuniting with Jose and staying with the most fascinating couple in the world: David and Evelyn of Discovery Beach House.
  • Standing up the surfer I met in Guanacaste. I was too embarrassed of my lousy Espanol to meet up with him for a lesson and drink.

 

Colombiacolombia

  • Traveling with the likes of Mikey, Elyse, Greg, Finn, Matt Bell’s calves, etc. who made every once-in-a-lifetime experience a shared memory and put up with my memes.
  • That’s easy: dramatically vomiting for three days. I even held up the plane on the tarmac in Bogota, probably causing a few innocent bystanders to miss their flights home for Thanksgiving.

icelandIceland

  • Hovering on the brink of exhaustion for days, thanks to my my guide, Iceland Air captain of 20 years, Sigrun. She lives each day as though it’s not only her last day, it’s her only day.
  • Giving up after skiing one run at the ski resort. It was February. I was freezing. I like to feel my fingers too much I guess.

 

 

Spain spain

  • Staying with the most gracious hosts in the world, the Sanz family, and spending my days sleeping and cycling around Casa de Campo
  • Not being able to adjust to dinner at 10 p.m.; sleeping too much. I blame Sigrun.

 

 

thailandThailand

  • Meeting Mr. Vulgar Vinyasa in Chiang Mai, at my favorite park in the entire world. Anything goes at Nong Buack Head. Even cycling while eating ice cream and balancing a banana on your head.
  • Getting a Thai massage on my LAST day. I should have gotten one EVERY day.

 

Cambodiacambodia 

  • Toss up between finding several menus featuring kale in Siem Reap and watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Honorable mention goes to the Phare Circus although it was quite the fire hazard.
  • Reading The Killing Fields and learning about the Cambodian Genocide, especially from my guide, Sina, whose father was murdered by Pol Pot.

ethiopiaEthiopia

  • Making a cameo in an Ethiopian pop star’s music video. The backup dancers (refugees from Eritrea) came out of the woods and were hauntingly beautiful, their background story making them even more so.
  • Losing a sizable chunk of my benevolence as two young men looked me in the eyes and violated me. (Feeling like I was a quitter for flying to Paris that night instead of staying another week as originally planned.)

Francefrance 

  • Getting high on the energy emitted by hundreds of cyclists doing laps around the Longchamp Racecourse at Bois de Boulogne. Call me Francophile or do the French cycle with more finesse?
  • Seeing the bases of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre teeming with selfie stick vendors, a phenomena that wasn’t there on my previous trips to Paris. On the other hand, if it keeps kids off the streets…

dubrovnikCroatia

  • Waking up in Fresh Sheets (that’s the name of the place too) next to Old Town Dubrovnik’s cathedral. It’s like Architectural Digest and Food & Wine gave birth to a B&B.
  • Realizing how much suffering is going on because of the conflict in Syria; the War Photography Museum in Dubrovnik had a Rated M for mature (and moving) two-story exhibit on the refugees’ plight.

Bosnia Herzegovinabosnia

  • Hoofing it nine miles up to the top of the mountain overlooking the natural beauty and damaged goods of Mostar.
  • The 6-hour bus ride on which I had to sit on top of the toilet because in Bosnia, there’s no such thing as max. occupancy and they oversell tickets. 

montenegroMontenegro

  • Hiking while playing my wooden flute so offensively that when I hit a high note, a nearby goat opted to jump off a mini cliff rather than risk me coming any closer.
  • Spending only one night in Kotor. It’s the kind of place I want to escape to and enjoy for myself, secretly and selfishly.

Sloveniaslovenia

  • Photographing the view of the city and sea from the fort in Piran. Four months later and it’s still one of my best performing posts on Instagram. (Granted, it doesn’t take much.)
  • Accepting the fact I didn’t have the stamina to cycle from hilltop town to hilltop town on a single speed bicycle.

italy

 

Italy

  • Having the morning (5 a.m.-ish) to myself (and the streetsweepers) in St. Mark’s Square. It’s the closest I’ll come to being the only tourist in Times Square.
  • Not buying the pink Giro Italia jersey I tried on in the store at least three times.

 

 

 

 

Belgiumbelgium

  • Being blown away by the sound and lighting effects on the brewery tour in Antwerp. I never had a sip of beer but I walked away with at least 10 solid selfies.
  • Not realizing the McDonald’s in Brussels had a happy hour on day one. Seriously, it’s half price after 4 p.m.

portugal

 

Portugal

  • Completing the coasteering course. Zapped of every ounce of physical and mental energy but in a state of bliss knowing I never quit despite wanting to cry Uncle and swim to the Zodiac after that first electrifying jump.
  • Can I say leaving? Leaving Portugal was like walking out of a movie in the middle of the most climactic scene. AND you have to leave your box of half-eaten Junior Mints behind. You paid $6 for those!

Canada Polar Bear

  • POLAR BEARS
  • Dentists without borders could do a lot of good up here.

 

 

greenlandGreenland

  • Camping on an ice cap where I met a woman from my hometown in Montana. Just a few days after I publicly declared I will never say, “It’s such a small world.”
  • Trips to the communal buckets at ice camp. I’d take 10 minutes in the world’s most disgusting outhouse over 10 seconds in the potty tent any day.

 

U.S.me-and-zeus

  • Coming home to my family, Jordan, Roger, Jonathan, Jonesy, Zeus and my neighbor Ryan – he’s the kind of neighbor Mr. Rogers wishes he could be.
  • Dropping my dog off at my parents’ house and feeling like an absentee adopter. Seeing the “Again?” look in his eyes when he watches me pull of out their driveway. (I’m almost crying as I type this.)

*I know Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. territory, but for consistency’s sake (and a shorter title), let’s call it a country.

5 Minutes with a Man Who Has Killed 6 Polar Bears

Stevie can’t find a buyer. For more than two years, the hunter’s last polar bear hide has been under a layer of condensed ice in his village’s communal freezer. Stevie’s last buyer was a Japanese man in Vancouver. “He paid me $5,000 for it,” recalls the 64-year-old who calls Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut, home.

Clyde River, Nunavut

Clyde River, Nunavut

“I started hunting when I was around seven,” he says in broken English. His first language is Inuktitut, and like most Inuit men and women, he learned how to hunt from watching his elders. “My older brothers used to bundle me up and put me in the back of their sled,” Stevie recalls with uncanny clarity. His memory is as sharp as his eyesight. If Stevie was a bragging man, he could boast of being able to spot wildlife with his bare eyes faster than most people can adjust their high-powered binoculars.

But in typical Inuit fashion, humility courses through Stevie’s veins. Unless you ask, he’ll never divulge how many polar bears he’s killed (six) or how many narwhal he’s caught (too many to count). He doesn’t carry around 5×7’s of his biggest caribou, and he seems to get as much pleasure from bagging a 10 lb. Arctic hare as he does a 4,000 lb. walrus.

His favorite animal to hunt, however, is the seal. It’s plentiful, tasty and there is a fabulously cruel element of surprise. Using his hands to describe the magnitude and utility of the canvas contraption he hides behind while sneaking up on them, his animated expressions and movements are captivating. You almost feel as though you are on the ice with him. Until it’s time to pull the trigger.

Stevie’s gun of choice is the Ruger No.1 .303. While he uses traditional Inuit hunting practices like the canvas contraption and dressing in seal skins to sneak up on baby pups, he’s grateful for technology. When he was 18 years old he asked his father if he could go hunting for polar bear. His father said sure, but if you kill one, you’ll have to pack it out yourself. Stevie soon understood why his father made that contingency. Hauling that 1,000 lb. bear out by hand and dogsled was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do.

Nowadays Stevie uses his Ski-Doo, and he knows how lucky he is to have 100 horsepower beneath him. Out-of-town polar bear permit-holders can’t use them. Ski-Doos are off limits for non-residents who typically pay between $30,000 – $60,000 to hire licensed outfitters like Stevie to take them polar bear hunting. Assuming they can even score a highly sought after tag, they‘re required to hunt by dogsled—to keep Inuit tradition alive, force them to hire local guides and finally, minimize their advantage. After all, there are only between 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears left in the world according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

Photo: Daily Mail

Photo: Daily Mail

In Qikiqtarjuaq, Stevie’s community of 500 people, about 12 permits are issued each year. In most years at least 200 residents apply for a permit. If his name is drawn, Stevie has one day by Ski-Doo or three days by dogsled to kill a bear. And he doesn’t get to pick the day. The Government of Nunavut Department of Environment does. “If I’m working, and I get a call that I got a permit, I tell my boss I’ll be back soon,” explains Stevie, a school counselor Monday through Friday.

When asked if he’s ever dreamed of big game hunting anywhere else in the world, such as Africa, Stevie’s response is typical of the Inuit who seldom travel outside Canada. “One time, I want to go moose hunting at Ross River,” he says longingly. Ross River is in the Yukon, two territories west of Nunavut. When asked if the retreating ice has noticeably affected his hunting, Stevie doesn’t hesitate to say no. In fact, he says it so quickly it’s clear he’s not too concerned with climate change.

But he is concerned about finding a buyer for his two-year-old polar bear hide. The father of three already has a polar bear suit, made from one of his first hides, and he prefers to have $5,000 in his pocket instead of a fur sitting in a freezer. Money is the main reason he hunts polar bear. After all, their meat is not that desirable. Some parts such as the liver and stomach are actually deadly to humans. Often, the meat goes to the sled dogs. The hide and skull are sold to collectors and ideally, the only part of the kill the hunter keeps is its manhood.

“For the hunter, the penis is the prize,” says Stevie, a twinkle forming in his exaggerated almond-shaped eyes.

My Tinder Date Tells All

I used to watch a lot of FBI Files. So, instinctively, I went into criminal profiler mode. White male, late 20’s-early 30’s, lives within a 30-mile radius, speaks English and because I’m shallow, has all his teeth, stands at least 5’9 and is fit enough to run a 5k at the drop of a hat. I could care less about a receding hairline—so I guess I’m not that shallow. Regardless, Tinder has no rules about stereotyping so I strategically swiped until I found what I was looking for. And apparently, Damir was looking for me too.

Waiting for my potential matches to populate.

Waiting for my potential matches to populate.

He came directly to my hotel room. Even though it was our first time meeting in person, I gave him my room number. I knew that meeting in the lobby was a much safer idea, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to walk down the hall to the elevator. I was exhausted after having spent the day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Town Dubrovnik and then up the steep rocky path to Imperial Fortress. It was built in the early 1800s to protect this stretch of Croatia’s coastline during wartime. In fact, the Yugoslav War was the very reason I was trolling on Tinder. But I didn’t tell Damir that. Ask permission or beg for forgiveness? Hmmm…I went with the latter.

The knock at my door startled me, even though I had been expecting him. After practicing my demure smile in the hallway mirror, I opened the door. Based on the dress, it looked like he was a she. Now don’t think for a second I was disappointed. On the contrary, I was stoked. She had chocolate! Apparently my date coincided with turndown time. While I have no need for someone to fold my duvet back and dramatically fluff my pillows, I will definitely accept chocolate from a stranger in a hotel uniform.

My hotel, Hotel Bellevue. It has commanding views of Old Town Dubrovnik and the breakfast buffet is divine.

My hotel, Hotel Bellevue. It has commanding views of Old Town Dubrovnik and the breakfast buffet is divine.

I thanked the she, put my chocolate out of sight so I wouldn’t be tempted and sat back down at my desk. I was working on a story that was due later that week. A bottle of wine, a gift from the hotel manager, sat in a bucket of ice beside me. I began to type, something about a famous designer in the Hamptons. About two sentences later I heard another knock at the door. I got up, re-practiced my demure smile in the hallway mirror and opened the door. He was standing there in a raincoat, holding a large purple package that I could recognize from an aisle away. It was a giant bar of Milka noisette. If Hershey’s is scissors and Godiva is paper, then Milka is most definitely rock.

Nutella walks into a bar...

Nutella walks into a bar…

Handsome, but not dashing, Damir looked exactly like he presented himself in his Tinder profile. Mine was not the story of being catfished in Croatia. Unfortunately, though, Damir didn’t smell like he did in his Tinder profile. In person, a thick invisible cloud of cigarette smoke engulfed him. Remembering that many Croatian men smoked, I choked back a cough, made a mental note to breathe in through my mouth for the rest of the night and welcomed him inside.

“This is for you,” he said, shoving the chocolate at me. Unaware we’d be exchanging gifts, the only thing I offered in return was an awkwardly enthusiastic thank you. Out of all the Milka bars, noisette is my favorite. How did he know? Could he read my mind? Hell no! If he had, he probably wouldn’t have come. Instead, Damir saw a bottle of wine and my bed. Every signal he sent—both in our Tinder messages and now, sitting on the sofa in my room—subtly screamed, “Let’s hook up and have some fun.”

But I wasn’t in the mood for hooking up. Maybe if I had a gas mask and we were the only two people left on a deserted island. But I didn’t. And we weren’t.

“So tell me about the war,” I said as soon as the wine was poured. I didn’t even give us time to talk about the weather. Captain Obvious could wait; at this moment, I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. I sat on the floor, at his feet, and looked up at him like a student does to his teacher. “The war?” he asked, as if he had misheard me. I nodded. He didn’t seem offended, but definitely caught off guard. I didn’t divulge in our Tinder back-and-forth that the real reason I wanted to meet him was to learn more about the Croatian War of Independence. War is never a good conversation starter, especially when it took place within the last 25 years.

Photo: Ina Vukic

Croatia during the war. Photo: Ina Vukic

He could have gotten up right then and there while giving me a look that said “Shame on you” and left. Or he could have asked why I was asking. But he didn’t. Instead, he took a deep breath and settled back into the sofa. “I was eight when it started,” he began. His eyes glazed over. Not from the wine—we were barely a few sips in—but from an attempt to escape the present moment so he could delve back into the past.

Damir grew up in Old Town Dubrovnik, within the city walls. During the war, his father left the family and fought for the resistance forces along the Bosnian border. Even though he was only a boy, Damir’s responsibility was to help care for his mom and siblings by collecting rainwater. For seven months, a naval blockade prevented any food and supplies, including water, from entering Old Town Dubrovnik. Inside the city walls, thousands of residents and refugees fleeing from the landmines and fighting in the countryside were trapped. The only thing coming into Dubrovnik on a steady basis were bombs being dropped by the unrelenting Yugoslav People’s Army. They blasted holes in more than half of the city’s historic buildings and more than 100 bodies belonging to innocent civilians.

Photo: Lindsay Fincher

Dubrovnik in 1991, Lindsay Fincher

“You know,” he said with more than a tinge of regret, “before the war we used to watch TV and when the news would come on and we’d see stories about conflict in other countries, we’d change the channel.” Immediately I thought of those infomercials asking for help fixing cleft palates in third world countries. I didn’t necessarily change the channel, but I always looked away, unable to stomach seeing kids who could barely open their mouths much less practice their demure smiles.

And to think, I complained every time I got my braces tightened.

And to think, I complained every time I got my braces tightened.

“But during the war,” he continued, “We realized all those horrific things could happen to us. Had we been able to watch the news on TV—we had no electricity—it may have been like looking in a mirror. So we vowed that when the war was over, we’d never change the channel again.” At this point he paused long enough to empty his glass. As I refilled it he continued.

But Katie, we’re all fucking human. We make promises we don’t keep. Especially during war. When it ended, we went back to watching the news on TV, and guess what? We changed the channel every time there was coverage of fighting in other countries. No one wants to see death and destruction. It’s fucking depressing.”

I didn’t disagree with him.

As the night went on and I asked more questions, I appreciated his honesty and openness. He quickly caught on that I wasn’t in the mood for anything more than some conversation, and if wine stimulated that, then I would suffer through a glass or two. In my defense, he drilled me as well.

He asked about New York City, why I wasn’t wearing heels (am I short?) and even how much money I made. I told him I made very little—which is why I ate at Old Town Dubrovnik’s incredibly popular Irish Pub The Gaffe when the local construction workers are fed and there’s a special $5 menu. That prompted him to ask the best question of the night. “Why do all you Americans come to Croatia and go to an Irish pub?”

Don't confuse The Gaffe with the Irish pub on the corner. That one is Karaka and there is an albino waiter there who is the meanest waiter I've ever met. He has a personality disorder I think. Photo: Global Party Guide

Don’t confuse The Gaffe with the Irish pub on the corner. That one is Karaka and there is an albino waiter there who is the meanest waiter I’ve ever met. He has a personality disorder I think. Photo: Global Party Guide

 

I Stood the Pope Up AND Lived to Regret It

On the back it reads, " In The Holiness of Truth."

On the back it reads, “In The Holiness of Truth.”

SPRING 2010, New York

It was one of two things: either a very bad good idea, or a very good bad idea. Whatever it was, it consumed me, a self-aware college sophomore on a mission to redeem herself. I knew I was no Virgin Mary. But why couldn’t I be a Mother Teresa?

That was the question that came to mind when I signed up for the Lourdes service trip offered at my Catholic university. Lourdes is a small community in the south of France. The service trip was coordinated by campus ministry, and spaces were limited—applying was a competitive process. The chosen few would bathe the sick and dying who made the pilgrimage to this world famous site. It was here, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared. Every year since, millions have visited Lourdes in hopes of being cured by a miracle, or even better, seeing her.

Now, why would a 20-year-old want to spend her summer ministering to the sick? She wouldn’t. Unless she needed to make things right with the Vatican—a serious institution which she had screwed over two years prior. Screwed over may sound dramatic, but when the Supreme Pontiff is involved, it’s perfectly fine to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Or in this case, a missed mass.

It wasn’t just any mass. It was a monumental mass—performed by Pope Benedict XVI at the most sacred of places, Yankee Stadium. I was 18 years old at the time, and I had just moved to New York for school. When I learned the Pope would be visiting and the Vatican was seeking volunteers to serve at the mass, I put in an application. I wanted to be a part of history. I dreamt of getting my hands dirty, helping the infallible one bless, break and serve the body of Christ. No big deal.

Yeah right. It was a huge deal! So when I found out I got accepted to serve (in what capacity, I’m not sure, but I doubt I would have been at the right hand of the holy father), I was over the moon. Naturally, when I told my very pious Catholic parents, they were too. Thanks to Verizon I heard the pride in their voices as they promised to watch the mass—which would be televised on national TV—with my grandparents. I pictured them telling my hometown congregation about their devout daughter. If all went according to plan, a hero’s parade would welcome me home at Christmas Break.

SUNDAY, April 20, 2008, Central Park

Mass was at 2:30 p.m. so I had a few hours to kill. I went to Central Park—intending to meditate and pray so I was in a pure state of mind before helping his holiness. Central Park had other plans for me. It was SummerStage and the Bacon Brothers were performing. A free concert starring Kevin Bacon? Sign me up. The music was good. The company was not.

I soon found myself sequestered between two older men, in their 40’s. They took a liking to me, and I was flattered, and curious. After a few songs, they convinced me to join them for one drink. I told them I had to be at Yankee Stadium by 1 p.m. They insisted we’d be done long before then. They said “one;” so I went.

My mind is fuzzy, but it was a bar on the Upper East Side. We walked there from Central Park so it couldn’t have been too far from 72nd Street. I was three years shy of the legal drinking age, but that didn’t stop the bartender from serving me the prettiest orange and yellow cocktail I had ever seen. I don’t remember what it was, because my two new friends had ordered it for me, but I played with the toothpick umbrella and blocked out the part of my brain that was screaming, BAD KATIE, BAD KATIE. WWJD?

“You farm chocolates?” I asked, wide-eyed and a bit tipsy from the source of my third umbrella. I was accumulating quite the collection, soon I’d have every color. “No,” laughed the shorter, chubbier of my two friends, “truffles are mushrooms.” He told me about his farm in Virginia and made numerous references to his wealth. His other friend was also wealthy. Albeit, he had a more traditional profession. He was a dentist.

The truffle farmer and dentist drilled me about myself. They asked where I was from and where I went to school. I told them I went to a Catholic university. Then they asked if my friends wore skirts, like “Catholic school girl skirts.” I said no and tried to change the subject. But I was buzzed and my communication skills weren’t as sharp as normal. My head hurt. But damn, this drink was pretty and I had so many umbrellas.

My alcohol-induced reverie was broken when my new friends pointed up at the TVs hanging above the bar. “Isn’t that your mass?” asked Dentist. I looked up at a close-up shot of the Pope shaking incense over the altar. The camera panned the crowd and my stomach sank. This wasn’t a dress rehearsal. This was my mass. The mass where I was supposed to be serving. The mass my parents would be watching 2,000 miles away at home in Montana. Where was I? A nameless bar, sitting in between two 40-year-old nameless knuckleheads who were trying to convince me to come back to Truffle’s pad in Tribeca.

I pushed the rest of my drink away and told my new friends I had to go. I thanked them for the drinks and stumbled out of the bar. Somehow I made it back to campus where I crashed and tried to forget the day ever happened.

The gravity of what I had done, or didn’t do, hit me a few days later when I received a package at my dorm. It was not a care package from my parents. Unless my parents had decided to take up residence at the Vatican.

Instantly reminded of my absence from Sunday’s mass, I reluctantly opened the package. Pope Benedict stared up at me, knowingly. It was a shiny medal, accompanied by a letter thanking me for my service to God’s chosen people. I wanted to throw up. I didn’t deserve this medal. I didn’t show up. And even if I had shown up, I would have been drunk.

Spring 2010, St. John’s University 

Some students crossed their knees, uncrossed them, crossed them again and fidgeted in their seats. Not me. I was convinced I would sail through the Lourdes service trip interview with flying colors. Eventually the priest came out of his office and looked up from his clipboard, “Laura?” he asked. Smiling, I got up from my seat and smoothed out the wrinkles in my slacks. I followed him and his assistant, a plainclothes sister, into his office.

The interview started off well. How could it not? I was being interrogated by good cop, gooder cop. The middle went even better. I smiled and answered questions such as, “Describe your relationship with the Lord” and “What makes you think you’re a good candidate to minister to the sick and poor?” The priest and his lady friend clearly liked me. I was charming them to bits and I was sure I’d walk out of their office as happy as the American Idol hopefuls who walk out with an invite to the next round.

As the interview came to a close, the priest said he wanted to ask me a “fun question.” Just to get a better sense of who I was and to ease up on the pressure of being in an interview. “Game on,” I thought. I can do fun like it’s nobody’s business.

“If you were a Disney character, which character would you be?” he asked. DISNEY? I love Disney! I’ve seen all the VHSes except for the last 11 Land Before Time sequels. Immediately, a Disney character came to mind and I knew it represented me to a “t.”

It wasn’t a princess, or a fairy or even a talking Donkey.

“The Tramp,” I said confidently. Much to my horror, the lady friend’s face lost all of its color. Well, the little it had. I don’t think she got much Vitamin D. The priest didn’t look amused either.

Immediately realizing my mistake, I began to try to salvage the situation.

“He’s resourceful, eager to get others out of their comfort zones,” I began. “Wild. Cunning. Street savvy.”

I wasn’t winning over either of my interviewers. They raised their badly groomed eyebrows and shared a look as if to say, “Did she really just say she was like The Tramp?”

The interview ended shortly thereafter. I walked out empty handed. The next day I received an email. The first paragraph politely thanked me for my interest in the Lourdes service trip. The second paragraph politely informed me that I was not a good fit for this year’s trip. That was probably a typo. I think they meant, “any year’s trip.”

I didn’t bathe any dying people or taste holy water that summer. But I also didn’t get drunk with older men who had a very different definition of holy water. Baby steps, baby steps.

You can't judge a dog by its collar.

You can’t judge a dog by its collar.

How Do You Become a Travel Writer?

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn't in the hotel elevator. It's on the beach:)

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn’t in the hotel elevator. It’s on the beach:)

If travel writers got paid a dollar every time someone asked how they got their job, they’d really be living the dream. I don’t even get a dime every time someone asks me, and frankly, I loathe this question. The act of asking it doesn’t annoy me. It’s the fact I don’t have a fool-proof answer. My path was less like Chutes and Ladders and more like Mouse Trap. Instead of playing Pipe Dream, it’s like playing pinball. The following are a few steps that led up to my curious career. And I use the word “career” very, very loosely.

  1. It Was Not My Schooling – My degree is in business and marketing. Words are rather subjective, so I consider myself a numbers person. I’ve never taken a journalism class. I have vague recollections of taking a creative writing class as a college sophomore. I don’t remember my own writing as much as peer reviewing a Muslim colleague’s true story about his dad being in a World Trade Center Tower during September 11, and a Chinese classmate’s true (?) story about how she keeps reincarnating. Despite her 20 alleged years, she had a very old soul.
  2. Hunter S. Who? – I’ve never finished a book by Hunter S. Thompson. Jack Kerouac confuses me, and if you ask who my favorite travel writer is, I’ll probably stutter for a minute before admitting it’s Chuck Thompson (self-disgraced travel writer and author of Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer). While I have respect for the accomplished men and women who belong in the Travel Writing Hall of Fame, they’re not the reason I write.
  3. Carmen on the Other Hand – Geography has always amazed me. When I was about nine years old, I used my allowance—I think I was making $1/week (minus $.10 for tithing)—to buy a big red atlas. It blew my mind that while one country was experiencing winter, another was in the midst of summer. I read that book cover to cover (granted, there were a lot of photos) and even tried to get my brother interested in it. I would be the teacher and give him lessons. I think he hated them.
  4. A Pseudo United Nations – When I was in 8th grade I went to a “leadership camp” that started with a military-esque overnight mission in a swamp in Minnesota. The mosquitoes annihilated us, but I ate peanut butter from a jar and slept on the rough ground next to a Hmong girl from St. Paul, a black kid from Brooklyn and several Native American boys from Red Cloud. Tall, dark and handsome, Farshad was also in my group. He was the first Persian I had ever met, and I had a huge crush on him. Unfortunately, I learned that most Persians have to marry other Persians. Still, this sparked my curiosity in diversity. At times I hated camp (we had to watch Disney movies and would pause and discuss the racist parts), but it made me wonder about where all these people, and their strange customs, came from.
  5. Interest Meets Opportunity – Once upon a time, back in the days of dial-up internet, the 16-year-old in me went to Google (or most likely, Ask Jeeves) and asked, “What is the most diverse place in the world?” The query results indicated it was Queens, NY. That’s how I ended up going to school in New York City. Forget about the financial capital of the world, I think the “City” as residents call it, is the opportunity capital of the world. If it’s not what you know, but who you know, then I think the City is home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of the who’s you should know.
  6. Fake It Till You Make It – The lie began, “Dear Harper Collins…” I was not on staff at The Torch, St. John’s University’s newspaper. Nor did I know anyone who was. But still, I wanted a media pass to Norman Mailer’s memorial service at Carnegie Hall so badly I broke the 9th commandment and sent an email to his publisher’s publicist. This was when I realized that this title of “writer” was sort of like having a back door key to the world. While most other 18-year-olds were sneaking into clubs, I was sneaking into memorial services. But it was exhilarating. (You can read my Mailer memorial service recap here.)
  7. Call Me Intern – During college, I had two incredible internships that opened many doors for me. The first was at NY1 News. I was 20 years old, writing scripts for anchors and traveling to all five boroughs (and even the Jets’ locker room in New Jersey) with news crews. I also spent a summer writing for Dan’s Papers, the largest newspaper in the Hamptons. Dan’s office was located in Bridgehampton, about 5 miles from where I was living in Sag Harbor. I didn’t have a car at the time so I rode my bike—rain or shine. It wasn’t paid, but it got me into wakeboarding camp, Lily Pond (one of the most exclusive clubs in the Hamptons) and a long conversation with the legendary Alan Houston who I had the pleasure of interviewing for my first feature.
  8. A Traveling Salesman – I got the Dan’s Papers internship because I was relentless in hounding the editor. I sat in my dorm room in Dublin and called her on Skype and sent one email after another selling myself and my interest (I didn’t have many skills) while my friends were probably at the pub, a few pints in. Years later, when I was working full time at a public relations agency and wanted to dip my toe in the travel writing realm, I spent my lunch break pacing on the sidewalk, calling Veronica Stoddart, the travel editor at USA Today. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she took a chance on me. Granted, it took about 13 calls before I even got her on the line. At that point I was so shocked to hear her voice that I almost forgot my elevator pitch. I shudder to think what would have happened, or not happened, if I had given up after call 12.
  9. Balancing Relationships and Roundups – Being published on USA Today’s website was a big deal for me. With that byline, PR people assumed I was an established writer and the offers for gear and trips started trickling in. The more I wrote ((all on the weekends, in my free time) and was published the more offers that poured in. My relationships definitely suffered. Instead of having a social life or paying proper attention to my boyfriend at the time, I was working on a roundup of 12 Ways to Stay Active While Traveling or 5 Reasons Traveling Solo Doesn’t Suck.
  10. From Part Time to Paying the Bills – Because of an illness, I had to quit my full time “real” job. I eventually got better, but instead of trying to get back into the “real” workforce, I have been saying yes to some of the story ideas in my head and the trip invitations in my inbox. Confession: I have to say yes to some non-travel related writing—interior design, gardening and real estate—but I’m able to work on these pieces from anywhere. When I was on a wooden gullet cruising around the islands of Turkey I spent a lot of time writing a piece on how to reupholster an antique chair. I should have been swimming, but swimming doesn’t pay the bills. Unless you’re Michael Phelps.

 

 

Do You REALLY Want to Quit Your Job and Travel the World?

It’s been approximately a year since I cleaned out my desk and deposited my last steady paycheck. Granted, I didn’t quit my job because I wanted to travel the world. I quit my job because I was sick. Hopeless in a hospital gown, I spent a beautiful day last May in the emergency room. A pen in my shaking hand as I signed an agreement handed to me by a Native American psychotherapist. The agreement was that I wouldn’t kill myself. I remember him saying, “If you die now, you’ll never see another rainbow, puppy, or tree.” I responded that I didn’t care. I was done.

I describe it as, "Someone takes your insides, puts them in a blender and then stuffs them back inside of you."

My poor large intestine. I describe it as, “Someone takes your insides, puts them in a blender and then stuffs them back inside of you.”

I was wrong about rainbows and puppies and trees.

I was in the ER on several occasions for my autoimmune disease, Crohn’s, which had all but crippled me—both physically and mentally. It was the reason I couldn’t focus at work and the reason I was setting up camp, laying my cement foundation, at rock bottom. Fortunately, my family had other plans. The same week I quit my job, my parents took me to the University of Colorado’s highly acclaimed medical center. I saw one of the best doctors in the field of gastroenterology. He took a broken, 104-lb girl who had grown accustomed to fainting on a daily basis and gave her hope. In the form of a biologic. A $7,000-a-pop drug known as Remicade. The Rolls Royce of treatments. (Yes, I realize how lucky I am.)

The same month of my first infusion, I decided to go to Africa. I fought tooth and nail for it. My parents thought I was nuts. (Being on a biologic weakens my immune system so I’m not able to get live vaccines that are highly recommended, if not required, for visiting places like Africa.) I didn’t care. I had sacrificed a year of hiding my sickness and suffering in virtual silence. It was time to live. And time to make up for lost time.

Same clothes and body in them. Two months and 20 lbs later - ready to leave South Africa for Rwanda.

Same clothes and body in them. Two months and 20 lbs later – ready to leave South Africa for Rwanda.

In the following 10 months I don’t think I spent more than a week in one place. I packed my Kelty backpack and traveled to 5 continents. I went through time zones like Hugh Hefner goes through girlfriends. I slept in more than 20 countries, visiting some destinations more than once. They read like a where’s where of bucket lists. Turkey, Greece, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa, Iceland, Cambodia, Thailand, Ireland, France, Spain, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Italy, Croatia and Ethiopia. I should also count Jordan. Lord knows my layovers there were long enough.

My inspiration? Hardly. But it's a great read.

My inspiration? Hardly. But it’s a great read.

As I look back on the past year, I’m grateful for the experiences. Still, I also can’t help but mourn for some things: realizations, missed milestones, delayed relationships, steady income and everything else that didn’t simmer on the back burner while I was out there trying to remember how to say “Hi” in the local language. All of these things went on without me. And they’ll go on without you too. So before you give your two weeks notice and dip into, or deplete, your savings to go travel the world, you may want to know what I’m mourning after a year of living your dream.

  • I Miss Having Money – You can always make more money. But you can’t always make more memories. While the adage is true, memories don’t pay the bills. Have you ever heard of someone paying their car insurance with a story of a great road trip? I’m resourceful (some would say shameless) so I’ve found a way to use travel to put food on the table and keep my head in a bed, but for most people, it’s not possible to achieve peace of mind when you’re keeping track of every penny. I wish I had contributed to a 401k this past year, not missed a payment for the child I sponsor through Compassion International or had to ask my parents to front me the money to pay my cell phone roaming charges (in the hundreds).
  • I Miss My Family – Growing up, my cousins, Rebecca and Rose, and I were inseparable. We went to the bathroom at the same time and even SHARED THE TOILET. In January, I missed Rebecca’s baby shower, the first among us girls, because I thought it would be more fun to be in Puerto Rico. In April, I was home for Easter, but I was too jetlagged from Thailand and focused on figuring out financing for my upcoming trip to Ethiopia that I wasn’t really present at our family gathering. In fact, I sat at my grandma’s house, on my computer, editing a paper on Iran, ISIS, Putin and every other wrong Western Civilization may be able to right. I can’t remember if we had turkey or ham. And I didn’t stay for dessert. I had to drive back to Billings to pack for another trip.
  • I Miss My Friends – You can follow your friends on Facebook. You can call them on Whats App. You can even bring them on your travels with you (although the stars really have to be aligned for that to work out). What you can’t do, while you’re out traveling the world, is embrace your friends. You can’t share a bottle of wine while watching The Bachelor. You can’t offer to carpool to the game. You can’t notice their subtle suffering, or successes, and offer support or praise. And similarly, they don’t notice yours. Unless you put forth Herculean efforts, your relationships will stagnate, or worse, dissolve.
  • I Know Things I’d Rather Not Know – When I lived in Nicaragua for a few months I used to laugh at the people who would say they wanted to experience the country like a local. My response was, “Do you really want to eat boiled bananas (because the good bananas are exported to the U.S.) mashed with rice and beans for three meals a day? Do you really want to sleep in the threshold of your doorway, praying for a cross breeze because you can’t afford AC or a fan? Do you really want to walk or ride the crowded, hot chicken buses to get from point a to point b because you can’t afford a car?” Some people can do it—bury the unsightly things they’ve seen in developing countries into the recesses of their minds—but I can’t. Some days I struggle to look at water without thinking of the barefoot Ethiopian kids who should have been in school, but instead, were carrying yellow plastic jugs of water (that probably weighed nearly as much as they did) from their village well to their house. I came home at Christmas and instead of being happy I was with my family who had bought me loads of presents, I was disgusted by the wrapping paper waste and the material things piled under our tree. I screamed at my mom, “Why do you have decorative soaps in the upstairs bathroom? SOAPS ARE MEANT TO BE USED, NOT DISPLAYED!”
  • I’ve Lost More Faith in Humanity – Fact of life: humans tend to dwell on the bad things that happen to us. While I try to view the world as a benevolent place, this past year has introduced me to evils that I may never have experienced firsthand if I had stayed home. There was corruption and drugs in Mexico. Extreme poverty and violence in South Africa. The aftermath of genocide in Rwanda (an experience even more sobering and graphic than my visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside of Berlin). Sex trafficking in Thailand and Colombia. Misogyny in Turkey. Civil war sentiments in Bosnia and Croatia. And yes, my assault in Ethiopia. Of course I encountered genuinely good people in these places, but too often it’s the bad who occupy center stage in my mind. It’s easy to say, “Focus on the good, and forget the bad.” BUT when you’ve seen, in the flesh, the missing limbs of a woman attacked with a machete or hear your guide break down about how his father was murdered by Pol Pot because he spoke French or attend an acrobatic circus put on by street children whose flexible bodies were formerly sold for sex, it’s not so easy to erase the worst.
Happy kids one day. Chained together and buried alive the next.

Happy kids one day. Chained together and buried alive the next.

Either Way, You Have My Blessing

If you still want to quit your job and travel the world, go for it. Be prepared to feel a sense of loss, for the people and places you leave behind. Be prepared to feel a sense of longing, for that next passport stamp or bucket list check that is all too often an anticlimactic event we chase for the sake of saying we’ve done it. Don’t expect the trees in France to be any greener than the trees in Oregon. Don’t count on seeing a cheetah in the wild or tasting the best coffee ever in Colombia. Like the bananas, that shit is exported. Expect to be broken and rebuilt and then broken and rebuilt again. Expect the cycle to continue even as you touch down in a first world country. Expect to come home and not recognize it. Expect to be behind, financially, socially, physically and I pray this doesn’t happen to you, but spiritually.

When I find myself in times of trouble...

When I find myself in times of trouble…

Do I sound like a naysayer? Yes. But my experience has shown me, time after time, that mind over matter is a lie. Reality is the sticker shock when you go to buy a cappuccino in Iceland. It’s the scarred elephants paraded in front of you in Thailand. It’s the men in the bushes behind your private beach bungalow—hunting iguanas with machetes because it’s the only meat they can afford. It’s the signs in Bosnia warning you to live within the lines because there are still active landmines waiting to blow your leg off like the man who sold you a Made-In-China magnet on the main tourist drag.

My experience has also shown me, time after time, that reality can be good. It’s the Swedish expat in Turkey who takes in special needs children who were abandoned by their parents. It’s the Good Samaritan—whether that’s the staff in an Ethiopian hotel who take care of you at your worst or the islanders on Lake Nicaragua who let you hitch a ride in the back of their truck (as they haul heaps of rotting garbage) because you didn’t know buses don’t operate on Sundays. It’s the wildlife sanctuary on a Greek island, run by volunteers who pour their blood, sweat and tears into rehabilitating injured wildlife who will never be able to voice their thanks.

Kostas, a tiny greek man I'll call the backbone of the Hellenic Wildlife Refuge.

Kostas, a tiny greek man I’ll call the backbone of the Hellenic Wildlife Refuge.

So go for it. Quit your job and travel the world.

dogcollage

A caricature I drew when I was in my cubicle on Park Avenue.

Or don’t. Continue clocking in and clocking out. Save up those two weeks of vacation and genuinely appreciate them because those days are a novelty, not the norm. Watch the balances in your bank accounts grow and feel financially stable enough to make adult decisions. Be there for your friends’ weddings, your family’s holiday dinners and your dog’s first haircut. Get to know your neighbors, visit the national parks in your backyard and buy groceries in bulk because you know you’ll have time to finish them before they spoil. When wanderlust does comes creeping in, and it will, ask yourself if you’re ready for the repercussions. If you are, prepare to reap the rewards. Yes, there ARE worthwhile benefits! Why else do you think I’m writing this instead of filling out a job application?

AppleMark

Love it – “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.”

I Know How I Was Attacked, But Why?

Provoke“You must have been doing something to provoke them.” That was the text I was reading on my phone. Just a couple hours earlier, two men in downtown Addis Ababa attacked me. Provoke is defined as, “to deliberately make someone annoyed or angry.” Seeing that word from a supposed friend, hurt more than being slapped by a stranger. File it under Things You Don’t Tell a Woman Who Has Just Been Assaulted.

April 20, 2016 – 4 p.m. Holy Trinity Cathedral

Screen shot 2016-05-25 at 5.55.34 PMHoly Trinity Cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Addis Ababa. According to Wikipedia, it is the second most important place to worship in the entire country. I had arrived in Ethiopia about a week earlier, and I had already spent a few days in Addis, its capital city of 3.4 million. Our guide insisted it had more like 8 million people. The government doesn’t count the people living in the slums.

I wasn’t walking in the slums when I was attacked. I was walking back from Holy Trinity Cathedral where I had paid the entrance fee ($5), donned my head covering (as women are required to do) and removed my shoes (as all are required to do). Show respect, receive respect. That’s how it works, right?

Not always.

As I made my way along the sidewalk in downtown Addis, I was very aware of my surroundings. Women walked children home from school, old men sat on little stools or the ground sipping coffee at Ethiopia’s minimalistic cafes. I wasn’t wearing a low cut top. I wasn’t wearing a mini skirt. I didn’t have my nose in a guidebook. I didn’t have headphones in my ears. And I would never flash cash or flaunt my $500 iPhone 6 in a foreign country, much less the 9th poorest country in the world.

I hadn’t said a word to anyone since I politely declined an offer from a friendly Ethiopian man at the cathedral. He wanted to show me the tombs of the emperors. I know better than to leave with strangers.

So there I was, walking on the sidewalk. In broad daylight. In a busy, but not too busy, business district. I wasn’t in a marketplace teeming with hustlers. I was in the equivalent of Tribeca meets the Financial District. Internally, I was not at peace. I must have passed at least six cripples – some younger than me – laying on the sidewalk begging for money. Externally, I was just another face in the crowd.

Except I wasn’t. I was white. I was alone. I was female. I was foreign.

It didn’t happen in the blink of an eye. It was like slow motion. Two young men, probably in their late teens or early twenties, slowly, and strategically, approached me from behind. I didn’t say anything or change my pace. Soon we were three abreast, six shoulders in a line. Then I realized I was in trouble.

I haven’t been hit since I was a kid. And I don’t even remember being slapped. Spanked, yes, but not slapped. So I was shocked when the man on my right started slapping me. It didn’t register as normal behavior. “Why are you hitting me?” I asked, more perplexed than pissed. Then he hit me harder. “Why are you hitting a girl?” was my next question. He kept swinging.

Meanwhile, his cohort on my left had his hands in my pants. I was wearing loose fitting athletic pants—not very sexy, but very easy to violate. I’ve taken more than one self-defense class in high school and college, but none of my instructors taught me what to do if I had more than one attacker. I guess I didn’t make it to level Liam Neeson.

Now numb to the slapping, I focused on the man on the left. He grabbed my iPhone from my pocket. That black Otterbox case looked so out of place in his hand. I looked him in the eyes. They weren’t as dark as I thought they would be. But color doesn’t equal compassion. In this moment, he seemed to have none. He didn’t look like a kid, sorry that he had just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked like a shell of a person. Where there should have been a conscience, there was contempt.

Suddenly, a third, much older man, was coming at me. No, wait. He was coming at the men. The one on my right stopped slapping me and took off. The one on the left did the same—dropping my iPhone in the process.

The older man who had chased the men away left as quickly as he had come. He didn’t stop to ask if I was okay. No one asked if I was okay. And there were plenty of witnesses.

Relieved I still had all of my material possessions, I was surprised at the tears I began to leak. Those tears soon turned into the guttural crying of a girl who wanted to rewrite those last few minutes of her life. If that wasn’t possible, she wanted her mom. But her mom was thousands of miles away.

April 20, 6 p.m. Hotel Jupiter International, Addis Ababa

“Mom,” I cried into my computer’s camera. “Not a single person stopped to see if I was okay. That is the most messed up part.”

“Katie,” she asked. “If you saw a stranger crying on the sidewalk, would you stop and say anything?” She had a point.

May 25, 5:30 p.m. Coffee Factory Roasters, Red Lodge, MT

It’s been more than a month since I begged the Hotel Jupiter manager for a shower, even though I wasn’t a hotel guest. I told him how I had been sandwiched between two men, and he agreed to let me shower while his staff made me a complimentary cappuccino that had “SORRY” written in cinnamon on the foam. Now, as I sit here, sipping a cappuccino in Red Lodge, Montana, the rain outside is like a call for reflection. cappuccino

I can relive the ordeal, I can reflect on it, but I can not rewrite it. It had to happen for a reason, and that reason is bigger than any feelings or fears I have. I still don’t know what that reason is. One day it will hit me like a ton of bricks. Or more likely, I’ll gradually and subconsciously start to understand it.

Until then, I will continue to travel. And I will pray for those two men. Oh, the irony. I set out to observe afternoon prayer at Holy Trinity Cathedral. I never intended to bring home something to pray about.

 

 

 

 

The Fittest Hotel in Florida

Beach Boot Camp WSFL-TV Harbor Beach MarriottUnless you travel with a personal trainer, it can be incredibly hard and inconvenient to stick with your fitness routine while you’re on vacation. But that’s not the case if you vacation at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa in sunny Fort Lauderdale. Not only will you find it exceedingly easy to stick to your routine, but there’s also an astronomically high chance that you’ll expand your exercise horizons. Here are ten ways to break a sweat at this beachfront resort that has a gift shop stocked with athletic apparel and a breakfast attendant who you may run into at boot camp.

Col Bob.jpg.jpg1. Make a Date with the “Health Colonel”
Although he could win a congeniality award, Colonel Bob doesn’t mess around. He’s spent 30 years in the Army, but these days he can be found —still sporting fatigues— on the resort’s beach where he leads boot camp classes for guests and Fort Lauderdale locals. The 16-acre resort is home to South Florida’s largest private beach, and Colonel Bob makes a point of covering as much ground as possible. He provides the props, the sand provides the resistance, and knowing that there’s plenty of delicious food nearby to indulge in is plenty of motivation to drop and give Bob forty.

2. Get Out Your Ace Game
Practice your serve or play a full set— but whatever you do, don’t forget about the resort’s Tennis Happy Hour on Fridays. Every Friday, a tennis pro is on site to provide pointers, and guests are invited to meet other players and arrange matches. In addition to match play, guests can also sign up for clinics and programs that are offered on the resort’s two hard courts and two clay courts. Table tennis is also available.

3. Try Not to Travel
Not many Marriott properties can brag about on-site basketball courts, but this property isn’t included in that group. Guests can go from laying by the pool to shooting hoops in less than two minutes. Play for bragging rights, or play for higher stakes— the loser can always buy dinner for the winner at Sea Level, which is also less than two minutes away and serves fresh cuisine in a casual, outdoor setting with ocean views.

4. Paddle Past the Break
Conveniently located on the hotel’s beach, the Aloha Watersports hut is managed by a fun ensemble that can put even the most wary beginners at ease. The warm water and challenging, but manageable waves make for an ideal place to transition from still-water SUP to SUP surfing. Although Aloha offers 30-minute rentals, the experience is so intoxicating that you’ll probably end up wanting to SUP all summer long.

5. Salute the Sun
Pack your own mat or borrow a purple one from the resort, but unless you want them to be jealous, don’t tell your friends that you’ll be doing down dog with views of the beach. The resort offers yoga classes inside their fitness studio and outside on a terrace, so guests can easily squeeze in their favorite poses without having to practice in their room or leave the property to locate a studio.

6. Don’t Cut Class
Forget about the channel guide and fast food menu because the fitness class schedule is probably the most important handout at this resort. The classes, most of which are held on the first floor in the resort’s fitness studio, include spinning, P90X, power walking, water aerobics and Zumba. After a strenuous workout, guests can walk down the hallway and melt their sore muscles in the spa’s steam room.

7. Work Out, Whenever
Hitting the weights or logging some cardio is less of a chore in the resort’s fitness center which is open 24/7 and features floor-to-ceiling windows and state-of-the-art equipment. The resort can also arrange for guests to meet with personal trainers for one-on-one workouts and personalized fitness assessments. For guests looking for a little guidance, there’s a large community board that is frequently updated with recommended reps and routines.

8. Suit Up
The hardest part about swimming at the resort is picking a pool. Guests can choose between the large outdoor lagoon and the private indoor pool located in the adjacent spa. If swimming laps isn’t your thing, the resort offers dive-in movies at dusk where you can tread water while watching a family-friendly flick. For those who prefer to practice their strokes in saltwater, the inviting ocean is just yards away.

9. Dig in the Sand
The resistance of sand makes a resistance band seem like child’s play, and for those looking to maximize their calorie burn, beach volleyball is the perfect sport. Every day, the resort sets up a net on their private beach where guests can sweat it out in a friendly (or fiercely competitive) pickup game.

10. Battle for Bragging Rights
Although the resort has three gift shops, the best souvenir comes from the resort’s recreation department. This talented team designs unique teambuilding challenges and fun competitions akin to what one might see on an episode of Survivor. Whether it’s won in Beach Olympics or the Build-a-Boat Race, the “I Won Bragging Rights at Harbor Beach.” t-shirt is sure to turn heads for years to come.

 

10 Reasons to Ride and Crash at George Hincapie’s Hotel

hotel_domestique_3

South of France or South Carolina?

Cyclists rejoice. There is a hotel on a hill that was designed with you in mind. Offering mind-blowing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hotel Domestique could easily appeal to any traveler. But, it’s the two-wheelers who have the most to gain from a stay at this French chateau found twenty miles north of Greenville, South Carolina.

georgeandlance

Not my photo, and not George and his real life brother, Richard.

 

The 13-room inn opened last August and is the brainchild of the brothers Hincapie. Yes, as in the legend “Big George,” who along with his brother Rich, had the brilliant idea to turn a countryside hotel into a hub for hardcore cyclists, beginners, and all bikers in between.

Here are ten reasons why you’ll want to ride and crash at Hotel Domestique.

Bike-in, Bike-out: The first sign that this property is bike-in and bike-out is the bench and storage bin in the hotel’s front entryway. This thoughtful threshold allows cyclists to put on or remove their cycling shoes without having to lean against anything or click and clack across the lobby. Hundreds of miles of world class cycling meet the front door, so there’s no need to start the car or waste daylight getting from point A to point B in order to begin your ride. Depending on the weather and time of day, there are also mobile bike racks set up outside the front door or just inside where guests can store their bikes.

reservedDomestique

A $10,000 bike that sets the bar as high as George’s seat.

Bike Valet: Prior to arriving at Hotel Domestique, guests who book a room through the hotel’s website have the option of requesting a bike rental. Because there are a limited number of high-end carbon BMC road and mountain bikes in the hotel’s fleet, it’s best to reserve a bike in advance. Once at the hotel, the bikes and gear are waiting for the guests who can request them each morning by using the in-room iPad.

domestiqueipad

Don’t move – there’s a scorpion on your shoulder.

hincapie gear 2.jpg

Wondering if I’ll ever wear the arm warmers…

Competent Concierge: A friendly concierge who has an emergency stash of ibuprofen (in bulk) mans the front desk and is on hand to help with everything from printing out cue sheets to arranging for a helmet fitting. The concierge can also provide directions to the closest bike shop, which is in the nearby town of Traveler’s Rest, or the best place to get biking apparel, which would be at the Hincapie Sportswearheadquarters in Greenville.

Bike Mechanic & More: The only thing more useful than a bellhop is a bike mechanic, and Hotel Domestique has a very competent one named Jeremiah. Jeremiah manages the hotel’s bike shop, and he seems to always be on hand to help lower a seat or fix a flat tire. In addition to the bike shop, there is also bike storage that allows riders to rest assured.

Le Tour: For diehard Tour de France fans, Hotel Domestique is like heaven. Each of the 13 rooms are named for stages in the tour, and as a throwback, the room keys are actual keys—not cards. The name of the hotel itself comes from the position that George had on the U.S. team. As a domestique, George was responsible for riding ahead and blocking the wind so the team’s leader—Lance Armstrong—could be positioned to pull ahead in the final stretch.

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Head shot? Yes please!

Big George: The elephant in the room is built more like a gazelle, and he goes by George. The record-holding 17-time Tour de France competitor retired from pro-cycling in 2012, but he has yet to hang up his helmet. In fact, he rides with hotel guests. For those that aren’t lucky enough to join George on his weekly group rides, there’s always the option of using the in-room iPads to check out “George’s Routes”—George’s personal recommendations on where to ride. Pleasant and approachable, George is just like the rest of the staff at Hotel Domestique, except none of them have their portraits hanging in the hotel.

Restaurant 17: The hotel’s on-site restaurant is a destination in itself. Aptly named for the number of times George competed in the Tour de France, Restaurant 17 features the finest foods prepared by a talented team led by Executive Chef Adam Cooke. Cooke rides between shifts but still manages to serve outstanding food that is locally sourced. The menu is carefully crafted, and changes with what is in season. True to the cycling-theme, the bar has a signature cocktail called the wheel sucker—the term used for a cyclist who trails the leader very closely before taking off at the home stretch.

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Bonus points if you can identify everything on the plate.

The Little Things: Between meals, guests can refuel at the hotel’s snack stations which include a mini fridge stocked with drinks, alcohol, an espresso machine, and plenty of healthy snacks including fresh fruit, trail mix, biscotti, and Skratch Lab energy samples. Guests will also want to take advantage of the hotel’s yoga room where they can stretch or receive a massage. The yoga room even has a shower so day-trippers can freshen up before dining at Restaurant 17.

The Bigger Things: For guests that aren’t into cycling (yet), there’s always the option of getting a complimentary day pass to the country club just down the road. Hotel Domestique has a great relationship with The Cliffs—a private residential community—where guests can utilize a fitness center, spa, and tennis courts. The hotel also has a 25-meter pool and an inviting library where guests can relax while their companions ride.

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Dan and I rode with L to R, George’s friend who was training for an Ironman, Chef Adam Cooke, and George.

Location, Location, Vacation: It was no random act of relocation that the Hincapies, New York natives, settled in upstate South Carolina. It was here, in the mild climate and foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that George could train year round for the Tour de France. Rural roads stretch high and low across the scenic terrain, and the hotel’s strategic location provides guests with the same unparalleled routes favored by this former pro-cyclist.

First published by The Active Times

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Earth, breath and fire

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Before there were blowtorches, there was blowing. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were fire breathers; not the colorful fire breathers seen at the circus, but a hardy, hairy crew who relied on fire much like their descendants depend on Wi-Fi.

 

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Just ask Randy Kinkade, Outdoor Sports Manager at Canyon Ranch, a revolutionary health and spa resort in Tucson, Arizona. Kinkade can take three sticks, a piece of string, and a pile of tinder and turn it into a fire faster than most mortals can fathom. Kinkade, who manages the resort’s relatively new Primitive Technology program, says fire making is surprisingly strenuous, and it’s not unusual for first-timers to break a sweat.

Before the last step, which is the blowing, Kinkade must first get his students to create a coal. Using tinder, also known as Jute fibers, and a few pieces of carved wood including a bow, one creates a coal by mastering the force of friction. Upper body and core strength are crucial, and stability is also a factor. It’s optimal to get down on one knee and wrap an arm around a shin. The objective is to combine the force of the arm and the leg to create one greater downward force that is applied to a carved piece of wood known as the drill.

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The other arm, your right arm if you’re right-handed, wields the bow that is used to drive the drill into another carved piece of wood called the fireboard. It is the physically demanding friction between the bottom of the drill and the fireboard that creates the coal. The trick is to apply as much downward pressure as possible while working the bow back and forth as quickly as you can. Both tasks are more trying than they seem.

Randy.jpgThe payoff though, is priceless. Once you’ve created an adequate coal, you wrap the tinder around it. But you’re not done yet; you still need to breathe the fire to life. The breathing is an art in itself. While the tendency is to huff and puff and blow with reckless abandon, Kinkade uses a relaxed breath in a rhythmic manner as he slowly turns the tinder in his hands until it begins to smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and in this case, a sense of accomplishment.

randyfire.jpgIn less than ten minutes, a few cold sticks and a pocketful of tinder have birthed a ball of flames. When you make something—whether it’s a pizza, a knife, or a fire—what you create has more personality if it comes from your hands. Kinkade believes that there is a difference between fire that comes from a little match and fire that comes from a little muscle exertion. After more than 30 years of making fire, Kinkade still lights up when he sees someone succeed. Even if it means he has to step in and help apply pressure or hold the bow. He taught his sons how to make fire and recalls camping trips where he told them that if they didn’t make the fire themselves, there would be no fire. Fortunately, he’s not as strict with his Canyon Ranch students.

But why would one want to learn such an archaic method for making fire? “Why not?” asks Kinkade who says that his students cite many different reasons for wanting to spend their time at an award-winning resort learning how to make fire. He also notes that his students are incredibly diverse. “You can’t point out one person in a crowd and say, ‘that’s the kind of person who would be interested in primitive technology.’” And maybe that’s why the Primitive Technology program is growing in popularity.

Fire making is actually just day one of the Primitive Technology program. The other three components include knife making, native awareness, and animal tracking. On day two, students are taught how to make string from the yucca plant before being taught how to use the string and obsidian to make a knife.

Day three is spent learning how to hone your peripheral vision in order to be more observant and track animals. Senses can atrophy much like muscles can atrophy, and Kinkade is a big proponent of practicing the use of peripheral vision. The four-day program culminates in a surprise team challenge known as the final test. The entire program takes place within the confines of the 150-acre property so students never have to worry about being dumped empty-handed in the nearby Sonoran desert. But they will have to be prepared to be taken back in time.

Although Kinkade hesitates to use the word primitive, saying, “Our ancestors had the same brain capacity as we do, they just didn’t have the foundation. In that sense the technology is not all that primitive.” Whatever you call it, this unique program is both physical and fun, and it’s hard to envision a better outdoor classroom than Canyon Ranch.

katiefire

 This post was first published by the The Active Times