Posts Tagged With: backpacking

Travel Journal: The City of Lights

I’m in Madrid, Spain at the moment. I shouldn’t be.

I bought bus tickets online to go to Barcelona at 9am…on May 18th, the day we arrived in Madrid. So I’m sitting here at a McDonalds on Calle de Francisco Silvela, Madrid until my new bus, that I had to pay full price for, leaves at 1pm.

The only good thing that comes from my idiocy is the time to write this post. My pain, your gain. You are all welcome.

Paris. The City of Lights.

I was in Paris 14 years ago. I studied abroad the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. I spent seven weeks living with a host family, speaking ONLY French and taking French classes in St. Brieuc, France. We flew out of Charles De Gaulle so the last two days we were given free rein to roam Paris. Not knowing the next time I might return, I tried to do everything. I went up the Eiffel Tower and wrote my name in sharpie along with hundreds of thousands of others. I raced through the Louvre to see Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. I loved every second looking at Degas’ paintings in the Musée D’Orsay. I strolled through the Gardens of the Musée Rodin, admiring the Thinker, of which I had made a mini-replica for French class the year before. And finally, I walked around the manicured gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately, the palace was closed for renovations so I wasn’t able to see inside.

I had no real desire to go to Paris again. Been there, done that. There are so many places to see in the world and so little time! But I was meeting my 20-year-old brother, Mark, and Paris was the cheapest place for him to fly in to.


At the airport. 1st photo.

I wasn’t broken up about it. This was to be his first trip abroad and everyone should really go to Paris at least once in their lives if they have the means. It is Paris, after all.

I arranged my EasyJet flight from Venice so that I would arrive an hour and half before Mark who was flying Icelandair from Orlando, with a very short layover in Iceland. Although his flight from Orlando was running late, he was still able to make his connection and magically his luggage arrived too.

It had been 10 months since I’d seen him last, but he looked pretty much the same. He had the backpack I’d bought him for Christmas and wore a brave face, though I knew internally he was quaking. It’s a scary thing to really travel for the first time. Fortunately, he has a well-traveled, confident, and, if it’s not too far-fetched, inspiring big sister to, in a very Type-A, control-freak fashion, control the minutiae of the three week journey.

Our first obstacle to navigate was getting to our hotel from Orly. We stayed in TimHotel Berthier, conveniently located right next to the Port de Clichy metro station. First we had to squeeze into the Orly Bus and then switch metro trains a couple times, but we arrived in tact.

Our hotel room was small but really nice- by far the nicest I’d stayed in up to that point. After settling in, we set out to explore the city.

Remember my friend Sarah? She came out to Mozambique for my 30th birthday. Well, a couple days before I arrived in Paris she contacted me and asked what my itinerary was. Then she decided on a whim to come and meet me in Paris. She was staying in a hostel about half an hour metro ride from us. That was the first thing on the to-do list- meet up Sarah. Second was to eat dinner.

We found Sarah easily enough and quickly settled into a cute little restaurant. We ordered our meals. Mark ordered steak tartare. I really wasn’t paying attention, too involved in my own choice of onion soup and salad. Sarah noticed but didn’t say anything because she knows me and I’m a fairly adventurous eater so she thought it might run in the family.

Well, fortunately, it does. The unexpected pile of minced raw meat arrived and Mark didn’t blink an eye. We had a good laugh over his ignorance of what he ordered, but when the server offered to switch it out for something cooked, Mark refused. He ate every single bite of that mass of blood, red beef. He admitted that he only did it because he knew I would make fun of him the rest of the trip if he didn’t (his bad luck, I still have :).

From there we walked to Sacré-Coeur and then on the opposite end of the morality IMG_2749spectrum, the Moulin Rouge. Sarah would have been happy to stay out all night, Mark would have gone along with anything, but I am a total stick in the mud. Eleven o’clock rolled around and I was ready for my nice, warm bed.

The next day found us on the metro. We had a bike tour scheduled with Fat Tire Bike Tours for 10am. We left a full hour ahead of time even though Google maps told me it was only a half hour. It was a new public transportation system to figure out and I hate to be late. One hour and fifteen minutes and four trains later, we arrived at the Fat Tire Office. I blame Google maps! I had typed Fat Tire Tours Paris into the search and it decided I wanted to go to Paris. Just Paris. It was a couple trains later when I realized we were headed in the completely opposite direction. From that time on, I decided to use the maps in every station to guide me rather than unreliable, tricky Google maps.

I called the Fat Tire when we I realized we would be late, but they were great and the tour waited for us. I’m so glad it did because we had an amazing time. The weather was fabulous. Our guide, an American-raised, Frenchman, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We covered so much ground in four hours and I, at least, felt oriented to the city (Mark was just along for the ride).IMG_2770

After the tour, having a better idea of the various things to see, we made a plan of attack. That night Mark and I walked up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to make our way down whIMG_2816en thousands and thousands of lights started sparkling across the Tower. There was an audible gasp, which I heard first before seeing the lights and I admit my first instinct was TERRORIST…but it was just lights so that was cool.

Full day number two was an early morning start, once again with Fat Tire Bike Tours (because we liked them so much the day before) to Versailles. This time I convinced Sarah to go with us. She’s not much for early mornings on vacation, or physical activity, but she does like hanging out with people so that was the clincher. With a group of around 12-13, we took the train to Versailles with our Canadian guide and got our bikes. Then we spent an hour going around the market buying supplies for a picnic. The tour was, once again, fabulous. Weather-amazing. We visited Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, built in 1783 to resemble her home country of Austria. We had a leisurely ride through the outer gardens and picnicked beside the water. The tour came with a fast pass into the castle. We took advantage of that and I finally was able to visit the palace! It has some great history and I loved connecting the history of the monarchs with the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about them: Man in the Iron Mask, Reign, Marie Antoinette, the Three Musketeers, etc. Obviously, those are mostly fiction but using the guise of people who actually existed and walked the same halls I was walking.


Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

The following day was originally intended to include an early morning visit to the catacombs but it was May 8th. Not ringing a bell? May 8th is Victory in Europe Day! I heard that there was going to be a military processional on the Champs-Elysees that morning. Mark and I decided the catacombs would probably still be there but how often would we be in Paris on May 8th?? We arrived early and had a great vantage point near the Arch de Triomphe to watch all the diplomats with their flags proudly waving on their Mercedes, Peugeots and Renaults. The American ambassador drove by in the only SUV we saw in the city- a Chevy, of course.

Finally, the French president brought up the rear, with the window rolled down waving at the spectators. He was followed by the cavalry decked out in their awesome FrenchIMG_2873 uniforms, with long hair hanging from their helmets. Pretty cool.

From there we walked to Notre Dame (all the metro stations on the Champs-Elysees were closed for VE Day). It was very far. Then we walked to the Louvre. It was practically empty! Two days before on our bike tour the square in front of the famous pyramids was packed with people queuing to get in. I bought online tickets to avoid that but there was really no need. There was no line and we roamed through the massive museum unmolested.

We attempted to hit everything really famous and visited Napoleon’s rooms, which I hadn’t seen previously. Mark is a pretty fun person with which to visit a museum. He doesn’t bore easily. And we were able to have fun commenting on the works of art. But I started to feel rough about half way through the tour- stomachache. I needed to sit every couple of rooms. It was a serious drag. I wish we could have stayed longer but my stomach was draining any fun out of the day.

I wanted to go back to the hotel and stew in my misery, but I had another rendezvous. This time it was with another Peace Corps friend, Levi and his girlfriend. When I was in Italy I saw Levi post a selfie in front of Notre Dame and so I messaged him to see if he was still going to be in Paris when I visited. Turns out he lives there. So the answer was yes…and no. I hadn’t met up with him earlier because he decided to take that same weekend to go to Scotland. The nerve!

Fortunately, he agreed to meet me right after putting his luggage in his apartment. He lives in the cutest neighborhood that hosts two of the top 50 bars in the world, Candelaria and Little Red Door (according to We visited both of them. They were cool; I indulged in water only since my stomach hurt, but the water was definitely topnotch.IMG_2914

I hadn’t seen Levi in the seven years since Peace Corps ended. It was awesome to reconnect, hear about what he’s been up to and meet the lady who stole his heart. Sarah, Levi and I relived some of our more memorable stories and reminded each other of things the other had forgotten. We stayed out until midnight and then raced to the metro to make it back to the hotel before metro stopped running.

And that was Paris. The next day Mark and I took our last metro train to the Orly bus, this time experts in Parisian public transportation. We left in the early afternoon for Nice, but that is another story…

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Travel Journal: Why are there no toilet seats in Naples?

I must admit that I did not plan or research a lot before coming to Italy. Internet is expensive on the islands and I didn’t have the time, what with packing, saying goodbyes, endless ceremonies, etc. But I am not one of those people that can just show up in a city and blow around from here to there like tumbleweed. I am Type-A after all. So my planning consisted of choosing four cities: Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, booking my hostels/hotels and buying train tickets.

Why those cities? Because I’d heard of them. Really, it’s as simple as that. I’ve heard of a lot of cities in Italy but those were the first ones that popped into my head. My aunt, who’d visited Italy last year, warned me off Naples the day I arrived in Rome. This was our Facebook conversation:

Me: I’m doing Italy alone. I fly into Rome, then I’ll travel to Naples, Florence and Venice. I fly from Venice to Paris.

Her: Okay well I would skip Naples if I were you. That’s the only place Rachel and I didn’t even feel safe together. Sorrento is gorgeous and safe and we would have stayed there instead if we had known.

Me: I’ve already got stuff booked in Naples and I’m really excited about seeing Pompeii. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Her: No worries but please please do be careful you definitely don’t want to be out at night alone I hope you meet some other Travelers on the way. We met a number of girls traveling alone but never there.

I put this conversation out of my mind while I was in Rome but on the hour-long train ride down to Naples I started researching on my phone. I ran across articles titled, “Why No One Wants to Travel to Naples” and “Naples: Italy’s Scariest City”. By the end of my train ride, I was quite convinced I would witness a murder before exiting the train station and I would definitely be mugged on my way to the hostel.

Stepping down from my safe train compartment, I held my luggage close and clutched my purse under my armpit. Every passerby was mafia with a nefarious gleam in his or her eye. Every child was a pickpocketer. I bustled through the train station as quickly as possible, considering what I had on my person to use as a weapon. Waiting for the metro, I ran through scenarios in my head. What would I do if someone came at me with knife? What if I was surrounded by a Vespa gang and they demanded my backpack? Thoughts swirled and fear raged.

I made it to my metro stop with no incidents. As I furtively glanced at my fellow passengers, they didn’t look particularly menacing. Not menacing, but I did notice a definite style change from the sophistication of black-clad Roman women. Entering the street from underground, I was assaulted with the sight of a large, hairy potbelly peaking out from a stained white shirt on a man standing in my path. Girls walked by with ripped jeans and badly dyed hair. Whatever else might be said, la mode of Napoli is far more grunge and laissez-faire than Rome.


Typical Street in Naples

I immediately noticed the graffiti. It was everywhere. There was also a distinct smell- urine mixed with marijuana- that permeated the city streets. It actually reminded me a bit of New York City.

Google maps directed me the 0.2 miles to my hostel, aptly named Giovanni’s Home (as the hostel was housed in the apartment of a Neapolitan man named Giovanni). Naples is very hilly so my journey to the hostel took me down a hill, up a hill and down another. I arrived at the hostel sweating and sore. Despite the temperature gage that told me Naples was colder than Rome at 62 degrees (16.6 Celsius), it felt much hotter. Giovanni was waiting for me on the porch of his 3rd story apartment.

“Jessie!” he called down when I was still about 200 meters down the road, “Jessie! Up here!”

I was buzzed into the complex and helped to the third floor with my luggage. Giovanni bustled around showing me the bathrooms, kitchen, common area and the bedroom I would share with seven other girls. I, thank goodness, was given a bottom bunk. He told me to rest; he was waiting on some more arrivals at which point he would give us all a presentation about Naples.

Half an hour later, I sat across from Giovanni, wedged in between three Spanish girls and a British couple. Giovanni laid a map before us and began highlighting all of the things we must see, the streets we must walk and the places we must avoid. For particularly notable attractions, he pulled up pictures on his computer.

Well aware of the reputation his city has, he took some of the presentation time to give us crime statistics. Barcelona is the number one city in the world for pickpocketing. Paris, Rome, and Florence are in the top ten. Naples doesn’t have such a distinction. Giovanni advised walking around with a backpack instead of a small purse. Backpacks are hard to snatch and small purses are tempting because they will have all the essentials- phone and cash.

As I’d arrived at lunchtime, Giovanni recommended a pizza place in the area- the best in Naples. And since Naples makes the best pizza in the world, the best in the world? I set off almost immediately when he was finished, promptly got lost and ended up at the pizza place at the same time as the Spanish girls who had left after me.

I won’t go into a detailed description of everything I saw and did in Naples. Suffice to say, I believe it has an undeserved bad reputation. Aside from my terrifying walk to my hostel, hounded by the voices of cautious tourists, I felt completely safe and had a marvelous time taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the third largest city in Italy.

There are some things that do deserve special mention. The very first thing I visited was the Cappella Sansevero, a small chapel that was built in 1590. It houses some of the most beautiful sculptures I have ever seen. The most famous (for good reason) is the Veiled Christ, completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Sculpted from marble, it appears that Christ is wearing a shroud but his facial expression and form can clearly be seen underneath. Wow.


No pictures allowed in the chapel. This comes from

I can’t count the number of churches that I entered. The Duomo of Napoli houses the crypt of the city’s principle patron saint, Januarius or San Gennaro. On the stage of this grand cathedral there was a dead guy on display in a glass case. Having eight years of Catholic education, I had heard of this practice but this was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. His name was Beato Nunzio Sulprizo and he died in 1836 at age 19. He has been venerated as “Blessed” by the Catholic Church since 1963. I starred at him for a while trying to understand the purpose of having him on display. I think my deeply embedded Protestantism hampered my efforts. In addition to this mummified dude, there were offering plates placed around the church “For the worship of San Gennaro”. That’s what the plates said. And the age old debate continues; since when do Christians consider it appropriate to worship dead people? That topic is a post for another time—but it truly did disturb my sensibilities.IMG_2391

That first day I walked over 12 miles. The second day I booked an all-day tour of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Giovanni was not at all happy when he discovered I’d been tricked into booking a tour! “Oh sh*t!” he bemoaned, “You could have done so much more and for cheaper if you just went on your own. Why would you do that? Why??” I smiled and sympathized. “Darn you, tourist traps!” And I shook my fist in the air (not really). But in actuality, I was not disappointed in myself for booking a tour. I was picked up in a bus, driven around with commentary on the buildings being passed, given an expert guide of Pompeii providing information that could not have been obtained with a simple audioguide, given lunch and driven up Mount Vesuvius to where the walking path begins. I have to get myself from one place to another across Europe. When I’m in a city, sometimes I don’t want to have to figure everything out myself. I felt no guilt despite Giovanni’s best effort.

Not everyone at the hostel was so lucky. I met a young Australian girl that night when I returned from my amazing day in Pompeii. Upon walking in the door, Giovanni asked if I ate everything. Without allowing me to answer he informed me that he was going to show me how to make carbonara.

“Oh sounds good. When?”

“Now! Now. Come.”

Putting my backpack on my bed and plugging in my phone took too long. “Jessie!!! Come,” rang through the hostel. Two other girls waited to be instructed and we struck up a conversation about our days. Rose, the Australian, had also been on a couple tours during her time in Naples. She had the same reasoning I had but expressed dismay at Giovanni’s disapproval. In fact, the day before, he’d given her such a haranguing that her eyes had prickled with unshed tears. As we enjoyed a small glass of wine that evening in the Piazza Bellini, I told her not to worry about it. The clientele of said hostel seems to be overwhelmingly young- mostly college students. Most of them are probably more than happy to take any advice given by this grandfatherly figure and he is most willing (is there a stronger word than willing?) to give it. He wanted to know everything I was doing and he always had something to say about it.

“What are you doing today?”

“Going to the island of Procida.”

“Take the ferry, not the small metro boat. It’s too windy.”

(I took the small boat and it was fine).


“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”


“That is too early! You leave at 7:00. Take a taxi.”

“Umm…no. I think I’m still going to leave at 6:30 and take the metro.”


The island of Procida.

The look of disapproval was evident but I just smiled. Most conversations were some variation of this. I understood Rose’s discomfort, but for me, there was something endearing about his bossiness. I also give him the credit for singlehandedly turning my fear of Naples into love. I don’t quite agree with the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!–“See Naples and die” but it’s definitely worth the seeing.


Toledo Station in Naples. Ranked the #1 most beautiful metro station in the world.


One of the many churches I visited

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Travel Journal: Arrival in Europe

I’ve left the islands. And I’ve embarked on a new adventure. For the next month I will be traveling through Europe- Italy, France and Spain. When I was 16, I spent 7 weeks in France. I was in St. Brieuc, Brittany. I spent two days in Paris on my way home. And that’s all I’d done in Europe…until now.

I haven’t really had the opportunity or desire in the past. Europe, especially the places I’ve chosen, is so overdone. Who doesn’t know someone who throws out, “Oh well when I was in [fill in any large European city]…”? I prefer to sound pretentious in a less predictable way. “Was that so scary when you thought that guy on the bus was starring at you? That reminds me of that time in Kenya when my shoes were stolen and I had to outrun a bull elephant barefoot through molten lava.” Yeah…

However, it was actually cheaper to fly home from Africa with a ticket to Rome and then another from Barcelona home than it was to fly directly home from Africa. I gave in.

The trip started a little rough. I flew Ethiopian Airlines (which before you say anything, is a very reputable company and I’ve actually flown them on multiple occasions without incident). I had two large bags weighing 30 kilograms each (approx. 66lbs or 132lbs total). It was a tad over their weight limit and they charged me a pretty sum. The baggage handler whispered in my ear that they would reduce the price $20 if I didn’t insist on a receipt. I insisted.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on time and took a seat in one of their reclining chairs to wait out my 4-hour layover. In my lifetime I have spent about 48 hours in the Addis airport. In 2009, I spent two nights there. I have a love/hate relationship with it, without the love. It’s cold. There are no good restaurants. And the gates are behind Plexiglas walls that one must go through security to get to. Once at the gate, there is no exiting and there are no shops and not even a vending machine for water. There are bathrooms, thank God, but forget about getting water from the faucet unless you want to spend the remainder of your vacation as a parasite incubator.


The Addis Airport

After several hours, I made my way to the gate. My flight was just making a pit stop in Rome and continuing on to Stockholm. I followed the inordinate number of blond heads to the correct gate and sat. Almost immediately, the departure sign flashed saying the flight was delayed for an hour. It would be leaving at 1am.

It was already 11:30 and I was pretty tired so I fell asleep leaning on my suitcase. I jerked awake, drool running down my chin and one arm completely asleep. It was 2am. I was still surrounded my blond heads speaking strange languages. And the departure sign still said the flight was leaving at 1am. I sat in a stupor, not understanding. I was thirsty. They’d made me dump out my water when I went through security. For 45 minutes I simply sat there, wrapped in my sweater and African shawl, trying unsuccessfully to fend off the cold that had already seeped into my bones. How quickly the body forgets the horrors of heat when faced with the frigid reality of the rest of the world.

2:45am. Airline employees wheel in carts of water and muffins. There is a mad rush to the front. People stagger away loaded down with water bottles, muffins stuffed into pockets. I barely made it before the water was finished.

3:00am. An Amharic announcement blares from the speakers and people rush toward the door. People are such sheep. I know those blondies do not understand Amharic! How do they know what that announcement said? Turns out it was for us, but that is totally beside the point! The line wound it’s way through the airport, down a ramp, down some stairs and finally to a shuttle. The shuttle drove us across the airfield to a rather large plane. I was in the last row, row 37. And I was the only one in my row. I had not chosen my seat, Ethiopian Airlines had. People always choose to sit in the front. I once heard that you are more likely to survive a plane crash if you’re in the back of the plane, so it is a little ironic that the front is our natural tendency. I walked through the front and it was packed. Every seat in every row was filled for the first 20 rows. I had my entire row to stretch out and sleep for the six-hour flight. Hahaha, suckers! I mean…no, that is what I mean. Hahahahaha.

We arrived in Rome 4 hours late, which was completely fine with me. I had no one waiting for me and check-in at my hostel wasn’t until 10am. With the original itinerary I was supposed to arrive at 5:30am and do something with about 160lbs of luggage (including my two carry-ons…yes, two. I am sneaky like that.) Instead I arrived at 9:30ish. Passport control was a breeze. Then came baggage claim. I found the carousel quickly enough. There were just a few bags circling around and people began arriving to claim them. Then there was only one maroon bag, circling again and again and again. Yet, people from my flight surrounded the carousel. We waited. And waited some more. Then a flight from Amsterdam arriving 45 minutes after ours was put on the board. I walked to baggage lost and found and gave the brightly-lipsticked woman my luggage tags. She told me I just needed to wait.

More people from my flight drifted over to lost and found, receiving the same answer. More people arrived surrounding the carousel…the people from Amsterdam. And then their luggage arrived…

I began to worry a bit. I’d arranged to have my luggage shipped from Rome that day. The pick-up was at 2pm at my hostel. Would they reschedule if my bags didn’t show up. Would I lose all the money I’d spent to ship and have to cart around 3 years of my life on the trains and buses and planes of Europe??!?! But as worry always is, it was in vain. Shortly after the Amsterdam luggage arrived, my flight’s bags began to show up. Mine came too, an hour after we had landed.

As I wheeled my luggage cart out of baggage claim, I cast one last disparaging glance at the SIM card shop inside the baggage area. As we waited, I and several other passengers wandered over to this little stand. This SIM card, called something like “Xpress”, was offering 1G of data and 500 minutes calling for one week costing 175€. I thought that was a little crazy since I could get 1G and 100 minutes in Tanzania for $0.69. It turns out I was correct, it was crazy. Leaving the confines of baggage claim I found TIM (Telecom Italia) and got a special tourist package of 4G, 100 international and domestic minutes for 35€. Good thing I’m awesome.

That was my arrival. Tomorrow I hope to tell you about Roma (isn’t it sooo obnoxious when people use the local name for the city!)…a story of blisters and fashion faux pas.

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