Thursday, December 26, 2013

I'm Bringing It Back!

Since I returned to the U.S. in July I stopped writing in this blog.  I made a decision that my life was no longer interesting enough to write about.  However, after taking this hiatus and thinking things through, I realized that no matter where I am in the world or what I am doing with my life, I still have something to say.  I still have commentary on what is happening in the world around me.  This is why I'm bringing it back!  Even though I'm going to start writing again, things obviously won't be the same, so I revamped the blog a little.  One difference is that I added an "In the News" tab.  This is where I'll be posting news articles that I come across.  Many of these articles are about East Africa, women's empowerment and human rights, because that's what I find myself reading these days.  Otherwise, my general style should be the same.

First, I'll catch you up on where I am in the world these days.  After getting back in July, I spent about a month at home in Philadelphia before moving to Washington DC in mid-August.  I started studying International Economic Relations at American University and I don't even think I can describe how different it seems from my previous college experience.  I've been to graduate school before, but this is a much better fit for me.  It's challenging but relevant.  I definitely made the right choose.

I finished my first semester earlier this month and the next semester starts in mid-January.  However, before I begin the school term, I'll be starting my new internship.  I'll be working with the State Department's Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.  I actually got this internship back in the summer and I've been spending the last few months on my security clearance.  My clearance is what I think is the lowest level, however any security clearance takes a serious amount of time.  I'll have this internship until Spring Break and then I'll be back to the good old job hunt.

Otherwise, I've been just living my life in DC (which I'll comment on later).  This blog is now officially the tales, adventures, and experiences of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  We'll see where life leads me.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Back in America

As most people should have realized, I returned to the U.S. on July 2nd. Since getting back I've been catching up with old friends, traveling a bit, and spending some quality time with my family. It's been really nice being back and I haven't had many problems readjusting. However, often times there are things that throw me off. The first time I went into a food establishment and saw all the prices in U.S. dollars confused me. I've had many other instances similar to this, but nothing too overwhelming.

I am currently still living at my parents' house outside of Philadelphia, but next month I'm moving to D.C. and I'll be starting grad school at the end of August. I know I've mentioned applying for grad school before, but I don't think I ever posted anything about my final decision. I'll be going to American University getting a masters in International Economic Relations.


As for this blog...well, despite the fact that several people have told me I should continue writing, I think I'm going to stop. That's not to say I won't necessarily pick it back up at some point, but for the time being I don't really know what I would continue blogging about. However, if I ever find a time where I feel like my life is interesting enough to talk about in a public forum, you may see me back here. For now, this is the end. I hope you've enjoyed it. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Some Final Thoughts...Europe

I feel like now that I've been to so many different places in Europe I should try to rate them a bit and pass on my suggestions. I had intended to give you my top ten and my bottom 10, however I came up with a top twelve and a bottom five, so we're going to go with it. The top twelve include my favorite places, places I would like to live, and places I would definitely enjoy going back to. (They are rated with the best places starting at 1.) The bottom five include places that I think are over-rated or just simply disappointing. These are mostly places I have no interest in returning to. (They are rated with the worst places starting at 1.) These lists are not only from my most recent travels in Europe but also from when I was here several times in the past. I will also list my next top destinations. These are the places in Europe I would like to go to next.

Before getting to the ultimate lists I also would like to share my suggestions and tips on traveling in Europe or, maybe more broadly, backpacking. There are certain things to take advantage of that you may not know about.

First of all, plan well. For example, when you are trying to pick a hostel and you are going back and forth between one with breakfast included or one without, think about whether you will actually be there for breakfast. Know when your trains leave and what time breakfast is. Many hostels have a fairly short time frame for breakfast and most breakfasts don't start until after 8.

Secondly, as far as hostels go, you may want to come up with specific specifications that you feel you really want and find out if they are offered at your hostel. Don't be shy to email hostels before committing to staying there. One thing I wish I did was to find out whether or not all my hostels had wi-fi in the rooms. Many hostels will advertise “free wi-fi”, but it may only work in one specific place in the hostel.

Other things you may want to specify with your hostels could include things like 24 hour desk service, luggage storage and laundry. If I'm arriving before check-in or sticking around after check-out, I always take advantage of luggage storage, but you need to know when someone will be at the desk to take your luggage. Sometimes its more convenient for me to leave my bags locked up at the train station. This can be very useful, but you really need to make sure that these services are offered before you just show up at the train station. It seems to me that this is often offered at most train stations (major and minor) in main land Europe. Sometimes its lockers and sometimes its an actual luggage check, but lockers seem to be cheaper. I have also discovered, however, that these facilities are rare in the UK for security purposes.

Now if you are planning on backpacking, I'd suggest getting a good backpack. This may sound stupid or redundant, but you wouldn't believe how many people I've seen staying at hostels with huge rolling suitcases. You may think it is easier to roll your stuff as opposed to carrying it, but think about getting on and off the train. Think about steps (sometimes narrow spiral staircases). Throughout most of Europe lifts are not always real common, especially in hostels. And even when you do find them they are often very small. One more thing to consider is the people around you. You would not believe how many times I might be running for a connecting train and I'm held up by someone who can't get there rolling luggage off the train quickly. You're not only hindering yourself, but you're hindering others as well. My best rule of thumb is to carry you luggage (by yourself) up and down a flight of stairs before you leave. If you can't easily do that you are probably bringing too much stuff and/or the wrong type of luggage.

Next, take advantage of free tours. There is a company called “Sandemans New Europe”, which offers free tours in 15 cities throughout Europe. I've taken these tours in Munich, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Liverpool. In my opinion, these are the best free tours. I have taken a few other free tours with other companies (in cities where Sandemans doesn't currently operate) and they just aren't quite as good, but nonetheless they aren't bad. You may be wondering how someone can offer a few tour. Well, the concept of these tours is that they work on a tips only basis. So at the end of the tour, you can tip the guide whatever you think the tour is worth. Sandemans also offers paid tours for more specific things, but I haven't yet taken any of these.

My last tip is about paid tours. I'm a big believer in doing things yourself. When you take the train or the local buses and you navigate the city yourself, you really get a true feel for how the locals do things. I also feel that when you navigate a city yourself you can actually feel as if you understand the city a bit better because you did it all yourself. However, I'm not totally opposed to paid tours, but only on a limited basis. Sometimes, you just wouldn't be able to see certain things as well or at all if you don't take a paid tour. You also have to give your brain a rest sometimes, especially on an extended trip. You can't truly be on your game all the time. That being said, in the past two and a half months I can count the number of paid tours I've taken on one hand. I tend to do almost everything myself.

Now that I've given you my best advice, we are on to the best of the best and worst of the worst...

Top Twelve Best
  1. Santorini, Greece (a must visit if you are ever in Greece)
  2. Stockholm, Sweden (an amazing city on the water, but very expensive)
  3. Mount St. Michel (you just have to go to see what I'm talking about)
  4. Budapest, Hungary (I would love to go back and/or live there)
  5. Ireland. (the entire island, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland...from the cities to the towns, the cliffs to the castles...its amazing!)
  6. Hadrian's Wall (it's one of those place where you can have a surreal moment of sheer silence in the vast field with this ancient piece of living history)
  7. The Coast of Wales (simply breathtaking...a great place to visit)
  8. Zagreb, Croatia (and Croatia in general is a great place to go or live)
  9. London (I loved visiting and living there)
  10. Lisbon (beautiful coast lines and an exciting city)
  11. Salzburg (gives you that small town feel that you just can't get in Vienna)
  12. Bruges (a quaint little town that is nice to visit and fun to wander)

The Bottom Five
  1. Naples (dirty and unexciting)
  2. Athens (also dirty and unexciting)
  3. Prague (way too touristy and totally over-rated...this took me two visits to figure out)
  4. Verona (not much to it...I guess it didn't help that it rained the entire time I was there)
  5. Paris (it's not the worst place I've been but the people are generally nasty and the town is a bit over-rated, although there are some good museums to see)

My Next Destinations (in Europe)

  1. Southeastern Europe (including Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania)
  2. Turkey (especially Istanbul)
  3. Scandinavia (more than what I've already seen, especially Norway and Finland)
  4. Iceland

Monday, July 1, 2013

Ireland (Part 3)

July 1, 2013 7:20 PM—En Route to Dublin

What a great day to end this trip with! I took a tour with Rail Tours Ireland. These tours are unique because they utilize the trains to get you from one end of the country to the other, which I believe is faster than driving. So this morning I was up before 6 AM and I was at the train station at 6:40. Our train left at 7 and we were on our way to Limrick.

When we got to Limrick, we met our bus, which provided us transport for most of the rest of the day. We started off at Bunratty Castle. Bunratty Castle is a restored castle with a reconstructed Irish village surrounding it. When we first arrived our guide showed us a few houses in the villages, one of which had women inside making scones. Then he took us to the castle, where we had a brief tour with a different guide. This second guide was quite lively and he liked to make jokes and jump around, despite the fact that he was pretty old. After he introduced us to the castle and showed us a couple of rooms, we were free to explore the castle and the village on our own for about an hour. I first explored the entire castle and then I moved on to the village. The houses were nice to wander in and out of. And before I went back to the bus, I just had to have one of those scones, so I got a scone and a cup of tea.

Scones



An Irish Dog

The Castle




The school house

The Doctor's House

Next we were off to lunch. We stopped in a small village called Doolin to have lunch at a traditional pub. Despite not being very hungry, I got some Irish stew, which was amazing! And then I had a wander around the few small gift shops there. After lunch our bus drove us down to Doolin pier where we got a good view of the water and some of the cliffs of Moher.





After we left Doolin, our next stop was the cliffs themselves. We had a little over an hour to wander around and look at the cliffs and the visitors center. They were pretty amazing looking. There was even a castle at the top of one of them.





Once we finished at the Cliffs of Moher we started driving towards Galway. On the way, we were driving through the Buren National Park. This park consists of a lot of rocks and barren land. It is similar to the surface of the moon and because of this it is a protected area. We also got some good views of Galway Bay.

The Buren

Galway Bay

By the time we got to Galway, we only had about an hour to look around. So I ended up just wandering around some of the little pedestrian shopping streets. And then at 7:15 PM we got the train back to Dublin. I won't be arriving in Dublin until close to 10 o'clock.


I really loved Ireland. It is truly the Emerald Island. I wish I had had more time almost everywhere I went. Unfortunately, this is the end of my trip. I have to go home tomorrow. So by 3:30 PM tomorrow afternoon I'll be back in the great old U.S. of A. for the first time in about 2 and a half years. I hope you're ready Philadelphia! 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ireland (Part 2)

June 30, 2013 8:20 PM—Dublin

I took a little trip down to Cork today, but not without some problems. I went down to the train station this morning at around 8 AM and all I found was trouble. It seems that someone jumped onto the tracks or something. The train company said that the trains were not coming into the station at all because between two stations further down “a person was struck and fatally injured”. I don't think this guy knew what problems he would cause. For everyone getting on my train, they were going to put us all on buses to get us to a station past the incident, but I guess the buses weren't coming fast enough, so they started putting people in taxis. Imagine a whole train full of people getting into taxis. That's a lot of taxis. By the time I got towards the front of the line, a bus showed up, so I took a bus about a half hour to a further station. In the end, this delayed me about an hour and 45 minutes.

Once I got to Cork, I walked to the bus station to get to Blarney. Blarney is a small village just outside the city center. Unfortunately, these buses only run once an hour, so I had about 40 minutes to wait. No worries. I got lunch. I went to Subway and got a sandwich and by the time I got back it was almost time to get the bus. The bus ride took about 20 minutes and then I was in Blarney.

Upon arriving I walked to Blarney Castle (the main reason for coming). Blarney Castle is not just a castle. In fact, it included the entire grounds of the estate, which included acres of gardens and a handful of other buildings. So to start I went into the old castle. This is where the Blarney Stone itself is. The castle was really awesome. You had to climb narrow windy stairs to get to the top, but there were quite a few rooms to stop and see along the way. I felt like this castle was made for me, because all the doorways were really low. I got to see all these big tall guys ducking down to walk through this castle, while the same doorways were about an inch or two taller than me, so it was perfect (there are usually very few advantages of being short).


My size doorway



When you reach the top of the castle, you end up in a line. This line is to kiss the Blarney Stone. This whole part of seeing the castle was incredibly cheesy. The Blarney Stone itself isn't much more than part of the wall. It doesn't even look like a separate stone. Right in front of the stone they have removed the floor and they have made this into a thrill seeking activity by telling everyone they need to kiss it upside-down. So everyone that wants to kiss it has to lie down on the ground and practically lower themselves into this hole in the floor to kiss the wall upside-down. Now, don't worry, there is an employee there to support you and there is also a guy there with a camera and a huge flash to take your picture if you want to remember this ridiculous experience. Personally, I didn't see the need to risk my life to kiss this disease-ridden wall, but I didn't mind watching other people do it. In fact, this is the only thing in the whole castle that wasn't accommodating to short people, because it was so far away from the actual floor short people had a harder time reaching it.

After seeing the Blarney Stone, I continued to walk around the gardens of Blarney Castle. I actually really enjoyed this part of my trip, but unfortunately due to my morning delay, I only had about an hour to wander. I could have wandered for at least 3 hours. The place was huge.



Blarney House



In order to not get back to Dublin too late, I left Blarney Castle a little after 3 PM. And, again, I had more transport problems. My bus to get back to town was about 10 minutes late and the driver was not at all interested in catching up his time. So as it turned out, I had to run to the train station so that I wouldn't have to wait an entire hour to get the next train (and get back an hour later). I did make it and I got a workout at the same time. So by taking the train at 5:20 I managed to get back to my hostel just past 8 PM. I think I just went on the wrong day. It also didn't help that today was Sunday. I think there were generally fewer trains and buses just because it was Sunday. Nonetheless, the day was a success. I made it there and back and I saw what I wanted to see. Tomorrow I have an organized tour that will take me out to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher. And tomorrow is going to be even longer than today, but hopefully a bit more productive. I have to be at the train station at 6:40 AM tomorrow morning and I'll be returning to Dublin just before 10 PM tomorrow night. I'm really going out with a bang! 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ireland

June 29, 2013 8:30 PM—Dublin

As much as I loved Northern Ireland and Portrush, I had to leave there this morning. I took three trains to get all the way to Dublin and then I hit the city. This afternoon was really the only time I had to see Dublin, so I saw what I could.

I started off at the Guinness Storehouse, which is the most visited tourist attraction in all of Ireland. Personally, I thought it was a bit overrated. It was way too touristy and I didn't actually feel like you got a good feel for how they make the beer. They also offered free audio guides but only if you were a non-English speaker. So if you speak English, you don't get an audio tour, which I thought was kind of cheap. They also portrayed the place as being so big, trying to make you feel like you were getting so much for your money, by stretching everything out over 7 floors. But in fact, one of those floors doesn't have anything on it and some of the other floors have very minimal displays. I know I'm not much of a Guinness fan, but the way people rave about this place, I would have expected so much more. I've been on much better brewery tours.




After being let down by Guinness and feeling like I wasted some of my minimal time in Dublin, I made my way over to St. Patrick's Cathedral. I apparently arrived at just the right time, because there was a guided tour starting as I walked in. The tour took about an hour and it was really interesting. This church is not only well known for the legacy of St. Patrick, it is also known for Johnathan Swift, the writer of Gulliver's Travels. He was the Dean of the cathedral for a long time. This cathedral was really interesting with many little architectural corks.







After the tour finished, I walked down the street to the other large cathedral in Dublin, Christ Church. This one wasn't quite as interesting, but as far as churches go, it was pretty good. Unfortunately, at this point I was pretty exhausted, so I returned to my hostel and took a nap.



Tomorrow I'll be heading down to Cork for the day. I'm planning on seeing Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone. I can't say whether or not I may kiss the Blarney Stone (honestly, that just sounds a little gross), but I want to go see it nonetheless. Considering that Cork is almost 3 hours from here, this is probably going to be an all day affair. Then tomorrow night I'm back in Dublin.

Friday, June 28, 2013

UK (Part 7)


June 28, 2013 5:00 PM—Portrush, Northern Ireland

Today was a bit of a lazy day. I started off by sleeping in and then I had some breakfast at about 9:30. The breakfast I got came free with my room and it was an awesome buffet with many hot and cold options.

After breakfast I walked down to the tourist office here in town. It's only about a 10 minute walk but by the time I got there my jeans were all wet, my hair was wind blown and my umbrella had blown out once. Unfortunately, the woman at the tourist office wasn't able to work much magic. It seems that most of what there is to do around here is outdoors and obviously the weather was not cooperating. However, when I left the tourist office it wasn't raining, so I started to walk back towards my hotel and when I got here I continued walking all the way down to the end of the peninsula. There is a nice little path that takes you to the top of the cliffs that form the end of the peninsula. Because of all the strong winds, the waves were quite big as they crashed up against the rocks.






After making a short loop, I returned to my hotel. I could have found something to do today, but there was nothing I was overly enthusiastic about. This is why I decided to simply spend the rest of my day enjoying my nice hotel room. I don't often get a nice hotel and when I do I don't often spend much time in the room. Today was an unusual opportunity for me to just relax. When I get to Dublin, I intend to hit things pretty hard and I simply felt like resting up would be my best use of the day. So right now I'm watching the news and laying around. I'll probably venture out soon to get something to eat. Otherwise, I'm done for the night.

Tomorrow I'll be traveling down to Dublin. And tomorrow afternoon I plan on seeing many of the sites in Dublin that I wanted to see while I'm there. I only have a few days left, but there is still so much to see.

Fun Fact: The most northern point of the island of Ireland is in The Republic of Ireland (or Southern Ireland).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

UK (Part 6)


June 27, 2013 7:20 PM—Portrush, Northern Ireland

Last night I took my final ferry ride of my trip and apparently I must have done something right. When I arrived at the ferry all I had was a ticket to get on. I didn't have a cabin. I hadn't booked one in order to save a bit of money, but when I thought about all my other night ferries, I realized it wasn't worth the money I was saving. So when I got on the ship I inquired about getting a cabin. I was offered an inside or an outside cabin (outside has a window). After going back and forth with the woman (who seemed a bit mixed up with the prices), I had a key but I wasn't real sure whether the room was inside or outside. When I got in my room, I found out it was outside. So I had a window. This is the first ferry where I've had a cabin with a window. The room also had four beds in the room and wi-fi! I really felt like I was living.



The ferry arrived in Belfast at around 9:30 AM and when I got off I had to get a cab to the train station, because it was the only way to get there. As much as I didn't like doing this, it would have been a 4 mile walk in the rain. When I arrived at the train station I got a ticket to Portrush and got on my way. The train only took about an hour and a half and it left me about a 10 minute walk from my hotel. Unfortunately, it was still raining. But, nonetheless, I hike down to my hotel. Portrush is a sleepy little town and it is based around a small peninsula. My hotel is on this peninsula. This is one of the few places where I sprung for a nice hotel. My room has 2 beds (sleeping space for 3 people), it's own bathroom (with a bath tub), and a sea view!


The view from my window

Once I got to my hotel, I was able to get into my room right away, despite the fact that it was only about 12 PM. So I dropped my stuff and got on my way. I took the bus to Giant's Causeway first. Giant's Causeway is a natural phenomenon. It is a rock formation on the coast that seems anything but natural. The rocks fit together like a puzzle, where they fit together like a ball and socket creating pillars of sorts. Along with the rock formation, the locals have come up with a myth about a giant who lived there. They even identify some of the rocks as the giant's everyday items.







The giant's boot




After Giant's Causeway, I got back on the bus and went to Carrick-a-Rede. This is where there is a rope bridge that you can cross to get to a small island. This bridge would have been used by fisherman back in the day to better catch salmon. Now it is a simple thrill seeking activities for tourists. Today being quite windy makes it that much more exciting. It's not something you would ever really fall off of, but it can be intimidating for the faint of heart. I was fine crossing except when the wind really kicked up. But I just kept thinking of that guy who walked across the grand canyon on a tight rope. If he could do that despite the wind, I knew I could walk across this rope bridge. Besides just the bridge there were also some fantastic views from this part of the coast. Although, unfortunately, because it was a somewhat nasty day, visibility was a bit limited.







Once I was crossed the rope bridge (Twice!), I got the bus back to Portrush. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do tomorrow, because what I had planned to do I already did today. Nonetheless, I'm here in Northern Ireland until Saturday, when I'm traveling down to Dublin, which is my last stop on this trip.