Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wander Wednesday

Iceland is most definitely on my list. And I've seen lots of deals floating lately, good chance I'll hop on a plane soon.

Photo is from and here's the photo info:

Icehotel in Lapland, Sweden

Photograph by Ragnar Th Sigurdsson, Alamy
The northern lights flash above a guest outside the Icehotel, the largest frozen hotel in the world. First built more than 20 years ago, the Icehotel is constructed from 30,000 tons of “snis,” a mixture of snow and ice, in JukkasjÀrvi, Sweden, a small village outside Kiruna. Visitors don't have to brave the ice-block beds and stay the night—there's a restaurant and bar for shorter visits.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Going It Alone

Since we're going a little stir crazy after Hurricane Sandy and still, remarkably, have power, figured it's time for another post!

I spent most of the hurricane reading the last issue of AFAR magazine, and also tweets and blogs about traveling, especially from those going it alone.

And since we have nothing but out thoughts and loads of bad movies (and my crazy pup) to entertain us, I've been thinking about my trip wish list, when to go and whether to go alone.

For the most part, I always travel alone. I spent a semester in New Zealand and though I was with a program and met loads of other American and foreign students, I went on my own at a time when no study abroad program existed at my university.

During my semester at the University of Canterbury, I toured around the South Island on my own through a local trip organizer, Stray-highly recommend them if you're in NZ or Oz. Along the way, I made friends from all over the world, many of whom I am still in regular contact with. During another break, I hopped on a plane to Australia, completely on my own and again made many friends and met up with a Brit I'd befriended in New Zealand (who I later would visit in London). A tour of the North Island was also a solo adventure, as were trips to Peru, Slovenia and Italy, though in Italia, I spent most of my time with a friend from the U.S. who was living there for the year.

It Italy I realized it was fun to travel with a friend who shares your appreciation for adventure and exploration, but I think I'll always love a solo trip at least now and then, and here's why:

1. You're forced out of your comfort zone. Traveling alone will force you to talk to strangers (use common sense, of course. Stranger danger need not stop you, just be aware of your surroundings and trust your gut). Talking to strangers will help you make new friends, meet different kinds of people, learn about other cultures, practice conversational skills and not use your friends from home as a crutch.

2. You see things differently. Standing on the coast of Australia, looking at the stars with a lovely British couple, you'll have an entirely different perspective on your life and the world. Some times you'll come home a transformed person, but mostly, these experiences will shape you, deepen your appreciation for a big world and hopefully make you a more accepting and tolerant person.

I visited this lighthouse while taking a solo
walk on the beach in Byron Bay, Australia. 
3. You get to think. Traveling alone allows for plenty of reflection time. You'll sit on trains, buses, boats, planes for hours alone with little but your thoughts. You're removed from your daily life, from all your comforts and things you know and you can often have a very frank conversation with yourself that will undoubtedly address the question of "What am I doing with my life?" at some point. Luckily, you'll have time to sort through that question and come home refreshed, ready to take on the life you have or make major changes if things aren't as you'd like.

4. You're the captain. You can do what you want, when you want. It sounds incredibly selfish, I know, but in daily life, it's rare that we get to do much of what we want, when we want. There's always work to do, or cleaning, bosses want things, the dog needs to go out, there's traffic and a trash schedule. Nothing is wrong with these things, but it's good for your sanity to have me days, both at home and abroad. Traveling alone lets you eat what you want, sleep when you want, spend as much time in museums as you'd like, take breaks when you need to, look at monuments all day, or walk for hours and hours without worrying about anyone else. It's a very rich experience.  Plus, you also learn how to handle all kinds of crisis situations on your own, it's liberating and makes you a much more adaptable person when you get home. You'll also become very skilled in the art of the self-portrait.

5. Your experience is all yours. Along the way, you will meet interesting people who will eat and drink with you, who will hike with you (since rarely do I recommend going into the woods/mountains in foreign countries by yourself) and those who will keep you company for pieces of your journey. But you will take in so much on your own and give of yourself to the world in a much different way when traveling alone than with others. I think you will also find that when you travel alone, you realize an inner strength that you are in fact able to leave a footprint around the world. Maybe just by passing through, but maybe in a much more significant way. And the world will certainly make a significant impression on you when you go out on your own and say, "Hi, I'm Jenn."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Getting to Big Sky

We're doing a time jump, back to the end of September.

My stress level at work and in general was wicked high, but I knew I was going to Montana, always something to raise the spirits.

For the first time in probably my entire life, I made it to Dulles on the Thursday I was flying out. But, delayed flights cancelled out my early bird fluke. While waiting for our flight, for about three hours, I met a very nice couple and chatted with them for quite some time. He was a Vietnam veteran and gave me a reading list about Montana and she gave me a book to read about a woman who solo hikes the Appalachian Trail.

So thanks to flight delays, I missed my connection by about 10 minutes and every other flight to Montana was pulling away right as I hustled over to the gate. I even had a friend, who is from Great Falls, see my status update and call to see if she could pick me up as she was driving back from Idaho. Sadly, no luck.

The next flight out wasn't until 11 a.m. the next day. I considered staying in the airport, since I had to pay for my own hotel for a flight I missed not of my own will, but that's the way things are done these days. But, with no bag, I opted for a night in a real bed and working in quiet for a few hours. The shuttle driver and the man at the front desk were so incredibly nice it partly made up for my frustration with a night wasted in Denver instead of being in Montana, but so it goes. Can't say I was taking it that well when I talked to Mark in the airport. I was tired, and stressed and just wanted to be there and all that had been getting me through the week was knowing I'd see Mark, so it wasn't one of my better airport snafu moments. I shuffled through the airport, which is actually a very nice airport, but I was definitely mopey.

Anyway, next morning, I was getting tons of work done, was in a much better mood, rescheduled a meeting I had set up in Great Falls, got to the airport with plenty of time and had a great flight talking to a lovely woman who was going to pack up her mother and move her back to their hometown in Indiana maybe. Finally got to Great Falls and Mark dropped me at the office where my meeting was and I went off to take care of some VVMF business while he took the new car to get the hitch attached. Then it was back to the house for me, work for him. I cleaned up, (finally had my bag!) and got more work done before he came home. We picked up the new car and I tried driving it home for the first time. Turns out it has some manual gear options and I was having a panic attack trying to drive it at first. Got it all figured out eventually.

We went out to dinner at a local place and tested local beers. I really didn't like his, but he had another. I tried one that I can't remember the name of, but I know I don't like hops, so the bartender helped me pick something out. Then I tried another one, that I had wanted to try based on the label. Mark and the bartender had a bonding moment and chuckle over that.

His mom, sister and niece flew in the next day, so we got up early, went for a run and did a speed clean of the house. I honestly don't remember what we did for dinner that night, but it might have been the night that involved me making grilled cheese sandwiches.

For a few days, we hung around Great Falls, saw the prairie dogs, First Peoples Buffalo Jump State ParkGiant Springs Heritage State Park, the hatchery, a quick stop at the Lewis and Clark interpretive center, the Made in Montana store, photo opp at the brontosaurus, the park and I had a meeting with the mayor about The Wall That Heals.  We also made Thanksgiving dinner, went for walks and played frisbee/tag in the backyard.

And then, there we were off to Missoula!

Monday Motivation

I've been working on a project for awhile, and I had set a goal of accomplishing it by 30...meaning it's game time. It certainly won't be easy, but it will be a worthwhile challenge. You'll be reading about it more here soon, but in the meantime, enjoy some of my motivation!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Kiwi Visit

When I heard a New Zealander was coming to the office, I wanted to jump up and down and raise my hand and say I want to meet them!

Instead, did quick research on the woman coming, she's the Minister of Justice currently, but previously headed veterans affairs for New Zealand and is very active in the Agent Orange community. Since we've been working on a special blog series about Agent Orange, I sent her a staff a quick note asking if she'd be interested in writing a post and how excited I was to meet her.

Plans on the day of the visit changed and we met Minister Collins at The Wall. I still had a necklace I bought in New Zealand, the koru. It's a spiral, depicting the opening of a fern fond. The Maori symbol represents new life, new beginnings, change, growth, harmony, peace and tranquility. It can also represent hope for the future.

The only reason I don't wear the necklace more often is that is has a funny clasp  that I have yet to master. But, I wore it that day, hoping it wasn't tacky.

We had some time, so I have the boss a quick tutorial in how to do this. I told him to greet her with Kia ora, which means hello in Maori. I also told him to congratulate her on the latest All Blacks win, since the national rugby team had again captured the Tri-Nations title, which is now Four Nations since Argentina was added this year.

It was a great visit and a great chat with the minister and her staff. She even stopped to take a photo with Ally and I. She told me that the minute she saw my necklace, she'd found a friendly face.

The visit made me remember so much about New Zealand and miss it so much.

So, I'll take you on a quick trip down memory lane. I lived in Christchurch on the South Island. It's a beautiful city and I would go back in a heartbeat. They're still recovering from a earthquake that did massive damage last year and ruined the landmark cathedral. I spent so much time in that square, seeing that church and even being in that church that it's devastating to know it's being demolished.

But, my time there was wonderful. The people are incredibly friendly and unassuming. Going to university is a privilege and many students work insanely hard to get there. It's an agricultural society largely and when I was there, sheep outnumbered people 12 to 1. Though now it's only about 7 to 1.

They work hard, they will help you when you need it, they will say "it will all work out" and it's basically a national motto to "make do."

The landscape is beautiful. Everywhere you turn it's just majestic. There are mountains, lakes, beaches, plains, wineries, farms and volcanoes.

Moral of the story, you need to go to New Zealand. Bunjee jump, ride a horse, kayak, hike, do everything and love it all.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ghostly Old Town

In keeping with the Halloween season, I got talked into a ghost tour of Old Town Alexandria. 

Friends from Alabama are in town for the weekend and it was all my friend Chris' idea. He worked with Mark in Alabama, then married Allison, and they became great friends. Especially since they are currently stationed at in my hometown, so we have a standing lunch date anytime I'm home. 

We started with dinner at Bilbo Baggins. It's one of the places everyone in the area knows about and raves about and I hadn't been yet. So we all checked it out for the first time. Certainly an interesting place with good food and incredible beer/wine list. 

Up next, the group wandered around Old Town for a few minutes and grabbed some coffee before meeting the tour guide from Footsteps at the Ramsey House on King Street. The house was originally built in 1724 by William Ramsay, a Scottish merchant who became Alexandria's founder and first postmaster. The house burned down in the Great Fire of 1827 and was later rebuilt. But, locals and those who work in the house, which is now the Alexandria Visitor Center, are sure William Ramsay still stands in the window looking out over his town. 

The next stop was on Royal Street, which is such a nice block, but is apparently haunted. It's where the Ingle brothers once lived and worked as cabinet makers, often doubling as casket makers. President George Washington commissioned them to make his coffin. Apparently, his greatest fear was being buried alive. Turns out, that was pretty common in Colonial days and so people started rigging up bells inside coffins in case people woke up. Hence the saying "Saved by the Bell." Also, Washington asked that he not be buried until two days after his death, so comes the saying "put on ice." But, because Washington told the Ingle brothers that he was 6 feet tall when in fact he was 6' 3", the coffin was two small, causing a delay in his burial and the brothers were run out of town. 

Someone else bought the house for his mother after his father died and the man was supposed to visit his mother whenever he was in town, but he came by less and less and it turned out he was courting a young lady down the street. The mother was furious and forbade the relationship. The mother died shortly after and the man married the girl. After the wedding, the man was riding his horse by the house and saw the image of his mother in the window. He rode home so fast, the horse died and the man died of unknown causes soon after. 

The house was later inhabited by a family of Quakers with little incident, but when the house was being renovated later by another owner, a secret chamber was found and voices were heard. They called in the local paranormal society (who knew we had one of those!) and they found voices coming from the chamber, but when they walked into the room, they stopped. It's now believed the Quakers were probably conductors on the Underground Railroad and they hid runway slaves in the secret chamber, which had probably been the Ingle brothers' cabinet shop that was walled off by the Quakers. Apparently, the second largest slave market was in Alexandria, at Market Square, just a block or so away. Oh the things you learn about your town on ghost tours. 

The third stop was at one of the old fire stations in town. It's still in use today, but is apparently haunted by an old fireman. His fishing pole keeps moving around the station. But, we learned that in earlier days, people paid to have fire services and had a mark on their house, so if it was burning, someone would alert the fire department. If you didn't have a mark, no one would come to put out the fire. Until they realized that the fire would just spread, as it did in 1827 when the Great Fire started in a building that didn't pay for fire services, hence the early insurance system. 

Last stop was an alley way where 30 volunteer troops were murdered and robbed during the Civil War. Apparently they were all poisoned and can still be seen in the alley sometimes. I think I won't run that way often, or ever, if I can help it.

All in all, a very fun and informative night with wonderful friends! Probably won't drink coffee that late at night again though. 

Coming up...posts catching up on the last month with Montana adventures and a special New Zealander at The Wall.