Once Upon A Dream: Highlights of 2013

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Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

What a crazy year this has been.

From Barcelona to Berlin, Cesky Krumlov to Chester, Lisbon to Ljubljana, Marrakech to Mount Rainier, San Francisco to Sintra, and Venice to Vancouver, I’ve quite literally been all over the place these past twelve months.

My second-to-last semester of my undergraduate has come and gone, and now I find myself precipice of a new year, full with possibilities and uncertainties, and the prospects of many other exciting opportunities on the horizon. But, as it stands, there is nothing decisive yet about my future. And I’m not quite sure if I’m thrilled or scared out of my mind.

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Photo cred Brenda Seymour

But, seeing as it’s New Year’s Eve, the time of year when I tend to get overly intro- and retro-spective, I figured it’d be appropriate to enumerate (in no particular order) some of my favorite experiences of 2013, both abroad and otherwise. Some are singular moments, some are more all-encompassing experiences, but they all are experiences I shall never forget, ones I shall carry with me forever.

1) Sensory overload in Marrakech

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I have never before in my life seen or experienced anything like the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square at night in Marrakech, Morocco.

I couldn’t help raving about this experience in a blog post soon after my trip in late March. The energy of the square is electrifying, once the sun goes down, the food stands open, and street performers begin their various entertainments.

Just recollecting this sole evening we spent in Marrakech’s spectacular square excites me and quickens my heartbeat. I can hardly believe I had the opportunity to have an experience so extraordinary, especially one in the company of family.

2) Frolicking in the Swiss Alps

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The hills were truly alive, and I had the amazing opportunity to frolick and adventure about through them with a dear friend back in June.

Switzerland had been at the top of my list of countries to visit during my trip around Europe, and it still baffles me to say that it exceeded my expectations in every way.

We spent just two days in those “hills,” one on a ridge along a UNESCO-certified glacier, the other, in constant view of one of the world’s most iconic peaks, and it was easily one of the coolest adventures of my life, one I also detailed with great deserved enthusiasm in another blog post.

3) Standing on the Slopes of Teide

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We cable-car’ed up a volcano and stood and walked around at 11,000+ feet for an hour.

It may sound not that impressive, but this short, last-minute venture of ours was perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. It was so surreal to stand on the rocky slopes and see nothing but a vastness of blue skies and dense cloud engulfing the tiny island below.

Even more than that, it was an incredible experience to share with two of my dearest friends from my study abroad experience in Granada. It was an unforgettable weekend, and hanging out at 11,000 feet nearly at the summit of the beloved Teide volcano was simply unreal.

4) Living with a host family

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I did it twice in Ecuador, and I knew from the moment I started contacting my Granada host family that I’d made the right choice to choose living in a homestay again.

I have never met more caring and loving people than my Argentinean host family in Granada. Those three were so good to me during my four and a half month stay, and from the minute I entered their home I felt welcome, loved, and safe.

Without them, my experience studying abroad in Granada would not have been the same. They treated me as their own daughter, as their true family, and I could not be more grateful.

Muchísimas gracias, Vero, Fer, y Alejo; les deseo un buenísimo año nuevo 🙂

5) Falling in love in Venice

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Venice is one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever been to, and I feel like I literally fell in love with that city. There was nothing I didn’t absolutely love about the tight, maze-like cobblestone roads running between crumbling buildings and alongside thin, scenic canals, the bustle of people in the patio restaurants and in flocks scattered about the Piazza San Marco and along the Grand Canal, and the beautiful colors of the fading old houses, especially those on the island of Burano.

And near the end of my very first evening in Venice, as I was trying to capture the picturesque sunset descending over the triumphant Grand Canal, I saw a little Italian girl who was strolling by with her grandparents, and asked her (in a jumble of rudimentary Italian and some English) to take my picture. She nodded, and like a pro, took several shots of me with a childish grin with the sunset behind me, including the one above.

I don’t believe I have ever felt such unbridled joy and infatuation for a city, as I did for Venice in those brief two and a half days. I cannot wait to go back.

6) Blueberry picking in Michelsneukirchen

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Of the three days I spent staying with a German friend of mine I’d met in Granada, perhaps my favorite experience was picking blueberries at sunset near her home in Bavaria.

I’d always enjoyed blackberry picking with my family as a child, so when her kind parents suggested we went blueberry picking my last night there, I jumped at the opportunity. It was such a relaxing evening, and made me realize even more just how lucky I was to have been able to stay and spend time with my friend and her family in their wonderful home.

It was a simple evening, but a fun and most memorable one, and I will forever be grateful for the hospitality and warmth of her family. And, of course, how yummy those blueberries tasted warmed over ice cream 🙂

7) High tea with family in London

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I loved everything about London. I would absolutely, 100%, live there one day. But, perhaps surprisingly, my favorite London moment was going for tea and lunch with my adorable British great aunts at the Goring Hotel right near Buckingham Palace.

In the two and a half days I spent exploring London, I felt like I saw everything; I walked by Westminster Abbey and Whitehall, saw Buckingham Palace, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, the Tower and the Tower Bridge, and I spent ample time gawking at artwork and other things at several of London’s prestigious museums. But the memory that I hold most dear to my heart was spending those few hours catching up with relatives I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

There was nothing quite so precious on my entire trip abroad than chatting and dining with those two, and I am beyond grateful and honored that they made the time to see their grand niece.

8) Seeing Firenze the right way

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My friends mean the world to me, and to have one of my dearest show me around her Florence for several days was such an incredible gesture.

I wasn’t even supposed to spend five whole days in Florence, but due to some necessary changes to my itinerary, I found myself on minute one in Florence, completely out of sorts, and in a hostel that ended up being the only poor one I would stay at in the entirety of my trip to Europe. But luckily my friend then got back to me that she would still be in Florence for another week or so at the tail end of her own study abroad venture there, and offered to show me around as much as she could during the time I was there!

I can’t imagine having a better experience in that city. It was the first city on my trip that I had arrived at feeling unmotivated and perhaps a little lonely and homesick for the first time, but thankfully my friend was there for me and we enjoyed an amazing few days together as she showed me around the best sites and the best local food joints, as well as a surprise trip to the beach on the coast at Cecina that I never would have been able to experience had it not been for her.

Grazie mille, bella 🙂

9) Hiking in the Mount Rainier wilderness

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Never forget the beauty and wonder you can find within your own home. Well, Mount Rainier isn’t exactly in Seattle, the place where I was raised, but it is the iconic and beloved peak of Washington state, and I had the opportunity to go on a brief hiking trip there with one of my best friends at the end of August.

The weather conditions weren’t exactly in our favor, and we were both struggling with the impeding stress of transitions from the summer back to real life at our respective universities, but in the end we persevered and were able to explore some of the gorgeous wilderness that the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier has to offer.

It was a wonderful bonding experience for the both of us, and it both challenged and excited us throughout its ups and downs.

10) Running the Color Run in Vancouver

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While my commitment to running has fluctuated between all-out obsessed and barely there at all, partaking in this event with some of my closest friends at the beginning of the school year was a great experience.

It was just one of those innocent, random, but exceedingly fun experiences realized in truly wonderful company that was a great way to kick off my fourth and final year of undergrad. It was simply a real good time (a rollicking good one, if you ask me), during which I had absolutely no inhibition nor qualms about being absolutely ridiculous and getting totally dirty (that is, covered in dyed powder).

In my 2013, there were plenty of ups and downs, unbelievable adventures, and difficult personal and family struggles, but in the end, when it came down to it, there was always somebody I could lean on, always somebody I could count on, always somebody I could share or celebrate my experiences with.

While I very much valued traveling for two months basically on my own, and while I’m very much a fan of alone time, there’s nothing quite like the company and comfort of loved ones, in any capacity. My favorite moments of 2013, many of which are not on this list but I still hold near and dear to my heart, were those which I spent and shared with others. 

So as these fireworks start to die out, as 2013 fades away and 2014 begins with a surge, let me just say: Happy New Year’s to all, and to all a good night.

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A Day in the Swiss Capital

I didn’t feel or really realize I was alone on this trip until I set off for Bern, the capital of Switzerland.

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I’m currently in the middle of a two-month, mostly solo backpacking venture around Europe. I say mostly because, as you may have read in my previous post, I have met up with and plan on meeting up with a couple more good friends along the way.

But after parting ways with my friend in Zermatt (she headed to Florence while I headed in the direction of the Swiss capital), I found myself feeling lonely for the first time since leaving Granada on June 24th.

After dropping my backpack off at the exceedingly stylish and clean Bern Backpackers’ Hostel and Glocke (I can’t help but stress the awesomeness and accuracy of Hostelworld on my trip so far), I started to wander through the Aldstadt (Old Town) of Bern.

I’m not sure if it was because I was feeling tired and lonely, or because it was a bit of a shock to my system to be out of the Alps and quaint and tiny Bavarian-esque towns and back in a metropolitan, tram-, bus-, and taxi-packed city, but it took a good while for Bern to impress me.

The bear garden, the number one touristy site set up in honor of the city’s mascot, was an interesting start to my understanding and exploration of Bern.

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I couldn’t help but feel somewhat sad for the bears, even though the enclosure seemed spacious and comfortable enough. Needless to say I enjoyed reading the various signs talking about the exhibit and the bears kept there, along with watching kids’ reactions to the bears’ behavior, especially when one of them chose to go for a swim.

After saying goodbye to the bears I went back over the Nydeggbrücke bridge (a place I would keep returning to in my 24 hours or so in Bern) and another more modern one and took in different views of the city. I was and still am in disbelief at just how gorgeous the turquoise Aare river is.

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My overall impression of the city kept improving as the afternoon went by. Moreover, thankfully, the sense of loneliness gradually faded as well.

After stopping for some delectable truffles, I wandered the main drag of the Aldstadt up and down, fascinated by the arcades and the striking mix of old and new, in the buildings and cobblestoned street with the busses and cars and retail stores.

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And later that evening I returned on a whim to the Nydeggbrücke right before sunset, and did my best to capture how beautiful the Aldstadt looked in that light.

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But perhaps my favorite part of the evening was stumbling upon some wonderful street music; a larger group of street musicians than I’ve seen before, including three guitarists, a cellist, a violinist, and a guy playing lightly in a single drum. I liked it so much I crossed the street so I could get a better view and leaned up against a fountain and just listened.

It was one of those moments so priceless where you forget or simply choose not to take a picture.

However, in the end I felt inclined enough to drop them a franc at the end of their set and even tell them I really liked their sound. Apparently they’ve been touring around small music festivals for months, and while they’ve mostly been in Germany and Heidelberg they happened to be visiting Bern for a couple of days.

They were a really nice group from Australia, called Worldfly; I found them on Facebook and they’ve got some stuff on YouTube so who knows, maybe I will run into them again in the event I head for Germany (still in the works!).

Anyways, the following morning I only had time for an hour or so meander through the Aldstadt once more, but I did manage to stop by the Rose Garden for some more views and the Münster cathedral because, well, I really have a thing for religious buildings.

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In the end, as I departed for Florence a couple hours later, I felt very satisfied with my short but sweet visit to Bern. It gave me the reassurance that even though at times I will be lonely and missing company on this trip, I’ll never be far from fascinating cities and cultures to immerse myself in, and making acquaintances or even friends from far off places won’t be so far-fetched.

Blown Away in Switzerland

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Oh, Switzerland. The tiny little country that treated us so well and exceeded our every expectation.

I spent five days exploring this magnificent country with one of my dearest friends from UBC, and from its breathtaking natural beauty, the stellar hospitality of its people, to its unmatched skill in the art of perfecting cheese and chocolate, I think we’re in agreement that Switzerland blew us away.

We spent the first leg of our jaunt in the wee town of Fiesch, a quiet, Bavarian-esque place with this cable car that takes you up to the gargantuan, UNESCO-certified Aletsch Glacier, which we found out about during a random Skype session while I flipped through the Suiza (Switzerland, in Spanish) Lonely Planet I’d acquired earlier while school textbook-shopping.

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But the story of Fiesch, Aletsch, cable cars, and frolicking through the Alps (I’ll get to that in a bit) would not be complete without an account of our almost disastrous arrival. So buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, this is no short anecdote. But it is a perfect example of just how incredibly lucky we were and just how amazing Switzerland is.

Despite touching base before meeting up in Geneva last week, neither of us thought to look up directions to our hostel (something that I have never neglected to do since I’ve been in Europe this year). So by the time it was nearing 2330 (that’s 11:30pm, friends, five-plus months in Europe and I’m almost fully on the 24-hour clock), the Matterhorn express train we’re on tells us there are two different Fiesch stops, and suddenly it strikes us we don’t know which one is ours.

We get off at the first stop, get somewhat spooked in the darkness and decide to ask the conductor if he knows where the hostel is (luckily, I had the address on a note in my iPhone). Lo and behold, he says it’s the next stop, tells us to hop back on the train (despite our tickets only being good for this stop and not the next (the last) one), and less than a minute later we hop off at a train stop resembling a sketchy bus stop rather than a legitimate train station. It’s dark. It’s chilly. It’s almost midnight now. And we still have no idea where our hostel is.

Luckily there’s a large, fully-lit map just up the road. We see we’ve arrived at the Fiesch Sport Ferien Resort. One of us recalls our hostel being associated with said resort. And oh my goodness, there’s a Jugendherberge (which my friend by calling upon her expert-but-actually-basic German deciphers as YOUTH HOSTEL!) on the map, so we head there.

Lights are out, all is silent and we are literally the only two people out on the street in this entire compound, and reception is that way. Reception is dark and clearly closed, but the automatic door opens and what so we find but an envelope taped to the inner door to the reception desk with my friend’s name scrawled on it in Sharpie. In it is our key and a map with the location of our room circled and suddenly all is right with the world.

Our brief moment of worry is over, and we thank the travel gods and commend the beneficence of the Swiss for the conductor who let us back on the train and pointed us in the right direction, and whichever godly person left us that envelope of joy. We sleep well in our comfortable and otherwise unoccupied room and pay a bright, bubbly, and blonde German receptionist the next morning for our stay. Thank you, Suiza.

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Oh right, so the next day there were cable cars. You take two to get up to the Aletsch glacier, one from wee little Fiesch to the even tinier Fiescheralp, and a second to Eggishorn, supposedly the best of the three principal viewpoints. We spent a good hour perched on some rocks, taking in the sheer size of it all, and also getting rather excited about the fact that we were indeed, in the Alps.

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Our hike that day essentially consisted of an aimless wandering through the Alps (no big deal). There were dozens of trails and everything was extremely well-signed, so despite having devised a hypothetical route plan on our map, we ended up just following the signs and heading for trails where views looked promising and where the hills looked most alive (yes, that song came up a lot of times, but never in jest and always in full-on, 100% authentic childlike excitement and wonder).

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Perhaps the most thrilling part of our day (other than seeing nuns viewing the Aletsch glacier from a bench at the Bettmeralp glacier viewpoint, thus putting a cherry on top if the idyllic but hilarious Sound of Music fantasy we felt we were living out) was scaling the questionable, erratic, zigzagged, stone-and-snow, and sometimes creaky wooden- and ladder-stepped pathway up the Bettmerhorn, bringing us to another amazing view of Aletsch, a 360-degree panorama of all those majestic Alpine peaks around us, and to what would end up being the highest altitude we would reach during our time in the Swiss Alps.

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All in all, it was a fantastic first full day of wanderlust in Switzerland. All capped off with a pleasant meal of hearty Swiss bread, delectable Swiss (or rather Appenzeller, the best ever) cheese, gorgeous dark Swiss chocolate with a hazelnut and almond filling, and dyed hard boiled Swiss eggs (yes, these exist in Swiss supermarkets. Genius).

The next day we made our way to Zermatt, home of the peak of all Swiss peaks, the famous Matterhorn. And let me tell you, it is so much better in person than the Disney knockoff ride.

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It’s probably best, though, when you serendipitously ascend a couple hundred meters more than your originally-planned route entailed, and find yourself nearly looking it in the eye (an over-exaggeration, yes, but a wow-moment, heck yes).

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The hills were alive once again, and this time they even invited us for a swim later in one of their lakes, Schwarzsee. After debating it for a little whilst wading in the freezing water, as tiny little fish bit and prodded at our tired feet, we stripped down to our underwear and plunged right in, receiving an unexpected applause from the various groups clustered around Schwarzsee’s edges.

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Our dip was brief, as the alpine waters were bone-chillingly cold, but as we were basking in the sun waiting for ourselves to dry, we heard a violin start to play. And what so you know, an entire (albeit very small) wedding party made its way out of the tiny chapel on the other side of the lake, hugging, taking pictures of the bride and groom, even doing the bouquet toss right then and there.

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We couldn’t believe our luck and timing that day.

The hike down didn’t fail to disappoint either. Again, we were very lucky in our choice of hike route. Everywhere you look are Alps, Alps, glaciers, and more Alps. And of course a great perspective of just how tiny Zermatt is.

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That second fine day of Switzerland wanderlust was capped off with another delicious hodgepodge dinner of cheese (more Appenzeller), chocolate, and bread, but this time with some red peppers and cherries to balance out the otherwise (almost) exclusively carbs and dairy diet we’d been following in an attempt to eat cheap in Switzerland (which is extremely hard to do in a place as unfortunately expensive as Switzerland). But at least we had our own bench under a sweet-smelling tree along a river with yet another marvelous view of the Matterhorn.

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All in all, I can’t imagine a better first-time in Switzerland. Everything about it exceeded my expectations and absolutely blew me away. A brief but surprisingly fulfilling trip in the Swiss Alps in the company of a true friend. What more could I have asked for?

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