The Year I (Almost) Read a Book a Week

To address the elephant in the title, I didn’t actually make it to 52 books. Graduation happened. Applying for a million jobs happened. Training for a half marathon happened. But I got close! And I’m pretty proud of that. So 49 books and lots of Snapchats later, I thought I’d write a post about my favorite books and what I learned from a year of non-stop reading.

I started the challenge after seeing an article about a similar goal someone accomplished the year prior (I think it was on Forbes, but I can’t seem to find it now). I’ve always been a big reader…thanks Mom and Dad!…but definitely had been off my game in college. I missed reading for fun, and had too many unread books sitting pretty on my shelf, so it seemed as good a time as any to finally get to them. Plus, I just wanted to see if I could do it. 

Right off the bat, I realized I was watching way too much Netflix. With classes, clubs, a job, and enjoying every last second I had in Chapel Hill (</3), something had to go if I was going to actually read a book a week. So, I stopped watching an episode of That 70s Show every night before bed, and scrolled through Instagram a little less. I was the weirdo with a book instead of a phone in hand in between classes. It’s fine.

I made a point to read more fiction this year, and I’m really happy I did. I read a lot of non-fiction generally, but there’s something about stepping into someone else’s (made-up) life that puts things into perspective and opens your mind up in a different way. Fiction is said to boost creativity and empathy, and I 100% agree with that. Do I hope to ever get kidnapped because I have a rich, political father and end up falling in love with my captor? No, but I was torn apart considering the possibility.

Speaking about other people’s lives, I LOVE memoirs. I could have read memoirs the whole year, honestly. Some of it is for the behind-the-scenes look at famous people’s lives, tbh — the scoop on Gilmore Girls straight from Lauren Graham? A kind-of explanation on Mindy and BJ’s friendship/soul mate relationship from Mindy herself? Yeah duh I’m reading that. But mostly I just love being inspired by how other people live their lives, and learning what events shaped their path and perspective. Accounts from people who changed their health and fitness habits, built a business from the ground up, or worked their butts off to become a huge success despite many obstacles are all stories I love reading.

Sometimes people ask me why I read so much and if I really enjoy it. I thought about that a lot as I (sometimes begrudgingly) opened a book for 15 minutes after hours of studying instead of going to sleep…this was pre-graduation, obviously. I realized I love to read for the same reasons I love to travel: I get to meet new people — sometimes real, sometimes imagined — and see how they live and think, learn what matters to them and what they prioritize. Plus, a library card is way cheaper than a flight, so during the months I have to be a normal person and stay in the same city for more than a hot second, reading keeps my wanderlust in check. 

The best part of the reading challenge was the community it created. So many friends texted me book recommendations, responded to my Snaps with words of encouragement, loaned and gifted me books, and even bought me a book journal to keep track of what I was reading. Thank you all for making it so fun! And keep the book suggestions coming, please.

Here are some of my favorites from the year, in case you are looking for recommendations. And if you’re curious (and for posterity’s sake), I’ve included a full list of the 49 books I read this year below. Happy reading!

Favorite Fiction Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
I only read one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books this year, but I’ve read a few others in the past, and they are all wonderful. She tells stories about Indian families moving to America, often leaving their entire lives behind, in order to make a better life for themselves and their children in a very foreign land. Most of the books span several years and explore themes of sacrifice, tradition, family, and values. They are so honest and often heartbreaking, and are beautifully simple in the telling of people’s day-to-day lives. Fun fact: Mindy Lahiri’s character on The Mindy Project was named after her.

Favorite Non-Fiction Author: Malcolm Gladwell
I read three of Malcolm Gladwell’s five books this year, and I enjoyed them all so much. He traces the most obscure series of events and connects the dots on things you’d never expect, explaining what makes a trend or idea “tip” into the mainstream, how what month you’re born in can determine whether you achieve success in pro sports, and how conditions seen as struggles, like dyslexia, can actually be of benefit. My favorite was Outliers, but I recommend all of them. Blink is definitely at the top of my 2017 to-read list.

Favorite Non-Fiction Book: Onward
I read Howard Schultz’s memoir with a friend, and between the two of us we probably reference it or recommend it to someone at least once a week. The Starbucks CEO traces the development of the company in painstaking detail, and it is so interesting to hear how every major (and many minor) decision was made. Plus, I’m a coffee addict, so I appreciate his devotion to the most important part of the brand, and the fact that I can get the same cup of coffee in New York and Beijing and Antwerp (true story). 

Favorite Memoir: When Breath Becomes Air
I cried a lot reading this book. It’s not giving anything away to say the author died before finishing the book, and his wife finished it and made it come to fruition (and favorited my tweet about the book, side note<3). A neurosurgeon who spent his life studying and reading and thinking, Paul Kalanithi died just as he was beginning to enjoy the fruits of his labor and left behind a sweet, beautiful little girl with his wife. It’s an ugly cry kind of book in the best way possible, and will 100 percent make you want to be more intentional with each day you’re given. 

Favorite Novel: Defending Jacob
SO FREAKING GOOD. This book is a Gone Girl-esque family murder mystery that gets more effed up in every chapter. It will get in your head. I read this around the same time as Girl on the Train, The Good Girl and The Obituary Writer, the latter of which I did not expect to become a murder mystery, and then I decided I should read some happier books for a while. Shout-out to Lauren Klitz for giving me this one!

Favorite Surprise Read: Embrace the Suck
I picked this up off the shelf at work before a flight home, and I was intrigued, but also wary. I am not a cross-fitter, and don’t really have a desire to become one. But it was a memoir written by the former Bicycling Magazine Editor-in-Chief, and seemed pretty inspirational, so I figured I would be into it. I finished in the next day. Stephen Madden writes so clearly and honestly about his journey from being an avid biker to a full-on cross-fitter to finding a happy middle ground. I’m slightly tempted to try a class, so that’s saying something. 

2016 Reads:

1. Going Off Script by Giuliana Rancid

2. It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell

3. Sandcastle Kings by Rich Wilkerson Jr.

4. Goodbye to All That; Writers on Loving and Leaving New York 

5. The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna

6. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

7. Strong Looks Better Naked, by Khloe Kardashian

8. Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

9. Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

10. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

11. Linchpin by Seth Godin

12. The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

13. Tales from the Back Row Amy Odell

14. Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson

15. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

16. Rising Strong by Brene Brown

17. Mere Christianity by CS Lewis

18. 10% Happier by Dan Harris

19. I Just Graduated…Now What? by Katherine Schwarzenegger 

20. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

21. Defending Jacob by William Landay

22. Onward by Howard Schultz

23. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

24. The Obituary Writer by Porter Shreve

25. The Faith Club by Ranya Ioliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner

26. Lean In For Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg

27. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

28. Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss

29. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

30. After You by Jojo Moyes

31. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

32. Running the Books by Avi Steinberg

33. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

34. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

35. If You Find This Letter by Hannah Brencher

36. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

37. Thrive by Arianna Huffington

38. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sederis

39. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

40. The Vacationers by Emma Straub

41. David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

42. Living with Intent by Mallika Chopra

43. Devotion by Dani Shapiro

44. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

45. The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein

46. Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

47. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais
48. Embrace the Suck by Stephen Madden

49. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Advertisements

Charlottesville City Guide

Four months ago, a few weeks after graduation, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia without ever having visited. This was a pretty big risk, even by my standards, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. After a summer of many visitors (thanks friends!), I’ve gotten the tour down pat, so if you find yourself in Cville, make sure to try some of these local spots.

Eat

There is much more variety in Charlottesville than I expected. Read: international foods and healthy options as well as southern staples like BBQ. These are some of my favorites:

  • Marco and Luca – Dumplings are a thing here, and Marco and Luca does it best. Everything in the restaurant is so. dang. cheap. There are only a handful of items on the menu, including pork dumplings, veggie buns, pork buns, and sesame noodles. Of which I’ve tried…them all. The dumplings are bomb, and at 6 for $3.50, it’s definitely worth a try.

    img_5081

  • Roots – I am obsessed with Roots. I’ve tried explaining it to other people and they typically meet me with the “so…it’s a salad place?” line. Trust me on this one (and every equally obsessed UVA student – apparently there is frequently a line out the door during the school year), it is not just a salad place. The Mayweather (beets, goat cheese, chicken, kale, etc.) and BBQ Tofu bowl are my favorites.
  • DOMA – This Korean BBQ restaurant opened over the summer on the weird stretch of Main Street between downtown and the corner, but it is worth struggling to find parking for. They have a Chipotle-style stir-fry bar as well as Bimbimbop (order it with the Bulgogi beef, as shown below) and Kimchi fried rice.

    IMG_5180.JPG

  • Continental Divide – Also downtown, also hard to find parking, but SO DAMN GOOD. It’s unlike any other Mexican place I’ve been to. I highly recommend the Red Hot Blues (blue corn chips with goat cheese, jack cheese and onions), and the Santa Fe Enchilada. The latter comes with a pumpkin muffin, year round. Yes.

Drink  

If you’re not a drinker, don’t visit Charlottesville. Just kidding, but there are literally dozens of wineries, breweries, and cideries (didn’t know that was a thing until I moved here), in and around Charlottesville. It would be a shame to come and not visit any, even if just for the views (or the apple cider donuts at Carter Mountain).

  • Carter Mountain – Just 15 minutes out of town, Carter Mountain sells Bold Rock (my favorite cider), and has a winery right next door. The views are spectacular, and food trucks usually come by in the afternoon in case you get hungry. Plus, you can pick fruit year round – since I’ve been here, I’ve gone for strawberries, blueberries, peaches and apples.

    IMG_4948 (1).JPG

  • Devil’s Backbone – This is my favorite to bring out-of-towners to. It has outdoor activities like cornhole, bucket beer pong, and bocce ball, and food and drinks inside and outside. The food is delicious, and despite being a brewery, there are a fair amount of wine and cider options too.

    IMG_5056.JPG

  • Veritas – During the summer, Veritas’ Starry Nights series is a must. Hundreds of people picnic on the lawn while live bands play, and Veritas has some of the best wine around. Sign up for the wine club for free entrance and tastings!

    IMG_5242.JPG


Wander

After you’re done eating and drinking your way around town, head to one of these fun (and cheap!) locations to walk off some of those calories.

  • Humpback Rocks – This is a super fun hike for showing off Charlottesville. It’s short but strenuous; plan for a steep half hour up to the top, and then some time taking in the views.
  • Ix ParkThis is kind of a random spot in town, but worth a walk to from the downtown mall. It’s an outdoor art park with a classic “Before I Die” chalkboard wall (as often seen on Instagram), murals, graffiti, and a giant butt. Yep, you read that right. Floridians, think of a small-scale Wynwood.
  • Daedaelus Bookstore – Probably my favorite spot in Charlottesville. Daedaelus looks tiny from the outside, but inside, it never ends. There are books covering every inch of the store, and every genre you can think of is represented. Plus, since they are mostly used books, you can walk out with a haul without breaking the bank.

    IMG_5062 (1).JPG

Go Forth and Set the World on Fire

Four years ago, I didn’t get into my dream school.

When USC sent me a devastatingly small envelope, I didn’t know what to do. I had only applied to one other school on the West Coast, and I still had my heart set on California. So, after much deliberation (and a very short trip to Dallas to tour SMU), I committed to LMU, a school I really didn’t know much about. I liked the school’s mission and Jesuit background and obviously, I loved the location, so I took a leap of faith and moved across the country. Looking back, this was my first big adventure.

A lot happened in the following years. I got into my dream school, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for me. I left Loyola for UNC sophomore year, and Chapel Hill gave me the college experience I realized during my time on the bluff that I was looking for. There have certainly been days when I’ve wondered “what if,” and many more when I’ve missed the friends I made in L.A.

Lucky for me, Futureme.org exists, and I knew myself well enough to anticipate my nostalgia and terrible memory (bad combo), so, I wrote everything down.

Below is a slightly edited version of a letter I wrote to myself three years ago (forgive all the pronoun switches — writing a letter to yourself is weird).

bluff


Dear FutureMe,

Congratulations!!! By the time you read this, you will most likely have just graduated from college (or are about to, or will in the near future)!! Hopefully it’s both a sad and happy time, sad because you’re leaving a school you LOVE (USC? UNC? Columbia? Still don’t know!) and have made the best memories at in your time there, but happy and excited for whatever amazing step comes next!

In the midst of all this craziness I want you to take a few minutes and remember where this journey all started — your year at LMU. Loyola may not have been part of the original plan, but after finishing my year there I know I wouldn’t trade it for the world or change a single second of it, except maybe to take in more of it while I had the chance. This letter is my way of putting down in writing all the truly incredible memories made at LMU and the people and events that I encountered there that made my life so much richer. I hope three years from now you still look back fondly on these memories and hold them tight, and hopefully if you’ve lost touch with them this letter will inspire you to see what the BGC and Lizzy and Casey and Amy are up to!

Remember all the long talks with Casey about life and families and dreams and goals and thinking moving to LA would be just like LC’s experience on The Hills, and maybe being a little too disappointed to find out it wasn’t. Remember how many of those talks occurred in study rooms in Hannon during finals week, alongside many many cups of coffee from Jazzman’s. Remember how you broke your phone walking down the stairs and cried a little from all the stress and the shattered screen (whoops). Remember the basketball game with Cas and Sami when Casey told you all about her family and you felt so happy to meet someone that genuinely cared about your past and the things that made you into who you are.

Remember going to Disneyland with Alix and Lizzy and feeling so completely happy that you never wanted the day to end. Remember all the nights you and Alix drove around, eating ridiculous amounts of In ‘ N Out and donuts and going to parties for approximately 45 minutes before peacing out to fall asleep watching movies. Remember the beach in April and once again taking in the beautiful moment of watching the ocean with a new best friend. Remember going to Sprinkles that first night the BGC hung out and Alix’s car breaking down outside the Azuli Inn and taking a cab to get cupcakes and bonding over a 20 minute cupcake run that ended up taking 3 hours.

Remember all the late nights studying with Anna and how she made you laugh by dancing and being silly and crying about missing Mercy. Remember EVERYONE being in 309 all of second semester, taking naps on the floor and in both beds, doing homework and watching ridiculous shows mid-day because who cares about homework. Remember how fun SpringFest was and how great Capitol Cities was live! Remember going to the LACMA and seeing the lights for the first time with Casey and Sami during their last weekend in LA. Remember going to WOW that first night of second semester with Anna and being so nervous but then realizing how cool and easy to talk to she was. Remember walking along the bluff all those times, and that night during finals week standing out there with Casey taking it all in.

Remember how quiet and comforting Hannon was and reading (napping) on the couches by the fireplace. Remember how brave you were during the last night of second semester finals week, and how worth it it was when you got what you wanted just by asking. Remember CLC group meetings and the feeling of happiness and security after every single one. Remember going to Mexico for De Colores and all the amazing little kids in El Florido and the men at the immigration house and the doctors in the community medical center. Remember Anthony singing Thriftshop and buying churros on the way back across the border. Remember learning about post-grad service from Chris and thinking how cool that would be to do (still an option!!).

Remember all the nights in the Loyolan office, and the cool events you covered (plays, the art exhibit, the Balinese dance show). Remember FYR and how close to God you felt after. Remember sitting in the chapel just before you left campus and trying to find clarity that you were making the right decision (I hope by now you’re 100% sure you did — even if a tiny part of you still misses LMU). Remember your birthday at Izakaya and the yummy Hansen’s cake and going back to Alexa’s after. Remember Anna being obsessed with the Hunger Games at the end of the semester and bringing it everywhere with her. Remember running through UHall the day you almost missed math lab because you lost track of time and went to In ‘N Out with everyone.

Remember the Gonzaga game when you actually felt school spirit at LMU. Remember the day you and Alix watched a girls’ softball game and you enjoyed it, and watched the Beta Boat Races. Remember all the classes you took and effort you put in. Remember when Alanna came to visit and you went all over LA and saw Chelsea, went to the pier, went to Venice, 3rd Street Promenade, Millions of Milkshakes and more. Remember Roski’s dates with Jazzy and Anna.

Most importantly, as Jazzy said, remember that for a period of time, LMU really was your home, and you made great friends and great memories there. Even though you’re not graduating from there and you probably never went Sharkey’s or that place with the turtle races or touched the touchstone for the second time during graduation, you still got to experience LMU for a year and that year was exactly the right time for you to be there. It may not have been perfect, but it was an incredible experience and taught you more lessons than anywhere else would have, and for that, it was everything you needed. I hope these memories make you smile and remember where this whole journey started, and I can’t wait to know about all the memories to come. Good luck going out into the real world!!!!!!!!!


Looking back on these memories did make me smile, and feel a little sad about the potential “what if.” So much has changed, and in many ways it feels like a lifetime since I was at LMU. I’m still cracking phone screens and trying to like sports, though, and I’m happy to say I’m still in touch with all the badass girls frequently mentioned in this letter.

The most difficult part of staying on the move is the goodbyes, and getting used to leaving parts of my heart in different places. But the best part is getting to know so many wonderful individuals who bring love and happiness into my life every day, even when we’re not physically near eachother. LMU will always hold a special place in my heart, and I am forever thankful it was part of my journey.

World Internet Conference Reflections

First things first, I have to admit, it took me a LONG time to write this blog. Over a month passed before I finally sat down and started typing. Procrastination is partly to blame, but it’s also been tough to write about, because I didn’t want to sound ungrateful, and I wasn’t sure how to balance that with my desire to accurately explain the trip. I needed time to digest.

So, let’s start with the easy part. When I first received an email asking if I was interested in a free trip to China, I couldn’t believe it. I was being invited to the World Internet Conference? There was a World Internet Conference? It’s in CHINA? Aren’t there 18,948 more qualified people than me who should be going? I could spend a week in another country on someone else’s dime? But more than anything, why not?

It wasn’t until I had the flight confirmation in my inbox, two days before leaving Chapel Hill, that I was confident it was really happening. Details had been sparse. And it wasn’t until I was in Shanghai, sitting on the floor of a hotel conference room with 40 other American students, that I started to understand why I was there.

Our hosts, the Cyberspace Administration of China and the All-China Youth Federation, had invited me and a couple dozen other students from the U.S., as well as 20 from China, to attend the conference as youth delegates to our respective countries. It was the second annual conference, held in Wuzhen, a historic water town not too far from Shanghai. There would be an opening speech given by Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, as well as a handful of speeches by presidents and prime ministers from places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.

In the forums that followed, bigwigs from American companies like Netflix, Wikipedia and Airbnb would give speeches and participate in panels, as would ones from Chinese giants like Xiaomi, Baidu and Alibaba. We, the students, would get to listen in, and be part of our own panel, titled “Internet Dreams of Chinese and American College Students.” It all sounded pretty amazing, and we shouted like kids in a candy story when the full list of speakers was read out while driving to one of the very beautiful hotels we stayed in.

But back to the conference room floor. After an elaborate round of icebreakers, we were told this: as the future leaders of one of the top world powers (their words, not mine), we were here to establish relations with the future leaders of the other top power. We were to spend time with Chinese students and learn from one another, learn about the companies shaping the way we interact with other people and how we spend our time, and understand the role the Internet is playing in all this. Aside from that, we’d get to take in Chinese culture, attending a Chinese opera, touring universities and museums and eating local food, and visiting Dream Town, the start-up hub home to Alibaba in Hangzhou.

WICgroup

The 10 days I spent in China in December were great. It was my second time in the country that year, and third in my life – something I never thought I’d be able to say. I got to visit two new cities, Wuzhen and Hangzhou – the Silicon Valley of China – and spend a few more days in Shanghai, a city I adore. I tried a ton of new, delicious food (deep fried taro bites will change your life), and met students from the United States who were curious and eager to experience this very unique week together, as a community. I also got to meet really wonderful, welcoming students and adults from China who I hope to show the same hospitality to in my own country one day.

Read More »

Four days left

 

With just four full days left in Beijing, I know I need to get the last week and a half of experiences down before I’m consumed by laundry, cleaning a way-too-full apartment, packing and goodbyes. In between this past week and my last post, I visited Hong Kong, went to Beijing must-sees like the Summer Palace and Beijing Zoo, and spent a Fourth of July full of shenanigans in Shanghai. While those fun adventures seemed hard to top, the last 10 or so days in and out of the office has been filled with what seems like one cultural exchange after the other.

First up, it was our turn to be interviewed. As someone who is used to asking questions, without a camera present, getting asked to be part of a taped interview for china.org.cn along with my fellow interns made me a little anxious. The video was essentially about how Americans view China, and this fact was somewhat disconcerting – we knew “the boss” had asked for it, and couldn’t help feeling a bit like we were being put on display. “Look at how much the westerners like China!” But, with questions sent to us beforehand and time to talk them over as a group, we obliged.

The morning of, I complained the whole subway ride to work. “I don’t want to do this”; “what if we just dip.” Then we get into the studio and find out it’s too small for all five of us to do one interview, and we have to split into groups. Cue more anxiety. Luckily, I cajoled Ben and Tori into going first, so Jason and I could watch and have another minute (thirty) to formulate our answers. When it was our turn, we answered simple questions like what we were doing in China, why we were interested in coming, what our dream job is and which jobs are deemed most prestigious in America, and then slightly tougher questions – our thoughts on the differences in family structure and values in the U.S. versus China, what our impressions of China were before coming and how they were met, and whether we thought Chinese knew more about America or vice versa. It was done in 20 minutes, and wound up being pretty painless.

What it did do, interestingly, was offer an insight into a topic that’s come up quite a bit this summer: self-censorship. Working at a state-owned news agency, the state being the People’s Republic of China, it’s a concept we’ve been subtly introduced to every day. From what we’ve learned through talking to co-workers and by seeing what articles come through, we’ve gathered this much: there’s not someone from the Party saying publish this, don’t publish that. But are there investigative pieces coming through on any probing topic? No. Pretty much anything resembling hard news is republished from other news outlets (who also have ties to the state) after being translated into English by us, while the bulk of original content is made up of covering events usually sponsored by the government or cultural happenings around town. The news is reported, but it’s done in a certain light. The goal of the news organization is to introduce China to the world…and like an Instagram profile, it’s showing the best of what it has to offer, and putting a filter on the not-so-pretty parts. In a way, that benefits the employees as much as the state.

Read More »

The week of visitors

I’m currently on hour one of a six-hour layover in Shanghai en route to Hong Kong, so I figured what better time to write another blog post. It also gives me an excuse to look busy while I not-so-secretly listen in on the conversation of a business group from Seattle sitting next to me. I haven’t been terribly starved for English though…in the past week, I’ve met up with FOUR people from home!!! As I’m nearing the one-month mark, and recently experienced my first dose of homesickness after seeing one too many beach pictures from home, it was the perfect time for some familiar faces.

First up was the one and only Gilly Hicks. Gil recently graduated from Columbia (wooooo!) and is traveling around Asia for a month with his friend Ariel. Lucky for me, they stopped in Beijing for a few days. I had to work Thursday and Friday, but I was more than happy to tag along with them to the Great Wall Saturday. I went before with JinSha back in 2009, but Gil was going to a different section and I had wanted to go back anyway. We went with a small tour group – just the three of us, a woman from Australia in China on business, and a man from England doing the same. I had to be at Gil’s hotel on the other side of town at 7:20, so I started my day early – beginning with a 5:30 alarm. I got there a little early and to my delight found a Starbucks across from the hotel. It’s not quite the same taste-wise, but it’s coffee nonetheless.

During the day, we went to the Ming Tombs, a jade factory, lunch, then to the Wall. It was a LOT steeper than the section I visited before, and the uneven stairs made it a struggle, but we made it up to our goal peak! I gained a lot of respect for the vendors along the way who must trek up there every day. You could see beautiful views of the hills and mountains and the trail of the wall cutting through them. Who would’ve thought I’d be at the Great Wall twice in my life?

That evening, Gil and the rest of the group decided to go see an acrobat show. I had plans already, but was excited for them. When we were here with JinSha one of our friends got pulled up on stage during a show and was put into a giant cone balanced on someone’s feet! The image has never left my mind.

Read More »

Beijing: First Impressions

JFK May 23 2015

While I’m no longer at sea, I thought it would be fitting to keep posting on UNSea, where I first wrote about the adventure that prepared me for this trip, and gave me the courage and drive to go after it.

It’s the middle of week three, and I’m getting fairly accustomed to Beijing life. On the metro ride home last night, I was talking to my roommate about how we’d describe it when we got back to the United States. So far, the words that come to mind are fast, crowded, and temporary. I could write pages on everything we’ve seen and experienced in the last few weeks, but in an effort to keep this succinct, here are bullet points of the summer so far…

Housing: After spending the first week at a hotel across from my office, Jason (fellow UNC intern) and I finally found a place to live. Let me tell you, finding short term housing in Beijing is no easy feat. We sent out tons of emails, spoke to agents who act as a middleman for landlords, toured a few places, settled on one, were told it was already given away, and then found Rainbow. Rainbow is our extremely awesome and helpful agent who showed us our apartment in the Wudaokou area, near BCLU and China Forestry University. It’s about an hour commute to work, but it is spacious, has air conditioning, WiFi, a laundry machine and a refrigerator, and the toilet and shower are in separate parts of the bathroom (this was a big sell for me – not as common as you’d hope in China).

Metro: So the commute. I’ve never used the word “sardine” so often in my life. Thankfully, the subways are air conditioned, but the number of people packed into them around 7:30 each morning, and 5:30 each evening, is incomprehensible. There’s a few different ways we can go, and we’ve started to figure out the best paths to take, but it is an adventure every day. Your idea of a personal bubble has to shrink, or you’ll lose your mind.

Food: What kind of meat is this? That question pretty much sums up my lunch experience every afternoon at the canteen, a cafeteria all the employees of CIPQ, china.org.cn’s parent company, can eat at for free. There are plenty of vegetables and rice, and I occasionally venture outside tofu or chicken (though, I’m not 100% that’s actually what I’m actually eating…), but all in all it’s definitely beyond my comfort zone. We’ve been cooking dinner at home a lot lately after eating out every night during the Seven Days Inn week, but I have tried (and enjoyed!) Peking duck, lamb skewers and empanada-type dishes, and bravely tasted chicken feet and pig liver while at restaurants. I don’t think I’ll go back for the last two. There are plenty of KFCs, Pizza Huts, and McDonalds, which we haven’t given in to yet…though we’ll likely succumb to Pizza Hut in the next few days. Luna Bars packed from home have been my only bit of normalcy in the food department thus far.

Read More »

Barbados to Fort Lauderdale — The Last Hurrah

This is it…the final blog post! I’ve been avoiding writing it, mostly in a vain attempt to pretend like SAS isn’t over, and I haven’t left the MV Explorer for good. But more than a full week later, I’ve finally sat down (with inspiration from the lovely Dawn Myers!) to put into writing my thoughts on our last two ports and the end of the voyage. In a further act of avoidance, I’ll start with the ports and put off the sure to be emotional voyage reflection until the end.

IMG_2305

First, Barbados. Rihanna’s homeland is a bit of a blur to me, to be honest. We had three days there, but it easily felt like the fastest port. This might be because it followed our eight days in Brazil, or maybe because it was so close to the end of the trip, but either way, it flew by. I had my last field lab, for Travel Writing, on our first day in Bridgetown. It was also the second or third rainy day of the entire trip (how lucky are we?!), so I wasn’t too disappointed at spending a majority of the afternoon on a tour bus. We visited an old, historic plantation house and enjoyed a local rum and food presentation in the backyard – turns out popcorn chicken and plantains are a great combo. Also, shots of rum are acceptable at 10 a.m. When in Barbados…

IMG_2008

The highlight of the port was the catamaran Shannon, Sterling and I went on during our last day. We spent the afternoon lounging on a yacht sailing along the west coast of the island, swimming with sea turtles, and snorkeling over shipwrecks. Not the most cultural of activities, but it sure was fun. We also found a vegan restaurant near the beach that was a much-welcomed change of pace from the multitude of fried flying fish on most menus in town.

IMG_2277

Last but not least came Cuba. I could write pages and pages on Cuba and still not fully explain the intricacies of what we saw, learned and heard. Another student, or maybe professor, put it best when they said they left Cuba with far more questions than when they came. To come to Cuba, we had to be there for a legitimate educational purpose, so on the first day all 600 and some odd students, plus our professors and staff, caravanned to the University of Habana in a long line of tour buses to attend lectures. When we walked off the ship we were greeted with camera crews, also present at the university. It was at this point, looking up at the crowd of probably 100 Cuban students standing on the school’s front steps—on a Saturday, mind you— when I realized what a huge deal it was for us to be there.

IMG_0427

Read More »

Brazil

IMG_0353IMG_0354

 

IMG_0360IMG_0361

 

While I’ve enjoyed each and every port so far, Brazil tops the list of favorites. It might have been the length of time we got to spend there—since we overlanded, we had eight full days in port—or the amount of activities we packed in, but either way, I had a blast. The country stands out alongside Morocco, as both were so different from Europe. Most people did not speak any English, and we quickly learned that our broken Spanish didn’t work out as well as we hoped it would when talking to Portuguese speakers. However, everyone was so friendly, and as we’ve learned, there’s still plenty of ways to communicate without necessarily speaking the same language. When we were paddle boarding in Rio on our last morning there, neither the instructor who pushed us out past the bigger waves close to shore nor the instructor who checked up on us once we were out there spoke any English, but still managed to help us out and give me pointers on how to keep my balance.

The most exciting activity in Rio by far was hang gliding. It hadn’t really been on my bucket list before, but once someone suggested it, I was in. I’m so thankful I went for it because it turned out to be one of the coolest experiences of my life. Someone from the company came to pick us up from our hotel the fourth morning in Brazil, and once we got to the site, it was go go go. After essentially signing your life away, a pilot comes to get you and drives you up a huge mountain where you practice running off a cliff twice, get strapped into the hang gliding apparatus, and then run as fast as possible down a slanting wood plank coming off the mountain into the air. Luckily, there wasn’t much time to be nervous (though the look of terror on my face in the GoPro video says otherwise). I was in the air for 10 minutes, floating over the mountains, looking at Sugarloaf and Christ Redeemer, and swinging out over the ocean before landing on the beach. It’s the closest thing to flying I can ever imagine.

After hang gliding we had lunch at this tiny hole-in-the-wall buffet spot that the pilots told us about. I ate probably the best rice and beans I’ve ever had, plus grilled chicken, yucca, and a couple different salads. Our food (which Grandpa Bob pointed out seems to be the highlight of many countries…it’s a good thing we do a lot of walking!) in Brazil was awesome. Along with lots of rice and beans and pork, we had probably a dozen acai smoothies or bowls, sushi, Mediterranean food (hummus it’s been too long) and incredible shrimp dishes.

Read More »

Rome and Barcelona

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 6.00.48 PMIMG_0329

 

IMG_0340

Hello from the southern hemisphere! Yesterday marked day 10 of our Atlantic crossing and a new status as “emerald shellbacks” after we crossed the equator at the prime meridian. There was a huge celebration on the M/V Explorer for Neptune Day, which honors King Neptune and the transition of the ship’s passengers, or Sons of Neptune, from pollywogs to shellbacks.

The whole shipboard community gathered on the pool deck and took turns getting a cold, green liquid (rumored to be fish guts…hopefully just colored lemonade) poured over our heads, jumping in the pool, and kissing a fish and ring on the way out. Tons of students — girls, boys, a few crew members — shaved their heads as offerings to King Neptune. I was not that brave, but had a great time watching other people do it! It was definitely one of the most fun days on the ship yet, although the 14-day stretch has not been nearly as bad as I anticipated. It’s actually been nice to catch my breath from all the traveling and take time to read for fun, do yoga, and watch TV and movies on the public drive. I’ve also had time to explore the ship, taking a bridge tour and going star-gazing on the eighth deck. I have never seen so many stars so clearly; it is truly an amazing sight to be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing around you except the light of all those stars. I saw my very first shooting star, and two more after that.

It’s hard to believe that four days from now we’ll be in Rio de Janeiro, our fourth-to-last port and third-to-last country. This trip has absolutely flown by. Before we get to Brazil, I wanted to look back on our last two European ports: Rome and Barcelona. These ports were initially supposed to be Ghana and Senegal, but because of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we had to be rerouted. The itinerary change brought a lot of mixed emotions; on the one hand, a big part of the allure of this trip was getting to go to these two countries. After all, when else would I do that? There was also the feeling, once the new ports were announced, that the voyage had turned into somewhat of a Euro trip. However, Rome and Barcelona are two cities I have always wanted to visit, and better safe than sorry on the virus front — plus, had we gone anyway, Brazil may not have let us enter the port — so there was nothing to do but go with it and get pumped.

Read More »