Category Archives: Travel

Chutzpah

You know those moments in life when something you’ve worked so hard for actually happens? When something you’ve thought endlessly about, something you’ve anticipated with a complex combination of excitement and apprehension, something you’ve hoped for and worked for and actually dreamed about comes true? Tomorrow is that day. Tomorrow, 8 years after graduating from college, I finally begin grad school.

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Driving through horse country. Amenia, NY.

This entire blog has become an accidental journal (although I really hate referring to it that way) of a girl with a lot of wanderlust traveling through her twenties and around the world to find herself, or at least what she wants to do with herself. I always had a strong sense of who I am, but for many years, I found myself frustratingly positioned in-between so many careers. I felt tugged by many different curiosities, and pressured by an outside force to define myself by only one of them. On the first day of TwT (“Travels with Tavel Has Finally Arrived” – July 7, 2009), I began writing with a broken heart and a whole lot of chutzpah to drop the confused-twenty-something act (which was, well, far from an act), dig deep, and really make my career dreams come true — whatever they were. At the time, my dream was as simple as starting this blog. I soul-searched and wandered through foreign countries, spurred on by an insatiable sense of adventure, yet I was always anchored by a counter-desire to find those things that would eventually stabilize me — a career, a job, love… (Whoops! Did I accidentally become a total cliche!?)

At first, the wanderlust won. But through my travels, like the archaeology minor I was before all the pre-med “stuff” began, I slowly and carefully chiseled away at the wanderlust to find out what was really happening underneath. I began to realize that, while it was a completely real part of who I am (and still is), it was also a distraction from something else I really wanted in my life, but felt too overwhelmed by to pursue. After dream jobs that didn’t feel quite right and inspiring international volunteer experiences, that twenty-something veil of confusion (or really, inner-conflict over what to do) was slowly lifted. Eventually, it just became too obvious to ignore: I wanted to be in healthcare, and I wanted to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, no matter how much hard work and money it might require.

Bird, beach, Mexico.

Bird, beach, Mexico.

If you’ve been paying any attention to TwT, you’ve heard it all before. This is that moment. Tomorrow, after two years of nonstop science classes just to get to this point, I start grad school. I might be older than most of my classmates, I might have had to work harder to get here, but tomorrow it’s an even playing field. Tomorrow, my new classmates and I start something together that I feel like I’ve been working towards all alone, for almost a decade.

Everyone learns their own lessons their own way. I couldn’t be more excited and more grateful for what I have learned during this eight-year post-college adventure to this place right now. As the curtain begins to shut on my twenties (not until September though — not there yet!!) I hope that this blog has succeeded in capturing the incredible journey that being twenty-something can be. As long as you’re willing to take chances, work hard, and not worry about your future for a little bit (a little responsible irresponsibility can get you surprisingly far sometimes!), it can be one of the most revealing decades of your life — if not the most revealing. It wasn’t always pretty, that’s for sure [let us not forget Juan the Amoeba (“Living the Dream (in the Fetal Position)“), a dislocated knee, travel disasters, and my initially humbling return to academia (“Hill Climb“)] but it was freeakin’ worth it. That’s all that matters now.

Driving through horse country. Amenia, NY.

Driving through horse country. Amenia, NY.

And yet, despite delaying and intensifying this already long process of beginning grad school, I am forever grateful that I know what it feels like to ride a horse up a volcano in Ecuador (and, well, it’s less comfortable in the gluteal-region than you might think — Read: “Pain in the Cotopaxi“), or how the heart skips a beat when a sea lion swims up next to you in the Galapagos Islands… I know how scary it is to have someone in another country try and slash your bag open with a razor blade (“Quito Slashed“) or to move to another country without knowing another soul (“And So It Begins…“). Now, to add to the list, I know exactly how it feels to work for something like you’ve never had to work before, and then to arrive at the beginning of that new story…

As I begin grad school, and surely prepare to be humbled all over again, I am taking with me almost a decade of valuable experiences. There is a lot further to go, but at least — after all my trips abroad — I made it here.

It’s a crazy thing when you finally arrive at your destination, but if I’ve learned anything from all my traveling, it’s that arriving is never the end of the road. It’s just another start to yet another sure to be wild adventure in life. So, here I go.

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Filed under Life Stuff, School, Travel, Uncategorized

Science and Shoes

It was the fall after I graduated college, and I was feeling lost in a corporate dream job that, rather than inspiring me, made me question myself and what I wanted. I tried to wear the pencil skirts and the pretty shoes that all the stylish women wore around me. I tried to play the part of the working twenty-something in the sexy NYC publishing job because, for many reasons, I actually thought I belonged there, in that role, in that chair, in that office, in that skirt… But the shoes felt awkward and, while I did feel sexy in my carefully selected business-casual ensembles, sitting at my desk made me feel like an extra in a mediocre movie. As grateful as I was to be there (and as cool as it often felt, don’t get me wrong!) I usually felt more lost in that chair than found. And I wasn’t the sort of girl who could stay sitting through that feeling.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Without telling anyone, I decided to attend an information session for a career I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t even know what schools offered the degree, so I googled “Top Physical Therapy Programs NYC” and ended up at the NYU Steinhardt School, listening intently as the Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum and the future of the evolving field were explained to me. After spending the previous few months heartbroken and confused, the two hours I spent in that information session brought clarity I hadn’t had in a long time. But when I walked out, things went back to fuzzy.

As reality would have it, I was as far away as anyone could be from “qualified” for the program I wanted to attend. I had 1 out of 12 of the pre-requisites required, I had not taken the GRE, and I had absolutely no experience in the field of physical therapy. My only explanation for how I had “suddenly” gotten interested in PT was receiving treatment for a crew-related back injury my senior spring. But I think I had always been interested in the field, I just didn’t know it existed.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

I walked out of that information session in 2005 excited, invigorated, hopeful and, yes, overwhelmed. Having to complete eleven pre-requisites, from Statistics to upper-level Biology courses, seemed like an impossible boulder I could not remove from my path (which was paved with Spanish, Art History, and Archaeology courses). I tried to talk myself out of the excitement I felt, and attempted to channel it into trips and adventures around the world. Science was like those fancy shoes I wore to work; it was uncomfortable, somewhat foreign, and even in my size I wasn’t sure it was the right fit.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Now, eight years later, I am about to walk back into that very same building where that information session took place. It is a crazy feeling to say that — eleven pre-requisites, 10 grad school applications, and many years later — I will be receiving my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from that very school. Eight freakin’ years, a few broken hearts, a couple trips to the hospital, 14 different countries, an almost book deal, a lot of soul-searching, and some serious soul-finding later, I am now on the other side — of a decade, of a chapter, of a journey of some sort… And I am so ready to walk back in there! It’s going to be another challenge-and-a-half, but if I’ve learned anything in these last eight years, it’s that I can handle it.

The only remaining question is: what shoes will I wear?

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Filed under Healthcare, Life Stuff, Mexico, Photography, Ruins, School, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust

At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza

We approached the ancient city, with colorful dresses, hammocks and masks being sold all around us. The heat of the morning was beginning to gain power, but the approach felt easy and short compared to the 3.5 hr bus-ride from Cancun. My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I instantly regretted not taking a water with me. Nevertheless, we knew that just beyond the trees, pyramids from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza waited patiently, as they had been doing for over a thousand years.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

It felt particularly relevant to visit Chichen Itza now, so soon after the world was predicted to end. The world, like the structures within this city, still stands strong — although perhaps both are less strong than when they were originally “created,” many footprints ago.

Chichen Itza (its name meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza [people]”) was a major religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 600-900 AD. It is now considered one of the 7 Wonders of the World, along with Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India, to name a few. The city itself covers about 2 square miles, and is comprised of several large structures, the most famous of which being El Castillo (the Temple of Kukulkan), and also: the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Court of a Thousand Columns.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

We emerged from a long dirt pathway shaded by large leafy trees to find ourselves in a giant clearing, with the largest and most impressive structures of the city glaring straight ahead of us. When you first see the giant pyramid, it doesn’t feel totally real. Initially, it just looks impressive and grand, like you’re on the set of an Indiana Jones movie (I hate myself a little for degrading an ancient ruin with an American movie reference — gah, so typical). And then it sinks in: this impressive structure was built hundreds of years ago, by the small hands of an ancient culture that was eventually conquered in the 1530s by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo. Many people lived and died on this turf. And along with them, many traditions.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, is named after the feathered serpent deity of the Mayan people. At 24 meters high, with 9 square terraces and 18 platforms, marking the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. There are a total of 365 steps, marking the 365 days of the year, and 52 panels, corresponding to the 52 years in the Mayan calendar cycle. (Unfortunately, access to the top of the pyramid was closed after a tourist fell to his death.) Chichen Itza is known for its many structural mysteries, some stemming from astrology and numbers. Among them is one that still draws thousands of people every year, when during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow of a serpent slithering down the structure is formed to perfection. With the snake, Kukulkan, being a symbol of fertility pointed down at the earth, this effect is believed to suggest the fertilization and thus fruitfulness of the city. Like in Roman culture, the rulers of a city liked to boast. This was ancient advertising.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

While the Temple of Kukulkan may be the first structure to draw one’s attention, it is the Great Ball Court that becomes the most relatable structure for tourists. Spanning 150 meters and flanked by the slanted relief sculptures of ball teams playing is a giant court where a ritual Mesoamerican game was played. Although the rules of the game are still not known for certain, it seems that players — wearing pads of some sort on their thighs and arms and possibly holding large sticks — fought to keep a 7 lb ball in play, hitting it around like racquetball or field hockey while trying to get the heavy ball through a relatively small hoop 8 meters above the ground. According to my tour guide, the game could last anywhere from hours to days, and ended with sacrificing the captain of the winning team (not very good incentive, if you ask me). There were two teams of 2 to 4 players. Headdresses, gloves, and even capes may have been worn during the games, which often ended in brutal injuries, both inflicted upon by the opposite team and by the solid, heavy ball itself.

King's throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

King’s throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

The king, sitting at a throne perched over one end of the ball court, would watch the honored players who had trained their whole lives to participate in this ceremonial sport. According to the Popol Vuh and sculptures lining the sides of the ball court, it is believed that the captain of the winning team would receive the honor of being decapitated by the king, thus allowing him a direct passage to heaven. There was even speculation that these heads would end up being used as the ball for future games. (Gotta love ancient cultures — so resourceful!)

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Despite the excitement about all the gore, one of the most interesting things about this ball court (and the rest of the Mayan city) is the acoustics. Someone whispering at one end of the ball court can be heard loud and clear by a person at the other end of the ball court, more than a football field apart. These acoustics were studied and later used in theater construction by Europeans. In addition, the mysterious “chirping” echo created by clapping at the base of El Castillo was believed to mimic the call of the Quetzal bird… But it is hard to know whether or not these things are just archaeological coincidences designed to get tourists really excited.

Ball court "hoop." Chichen Itza.

Ball court “hoop.” Chichen Itza.

When standing anywhere near the Temple of Kukulkan, the Temple of the Warriors cannot be ignored. The structure, surrounded by the Court of a Thousand Columns, houses Chac Mool (“Red Tiger”), who lies in an uncomfortable position at the top of the steps looking out over the rest of the city. His position allowed for offerings (this wouldn’t be a post about the Mayans if I didn’t acknowledge that many of these sacrifices were indeed human, echem), which were made in the flat section across his midsection. Relief sculptures of Toltec warriors surround the perpetually reclined Chac Mool. Feathered serpent heads with open jaws, and even elephant tusks emerge from the walls of the temple, which housed tombs in addition to being used for religious ceremonies. The many columns spanning out from beneath this structure were extremely simple in their structure, but allowed for a tented area that was used as a giant marketplace in the city. Yes, folks: Chichen Itza was quite the happening place to be at the time. It still is.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

There is plenty more to say about the details in the architecture of this city, and about the history of the Mayan people, but that is for the historians and the archaeologists to tell you (I shall refrain from pretending I know more than I do). What I can say is that visiting Chichen Itza as an ex-Spanish and archaeology major just taking the opportunity to make a quick trip to Mexico before returning to pre0med class was — unlike being the winning captain of the ball team — well, super worth it.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

In college, I was a humanities girl. I spent years looking at art and architecture from the stance of someone trying to interpret and understand another culture through symbolism and relics. Now, I am a science student, looking at an ancient culture and trying to understand what they knew about the world long before we ever thought we could. Chichen Itza is one of those places where art, architecture, history, science (in particular, biology and physics) converge. It is a beautiful, fascinating thing when — despite our thorough understanding of the world at many different levels — so much is still unknown.

I’m glad the world didn’t end — there is still too much left to learn.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

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Filed under Archaeology, Mexico, Ruins, Travel, Uncategorized

Revisiting Mexico, Yucatan-Style

The week before I left, three heads had been found on one of the beach where I was planning to stay. A few weeks earlier, a Canadian tourist had been shot in the lobby of her hotel by the crossfire of gang-related violence. That was the last time I was in Mexico, in 2006. I was 22 and headed to Acapulco, where I would embark on my first assignment as a travel writer. It was the first time I would have to travel alone and I was nervous, but more excited than anything. A dream-job was coming true for me. At the time, nothing could have been better than that.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

With absolutely no training whatsoever and one month to get the job done, I was going to have to pretend (pretty well, considering it would be published) that I was an expert on four different beach resort towns  —  their hotels, bars, restaurants, music scenes, art scenes, ecotourism options, gay scenes, weekend excursions, piña coladas (this part was particularly difficult), and the exhausting list of transportation options (to name a few categories). I had been to Ixtapa as a kid, which was partially how I got the job, but upon my arrival it became very clear very quickly that one week at a Club Med in fourth grade was probably not going to help me with this assignment. I was on my own — really on my own, for the first time — and it was as terrifying as it was thrilling. But so was being 22.

That was seven years ago. When I think back, I realize I wasn’t really alone on that trip: Mexico was with me. When you travel alone in another country, you meet a lot of people (many of whom you don’t want to meet, particularly if you’re a female traveling alone), but you also spend a lot of time hanging out with yourself.  At times, the only other companion you have is the country you’re in.

During that solo trip to Mexico in the summer of 2006, I felt like I bonded with Mexico in a way I hadn’t bonded with another country before. It was my silent friend throughout a month-long journey. It shook during a brief earthquake, letting me know we were both there together, and it warmed my back during long days strolling through markets and side-streets while sampling different ice cream shops.

During that trip, I explored my own character as much as I explored Mexico’s. I had to push myself to do things on a daily basis that felt totally uncomfortable, and I had to convince myself that I was an authority on so many subjects when I couldn’t have felt more like a freshly hatched chick in a foreign world. I grew up a lot during that trip around the state of Guerrero (now a major hot spot for drug war activity). I also formed a special connection with Mexico, the friend I spent every day with for four and a half weeks. When I left, I swore that someday I’d be back.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

That “someday” was last week. A lot has changed for both me and Mexico, but one thing hasn’t: it’s still one of my favorite countries. Maybe it’s all the bonding time we’ve had together, but I find it misunderstood. When people think of traveling to Mexico these days, they immediately think “dangerous” and “drug wars.” Yes, these two things are a large piece of Mexico’s current reality, and you do have to be careful where you go and how adventurous you get. But — and this was my third trip to Mexico — I can honestly say that I never, at any point, felt unsafe or threatened by anyone around me. The Mexican culture, history, food and landscapes are really complex and beautiful beyond the surface. Granted, I spent most of this trip at a luxurious resort, but it is still worth mentioning that there are so many layers to Mexico worth exploring.

I am guilty of misunderstanding Cancun. It was my first time in the Yucatan region, and I was hesitant to head this direction. Considering it has some of the best deals right now, I would have been silly to ignore it as an option. I am glad I didn’t.

This time around, I was one of the “other” people — the vacationers, not the guidebook writer. I had every right to sit around and do nothing on the beach of a beautiful hotel that someone else had written about, but I tried to squeeze in some culture and history too. And this time around, my career has totally changed. I am now a few months away from beginning grad school to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy. In some ways, I am unrecognizable. But what about Mexico? Who had Mexico become since we last explored each other?

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Before I left, I imagined Cancun would be seedy, dirty, run-down, full of bars with names like Señor Frog’s and Coco-Bongo, and with drunk American tourists to match.  What I found was pristine, white sandy beaches with the most stunning gradient of blue water. Along with relatively responsibly-tipsy Americans, I encountered Brazilian, European and Mexican tourists lining the not-overly-crowded pool and beach areas, and gorgeous landscaping at every turn. It was clearly the off-season, and with much construction (brand new hotels and malls cropping up every 100 feet), I could see how crazy this island could get (did you know Cancun is an island?). But, thankfully, crazy wasn’t what I got during my trip. Words I’d use to describe Cancun based on my recent experience would be peaceful, beautiful, refreshing… and misunderstood, by me at least. Except for the unexpected cold rain during my first two days down there, I was happily surprised by most of it. Maybe Mexico was surprised with me this time around, too.

I’ll write more about my visit to Chichen Itza in a later post. For now, I just wanted to quickly tip my hat to the Mexico I revisited. On my trip home the other day, a song came on the radio. The song was one that played all the time when I was in Mexico seven years earlier, alone and uncertain but thrilled to be doing what I was doing. I was on an adventure, if nothing else. This time around, as I listened to the song, I couldn’t help but smile: There I was — the same me, on a completely different trip to Mexico, awash in another adventure, but so much has changed. So many lessons have been learned and so many trips have occurred in-between. I couldn’t help but think about everything that had happened between that song then and that song now, like two book ends neatly holding together a collection of very different stories.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

When the song ended, a new one came on. It had no direct association to a memory of any kind, so I just listened. While the nostalgia from the previous song retreated into my mind like a giant, swirling wave, it left behind some fresh, untouched sand. I thought about switching stations, but instead I just let the new song play. As I listened, the first few footprints were made in the freshly cleared sand.

I smiled to myself as I sat alone, with a crisp new tan already beginning to fade, feeling anything but alone this time around.

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Filed under Mexico, Solo Travel, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust

Mystery Snapshot Time

I’m wanderlust-ing pretty hard right now (is that how it works? Can we wanderlust “hard?” I am pretty sure that is what I do). It gets bad during the winter, when every time I close my eyes all I see is palm trees, sand and endless horizons. After the holidays have passed and the cold settles into the urban air, the idea of an ocean breeze combing my hair with the perfume of shells and seawater seems almost too good to be true. And for the moment, it is. But I have a few more weeks off before it’s back to dissections, muscles, bones, nerves, arteries, and veins… So — at least for the time being — I like to think anything (and by “anything” I mean “anywhere“) is still possible. I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2013 than with a little trip (please please please!), so here’s to hoping I can make the magic happen… SOON.

But first, with my wanderlust fluttering around my mind like a captured butterfly, I’ve decided to bring back an old TwT tradition: the Mystery Snapshot!

Please try and guess where this photo was taken — what city/town/village/country/hemisphere/continent/street… Do your best, and submit your guess as a comment. As always, there is a hint in the photo. All right answers will get an honorable mention in the next post (and if you’re a travel blogger, a link to your site!).  Good luck, and happy travels (or, at the very least, happy wanderlust-ing)!

Mystery Snapshot

Mystery Snapshot

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Filed under Mystery Snapshots, Travel

My Trip to Philly

It had been a while since I was in Philadelphia. I’ll start by saying that I’ve been many times before — but, never just for me. I was excited about this trip — it was a trip speckled with memories here and there, but focused on excitement about my future, which could potentially begin in yet another East Coast city.

Entering a dark NYC, 2nd Avenue. NYC, post-Sandy.

With a trip scheduled three days after Hurricane Sandy’s foray across the tristate region, I thought I’d be ok. I had found cheap Amtrak tickets from Boston South Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station leaving Thursday afternoon and returning late Saturday night. The weather looked nice, and my schedule was wide-open. But, as many travels with Tavel go, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Taxi in the dark. Midtown Manhattan.

As most of you know, there was still no electricity in downtown Manhattan and most tunnels were flooded. Penn Station was closed, all Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains were shut down, and buses were not able to pass through the darkened city. It was the day before my trip, so I knew I’d have to scramble up some plan Bs. I was absolutely determined to make it down to Philadelphia, and I was not about to let a little biggest-storm-to-hit-NYC-in-100-years stop me. I had come way too far to get to this opportunity, and I’d be damned if anything got in my way now! (In my experience, it is this attitude that will get you places…)

Amtrak at 30th Street station in Philadelphia, PA. Delays, and late arrivals… Mine was the 5:19 train.

I called Amtrak on Wednesday morning with a glimmer of hope in my heart, and anticipation of complications in my gut. They told me all trains leaving Boston were not operating except for two — one of which was MINE. I asked them to double and triple check the information, and they were equally confused and excited for me when they confirmed that mine was one of two trains still scheduled to depart on time.

Bus in the dark. Manhattan.

I felt pretty awesome, but decided to check back in the afternoon because something didn’t feel right. They confirmed that my train was still scheduled to depart on time from Boston to Philly… I still didn’t believe them. I called again, Wednesday night, at which point they told me the train was now going to be leaving Boston with a final destination of New Haven, CT. This made more sense, unfortunately. NJ Transit was not running, and trains couldn’t get past Connecticut, so my problem had not been solved: it was time to explore other options.

Street view. Philadelphia, PA.

I looked up flights, which were either booked or in the $300-$450 dollar range (and apparently the closest I could get was Newark, not Philadelphia). That was way too much money, and still didn’t solve the problem of how to get to Philadelphia. I quickly checked out bus schedules — and all buses were labeled as “Canceled.” By now, it was around 4pm. Finally, I got an email (and a series of phone calls) from Amtrak telling me that my train had been officially cancelled. I had an appointment in Philadelphia at noon on Friday — that was my goal. I began to get tunnel vision (har har, no pun intended) for success… My heart started racing a little and I think I accidentally skipped dinner as I frantically began calling bus companies and looking up mass-transit news stories for the area. It became very clear that any train or bus service going through NYC (which is what I needed) was completely shut-off the day before I had to leave, and I wouldn’t know if anything was running until the next morning.

Philadelphia, PA.

I bought back-up bus tickets for Thursday, which were being sold with the promise that if the buses didn’t run I would get a full refund. At this point, the earliest bus ticket I could find was a 2:30pm bus out of South Station, arriving in NYC at 6:15pm. There was a 7:15pm bus from 34th Street (NYC) to Philadelphia, but I worried that would be too risky, so I booked the 8:15pm bus from NYC to Philly in hopes that this would help me avoid any missing-of-the-bus stress. I HATE missing-a-transfer stress. Mind you, this bus was supposed to arrive at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, in the heart of the power outage zone… But BoltBus confirmed in the morning that all buses were running (and on time!), so I had no choice but to trust them and see what happens…

In these situations, you have to think positive travel thoughts. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten on buses or airplanes knowing that my destination might be completely out of my control. I’ve learned that sometimes you’ve just got to trust the travel fairies that you are going to make it wherever you are trying to go — and trust your gut.

Philadelphia, PA.

I actually got to South Station 45 min early and managed to get off of standby for the 2pm bus. With an extra 30 minutes of wiggle room, I felt some good travel-mojo. I began to relax a little. The bus ride was perfectly smooth, with surprisingly few delays. It only got weird when we slowly crossed a bridge into NYC, and I could see — for the first time — the darkened skyline from the bus window. As we drove past the cops, who were checking to make sure there were at least 3 people in every vehicle entering the city, the whole bus took on a hushed tone. Suddenly, we were in the city — but it was a ghost city. As the bus drove down Second Avenue, I couldn’t believe what I saw (or, what I couldn’t see). It was pitch black. The only lights were the occasional cop car, street sign or taxi cab. I looked up at black buildings, and down at quiet restaurants. Every now and then, we’d pass a series of lit up blocks. When we entered midtown, it was one of the weirdest NYC moments I have ever had: The city that never sleeps was being forced to take a nap. And like a cranky child, NYC does not do nap-time well.

Finally, the bus pulled into 34th Street at 6:35pm. I was determined to get on standby for the 7:15 bus, and sprinted off Bus #1 to get in a huge line of people on standby. I pushed to the front and asked if this was the bus to Philadelphia. It was. They were boarding, and obviously there was a little tension in the air, so the guy was pushy and said “Yeah yeah, just get on, hurry, come on…” And within 1 minute I was on another bus (total time on the ground in NYC: 5 minutes). So much for my plan to grab dinner!

Philly Street. Philadelphia. PA.

When the bus began pulling away at 6:40pm, I was a little confused (the buses to Philly left hourly at 6:15, 7:15, 8:15…). Concerned that I had taken a wrong turn, I asked the girl next to me “Is this the 7:15 bus to Philly?!” She said “No…” (Me: GULP.) Her: “…It’s the 6:15.” Ahhh! A smile spread across my face when I realized, finally, that not only was I going to get to Philadelphia after all this chaos — but I was going to get there even earlier than I had planned! It was one of the most satisfying travel moments that I’ve had in a while. I was anticipating the opposite kind of moment, so it felt that much sweeter. As the bus journeyed through the darkness, I settled in, blasting happy music, and six hours after leaving Boston, I had arrived in Philly.

City Hall. Philadelphia. PA.

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve always really liked Philly, despite bittersweet memories of many heartfelt hellos and goodbyes out of that 30th Street train station (the lasting imprint of a long distance relationship). The city has always given me a good vibe. It comes across as a mixture of New York and New Orleans, with a smaller dose of lights and energy than Manhattan (in a good way), coupled with the bruised and impoverished outskirts of the city that seem completely disconnected yet immediately accessible from the Philadelphia most people imagine (like New Orleans). I love that it is a foodie city, even if it doesn’t come off that way at first. Because it’s definitely a little more rough around the edges than Boston, I might actually feel more at home in Philly than in New England. I was excited to be there, and to really look at it with the eyes of someone who might call it home.

Philly homes. Philadelphia, PA.

Everything I did during my quick trip, I would do again. On Saturday night, a small group of us kicked things off with unbelievably delicious cocktails at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a speakeasy-style lounge in the Rittenhouse Square area that I would have never noticed if my friend A hadn’t picked it. With a seven-page cocktail menu ranging from what I’d call a category 1 storm (listed as “Easy Going” drinks, such as the Apocalypstick — Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Maurin Quina, Cynar, fresh lemon juice, house blackberry) to a category 5 storm (listed as “I Asked for Water, She Brought Me Gasoline” drinks, which includes the Art School Timeline — Lairds Bonded Apple Brandy, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, New York Madeira Wine, Rothman Winter Apricot Liquer, cane syrup, hopped grapefruit and mole bitters served on a rock). I could have spent many, many hours exploring the cocktail menu (and many, many dollars), but we had dinner to attend to afterwards, so my ginger-infused play on a Dark and Stormy (recommended to me by the waiter when I couldn’t decide) would have to do. Oh, and it DID.

Clothing Pin. Philadelphia, PA.

With a strong cocktail in our systems, we headed to First Friday — where we could stroll the streets of Philadelphia at night, going from art gallery to art gallery, and enjoying the quirky and sometimes odd street performers/artists along the sidewalks. After working up an appetite, we found ourselves devouring melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with a couple bottles of our own wine (apparently PA has strange liquor laws and wine/beer-serving restaurants are hard to come by) at Giorgio’s. Giorgio himself was there, and from the moment a bowl of roasted garlic soaked in olive oil arrived at the table, I knew that if I do in fact end up in Philadelphia — Giorgio and I will meet again.

Sidewalk, homes. Philadelphia, PA.

It would be a quick trip. After a majorly satisfying and exhausting Saturday (I had a 4.5 hour interview with no lunch… oy), I was able to enjoy a light brunch and visit the perfectly relevant-to-my-trip Mutter Museum (this had been on my Philly to-do list for YEARS). This museum is a must for anyone who likes anatomical oddities or random small but packed museums. It is a pre-Doctor of Physical Therapy student’s perfect museum, and since I am currently taking Anatomy and Physiology, my visit couldn’t have been more appropriately timed, nor more appreciated. The brisk walk back to my home base through Rittenhouse Square’s cheery farmer’s market to the slightly quieter South Philadelphia ‘hood made it very easy for me to see myself living there.

Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia, PA.

I got back to Boston at 1am last night. Luckily, my return train was fully functional, although 1.5 hours late (making it a 7.5 hour journey… oooof). I’m back now, after passing from a potential future home (Philadelphia), through my real home (NYC), to my current home, in Boston. I have a happy tummy and a happy, hopeful heart. I’ll have to be patient as I figure out where I might be able to live next year (it’s not totally up to me).

For now, I can confidently say that if it is Philadelphia, I’d be absolutely thrilled. Sometimes it’s all about where we’ve been. But right now — for me — life’s much more about where I’m going.

On my way home, the lights were back on in NYC. Amtrak view of NYC skyline.

As always, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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Prepare for Landing

It’s funny how these things work. A year and a half ago, I was a travel writer with not a single science course under my belt. Nine college-level courses, a whole lot of hard work, some incredible new friends, and plenty of fun-sacrificing later, I’m hitting the “Submit” button on my grad school applications, the first of which is due Monday. What happens from here is somewhat beyond my control, but getting here… Well, I (somehow) did that (and it feels pretty cool!).

A little girl enjoys dancing in her pretty dress before a thunderstorm hits. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

The thing about being a post-bacc pre-med student is, you’re generally older than most of the other students. But, what does that really mean? You look pretty much the same (for better or worse), your science is a little rustier, you’re less competitive with everyone around you, and you’re more sure of who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going. In some ways, you have much less to prove, and in other ways — much more.

I guess I just wanted to write a quick post to acknowledge this moment, because I have friends on every side of it (and some here, in their own similar moment, with me). I spent my early- to mid-twenties soul searching to get to this place where I just knew what I wanted. (If you’ve read this blog before 2011 at all, you know what I’m talking about!) The idea of “knowing ” — not just temporary “maybes” — was a lot more intimidating than I ever imagined it would be. Those first twenty-something birthdays out of college had my optimism mud-wrestling my expectations. Nothing was turning out how I expected, and every time I got close to touching what I wanted, it seemed to disappear right in front of me. The story I thought I was writing for myself had to be completely erased and re-written. For the first time ever, I had no idea what words to put on the first page. At some point, I would have to learn a whole new language to be able to write at all.

Street, man, walking uphill. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

The fact that I am here hitting send, clicking submit, actually fulfilling all the pre-requisites required to apply to Doctor-level graduate school programs after beginning with NONE really is a reminder to me, and hopefully to you too, that anything (or, well, many things) really is (are) possible if you are willing to work your ass off for them. I know we’ve all heard this before, but look — it’s for real!

My journey certainly continues, with even more academic mountains (actually, mountain ranges) to climb. I guess at this point, I leave the sherpa behind and trek through the rest on my own. I just hope that, if nothing else, at least one person out there has been following this journey of mine and realizes that if I can do this, so can they. The scariest thing for me has never been failing; it’s always been not going for it. That said, going for it can be pretty freakin’ weird and terrifying at times, let me just be honest here. I’ve felt totally uncomfortable at many points along the way, but now… I’ve found my little spot in the big science couch, and I’m slowly sinking into it, asking grad school to pass me the remote.

Walking to an incredible brunch behind a cute little Ecuadorian woman. Tumbaco, Ecuador.

Right now, even though applications are WAY more intense than I ever imagined, I’m just so thrilled and excited about where this might take me next. It’s still scary — so much is uncertain, as it always has been. In a way, I can’t believe I’m really here. It’s like traveling, when the plane lands and a trip you’ve anticipated so long has both ended and just begun… Suddenly, you smell a new smell, you hear a new language being spoken, and no matter how exhausted you are from the flight, you know that, in a new way, it feels like anything is possible.

Paramo Hike. Papallacta, Ecuador.

Everything about this process has been intimidating — from the amount of school required to the amount of money (oh god, let’s just skip that conversation), and of course the amount of science everyone ELSE knows compared to me. I’ve never been in such a constantly competitive environment (well, besides my entire childhood… HA! Just kidding just kidding. One-of-five-kids Syndrome strike again!). But I’m telling you: nothing — NOTHING — feels better than being sure. It took my entire twenties to get here, so forgive me if I give myself a high-five.

Lying out on top of the catamaran, watching birds fly overhead as the boat cruised from one Galapagos Island to the next… One of those moments when life just feels right, and you never forget it. A picture tries to capture the feeling of freedom… Galapagos, Ecuador.

Maybe — even after so many world travels, and soul searching around the globe —  it took me way longer than I ever expected to feel sure about where I want to go, and maybe I’m the oldest kid in the classroom these days… But I’m here now, and despite everything I’ve learned, I’m still learning. The plane has finally touched-down on the runway. I’m not fully in that new place just yet — the door is still shut, but the flight is over, and the next adventure is closer than ever.

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