We’re Definitely Not in Long Branch Anymore.

I hate to say this because I sound like a hugely ungrateful brat, but I gotta mention that city living is really not for me. As interesting and dynamic and bustling as Florence is, as cool as it is to turn every corner and see a famous building or monument, I miss walking outside and smelling the sea salt and seeing the trees swing a little in the breeze and running every afternoon in the grass. However, what Florence lacks in natural  beauty, it makes up for in the areas surrounding.

Our group took a trip to Cinque Terre with the study abroad tour group Bus2Alps, where we got on a bus and then a train for about 2 hours to travel to the 5 coastal towns that are only connected by railway and hiking trail (I would recommend not hiking for five towns). We took trains to two of them and then stopped in Vernazza. Since we had to get up at 5:30 and Andrea and I sat up all night trying to block out the sounds from the American drunk tourists screaming from outside the Duomo, we are dead tired, but I can’t sleep on the train because I feel a compulsion to stare out the window into Italy, like every second I can see it is the most important second I have ever lived through. We all gaze a little nervously into the tiny cyclones that sit at the top of the black clouds. Thankfully, Cinque Terre seems to have weather of its own, where I can’t imagine it anything but sunny and breezy.

I have been to lots of typical family vacation spots, like Cancun, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Thomas. I live next to the ocean which, although nonetheless nice, has never made me or anyone else for that matter stop and whisper, “Jesus.”

In Vernazza, we wandered the winding streets for awhile that are stuffed full of bright little shops and homes, where as tourists crowd, people lean out of windows yelling at their children to stop chasing each other and hang their clothes up on the line. I asked our tour guide, Anthony, if people here are all rich, but he said that they’re actually quite poor because they have to grow all of their food and the main towns are inaccessible making casual life a little difficult. Being a tourist spot, you would think of jacked up prices, but in reality, people still modestly sell their homemade pizza for a measly 2 euro and Juliana and I cannot help but keep our tradition up of eating a gelato a day.

When we reach the end of the streets and make it down to the water (which is only a few blocks, really) there are lots of colorful boats that sit on the sand, full of fishing gear. People crowd the rocks near the end to take pictures and get splashed by the strong currents that tear us over even when we aren’t actually on the beach.

Our guide, Anthony, later leads us up this path that looks more like it begins in someone’s backyard. I’m in shape for running since I try to run four miles a day and make it to the weight room (although that barely happens), but even still I’m sweating like a pig behind cool, collect Anthony as we make it up the hardest part of the 7k hike, the all uphill beginning that features tiny steps that my own  6 1/2 feet barely fit on. No matter what part of the hike we are on (although we are barely twenty minutes in at this point), the views are spectacular, making it possible to see all of Vernazza as well as the town we are leading to, Monterosso.

I actually have to stop and catch my breath often not because I’m tired (although I am) but because I just can’t believe we’re here. For the first time I can remember, I want to just sit and soak it all in so that I can take it with me forever. I want Cinque Terre to run in my veins and I don’t want a camera to do the remembering for me.

Anthony turns back eventually to get some of those in the back and I wander alone for awhile until I run into Max and Billy, two boys from my tour group. We wander off the path from time to time to explore some of the closed trails and see what we can see from them, although most of them just lead to more straight uphill walks which we really don’t need. Somehow, Monterosso still looks so far away even though I feel like we have been hiking forever. At this point, I see many people stopped and panting, scattered along the trails like the abandoned. We pass a man at a lemonade stand, an odd sight for the middle of the woods on a dirt path, but he is yelling “LIMON! LIMON!” among asking, “Marijuana?”

Finally, we turn the way so that Monterosso’s beaches are right under our noses, and I feel like I do when I wake up in a desperate hangover and I can’t find the water. I can smell the salt, I can see the water, and my legs are shaking so bad whenever I stop moving either from the 2 hours of hiking or from the need to be in the ocean. When we finally get to the ocean, I can barely get my clothes off fast enough and soon the three of us are running and tumbling into the water.

The deep blue water has a thickness that feels more natural, more like people haven’t crowded it and made it their own by posting lifeguards, bullshit fees, flags, and other things that something natural shouldn’t have. Instead of sand that sticks to you like mud, there are tons of tiny pretty pebbles, a few that I grab and stick in my top to take home. We roll around the waves until Billy says that he saw a jellyfish as big as my head, which stings a girl in our group about an hour later.

Back out of the ocean, our group of about 10 stop at a bar next to the water where we drink beers and cocktails. A good beer is good anywhere, especially when you can smell salt as you drink it. I think we are kind of explored out, since after that we just kind of dawdle on a pier and sit on the rocks, talking about nothing in particular and trying not to get in a fisherman’s way. I can’t believe I only got one hour of sleep the night before, because I don’t feel tired at all. I feel like I just want to sit out here forever, under a sun that never seems to set in Cinque Terre.

Hi I am Old.

I literally cannot see one thing. I kind of feel like I’m going to suffocate, my eyes are burning, and it feels like people are sliding off of me from every direction as I look up, trying to get a moment’s breath without inhaling the foam that’s falling from the sky.

More hurricanes? Nope. Snowstorm? Definitely not. But a foam party? REALLY? Is this a frat house? Yes, basically.

At the weekly Thursday foam party at the Grand Oasis Hotel, I originally arrived alone, yet it seems as though as soon as you’re in a bikini covered in foam everyone wants to be your friend. It sounds a lot hotter than it is, since while dancing to sped-up Spanish techno I’m often hacking up foam as I desperately glance around looking for my sister. Apparently, some foreigner disagrees as he asks me to be in a picture with him, scantily clad and covered in foam.

Finally I spot her, DANCING ON THE DAMN STAGE. I can’t believe this kid. She pulls me up, and soon I’m on the stage too and nearly sliding onto the floor and breaking my neck. Foam is flying out from the sky, and it seems that within minutes, I’m surrounded by best friends whose names I will never know. I don’t really like getting to know people at clubs anyway, because I feel disrespectful to my expensive education while telling them about my Honors thesis and my studies while being fed drinks.

Needing a break from the foam, I sit off to the side with my new friend Peter, who is from Kansas and obviously so with the pull in his voice. I’m not sure what it is about me, but strangers always want to tell me personal information and soon he’s telling me about his alcoholic best friend and his mother’s death and his broken engagement. I never mind hearing stuff like this, but it seems odd to me that you’re supposedly so much older and more mature and revealing so much to a total stranger.

Getting a little restless talking to the same person, I’m missing my days at home when it’s almost too easy to say my roommate is looking for me or some other bs excuse. When I look back to the stage, my sister is kissing some rando and someone is filming it, and upon further inspection, lots of other randos are doing the same.

I know all these people are on vacation and looking to have fun, as I am too. But this all feels like a scene that I’m too old for. I’m actually jealous of the obvious couple dancing and a group of girls together with no boys to bother them. It’s not that I don’t think Peter is cool or nice, but his trying to hold my hand or tell me I’m pretty feels insulting, like he thinks I’m dumb enough to fall for it and go home with him.

When I see my sister, she tells me that she is ready to leave and I’m thankful. I tell Peter goodbye and I was glad to meet him, and when he goes in for the kill I look away and hug him instead and say maybe I’ll see him at the pool tomorrow. I actually feel a little guilty leaving him inside on a bench by himself nursing two pineapple tequilas, but then I remind myself his name probably isn’t even really Peter.

My sister is with two boys who go to USC, and I’m glad to be with people who don’t want anything from me and feel like my own friends. They bring us some drinks and even though they seem nice, I throw mine in the garbage when they’re not looking as we walk home. I see my sister gulp it down and it makes me nervous for when she goes to school.

We jump in the pool with the two boys, Zach and Gabe, to wash the foam off. A security guard yells at us because it is after hours at the pool, so Gabe asks us to go to the beach.

A few months ago, I probably would have kissed Peter, feeling like I owed him a little for hanging out with me and calling me pretty. A few months ago, I also would have followed Gabe and Zach to the beach, eager to prove to these people that I’ll never see again that I’m fun and exciting enough, even though it’s 3:30 am and I’m ready to take a shower and go to bed. I would have relished in being around people I don’t know, people who are new with no known flaws. But today, in beautiful Cancun, surrounded by beautiful people, I really just don’t care. I feel simultaneously too young and too old to be jumping in an ocean with could-be serial killers at 3:30 am, and for the first time I can remember, I sigh with relief when my sister tells me she is ready to go home.

I don’t know if it’s the want for more important travel than a boozefest in Cancun or the want for more important people anywhere. But for a few hours, I just want to settle for a little.

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Isla de… Rum

Today we are doing a much more touristy activity– taking a sailboat to an island off the coast of Cancun to Isla de Mujeres, where the captain, Luis, boasts in his very broken English that they are the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. It becomes clear, however, that the only reason anyone would think this would be is because Luis has been force-feeding them drinks off his boat, Gypsy Breeze, on our way to Isla de Mujeres, which, ironically, is full of homeless men sleeping on the beach.

On the way back from snorkeling, lunch on a small beach, and the overrated Isla de Mujeres, everybody is basically done, passed out all over the top of the sailboat and lounging in the sun. It seems though that the sun and Luis’s drinks are getting to everyone though as time goes by, because when it starts to pour, instead of fleeing to the small indoor part of the boat (where the bar is) tops are coming off and everyone is doing the YMCA. People are slipping and sliding all over the white plastic top of the boat, but it seems as though there is always someone to catch you before you topple into the ocean.

I’m drunk before 2:00 pm on rum punch in a rainstorm on the top of a boat dancing with 50 strangers. Isla de Mujeres is beautiful.

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It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

It is now the second leg of our journey into the Mayan temples, only this time, since it’s no longer 5:00 am, everyone actually seems excited. This is nice considering we are covered in rain and mud and filth and sweat, coating Lilliana’s van in it as well. For about twenty minutes, she drives us to a village in Copa, passing lots of other little Mexican villages on the way.

In Copa, it’s clear that we won’t be running into any old Mexican medicine men, since the place is overrun by tourist shops and teenagers who barely speak English getting paid to drive tourists to the site via bike for about three dollars. Obviously, we walk (it’s about a mile on flat ground through the trees) although my dad gets on a bike with a beautiful Pollack named Anastasia in an attempt to woo her.

Reaching the Mayan temple, I’m glad to see that even though GETTING here is touristed-out, the temple itself is not. It features 120 tiny but steep steps, 120 of which I have to crawl on my hands and knees to get up. Thankfully, by this point the rain has stopped, because otherwise climbing these little stone steps would be even harder and I would be stopping a lot more often than every 20 or so to catch my breath (and then look down and lose it again). Besides seeing the ground looming under me, like I’m scaling a damn mountain, I can see my dad huffing and puffing his way up with Anastasia’s bag on his shoulders.

When I look down for the final time at the very top, however, it’s clear that this was definitely worth the short trip to the summit. I can easily see the top of every tree in this little jungle, and I kind of feel like a Wild Thornberry.

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We’re Not in Jersey Anymore.

I am standing in a soaking wet t-shirt over my green bikini, my legs actually shaking under me from the rain pellets that fall from the sky. Lilliana, our tour guide, is shouting instructions on how to zipline in broken English from only a few feet away, yet the rain easily muffles her otherwise broad Spanish voice. When I’m standing on a wooden platform and Pedro yells VAS! and pushes me off the cliff and into the jungle, I can only hope that I set up my own harness correctly, although that wasn’t too easy to maneuver amidst the hurricane brewing over my head.

This is all because when you actually leave your Cancun resort, you find yourself a hell of a lot more than red-skinned tourists cramming onto booze cruises. The tour I took, which held a group of about ten people of all ages, brought us to the ancient Mayan temples about two hours from Cancun. Instead of sandy beaches and buffet style lunches we traveled down the littlest “highways” you have ever seen to jungle monotony only broken up by man-made shacks on the side of the road surrounded by skinny dogs and holey shirts on the line.

On the tour, after kayaking to a separate part of the jungle, a man named Jose came to bless us all for our stay in his village. Being the village medicine man, I think that this was the extent of his duties nowadays, since the area’s main income comes from tourism. Lilliana then led us to a little cavern opening in the ground as big as a folding chair next to a shower. She said that everyone had to wash off before climbing into the cavern in order to keep the sinkhole underneath clean. I kept wondering where this sinkhole was since the cavern looked like just that– a hole. Lilliana said we should probably keep our heads down.

As soon as we got through the initial hole, however, we found ourselves in an alcove about as big as a large living room with crystal blue water running through which created a little circle. You could see the bottom, however tens of feet down.

Back outside of the sinkhole, which Mexico has tons of since, like New Orleans, it has little bedrock, Lilliana led us to a zipline course, which was when the rain started up. In her drenched t-shirt and sandals, the little Mexican woman told us there was no reason to stop unless it started to lightning “really bad” yet even then we would be screwed because the zipline was the only way to continue through the jungle.

However, as I’m soaring over the jungle and over small swamps and flying birds and I’m trying to shield my eyes from the piercing rain, I’m actually feeling pretty glad Pedro pushed me off the cliff. I can hear my dad screaming bloody murder behind me because he is pushing the 235 weight limit, but hey, this sure beats snorkeling.

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This Could Save Your Life.

Being from a place like the unnamed mountain range that is Northwest Jersey, you come to get pretty familiar with things like private schools and BMWs  (wish I was a little more familiar with this stuff). Luckily for me, I leave my dwelling under a rock from time to time, so I have a basic idea of how the world operates. My mother, however, is not so lucky, which led her to this remark,

“God, there’s a lot of homeless people here in New Orleans.” 

Well mom, hate to be the one to break it to you, but there are homeless people effing everywhere. Actually, there were approximately 636,000 in 2011, which is about 21 homeless to every 10,000 people who are… not homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Because of where we live (i.e. the Edge of Nowhere), we don’t come across too many in our day-to-day lives. That doesn’t make them any less alive.

All this brought me to thinking about an article I read recently that basically theorized that Americans were afraid of the homeless because they represent the opposite of the American Dream; the population and economy’s own failures and our inability to help one another. The article told me to basically stop being such a grouch and hey, throw a nickel in their jar and make some friends!

Um, negatory. I’m not afraid of the homeless for any of those aforementioned reasons. If you want me to be honest, I’m effing scared of the homeless because 1/3 of them have untreated psychiactric illnesses, according to mentalillnesspolicy.org. Also, I still get carded for R rated movies, I weigh less than some dogs, and I know damn well that if one of those 1/3 got pissed at me I would be up the creek without a paddle. I think this is fair reason to be a little nervous.

I have a pretty good game face. I tend to not be nervous and put my best foot forward. But like any good traveler, you too probably get a little nervous from time to time when you’re in a not so great area. So here’s a few tips that hopefully aren’t common sense. I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you how I am safe all of the time. But just try to follow a few of these, okay?

1. Wear a money belt. They’re these dopey fanny packs that (thank God) you wear under your clothes,where you keep your passport, majority of your money, credit cards, license, etc. This is so that if you get mugged and have to hand over your wallet, you’ll still make it home.

2. Look alive. Don’t look nervous or lost or be peering around like an idiot. Look like you have a plan and a destination. This won’t help you get invited on a seedy pub crawl (as I have unfortunately found) but it could save your life. And your money.

3. Keep a free hand. Always have one free hand while walking, carrying bags, etc. This is literally one way that people search for victims to mug or assault. If you don’t have a free hand, you look a little more jumbled and not in control.

4. Leave your backpack at home. Does it fit a ton of shit? Yes. Is it easy to carry? Yes. But is it easy to rob? YES. People will cut them open in large crowds and before you even realize, the jerks have taken off with your dough.

5. Don’t let yourself be easily distracted. Pickpocketers and other wonderful people have been known to work in pairs, even kids, by throwing fake babies at you, newspapers, basically anything to make you lose control and drop your bags or lose a good handle on them. DON’T FALL FOR THIS.

Cities of the Dead

It is 7:00 pm and I am wasted with my mother.

Sound pathetic? Maybe it would be if I was anywhere else other than Pat O’ Brien’s, the famous origin of the Hurricane drink, located on St. Louis Street, perpendicular only by a few to Bourbon. From here, it’s easy to stumble back home to Dauphine.

It’s weird to think that only a few hours ago I was hanging out in a completely different offspring of NOLA, the Garden District. Here is where the Americans settled way back when the Creoles shunned them and built their big Southern mansions which line the streets, shielded only slightly by iron fences.

Quiet, romantic, and dignified, these old plantation homes are often raised from the ground since New Orleans holds no bedrock and simply sits on a puddle of mud. Most of them are conservative colors today of beige and white, but once featured bright tropic colors. Their vastness often remains hidden by piles of trees and shrubbery.

Strolling past homes like the former place of Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, as well as current celebrity homes of Sandra Bullock, Peyton Manning, and John Goodman, it’s easy to see how this place is a muse and celebrity hotspot. Quiet fountains in front of pink plantations, iron fences with tiny horse heads, and dotted Catholic statues, the place is understated and elegant at once. But to overlook the Lafayette Cemetery…

This above ground cemetery, one of the oldest in the city, is entirely composed of above ground tombs since the frequent rain and lack of solid ground continued to bring bodies to service until tombs enacted. After a family purchased a tomb, one body’s casket would be placed until the next member died, when the bones would be pushed to the bottom and the casket would be used again. Now, the tombs sit like buildings in a small (abandoned) city, with little streets for onlookers to walk past the mass gravesides. Most of the graves have a fair amount of wear and tear, as the first bodies placed date back to the 1800’s. Tiles are cracked, names are missing, some entire tombs have shifted in the ground.

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Look… and Listen.

“Music is everywhere, if you know where to look.”

I once read this in some book or magazine. Whoever wrote this, however, was not speaking about New Orleans, because much looking is not necessary. It doesn’t matter where you are. I don’t care if you’re strolling the Mississippi, out on Bourbon on a Friday night (or any night, really), or outside the St. Louis Cathedral in 100 degree weather. It will sing to your ears, pulling you into this direction and that, leaving you yearning for this thing called jazz, something we don’t really hear much of within our bustling in the Northeast.

The music, which sifts about, can obviously be mostly found within the French Quarter. I really didn’t know much about New Orleans before my visit, but I (most ignorantly) thought of long-stemmed roses and elegant architecture. AHA. No. Don’t get me wrong, it is no less wonderful. But wandering the streets are a little more fitted to the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, which flits noisily throughout tiny streets. The brick, age-worn cafes, shops, bars, psychic lairs, and even home are cradled upon one another like old friends. Within this little homey square you will find dive bars next to art shops, voodoo dolls next to coffeeshops.

Jackson Square is a pretty little garden that overlooks St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest active cathedral in the United States and looks like it is straight out of Disneyland. It marks the spot where the Quarter sprang and behind it lies a usually locked garden that onlookers can peer through, where a statue of Jesus sits with a missing thumb, the only part of Him damaged by Katrina.

Cruising along the streets, which like many Southern places, gets hit by a torrential downpour in the afternoon (wish I knew that the first day), it’s easy to find hidden gems hiding in nooks of NOLA. After visiting an especially lame Mardi Gras museum on the upstairs of Antoine’s, a swanky restaurant on St. Louis Street, my mother and I found ourselves on the abandoned upper decks, overlooking Bourbon as the sun went down and people began (okay, already were) flooding the streets.

And then, the animal becomes unleashed. In the summer, I find it hard to drag myself out of my cozy room, get all dressed up, then drive to some lame bar in the middle of nowhere to sit on a barstool and get drunk in the dark for six bucks a drink. Nobody in New Orleans has this problem. Before the sun is even down, people are pouring out of wherever the hell they were all day and spilling onto Bourbon. The homey bars, like the Cat’s Meow, the Famous Door, and the Funky Pirate, all have their own live music seemingly fighting for air, the music pouring out of the absent doors and walls and into the party that already exists on the street. Grandparents, 21ers, kids, hookers, moms, businessmen, artists- no one is left without a drink.

At least at Bourbon, and probably all of NOLA, maybe you don’t have to look for music because it already found you.