The Knickers Flag

We were picked up early and headed for the Chilean/Bolivian border – there was no time for coffee, although it seemed very much like a hurry up and wait situation! We had ordered from a street vendor by Chilean customs but they seemed to be a one pot operation making the coffee production rather slow. This lead to our driver corralling us back to the bus, before our coffee was ready, sharing sips quickly with the kindly Joost and Janne who had successfully received their coffees but were not allowed to take them on the bus! The vendor of course was quite mad at bus driver, a dramatic shouting match showcasing the expressiveness the South Americans are known for!

We drove up past two volcanoes on our way to the Bolivian border. They are incredibly beautiful and next trip, I hope to be able to climb one of them. The border area….brrrr! Windy and cool! DEFINITELY wish I had packed a few more warm layers! We discovered there were banos all around, when we requested a washroom and the guides just gestured all around them. Grab a piece of tissue and help yourself! >.<

There are fees at the Bolivian border and the national park office, which are typically not covered by the tour providers, so keep some Bolivian money set aside for this.

Our guide, Nelson, was excellent. He did not speak a word of English, really, but since the only other male in our group, also named Nelson, was a native Spanish speaker, he was able to translate the important parts for us. We packed into a Toyota 4×4 that Nelson took great care in keeping neat and clean, our luggage strapped up on top and us 6 all sandwiched in cosily. Our group consisted of: me and Ellen, a pair of sisters from Ireland, Niamh and Emer, Nelson from Chile, and his friend Sandra, from Germany.

Nelson (our driver) had some excellent music on deck, mainly Bolivian folk-y type music in general, interspersed with a select few 80’s hits. Perfectly surreal to groove to with the surreal scenery around us. We started at Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, surrounded by volcanoes.  Here, we got our first taste of flamingos. WOW! They are absolutely beautiful birds.

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We continued through the moonscape-like desert to the so-called ‘Dali Rocks’. The Irish girls had the brilliant idea of doing running panoramic shots. We would start at one spot while the picture taker slowly panoramed around. As soon as we were out of the shot, we’d run around behind and pose on the other side of the shot just at the camera hit that spot. Doubled! This was super tiring in the decreased oxygen environment but fun. Shortly after this, I discovered that my fingernails looked like the red, white, and blue ice cream cones probably due to the lack of oxygenation. Yikes!

The natural hot springs were the next stop on our tour (also at an additional cost to get in). Ellen and I didn’t go in because of the cold (not wanting to get wet), and the small and crowded nature of the pools, and instead walked around looking at flamingos instead. We were able to get quite close, so surreal! Apparently the hot springs were very nice tho.

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We next took a brief visit to the Geysers, which were not as good as Yellowstone. This was also the highest point in journey (4500m), making it both very cold and tiring. I felt overall pretty good, but just slow. Others in the group were really feeling the altitude.

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We had a tasty lunch at the refugio where we were staying for the night once we got there and were then able to take a rest.  I got a headache, really my only symptom of being at altitude, apart from being stuffed up, especially when lying down. I took an ibuprofen and that seemed to fix me right up, along with a snack and some water. I was feeling quite lucky to have such mild symptoms at altitude, unlike some of the others who were very headachey, weak, and nauseous.

After a brief rest, we set off for Laguna Colorado. It. Was. Amazing. There were SO many flamingos in the waters, eating, sleeping, flying. Plus…there were llamas! Laguna Colorado, means the coloured/red lagoon and indeed, the colours = wow. We were feeling pretty good and took lots of fun photos, pretending to be flamingos, and otherwise goofing off.

Back at the refugio, we tried some coca tea, reputed to aid in altitude acclimatization. I was feeling just fine at altitude, thank goodness! We rested, chatted and then took supper, which was a pretty decent soup and spaghetti. I rallied the group for a birthday song and birthday snickers to Ellen.  She made a brief speech, we all cheers-ed her and wished less altitude sickness upon her! ha!

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The refugio eating quarters
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Our beds at the refugio

Our evening was topped off by the stars. Wow. Stupendous! So clear without any interference from city lights, we could see satellites and shooting stars.

I planned out my clothing for the next day, layering being very important. It was not too cold in the sunshine without the wind blowing, but with wind and any decrease in sun, it was quite cold. With all this planning, one of the Germans called me very German! I was touched. Haha! I wanted to do some laundry as my undies situation was starting to reach critical, but after much discussion decided that they may not dry quickly enough and a ‘knickers flag’ clothesline streaming off the car the next morning to dry, may not be appreciated by Nelson y Nelson!

An amazing first day in Bolivia!

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An American Tale: Gillian Goes West (and East)

This post is SO LATE! I feel so bad about this particularly because this was such an amazing trip and reminded me again of why I love to go to the States and on roadtrips in particular.

To be honest, I kept putting this off because it was going to be a long post and I need to learn how to be more pithy when I post. Also, I was overwhelmed by the whole 2 weeks and how to condense that into one post. I think that writing it now, 8 whole months after having gone, I’m actually better able to summarize, as I can better pinpoint the highlights, the memorable moments, and the places I would definitely recommend.

June 7-16th, 2015

Creston, BC ->Yellowstone National Park, WY -> Rapid City, SD -> Minneapolis, MN -> Medora, ND -> Browning, MT

This is the first time I’m going to summarize a trip in a single post, rather than day by day. Especially in times when internet is not readily available and days are so jam packed full of stuff to do, it’s hard to write everyday. Plus, who am I to pretend that each day is really that exciting? Particularly when you’re driving up to 10 hours a day…with you, yourself, and your podcasts.

Incidentally, we hosted a couchsurfer last night, and we were talking about roadtrips and how to entertain oneself on roadtrips. Here are a few I listen to on roadies:

  1. Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean
  2. Risk
  3. StoryCorps
  4. Ted Radio Hour
  5. Invisibilia
  6. Snap Judgement

Anyhow, Yellowstone! A must! The buffalo and deer roam freely around the park. The sunsets? Insane. I met my friend Liza, who lives now in Denver, CO. We were neighbours and besties in Korea, having many adventures within Korea and abroad. We also have the strange tendency to dress the same, without planning it. I saw her last on my roadtrip with Leah, and it was great to coordinate another meet-up with her.

Within an hour of leaving home, my GPS died…DNR, no CPR, no intubation, nothing would resusc it. I figured out the cable that connected it to my car, supplying it with battery power, had a piece broken off and it wasn’t until I got to Mall of America and a Best Buy in Minneapolis that I would be able to replace it. Luckily, Jeramy, old-fashioned worried BF that he is, had insisted that Leah and I carry a paper roadmap of Canada and the US on our trip across the US. It lives under the passenger seat of my car permanently, so I pulled it out and along with road signs, I was able to continue my navigation.

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We camped outside the Eastern gate of Yellowstone, at a small campsite, that was largely un-occupied, on a beautiful little site on the river’s edge. The hiking is incredible in this area and we enjoyed a day of hiking up a trail on which we encountered no other humans, forded/fallen-tree-balanced-across 2 overfull creeks, saw evidence of horses, bears, and deer, but only met birds and one deer from far away. From our campsite, we saw the most incredible thunder and lightening storms I have EVER seen, the first night from far off, down at the other end of the valley, and the second night, right in the midst of it, which I still hold clearly in my mind today as simply amazing. Of course, we also had time within Yellowstone Park itself, watching Ol Faithful and the other geysers and mud holes, and the unique and beautiful wildlife. Nothing like passing a buffalo going slow in the right lane first thing in the morning!

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Sidenote: I got to use my new mini cam/videocam for the first time! It’s like a GoPro but cheaper…and honestly, gets the job done just fine.

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We struggled a bit with lighting a fire the first night (copious amounts of lighter fluid was used, my girl guide mother would be horrified), but we got much better at it by our last night.

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There was no shower at our campground, so we ingeniously (we thought) used the sinks at the seldom-used rest-stop just up the road. So fresh! So clean! I don’t know if your standards get lower when travelling, whether you become more creative, and more take me as I am, or what, but just to have clean hair and a quick once over with a proper bit of hot water was all we needed to feel recharged!

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Sunset from our campsite
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Mt Rushmore!
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park
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Devil’s Tower
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Looking out over Yellowstone

From Yellowstone, I left Liza and Wyatt (the dog) and moved on alone to Rapid City, South Dakota….still navigating with my trusty roadmap, highway signs, and my sense of direction. Who needs a working GPS anyways?! I went via Devil’s Tower National Monument, popular for rock climbers these days, saw a moose, and had a memorable moment at a gas station in Gillette, when a kindly funeral director helped me check the air pressure on and top up my tires. I have to say, in all my travels in the States, I have only experienced kindness and welcoming, although I do realize that I am a young, white chick!

I reached Rapid City, South Dakota that day, ending my day with a quick visit to Mt. Rushmore. I agree that while it seems quite large in photos and in movies, it is really smaller than I anticipated. However, considering when it was carved and the impressive likeness, it is still pretty impressive! I enjoyed the exhibits, and it was very mysterious with lots of fog rolling around the faces.

My bed that night was a Couchsurf, found at the home of a very kindly and well-travelled mother-daughter pair. The mother (over 80 years of age!) had many stories to tell, still sharp as a tack, and looking forward to a trip to Europe with her daughter in a few days. I hope that I am that wise and well-travelled by her age!

The next day I had a jam-packed schedule set up, with a trip to Wall Drug, a detour through Badlands National Park (very reminiscent of Cappadocia, Turkey), and taking the long way around via a route that to be honest….I can’t recall now! I decided not to stick the main highway though, and boy am I glad I didn’t! The scenery through South Dakota is absolutely stunning: canyons, grasslands, beautiful rock formations – this is the kind of big sky country I could live in! Wall Drug is a fascinating amalgamation of shops, and displays of things like old photos, licence plates, and other memorabilia. It is a great way to break up a drive.

Otherwise, the drive to Minneapolis was flaaaatttttt and straighttttt!! (AKA BORING!) This is where the podcasts come in! I was glad to reach my Airbnb that night for a rest before the wedding of Katie (who I met in Korea) and Brad the next day. Prior to the wedding, I met up with Ilona and Val and their significant others for breakfast and a trip to Mall of America. We had all met while teaching English in Korea, and hadn’t seen each other since then. It was awesome to reconnect and really cool to see the vast expanse that is the ‘American Breakfast’, as well as the Mall of America (huge, has really cool amusement park and giant Lego statues in the middle!). Katie’s wedding itself, beautiful, outdoors, travel-themed reception, lots of dancing, and great fun indeed.

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Campsite in Medora
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Badlands NP
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Medora Musical (Awesome)
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The Korea girls!
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Tipi Camp in Browning
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Badlands NP

 

After the wedding, I made another big day of driving through North Dakota, to end up in the town of Medora. Medora is home to the Medora Musical, a wonderful open amphitheatre performance including live horses, live music, and a general good time. I very much enjoyed myself. I was able to camp at another campsite right by a river, with very friendly and helpful staff, and a few other campers who were in awe that I would take such a trip all by myself. Honestly, with the pop-up tent (after I figured how to fold the darn thing up), it was SO easy to camp by myself.

Medora is also right across the highway from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. While a small park, it is chock-a-block full of prarie dogs, buffalo, wild horses, and other critters and plant life. The loop road through the park takes only about an hour and a half or so to drive through, and you have to be very careful not to run over (or get run over by) the multitude of prarie dogs and buffalo that inhabit the park!

My last overnight stop was a bit of a splurge, but SO cool. I stayed in Browning, MT, with the hope of taking the Going-To-The-Sun road home (not to be, still closed), at a tipi camp! They supplied bedding on the grass and had set a fire in the little stone fire circle in the middle of the tipi. It was SO cool to light my fire and then fall asleep next to it (yes, I was a bit afraid to light on fire). There was an amazing sunset that night, and the drive home next day was beautiful and sunny, the perfect way to end a wonderful trip!

A few tips for road tripping, since a roadtrip is basically the ONLY was to properly see the US and Canada:
1. Snacks!
2. Wet wipes
3. A roadmap
4. Route planning
5. Take the long way around
6. Reusable cutlery
7. A popup tent so you don’t have to waste time with set-up and take down.
8. Spare blankets for picnics/keeping warm by the fire
9. Tupperware containers (will come in handy for many things)
10. Portable USB charger(s)

I mean… it’s pretty, I guess, if you like rather immense canyons

January 10th, 2014

The Grand Canyon

 

We began our day with a little practice with our host, Dhruva at his Shala in downtown Flagstaff. We could immediately see what a toll sitting in the car and not practicing yoga for several months had done. It was great to practice with such a terrific yoga master though!

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After class, we went to ‘Late for the Train’ on S. San Francisco St. It has a great vibe, friendly staff, and good assortment of foods and coffee type beverages. Thanks to the people there for treating us well, especially me in my post-yoga haze!

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Our next destination was the big ticket item, the Grand Canyon itself. It is easily accessed within 1hr 20mins-ish either via the 64 or the 180 then 64 from downtown. The Canyon was simply put, amazing. We walked from the visitors centre by Mathers Point to the Bright Angel trailhead area which is the 2nd to last stop on the orange shuttle (about 1 hr 30 mins including stopping for pics). We then took the shuttle to Yaki Point, and then proceeded back to the visitors centre for a car picnic. The shuttles are all free to ride around on, but in the winter, you can drive your car most of the way, since the volume of vehicles is much less.

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I made friends with the locals (some birds) and we also had the opportunity to write several of our postcards while watching the Canyon. We went down the Western route (road) to Hermit’s Rest during the afternoon and worked our way back to Hopi Point for sunset. Sunset was so incredible. I mean, how strange it is, that people gather around to watch the sun go down. But you can see why, and it was beautiful.

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We concluded our day by cooking for our wonderful hosts and enjoying a delicious, if I do say so myself, dinner with them. We made a salad that I love to make, consisting of mainly: sundried tomato, artichoke hearts, feta, kalamata olives, and fresh baby spinach. The other main ingredient is any grain you want, ie: pearl barley, couscous, pasta, orzo, or quinoa. You can also add cucumber, tomato, red onion, chickpeas, or whatever else strikes your fancy. The dressing is just the marinade straight from the artichoke hearts. SO GOOD!

We will certainly be sad to bid our kind hosts farewell tomorrow, but very excited to finally experience Sin City!

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Virginia: I’m sure there’s something good around here somewhere.

January 1, 2014
New Year’s Day enroute from Germantown, MD to Asheville, NC via Blue Ridge Parkway

We got up (relatively) early, packed up and headed in the direction of Luray Caverns in Luray, VA. Gillian’s family plays this game called “Touched You Last” in which you make sure you tag another family member when you say goodybe and say ‘touched you last’ then escape quickly before they can tag you back and say the same then run away and lock themselves in their bathroom (it’s happened). One time, the offenders pretended to leave, circled back, climbed up a gully, and tagged the unsuspecting family member before making a speedy escape!

On the way there we learned that Liam’s suggestion that we watch our speed was a good one. Word to the wise: speed limits are taken very seriously in Virginia, at least right at the border with Maryland nearby DC, with cops E’RYWHERE and apparent policing by plane too….. ummmm….don’t you guys have better ways to spend your time and money….like providing your citizens with health care? We were even told that parts of Virginia house people without running water…??? Anyways, overall impression of Virginia was: YOU SUCK. ALTHOUGH, we should note that the Starbucks employees, as always, were friendly and very kind!!

We arrived at the caverns markedly later than we expected and chose to continue on rather than stay for the hourlong tour so as to conserve as much daylight as possible to make it to Grandfather Mountain. I (Leah) got a smushed penny to add to my collection (I also added to my collection the day before at the natural history and air & space museums). Sidenote  (this is Gillian writing) – Leah entertained a group of about 6 small children at the natural history museum with the penny smushing and then crushed their dreams when she took her penny and the kids’ parents ushered them off, penniless. Later, at the Air & Space Museum, she felt like a grown up child, when the kid behind her said, ‘mom, I want to make a penny!’ and then mum said to the kid, ‘Wait for the lady to finish.’ She sure loves a smushed penny.

So, after some uneventful driving, and numerous culinary disappointments (why are all the good places closed on New Years Day?), we decided to hop onto the Blue Ridge Parkway around Exit 114 (near Riner and Floyd, VA). We successfully found the entrance to the parkway, which we felt was a great accomplishment, and began the beautiful drive. It is a beautiful drive, the speed limit is ridic slow, and there are many beautiful lookouts and what appear to be hiking trails to enjoy. We realized a little ways into the parkway that we’d better hurry it up or we’d miss Grandfather Mtn, and low and behold, we did end up missing it, partly due to the fact that the parkway was closed from milepost 234, for reasons unknown to us, a fact that was only announced 4 miles prior. Heads up! Check out the national park service for the most up to date status of national park trails and closures. We have learned our lesson.

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Having missed all of our intended sights for the day, we decided to head straight for Asheville and opted for brenner at IHOP, where Leah had never been. It was a most satisfying experience and our waitress was adorable. The NC accent is awesome! We stocked up on Sbux before leaving and once again had an amazing experience. We pulled up to the drive-through and the convo went a little something like…

Sbux dude: Hey, welcome to Starbucks, what can I get you?

Me: Ummmm…..just give us one second.

SD: Ok! One. Hi, so what can I get for you? Haha, JUST KIDDING! Let me know when you’re ready.

Us: Hahahahahaha, ok!

Then we got blonde roasts, which apparently aren’t brewed in the evening as we’ve gotten pour-overs every time we’ve been in the evening to have them, so because it took “so long” (sidenote, it didn’t), we got a coupon for a free drink! Starbucks, I want to hate your massive conglomerate-ism, but you make it so hard!

We finally made it to Asheville around 7pm. We found our hostel, Sweet Peas on Rankin St, very easily and were pleased to find it clean, cute, and a neat open concept idea. The linens and towels were all provided and we even got a lock for our locker and a sticker! The front desk dude was adorable, very helpful and friendly. We found out he was from Virginia….AFTER we had complained about what a terrible hellhole it was. HAHA! Luckily, he agreed and noted that that was he was here in NC. 🙂

Off to bed…another busy day tomorrow!

G xoxo