Thursday, May 28, 2015

Imatra, Finland: Fast Facts - May 2015

The town of Imatra is situated on the 61st parallel in the southeast corner of the country of Finland. A couple hour drive from the capital of Helsinki and a stone's throw from Russia, Imatra is a quiet little borough touted by many as the safest place in the world. And according to the tourist bureau, 100% of the people in Imatra are happy.

Climate. High temperatures in the summer hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit with lows in the winter months dipping well below zero. A local explained, "it's never cold in Finland; there are just people who dress improperly." Despite the temperature or falling snow, sleet or rain, every day you'll find mothers pushing baby carriages while they jog the trails, bike riders circling the lake and hearty souls using kick sleds to collect their weekly groceries. It's required that vehicles have snow tires during the winter months and also wise to outfit yourself with studded footwear and several layers many months of the year. In addition to the temperatures, the hours of daylight fluctuate greatly with only a couple hours of light in the winter and by contrast only a few hours of dusk in the summer.

The Locals. The Vuoksi River runs through the town of Imatra and is fed by nearby Lake Saimaa. According to the Finnish, you aren't considered a local until you jump into the Vuoksi River during winter. Icy winter swimming is called 'avanto' and locals take a dip two to three times each week for good health. If you aren't yet ready for a frigid plunge, other recreational activities regularly take place on the waters around Imatra such as fishing (ice and thawed), boating, swimming and walking the trails.

Finnish Language. Speaking the Finnish language is considered a superpower by many. Some Finnish words run the length you would expect of an English sentence and the pronunciation can be quite tricky. When in doubt, the correct answer is "yo." Yo can be "yes," or "no" or "I understand" or "hey you" all based on how you throw it.

Russian Invasions. Imatra is a border town with Russia and therefore lends itself to weekend invasions. With more than 2.5 million visitors each year, Russians cross the border to shop for food and home goods, while the Finns head to the other side for inexpensive petrol and alcohol. Just over the border in Russia is the town of Svetogorsk. The town and its prized paper mill were a part of Finland until border lines were redrawn after World War II.

Local Food. Typical food in Finland includes reindeer steak, salmon and mushroom soup. A longtime tradition in Finland is to marinate lamb in brine for several days and cook it for six hours in birch wood. Cakes and pastries are also popular with the local Karelia Pie being comprised of a thin rye crust with a rice or potato center. As a rule Finnish food doesn't contain much, if any, seasoning or spice, and it's not standard to find salt and pepper on the dining table.
Social Establishments. With a population of just under 28,000, Imatra has a cobblestone town center lined with shops and restaurants. Poplar eateries in town include Buttenhoff, Rosso and a handful of Middle Eastern kebab joints. There is also the small corner Kuohu bar which hosts outdoor disco parties in sub-freezing temperatures and curling competitions.

Grocery Shopping. There are no less than five grocery stores in Imatra each with their own specialty. Expect to spend more than thirty minutes in the store even if you are only on a mission for bread and milk. Shopping carts are available by token and plastic bags for a price. You can buy herbs so fresh they are potted in soil and see a fish selection so vast you'd think you were in a nature museum.

Sauna. Enjoying the steam room is a habitual pastime for the Finns with many having saunas in their homes. Proper etiquette includes: forgetting your bathing suit, showering first, closing the door, sitting on a towel, avoiding eye contact and conversation, and refraining from spitting on the rocks ... when in doubt, the Finns have a saying that advises you to "behave in a sauna as you would in church."

Traffic Enforcement. Speeding and minor traffic violations are kept in check with photo-snapping street cameras. Be warned that as with many penalties in Finland, speeding tickets are tied to your annual salary and you could end up paying a couple thousand Euro for going 10 kilometers over the limit.

The Haunted Castle. With a breath-taking view of Imatra's most popular attraction, the river Vuoksi rapids, the Valtion Hotelli has been standing on the river banks since 1903. After serving as a military hospital for a brief period, the medieval knight's castle hotel is now one of the most popular and most-photographed places in Imatra. While visiting the hotel, be sure to say hello to the Grey Lady. The young Russian newlywed who sadly threw herself in the river now haunts the famous hotel where she and her unfaithful husband once honeymooned. She is a pleasant spirit wandering the halls and wishing the hotel guests well, but also helpful. During the cover of night, the Grey Lady often assists the hotel staff by arranging the chairs in the restaurant in perfect lines.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Nong Khai, Thailand: Flashback - June 2007

If you are wearing red panties, steer clear of the monastery.

Unfortunately I learned this lesson the hard way as a five-foot-tall nun slapped my backside and scolded me in front of dozens of bewildered monks during morning prayer. I had signed up to volunteer for three weeks at a monastery in the Loei province in northeastern Thailand near the town of Nong Khai. The arrangement as it was explained to me was that I would teach monks English in exchange for accommodation, food and meditation lessons. Sounds like a rewarding and enriching few weeks, right?

Well, unfortunately the adventure didn't go quite as planned. After a grueling 14 hour bus ride from Bangkok, I showed up at the monastery grounds only to be told that these monks were forbidden to talk to women - an important fact that would have been good to know prior to paying for the privilege to volunteer.

Despite the ripple in plans, I was informed that I could still stay at the monastery so long as I helped the nuns with the daily chores. I was shown to my room which was a 6 foot by 6 foot dirt-floored wooden hut. June in Thailand is hot. Reaching upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and with potentially malaria-juiced mosquitoes buzzing around, the fact that the windows were cut-outs with no screens was concerning. Even more concerning was the blue bucket in the back that would be both the toilet and shower.

After being shown my living quarters, I was advised of the strict daily routine. Wat Nuen Pananao Monastery was a classic Buddhist temple with a disciplined focus on solitary meditation and spiritual enlightenment. Wake up each day was indicated by a loud gong strike at 4 a.m. sharp. After the morning prayer ritual where we knelt on the floor repeating chants, the orange-robed monks would venture into the nearby forest village knocking on doors to collect leftover food. Meanwhile the nuns, dressed in white from head to bare feet, would tend to chores. Arriving back with baggies of scrap, the monks meditated while the nuns prepared the food. That one meal served precisely at 10:30 a.m. would be the only food eaten all day. After all of the monks ate and left the area, the nuns were then permitted to scavenge the remains. The rest of the day at the monastery was spent in meditation and quiet reflection. Sometimes walking. Sometimes sitting. Speaking softly only when absolutely essential.

In addition to embracing the daily routine, I learned a few practices critical for survival at the monastery:
  • The Wai, or act of raising your hands to your chest with palms pressed together, was the mandatory greeting when encountering a monk. Bowing was appropriate when being seated in a hall with a Buddha image or when being introduced to a monk; a proper bow is slow and deliberate and requires you to kneel and bring your forehead to the floor.
  • Never walk ahead or next to a monk. When walking by a seated monk, you must stoop your shoulders out of respect. When listening to a monk, you must always be seated at a lower position.
  • Women can never touch or be alone in a closed room with a monk.
  • Feet are only for walking and standing and should be tucked away at all other times. Never point your toes or stretch your legs in the direction of a monk or Buddha image.
I wish I could say I enjoyed the three weeks at the monastery and experienced a spiritual awaking, but due to the unbearable cocktail of heat, mosquitoes, early wake-ups and bum-spanking nuns, I sadly lasted only 72 hours.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Adrenaline Junkie Travel: Bungee Lately?

Traveling itself is a rush. Charting new territory with new people and if you do it right, completely embracing the culture around you. But sometimes you need a little more ... the thrill of danger. Not the fear of being pick-pocketed in a crowded metro or missing the last train to Istanbul, but blood pumping-through-your-veins, black-out inducing fear.

For me, not really. I don't ever need that type of fear. But I've found myself in a few of those situations, and thought I'd reminisce my top five terrifying travels.

5.) Alligator Swamp Tour. Skimming atop the water in a motorboat admiring the flowing cypress trees sounds like a peaceful way to spend the day. But add in ornery alligators and spiders falling from the sky, and you just might not be so relaxed in your seat. Outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, I cruised the bayou and my heart skipped a few beats when we had to swat a gator from our boat that lurched about twelve inches from my toes.

4) Desert Dune Bashing. When in the Arabian desert faced with endless golden dunes, why wouldn't you hitch a ride in an all-terrain vehicle and rip up the sand? It's quite at thrill plowing up and down the hills, executing hair-pin turns and watching the sand fly and mask the windshield ... that is until the grown man sitting next to you projectile vomits his cumin-laced lunch all over your hijab.

3) White Water Rafting. My first time white water rafting I joined five adventurous travelers in a bright yellow raft to navigate the level four rapids on Tully River in eastern Australia. Quickly becoming drenched, swirling through the turbulent white waters and paddling in and out of fierce rapids was exhilarating ... but probably not as much fun for the girl who face planted into a boulder and was carried out of the river with a broken nose.

2) Skydiving. Jumping out of an airplane should be pretty memorable, right? That's what I thought. So despite the fact that it was ridiculously dangerous and I had no desire to do it, I committed myself and a friend as a surprise gift for his 50th birthday. Surprise it was when I told him what we were in for that morning as we headed to the airport. The crew and our tandem jump partners were highly skilled at distraction techniques as we ascended to our jumping altitude of 14,000 feet. My plummet to the earth was only mildly terrifying as I free fell for 70 seconds and then deployed my trusty parachute to enjoy the view of the central Tennessee foothills. My friend had an entirely different experience. When his partner reached to deploy their parachute, the cords were tangled. The pair violently spun in circles and sped through the air at 120 mph for painfully long moments until the instructor was able to cut the faulty chute loose and hoped like hell the back-up was intact. Hugs all around and possibly a few tears when they reached the ground but definitely a memorable experience achieved.

1) Bungee Jumping. In the Rainforest. Over Water. At Night. Definitely not my idea of a good time or anything I would ever aspire to do. When I boarded the bus for "Extreme Spring Break" in Sydney, Australia, I was thinking more along the lines of extreme fun or extreme partying. I couldn't have been more wrong. First event on the agenda was extreme bungee jumping outside of Cairns. As I sipped my vodka soda and prepared to watch the death-wished jumpers, I shook my head at what an idiotic and dangerous sport it was. Bouncing up and down on a wiry cord, back vertebrae stretching and crushing, strapped by the ankles, diving more than 160 feet above a murky dark lake ... pure genius. I watched in amusement as several people jumped but noticed that my friends were noticeably absent from the queue
After a while I decided I needed to mount the 196-stair platform and provide some apparently much-needed positive encouragement. Upon reaching the top I was greeted with anxiety and tears. I can't really explain the sequence of events that transpired, but before I knew it my ankles were strapped and I was waving at the camera. There's proof that I blacked-out well before I took the plunge, and I'm not sure how many times I bounced or if I screamed, but the next thing I knew a handful of men were trying to wrangle me into a boat. Good times.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Easter Island, Chile: Flashback - November 2005

Thirty-foot tall stone moai stare down on those below holding secrets yet to be shared.

Easter Island, referred to by the locals as Rapa Nui, was given its name by a Dutch explorer who landed on the island on Easter Sunday 1722. The small island has a population less than 6,000, and is technically a territory of Chile. More than 2,000 miles away from the South American continent, Easter Island is one of the most remote, inhabited areas on the planet.

Several of Easter Island's 887 moai statues weigh nearly 80 tons and the majority are carved from compressed volcanic ash. It is thought that the moai, constructed between 1250 and 1500 A.D., represent ancient Polynesian ancestors and were powerful religious and political symbols.

There are many theories as to the development and movement of the monolithic stones that govern the 62 square mile island landscape. One thought is gods willed the statues to their spots and situated them with their backs against the ocean eyes gazing inland to watch over the villagers. Another belief is that the large headed, legless monuments were moved from the stone quarries using wooden sleds or cleverly-constructed rollers. But the most popular theory is that through the might of more than a hundred men, the moai were transported using rope and a rhythmic rocking and pulling motion at a rate of around 300 feet each day.

The few days that I spent exploring "the navel of the world" were humbling. This tropical paradise with its vast volcanoes, wild horses and untouched beaches was the perfect locale to relax and daydream about the history of the mysterious moai and the secrets they held.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Hostel Nightmares: How to Avoid Sleeping with the Maid

Hostel: an establishment that provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as students or travelers. To some the word 'hostel' triggers visions of small, dilapidated spaces jammed with smelly, drunken travelers, to others, like me, the idea of a hostel conjures up thoughts of simplicity and socialization. Having traveled all over the world and to more than 100 countries, I've stayed in my fair share of hostels, and my experiences have ranged dramatically.

Overall, I am huge fan of hostels as they provide reasonably priced accommodation, often times in the center of the city, and foster the environment for solo travelers to meet like-minded friends to explore their new surroundings, That being said, as I reflect back on my ten years of hostel stays, I have encountered some less than desirable situations. Below are my top five hostel nightmares. The names of the establishments have been omitted in hopes that they've cleaned up their act.

5.) Sneaky Showers in Dublin. After pounding the pavement all day discovering a new city, a nice warm shower can be everything. In this city-center hostel in Dublin, Ireland, the showers were anything but a reward for a day well spent. As with many Western European hostels, this place employed the use of a shower button. With shower buttons you have to press the button (hard) in order for a five second burst of water to be dispersed. The button in the Dublin hostel shower was placed in a far from convenient location and when pressed shot out a burst of ice cold water that felt like a shotgun barrage. Hostels, I imagine, use the button for water conservation, but this cruel form of punishment, turned my 10-minute shower into a most unpleasant and traumatizing thirty-minute ordeal.

4.) Sheetless in South Beach. Much of the world has embraced the hostel concept of inviting budget travelers into their city and providing them with the basic necessities, however the United States has not. In the States, I've stayed at hostels in New York City, Key West, Waikiki and South Beach. Although all could be rated sub-par, the hostel in South Beach, Florida was by far the most gruesome. Whereas most hostels provide linens either free or for a nominal fee, this hostel did not supply anything. With no sheets, the odorous and stained mattress was undeniable, and the near-absent lighting and lack of air conditioning, made for a less than comfortable stay.

3.) Sleeping with a Stranger in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is known for its unique culture so I approached my time there with an open mind. I booked my stay at a popular hostel not far from Dam Square; the room details were vague at best on the site but it had gotten top-notch reviews so I decided to give it a shot. I checked in and was shown my room. I learned I'd be sharing the room with not three or five other travelers but with 31! The room slept 32 people, both men and women to my surprise, and was comprised of double-wide bunk beds which I didn't even know existed. To make matters worse, I then learned that if I wanted to sleep alone in the bed, I'd have to pay double as each side of the bed was rented out separately.

2.) Cockroaches Climbing the Walls in Thailand. Thailand is located in a tropical climate and with that comes a lot of bugs. I'm sure that in several of the accommodations where I stayed creatures have been lurking behind the walls, but it's another thing when they are staring at you as you try to sleep. Upon unlocking the door to our small room in Koh Samui, we found cockroaches slithering all over the walls, ceiling and floors. After complaining at the front office, two teenage boys were tasked with coming to our room and attending to the problem. We watched for forty minutes as the boys chased, captured and bagged the roaches before they left in self-proclaimed victory assuring us "all gone, all gone". Knowing that there were likely hundreds just out of sight, my roommate and I slept with cotton balls in our ears and promptly found another place to stay in the morning.

1.) Cuddling with the Maid in Milan. Travel issues happen and that is one of the reasons why it pays to book a hostel ahead of time ... or so I thought. I had missed my train to Milan, Italy that day and instead of arriving in the early evening, the taxi dropped me at the hostel door step around 11 p.m. Although I had sent an email to notify the hostel of my late arrival, when I spoke to reception they said they had given away my room and had none left. I was tired, and it was my first time visiting Milan. After about an hour of broken Italian/English discussion, I was shown to a small room in the back of the establishment. I wasn't sure how it had been arranged, and I was surprised at all of the personal belonging strewn about the room, but it was late and I was happy to have a bed. A couple hours later, a large woman barreled into the room, stripped down to nearly nothing and plopped into bed with me. She rumbled something in disgusted Italian and grabbed all the covers. I didn't move a muscle that night. I don't think I slept much either. I woke up the next morning and after carefully surveying the room, it was obvious I was bunking with the maid.

Do yourself a favor and avoid a hostel nightmare by doing some research ahead of making your booking. Take advantage of trusted travels sites like and, and read traveler reviews. The photos included in this post are from some of my more comfortable hostel stays.

Maseru, Lesotho: Flashback - February 2013

Pull up a map or grab a globe. Find the African continent. Look to the bottom and locate the country of South Africa. See that tiny circular land-locked country in the southeast? Not Swaziland; the other one. That's Lesotho.

Why would one travel to Lesotho you may ask. My answer: to check it out. There isn't a lot of tourism in Lesotho. With a population of just over two million, I was the only white girl to be seen. Probably the only American. And quite possibly the only visitor.

In Lesotho, I learned, the language is Sesotho and the people are of the ethic group Basotho. It's estimated that about 40% of the country's population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

Upon arrival I befriended a taxi driver who took me on the grand tour of Maseru which is the nation's capital. We visited the most popular gas station where I got a popsicle, walked through the make-shift market stands selling bananas and piles of worn shoes, and stopped by a school to see the uniformed school children play. We spent much of the day driving up and around the dusty brown rolling hills throughout the town, and snapping photos of clay and thatch homes, and billboards warning the perils of AIDS. Although there wasn't a lot of traditional 'attractions' in this small country, it was endearing to meet a few of its people and explore the path less traveled.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Belfast, Northern Ireland: Warring Giants & Bombings - May 2015

A long, long time ago, in a far away place, there were once two giants. Fifty-four-foot-tall Finn McCool roamed the lands of Northern Ireland with his wife, Oonagh, while his arch nemesis, Benandonner, lurked across the Irish Sea and taunted him from Scotland. Constantly at battle, one day Finn challenged Benandonner to a duel to prove who should forever reign supreme.

In order to meet his adversary face-to-face, Finn created a bridge across the North Channel crafted of enormous stepping stones. Finn crossed the mighty stone bridge and caught a glimpse of his colossal opponent. Intimidated by the other giant's size, Finn ran in fear. Benandonner relentlessly chased him back over the bridge.

Then, as legend has it, Oonagh met Finn upon his arrival home, disguised him as a baby and pushed him in a carriage down the road. When Benandonner saw Oonagh and 'the baby' he assumed it was Finn's child. Terrified at how gigantic Finn must be after seeing his baby, Benandonner retreated back to Scotland, tearing up the stone bridge as he went so that he wouldn't be trailed.

The tale of the Giant Finn McCool dates back to third century A.D. and provides some color to the impressive natural land formations that make up Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Northern Ireland. The area was formed by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago that resulted in more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns rising from the sea floor. Nearly all of the solidified lava columns are hexagonal with some reaching heights of nearly 40 feet.

James and I hiked around the Causeway, after navigating the nearby Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which is suspended more than 100 feet above sea level and was first erected by salmon fisherman more than 350 years ago. Although the swaying bridge only spanned 65 feet, it was enough to make our hearts race.

That evening, to top off our dare-devil stunts, we spent the night at the infamous Europa Hotel in Belfast. The Europa Hotel has earned the reputation of being the most bombed hotel in the world, having endured 28 bombings between 1969 and 2001. During that time, known as "The Troubles," more than 3,500 people were killed, 2 percent of the population, as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Disturbingly, the day before we arrived in Belfast a bomb was discovered in a park and luckily was retrieved before an incident occurred.

Raphoe, Ireland: Retracing Footsteps - May 2015

"Welcome to Raphoe" the sign read. Home to a friendly lot of 1,100, we ventured to the small town in the northwest corner of Ireland, in the county of Donegal, to scout out James' family roots. Trying to out drive rainclouds, we entered into the town hidden between green rolling hills and parked the car to explore. We knew that both of his great great grandparents on his mother's side hailed from Raphoe and were the last in the area before the family migrated to America.

Towering over the town is a ruined 17th century castle known as the Bishop's Palace. Now hollowed and taken over by grasses, James and I snuck past the barbed wire fences to walk the land once reserved for nobility. Back at the town square, we let ourselves into the grounds of Raphoe Cathedral. There we explored the cemetery surrounding the 12th century church learning that it was the resting place of  bishops and soldiers, and to our surprise ... both of his great great grandparents and their families. Upon looking at the centuries-old tomb inscriptions, we nearly tripped over two family plot headstones: one reading Thompson and the other bearing the name Sheldon.

Pleased with our discovery, we walked across the street to a local pub to grab a Guinness and phone relatives. Two Americans walking into a dimly-lit, neighborhood pub raised a few eyebrows and within minutes we were chatting up the locals. It turned out that the town of Raphoe didn't get many visitors. We introduced ourselves, and before long, the bar owner, who was also the mayor of Raphoe, walked us out and up the street to show us the home, which was also the cobbler shop and birthplace, of James' great great grandmother Jane Sheldon. As we walked up, the current home owner greeted us with a smile and invited us in. She explained that for many years the narrow, two-story building was a cobbler shop on the ground floor and a living space above. She took us out and pointed down the street to another building with a red door and told us that it was once the general store of James' great great grandfather Thomas Thompson. She explained that both the Sheldon and the Thompson families were very well-known in Raphoe and that several of their descendants still resided in the area.

James and I were overcome with the friendliness of the people in Raphoe and astounded by our luck at uncovering his family history. Many of the locals we met remarked that they were charmed by Americans' interest in their ancestry and joked that the Irish have no such curiosity because all of their families live right up the street and they are only good for bickering.

Ireland: Ring Around the Island - May 2015

Sheep grazing lush green grassy hills, rain sprinkling down from ominous gray clouds and our tiny red sedan bouncing off the left roadside curb ... 2015 Irish Road Trip. In a handful of days we circled the island clocking more than 1,300 kilometers or 800 miles. The soundtrack for the adventure was Gaelic rock with lyrics heavily focused on drinking, fighting and dying. Songs like "The Night Pat Murphy Died, "The Spicy McHaggis Jig," "Seven Drunken Nights," and my favorite "Mary Mack" by Makem and Clancy.

Imagine the following rapid, rhyming verse sung by a drunken rocker with an almost incoherent Irish accent: "Well this little lass, she has a lot of class; Got a lot of brass, and her father thinks I'm gas; And I'd be a silly ass for to let the matter pass; Her father thinks she suits me very fairly."
Beginning in Dublin we headed south to Cork, where we kissed the Blarney Stone, drank a few pints and trekked up the western coast to the Cliffs of Moher. Fighting the rain and trying our best to keep on the left side of the narrow, stone wall lined roads, we zagged up and down Cork Screw Hill and dodged crazed cyclists, dogs and long-eared hares on The Wild Atlantic Way.
Pulling over for photographs of the centuries-old castles and climbing locked gates to investigate ancient church remains and cemeteries, we continued up the western coast and back inland. We spent an afternoon exploring the northwest county of Donegal before crossing the border into Northern Ireland. We darted in and out of Belfast and up the eastern coast, and then looped back to Dublin to end our Irish country tour. Although we set our gaze on a rainbow, regrettably sampled blood pudding and enjoyed an Irish jam session in a local pub, we didn't spot any leprechauns or pots of gold. Looks like we'll have to go back!