Saturday, September 12, 2015

Fifty United States: Our Journey Off the Beaten Path - September 2015

Guest Blogger: Pauline Leupo
U.S. Travel Enthusiast, Amateur Photographer & Decorative Spoon Collector

In today's day and age there are a variety of ways to keep our minds and bodies active. Some people are collectors, others are fans while still others tend to be more physically active. I’d like to think that, like a lot of people, I have the above three interests covered and more.
Twenty-eight years ago while my husband and I were moving to our fifth state for job purposes, we thought it would be an exciting challenge to visit all of the fifty states of America. With three daughters and a cat in tow, we moved to yet another state and continued our travels with more moves, vacations, colleges as well as visiting family and friends around the country.
From the east to west coasts, the midwest, north to south, the United States is a spectacular country. The terrain, as well as the food, cultures and landmarks vary from one area of the country to another. From natural wonders to man-made beauty, each state offers numerous photo ops with unique structures, humorous displays, historical sites, monuments and as much informational chatter as a brain can retain.
While everyone knows of the Golden Gate Bridge in California, the Empire State Building in New York and Disney World in Florida, I wanted to share some of the unique places "off the beaten path" we visited during our journey.
NORTH DAKOTA - MY 50th State, July 20, 2015; COLORADO - Silver Mine Tour; ARKANSAS - Hot Springs from the Observation Tower; NEBRASKA - Carhenge; LOUISIANA - The Bayou; TENNESSEE - ‘The Mighty Mississip'; MINNESOTA - Paul Bunyan Park; OKLAHOMA - Hometown of Roger Miller; MISSOURI - Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
VIRGINIA - Williamsburg Fifes & Drums March; NEW JERSEY - High Point, Highest Point in NJ; NORTH CAROLINA - Biltmore Estates, America’s Largest Home; PENNSYLVANIA -‘The Endless Mountains'; FLORIDA - Ponce De Leon Lighthouse, 203 steps; MASSACHUSETTS - Town of Agawam First U.S. Zip Code and Tobacco Barn; NEW HAMPSHIRE - Longest Wooden Bridge in the U.S.; OHIO - Erie Canal with Horse-Drawn Boats; ILLINOIS - Chicago's Willis Tower, 103rd floor
ALASKA - Mendenhall Glacier; NEW MEXICO - Puye Cliffs; HAWAII - View from Diamond Head; CALIFORNIA - Drive-Thru Redwood Tree; NEVADA - State with the Most Casinos; TEXAS - Leaning Water Tower on Route 66; WASHINGTON - Space Needle; WYOMING - Mammoth Hot Springs; MONTANA - Glacier National Park
By traveling to each of the fifty United States, I have felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and have an undeniable appreciation for our beautiful and diverse country. Seeing the sights with my own eyes and experiencing a few of the ‘little things’ less publicized in each state have made it an awesome journey. A journey that I’m proud to say has been treasured because I enjoyed every place and every moment.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Buñol, Spain: Life Lessons from a Tomato Fight - August 2015

Every year on the last Wednesday of August, tens of thousands of people flock to the La Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain. Just a short 45 minute drive from the city of Valencia, Buñol erupts as people from all over the world come to take part in the largest food fight in the world.

What started in 1945 as an unruly spat disrupting a community party, has since grown into a world-renowned organized event. Every year attracting more and more people, the sleepy town of Buñol, population 9,000, has been overcome by festival seekers. In 2012 La Tomatina hosted more than 50,000 people, overrunning the narrow, cobblestone streets and prompting the town to begin rationing tickets to allow only 22,000 fun-seekers to partake in the tomato frenzy.

While the hour-long food fight itself is an amazing spectacle: tomatoes whizzing through the air; dump trucks uploading produce by the barrel; goggle-clad participants wading around in calf-high puree; and everyone dodging, ducking and shielding their faces from the next tomato bullet - a less publicized tradition takes place for several hours prior to the fight.

La Tomatina festival "officially" begins once someone is able to climb to the top of telephone pole plastered with grease and capture the cooked ham dangling from the top. Seems simple enough, right? Well, apparently the feat hasn't been accomplished for six years running. Watching the hoards of bare-chested backpackers, over-ambitious jocks and leggy attention-seekers attempt the challenge, I came to reflect on what this microcosm of chaos could teach us about the world.

Teamwork. The ham is hoisted atop a wooden pole 25 feet high. The pole is then lathered in animal fat several inches deep from top to bottom. Without climbing gear, it's unlikely any one person would be successful reaching the top alone ... but it took quite a while for the individual heroes to band together and even then I wouldn't say the group was functioning as a team with a shared vision.

Knowing Your Strengths. After the numerous attempts by individuals to mount the pole, it became apparent to many that teamwork would be required to capture the ham. However, there seemed to be a lot of role confusion and ineffective communication among the ranks. One would think the sturdier men would come together to form the base of the effort and a couple athletic people could climb atop to help propel the smaller, more nimble challengers to the top ... but alas, time and time again, the base would get created, people would be pushed halfway up the pole and then a large muscle-bound frat boy would trample everyone to get to the top and crumble the pyramid.

Leadership. So while anyone with half a brain in the crowd could see the current strategy was fruitless and they were free to offer advice, most just stood back and watched. At some point during the madness, a drunk guy with a gold-fringed cape leapt onto a wall post and appointed himself leader of the effort. From his position above the frenzy, he yelled for the crowd to move in to support the base and attempted to recruit burly guys and tiny Asian girls to get involved in the climb ... but leadership needs to be credible and to be listened to by its followers, and unfortunately this costumed bumbling dude was largely ignored.

Going for the Glory. As with many endeavors, it's apparently perceived not good enough to just be a part of the victory, but what's really important is to be the guy at the top. It was always the bandana-wearing, spray-tanned, shirtless guy who stepped on the girls' faces trying to reach for the ham. No matter if it caused the pyramid to collapse a handful of times or if the crowd was booing with fury, that guy wanted to be the one to take the ham. And that's not to say it was only the guys whose egos were to blame, without fail, half of the people who attempted to ascend the pole would get hoisted above the crowd only to turn around and pose for a social media glamour shot before falling ... but ultimately there were too many people who were in it for themselves and each one of the attempts was foiled by selfishness.

Needless to say, that morning the ham remained at the top of the pole. Sloshing around in a watery pool of blood, many with ripped or missing clothing, the majority of pole climbers stumbled away with both their bodies and egos badly bruised. Despite the futile attempts to capture the ham, at precisely 11 a.m. a shot was fired commencing La Tomatina, and for the next hour, more than 300,000 pounds of tomatoes were squashed, tossed and trampled.

While it was just a ridiculous symbolic gesture to start the festival, it would have been refreshing to witness the group come together as a team with a strategy and capture the ham. Here's hoping next year's festival goers will be a little wiser!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Imatra, Finland: Finnish vs. American Crawfish Face Off - September 2015

Guest Blogger: James Strange
Southern Cuisine Chef, Connoisseur and Wild Game Hunter

Whether you call them crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, mudbugs or freshwater lobsters, these delectable crustaceans are found and eaten in several countries around the world.

While the Finnish variety is two to three times as big as the crawfish enjoyed in the southern United States, the meat tastes just the same. In practice with immersing ourselves in the Finnish culture while sharing our own "southern" American heritage with our new neighbors, this past weekend we engaged in a bit of a crawfish cooking duel.

Over the several weeks leading up to Crawfish Face Off, the unknowing crawfish were lured into underwater, steel-wired cages where they were trapped and collected. The day of the duel neighbors and friends hailing from Finland, U.S., Greece, Scotland and South Africa were invited to sample the fare.

The day of the event the crawfish were prepared and served two ways:

Finnish Style: Boiled for precisely 22 minutes in water seasoned with salt, sugar and dill. Let cool for several hours. Served cold and accompanied with a slice of brown bread slathered in butter. Instructions were to pry the crawfish meat from the tails and abnormally large claws using a tiny knife-like cutting utensil, place the meat on the slice of buttered brown bread, garnish with dill as desired and enjoy with a cold shot of vodka.

American Style: Boiled for 'enough' time in water seasoned with cayenne, salt, garlic and red pepper, along with a hearty mixture of potatoes, corn, asparagus, mushrooms, onions, lemons, garlic and smoked sausage. Thrown into an ice chest and scooped out hot with the accompaniments. The tail and claw crawfish meat is then retrieved using your fingers and some adventurous souls even elect to suck out the crawfish brains using their mouths.

At Crawfish Face Off 2015 there was plenty of good eating. While the duel ended in a draw - the Finnish liked their dill-seasoned cold crayfish and the Americans their spiced up steaming mudbugs, everyone went home with a full stomach and a smile.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

ABC's of Traveling Abroad

Traveling abroad is a breeze when you remember these helpful ABC's:

A Always carry small bills in the local currency.
B Bring only the necessities and nothing more.
C Carry a small pack for day excursions.
D Don't get into a taxi without having a ballpark fare in mind.
E Every culture has its redeeming attributes; find them.
F Friends: those least like you will teach you the most.
G Greet each new day with a sense of adventure.
H Have a bottle of water with you everywhere you go.
I Inform your credit card company of your travels before you leave.
J Jurisdiction. Obey the laws in the countries you visit.
K Keep a close eye on your valuables at all times.
L Listen more than you speak. Learn from those around you.
M Manage your time and money so that you have no regrets.
N Never check luggage unless absolutely necessary.
O Open mind: approach new customs, culture and cuisine with it.
P Pay attention to your surroundings especially at night.
Q Question your experiences. Challenge the status quo.
R Remember to respect and practice the local customs.
S Share your experiences and journey with others.
T Take down the address of your lodging in case you get lost.
U Underwater camera photos often turn out blue.
V Vacation: use it all. Life is for living.
W Wherever you go get lost in the world around you.
X X-ray machines: take out your laptop and liquids.
Y You represent your homeland. Act with dignity.
Z Zip up your pack and watch out for pick pockets.

Eating Your Way Around the World

Gratuity Around the World Cheat Sheet

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mission Accomplished: 100 Countries - June 2015

Growing up my family didn't travel internationally. Aside from a few trips to Canada, we spent our vacations and long weekends exploring the United States. We did, however, move around frequently due to my Dad's corporate career. By the time I graduated college, I had lived in 12 different places in six states. I believe that moving so much throughout my childhood significantly shaped my personality and my perspective of the world.

Quickly able to make friends and not afraid to step into uncharted territory with a smile, I have an inner curiosity and enjoy continually learning. My first notable trip outside of the U.S. was after college to visit a friend in Japan. Those ten days were life-changing. Not only did I gain an appreciation for the Japanese culture, but I fell in love with traveling.

Mission Defined: After my first adventure, I was hooked. Traveling was thrilling to me: exploring a new land, meeting different people and immersing myself in a foreign culture. Before long, my travels became a conversation topic at work. Many people asked why I was so interested in travel and to what end. Rooted in corporate America, I knew I had to come up with a logical and easily-digestible answer: a goal. At that time having been to 30-some countries, I arbitrarily put forth that my ultimate goal was to travel to 100 countries, and just like that, my mission came into focus.

Execution: Having my mission defined the next step was to outline my strategy. With a full-time job my vacation time was limited: two weeks and holidays and then eventually grabbing a third week five years in. With my vacation days as the primary bottleneck, I aimed to travel internationally at least two times each year and got creative with my trip planning:
  • Scheduling. In order to maximize my time away, I scheduled trips around holidays. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is an ideal time to travel because using only three vacation days will afford you nine days of travel.
  • Destination Selection. Whenever possible, I traveled to regions where I could visit as many places and countries as possible flying in and out of a central point.
  • Budget. While I had a decent-paying job, I didn't want to spend all of my money on travel. Because I was budget-conscious, I shopped around for airfare deals, frequently stayed in hostels, took advantage of public transportation and often targeted locales in their off-season.
  • Flexibility. I traveled any way I could with anyone who was free to go. Trips with family and friends were fun, but when they weren't available, I had no problem exploring and taking trips on my own. When making plans to travel to a country where the safety was questionable or the language or transportation may be a barrier, I traveled on tours or with groups.
The Critics. As with any goal, you'll always have the critics who try to rain on your parade. Throughout my mission it felt like I was constantly bombarded with questions and comments like: "Don't you put any of your money into savings? Why do you feel the need to escape your life? Why would you travel all that way and stay such a short time? There is so much to see in the U.S.; You should spend your money at home."

To these remarks I would respond with a smile thinking that not until you experience how travel can change your life, will you ever really understand. Sometimes I would explain how I say at hostels and that I've actually traveled to 49 of the 50 states, but most times I would shrug off the naysayers and remind myself that I was doing this for me, not them.

Milestones: Throughout my ten-year journey there have been many milestones with the most memorable being:
  • Attending graduate school in Australia.
  • Backpacking for seven months from Sydney westwards to New York.
  • Visiting friends in their home countries of the Philippines, Thailand, China, India, Denmark, Colombia and Brazil.
  • Mustering the courage to camp for two weeks in southern Africa.
  • Surviving multiple trips to India as a solo-woman traveler. 
  • Moving to Finland for three years with my fiancé.
  • Sneaking into Cuba before it was 'allowed' with a press badge.
  • Celebrating my wedding in my 100th country of Jamaica.

Mission Accomplished: In June 2015 I accomplished my mission of traveling to 100 countries. Having officially checked the boxes visiting 109 unique countries and territories, I was accepted into the Travelers Century Club  and received a certificate, membership card and pin. I was also given a globe memento in Jamaica by my family to commemorate the achievement. Upon reaching my goal, I created a 45-page book capturing my favorite travel photographs from around the world entitled "100 Countries."

Path Forward: Although my next goal isn't yet clearly defined, I can confidently say that my traveling days will continue. I have been to six of the seven continents and am committed to seeing the icy shores of Antarctica. I'd also like to swim with the jellyfish in Palau, get lost in the history of the Middle East, and dance at carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. While my Mom would like to see me travel to every country in the world, we'll just have to see where the road takes me.