Alex In Wanderland http://www.alexinwanderland.com Working and playing around the world Tue, 31 Mar 2015 23:11:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back in the Aquarium: Diving with Sharks in Tampa http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/31/diving-with-sharks-at-the-florida-aquarium/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/31/diving-with-sharks-at-the-florida-aquarium/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=33311

My regulator in, and my fins dangling gingerly over the ledge, I watched as the dorsal fins of two sand tiger sharks cut across the surface of the water. I turned to my dive buddy, who gave me a questioning “all clear” signal to inquire if I was ready to take the plunge to join our toothy friends. I felt myself signaling back a confident “all clear indeed,” and I laughed at how far I’d come from a girl who was once paralyzed with fear at the mere hint of a Steven Spielberg score. We jumped in.

How did I find myself on this side of a shark tank?

Aquarium Diving in Florida

I’ve been lucky to have some pretty amazing experiences in my relatively short life as a diver. With lots of fabulous memories to live up to, I’m always on the lookout for some new way to push myself and to top that last wild aquatic rush. I didn’t really plan to do any diving on this trip to Florida, yet when I was browsing Viator for their offerings in the Tampa area, I immediately zoned in on the opportunity to dive with the sharks at the Tampa Aquarium. Diving? With sharks? In a small enclosed area? Generations raised on Jaws might call such a thing crazy. Yet in the pursuit of wild adventure, new frontiers, and jealousy-inducing social media profile pictures, I bravely blazed forward.

When I mentioned the plan to my aunts, the ones I come to Tampa to visit, I told them they shouldn’t feel any pressure to take time off work, but they were more than welcome to come watch if they wished. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it quickly escalated into a full day extravaganza with an entourage of four. What are aunts for if not to spoil you with love and undeserved attention?

When the morning of truth finally arrived, we were a little giddy.

The Florida Aquarium, Tampa

The Florida Aquarium

We were greeted at the entrance to the aquarium like celebrities — which made sense when I later learned that Rihanna had been there shooting a Harper’s Bazaar cover feature just a month earlier. Obviously, the staff weren’t able to blab about it until the photos were released, which is a shame. I would have loved to chat with them about the logistics of a fashion shoot in a shark tank.

But we had plenty of other topics to discuss. Our first stop was to a small classroom, where the program director, an avid diver himself, told us about the goals of Dive With The Sharks. His job was pretty easy on this particular morning — I’ve been diving with several species in the wild already and despite the fact that the mere thought of dorsal fins made me afraid of swimming pools for the better part of two decades, today I’m a shark advocate through and through and my terror has morphed into a bizarre obsession or sorts. So I admire the program’s aim to dispel common misconceptions and myths about sharks, and to educate divers about the four sand tigers and two nurse sharks they’ll be sharing tank time with. While I didn’t need any convincing that humans pose more of a threat to sharks than vice versa, I really enjoyed the skeptical looks on my aunts’ and friends’ faces as they rebutted the program director’s arguments with factual evidence like scenes from Jaws III.

And then it was time to suit up.

Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Wetsuits at The Florida Aquarium

One bonus aspect of this experience is getting to go behind-the-scenes in the aquarium — I really got a thrill walking through all the normally inaccessible-to-the-public areas. I know! Such an outlaw!

In order to minimize the risk of outside contaminants, divers must use the aquarium’s gear, which is included — though you can bring your own mask and dive computer, which I did. (Sadly this meant no Swish Suit!) Accustomed to diving at backpacker-oriented budget shops, it felt like a luxury to have my whole kit set up for me.

Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

After a thorough briefing of the thirty minute dive plan, my divemaster Erin and I were ready to go. We entered the water via a cage reminiscent of the ones used to dive with Great Whites in South Africa. Though Erin explained this was only to protect the tank residents lest we land on them, I found it a little unnerving. Those first seconds in the steel casing were the scariest part of the whole thing — well, almost. But I’ll get to that later.

The door swung open, and we were swimming freely in Shark Bay, the 93,000 gallon showpiece of the Florida Aquarium.

Swimming in the Florida Aquarium Shark Tank

Tampa's Florida Aquarium

Swimming in the Florida Aquarium Shark Tank

Well, swimming to and from our various observation perches, anyway. I was totally okay with this situation — some of my best wildlife observation dives have basically meant deflating and kneeling on the ocean floor for front row seats to one of nature’s greatest shows. Examples? Hangin’ with stingrays in Grand Cayman, and marveling over mantas on Big Island.

Our first stop was right up in front of the glass, in a cove-like corner of the tank. I waved excitedly to my aunties and then turned my focus to close encounters with barracudas, nurse sharks, and a giant sea turtle. The sand tiger sharks were distant overhead, but I was okay with that. We were easing into the idea of each other.

Typically, the only cameras allowed on this experience are hands-free, body-or-head-mounted GoPro, but considering my extensive dive experience (I’m a PADI Divemaster) and my reason for being there (I was covering the experience for Viator) I received special media permission to take my Canon PowerShot S100 and Underwater Housing. And I’m so glad I did. I loved having both the macro view of me shooting, and the resulting micro view from my own camera. Like the below shot of me and the largest nurse shark I’ve ever seen getting up close and personal — followed by my perspective.

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

I absolutely loved looking out and seeing my entourage waving enthusiastically on the other side of the glass. And they were so well looked after! An aquarium attendant stayed with them the entire time and according to their report doled out the royal treatment — I think this is a really nice touch and seeing how well they were being looked after allowed me to totally relax and enjoy myself in the tank.

Tampa's Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Aquarium Diving in Florida

After ten minutes or so, we moved to our next location. This time, we were suspended at about half the depth of the tank, hanging off a ledge. I’d gasped when I saw it demonstrated in the pre-dive video, as touching coral in the ocean is such a major no no. Then it dawned on me that the coral in this body of water was of the artificial variety — yet I couldn’t shake the feeling I was doing something naughty as I gently rested one hand on the coral-ish shelf.

This time, we were a little closer to the action, with the sand tigers making a regular pass a few feet overhead — close enough for me to count their teeth.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

While I dangled, I reflected on what makes aquarium diving so appealing — it’s a popular activity in tanks everywhere from Denver to Atlanta.

For me, there were several draws. One is of the same vein that attracted me to submarine diving in Hawaii — I liked the science-y, mechanical side to it, not to mention the behind-the-scenes peek at the kind of institution that made me fall for the ocean long before I saw my first real coral reef. Another is, of course, the dependability. While the “you never know!” aspect of diving is a thrill, it was kind of cool to know I was guaranteed to get face time with four beautiful apex predators. And, finally, getting to share one of my passions with my non-diving family members in a really special way — that might have been my favorite bit.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

The Florida Aquarium

Time flew in the tank and before I knew it we were moving to our final location. This one had us positioned between the observation tunnel and a tall reef shelf, meaning the sharks had to pass extremely close on their business-like rounds of the tank. WOW.

These sharks were getting cozy.

Aquarium Diving in Florida

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Curious what that looked like from my perspective?

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Yeah. So, despite the racks of teeth on those babies, I actually felt completely at ease for twenty-nine out of the thirty minutes I was in the tank. And that squirm-worthy sixty seconds? Well, I’ll show it to your first from my aunt’s perspectives, who were hysterically attempting to gesture to me that I was unknowingly fin-saulting a pissed off eel.

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

I was completely oblivious. However, in my defense, I kind of had other things to focus on:

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

I love how you can see the progression in the below photos. In the first one I’m like, whoa, great angle! Love it! And in the next frame I’m like, hmm, that’s a little close, oh, wow, hey there, this is cozy, um — FORGET EVERYTHING I LOGICALLY KNOW ABOUT SHARKS PLEASE DON’T EAT ME.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

At the last minute, my fake-out friend did a bob and weave and left me to deep breathe into my regulator for a few moments as my heart rate returned to normal.

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

But hey, that’s the adrenaline rush I was looking for when I hopped in, no?

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

The adrenaline rush — and close ups like this with one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.

Dive WIth The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

It was a fantastic experience. My only complaint about the day was the photos — I purchased the Storipass’s photography packaged for $69.99, which included a disc with all 170+ photos the photographer took of the day, plus a few video clips. When I looked back through again later, I realized there were maybe twenty useable shots — and those required heavy editing. The videos were a bust. And worse, there were supposed to be two posed dry land shots included, but only one made it’s way to me, and my emails about the other went unanswered. In my opinion, Storipass needs to either hire more experienced employees or lower their prices to reflect the quality of the product.

That aside, it may have been just a thirty minute dive, but I’ll be talking about this experience for a long time to come. I was really blown away by how professional and conservation focused the program was, and I was thrilled by my time spent underwater. Overall, it was such a special experience to share with my Tampa ladies, who know how to make a fun day out of just about anything.

Jaws, you got me again.

Dive WIth The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

Have you aquarium dived? Would you?

. . . . . . . . .

I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in Dive With The Sharks as part of that program.

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Photo of the Week 198: Guatemala http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/30/photo-of-the-week-198/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/30/photo-of-the-week-198/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34601

This week marked my final one in Guatemala — at least for now! It’s possible that I might double back en route to Honduras, but as of this morning, I woke up in Belize. It feels damn good to be back by the sea, and even better to have my family by my side.

The past week found me back in Antigua again — that’s a story for another time — and then onward, finally, to Flores. Flores is the gateway to the Mayan ruin of Tikal, which I awoke at 3am to see the sunrise over. Other than that early morning excursion, I mostly spent the week plugging away at my laptop in anticipation of my mom, sister, and cousin’s arrival. I’m super excited about all of my Florida-based posts coming up, which kicked off with an Orlando extravaganza and a small town, real life mermaid tale. And this time next week, I’ll be tuning in with a sneak peek of the jungles and beaches of Belize!

But for now, here’s the candidates for Photo of the Week…

Photo A

Flores, GuatemalaThe adorable town of Flores

Photo B

Monkey at Tikal, GuatemalaA monkey friend in the jungle

Photo C

Tikal, GuatemalaTikal!

Photo D

Parrot at Tikal, GuatemalaA bright (if backlit) bird

Photo E

Sunrise at TikalSunrise over the ruins

Which photo is your favorite?

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Mermaids Are Real: The Magic of Weeki Wachee http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/29/weeki-wachee-mermaids-florida/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/29/weeki-wachee-mermaids-florida/#comments Sun, 29 Mar 2015 12:30:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34600

Guys. I am here today not with a flippant travel tale, but with a serious, significant public service announcement to share. Science and society have lied to you for too long, and I am here to set the record straight.

Mermaids are real.

Weeki Wachee

I arrived in Tampa, Florida, as I have so many other times throughout my life, to visit my dad’s side of the family there. For the majority of the week, my aunts and I kicked around, I worked while they worked, and we enjoyed laid-back evenings with ample couch time, homemade family dinners and group gossip sessions. Over the weekend, however, my dad and sister descended to Florida to join us, and I enlisted the whole crew on a critical mission.

We were going to Weeki Wachee, Florida — land of the mermaids.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

I first learned of the mermaid’s existence in 2013, when my dad forwarded me a feature in the New York Times entitled “The Last Mermaid Show.” It chronicled the drama-filled 68 year history of a Weeki Wachee park, a natural fresh water spring turned mermaid theater — a phenomenon that would never be allowed with today’s strict environmental protection laws. My dad knows me well — it was the perfect combo of aquatic adventure, girly glamor, and Old Florida kitsch. I had to see it for myself.

A little over an hour after leaving Tampa, we approached the town of Weeki Wachee, population 12 — according to the 2004 census, anyway. The mayor herself is a former mermaid, elected at 27 as one of the youngest mayors in the United States. Today, Weeki Wachee Springs are part of the Florida State Park system, and the mermaids who swim its waters are state employees. But it was a long road to get here. Started in 1947 by an enterprising underwater enthusiast who saw the untapped entertainment potential of the beautiful natural springs off US-19, Weeki Wachee was later purchased by ABC and hit its peak as a roadside tourist attraction in the Florida’s heyday of the 1960’s.

Arriving in the early afternoon, we rushed to the theater to nab seats to Fish Tails, the first of two shows performed by mermaids in the park.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

As the curtain rose, I was as giddy as any of the toddlers fidgeting on their wooden bench seats. I can’t tell what my family was more bemused by — the show, or my own enthralled reaction to it. Fish Tails features a heavy dose of nostalgia, reliving the history of mermaids past via a sentimental video as the real-life, current crew wriggles in the chilly waters in front of us.

We were walked through the technical aspects of how the mermaids breathe via hoses, and enter the springs through tunnels and chutes connected to their underground dressing rooms. While the young women waving peacefully through the glass made their feats look easy, in reality they are battling strong currents, buoyancy challenges and low temperatures — it can take new mermaids three to four months of training to be ready for their first show.

At one point, a lazy turtle swam in front of the audience, oblivious to the show he’d unwittingly become a cast member in. Occasionally, rumor has it, manatees do the same.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Having read much of the threat of the park’s impending demise, I was pleased to see that on this sunny Saturday in Central Florida, the crowds had come out. In the early 2000’s, the park was under such financial strain that many former mermaids banded together to create Save Our Tails, a campaign to keep the attraction afloat.

A flush of attention in the form of viral online articles, news segments, an episode of The Simple Life and even a boost given by Jimmy Buffet using the mermaid’s footage in his live performances seems to be getting audiences interested again — at least for now.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

The extravaganza concluded with an underwater unfurling of the American flag as “Proud to be an American” poured out of the loudspeaker. My sister and I whipped our heads around and locked giddy eyes, mouthing in unison the name of a favorite scene from our beloved Parks and Recreation.

First mermaid show of the day down, we set off to see what else Weeki Wachee had to offer. At just $13, an entrance ticket here pales in comparison to the three digit price tags of most Orlando theme parks, though a full day of entertainment can easily be had here between a wildlife boat ride, animal shows, two mermaid performances, a restaurant, and gift shop and a small waterpark that at the time of our visit was closed for the winter season.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

And did I mention that there were peacocks?

Weeki Wachee State Park

With time to spare until our next mermaid show, we meandered over to the daily animal talk, for which our collective expectations were low.

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

We were pleasantly surprised, however, when the woman presenting the bored-looking reptiles seemed to have a real passion for her job, and had the entire audience in stitches several times. We even learned a thing or two.

And then we were off to The Galley for lunch. While we somewhat dismayed to see other visitors smoking, carelessly tossing garbage aside and feeding wild animals within a state park, I can’t say that we were enormously surprised. In fact, we watched with eyebrows raised high in judgement as a park employee threw cookie and chip scraps at the gathered peacocks, and responded to a visitor asking where he could light up, “I don’t give a damn where you smoke.”

We, however, took the high road, and did not participate in any wildlife feeding.

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

Finally, it was time for the second highlight of the day — Weeki Wachee’s own version of The Little Mermaid. Fans of the Disney soundtrack shouldn’t start cuing up Under the Sea just yet — understandably, given the park’s budget woes, they have not licensed to those beloved hits. Instead, the original soundtrack is accompanied by a cast of six characters, a surprise-filled storyline (I personally did not expect a large turtle-suited person to emerge from a giant clamshell mid-scene, anyway), and plenty of special effects.

We were delighted.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Even my sister, who had been hesitant two stick around for round two, agreed that each performance had its own merits and was well worth watching.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

As the curtain lowered again, we waved goodbye to our finned friends with heavy hearts.

But there was still more to see. Before heading back to Tampa, we hopped on a thirty-minute wildlife cruise, fully included in our ticket price. We had a few minutes of waiting impatiently on the boat before departure, which was enough time to school a three-year old on the incorrect manatee facts she was spouting, nab a few selfies, and discuss whether or not we’d return to kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard the springs someday (I, clearly, voted a resounding yes and kicked myself for not knowing those options were available earlier.)

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

The springs were beautiful, and we were all taken aback by the amount of wildlife we actually did spot — fish, turtles, a variety of birds, and even a few shy manatees.

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

Our guide was exactly what you’d expect of a man who’s spent his entire life working in a town with a population of twelve. Discussing the plight of the manatees, he remarked that protection laws were so strict, a person could “lose everything” by harming or harassing a manatee. We nodded vigorously in support of this, though paused comically mid-bob when we realized his head was shaking.

“It’s a shame,” he sighed, referring to the laws protecting the seriously endangered animals. “But that’s just the way it is.”

Weeki Wachee State Park

With chipped paint and hand-drawn signs warning of the dangers of domesticating racoons, Weeki Wachee is worlds away from the polished theme parks of Orlando or the glittering lights of Miami. This is Florida kitsch at its finest, a throwback to an era when roadside attractions ruled the travelsphere, and rows of women in one-piece bathing suits would flag you off the interstate to enjoy their underwater novelty show.

I don’t think I could have loved Weeki Wachee more, and I think it would be a great disservice to Florida’s future should this roadside treasure be relegated to history.

Weeki Wachee State Park

Weeki Wachee State Park

There’s no doubt I’ll be back to Weeki Wachee. But next time? I’m scheming a way to swim on the other side of the glass.

What’s your favorite kitschy roadside attraction?

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The Great Escape: Months 41 and 42 Roundup http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/27/the-great-escape-months-41-and-42-roundup/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/27/the-great-escape-months-41-and-42-roundup/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34549

Note: Yup, I’m a little behind posting roundups. After the next one, however, we should be all caught up. Sorry for any confusion my lazy posting has caused!

From Halloween to my birthday to Thanksgiving to Christmas, this was a period of big celebrations! And big heapings of time spent with some very special people. Over these two months I crossed three countries, flitting from my chosen home in Koh Tao to my given one in New York, with a few notable stops in between. While I didn’t cover any exotic new ground, I did revel in the familiar comforts of some of my favorite places in the world.

It was two months of hellos, goodbyes, and big hugs. Hold on to your keyboards, guys — this is going to be an emotional one!

Koh TaoKoh Tao

Where I’ve Been

Eleven days on Koh Tao / Thailand

• Three days in Bangkok / Thailand

• Eight days in Phnom Penh / Cambodia

• Three days in NYC / USA

• One day in Philadelphia / USA

• Eight Days in Albany / USA

• Nine days in New York City / USA

• Seventeen days in Albany / USA

BangkokBangkok

Highlights

• Returning to Koh Tao just in time for Halloween! One of my favorite holidays (okay, fine, I do basically say that about all of them), I wasn’t able to dress up last year as I’d just returned from the Inca Trail — so I was more determined than ever to make this one amazing. And it was! It was a nightmare trying to get our costumes together while running around Thailand, but I adored the end results, and getting to dress up with three of my favorite ladies in Thailand. All the friends, all the fun.

• Showing Heather around Koh Tao. Heather and I share a deep Thailand connection (she has the same on-and-off, first love relationship with nearby Koh Pha Ngan as I do with Koh Tao), though after years of friendship and five countries traveled together, we’d yet to cross paths in the Land of Smiles together! This trip finally changed that, and I loved getting to show her around Koh Tao and introduce her to my friends. I swelled with pride when she said she could understand what kept bringing me back.

• The romantic Sai Nuan getaway. Not only was this the sweetest birthday surprise of all time, it was a reminder that even after so many years on a small island there is always more to do and try. Rain and bugs and other mishaps aside, it was a highlight of my time in Thailand and is now added to my must-do list for every time I return.

• On the blog front, starting hotel reviews. After years of “sorry, can’t comment” responses to emails requesting hotel recommendations on Koh Tao, I finally decided to do something constructive — I started an island hotel review series. I’m looking forward to slowly adding to it over time and finding more great places to recommend to visitors of my little island paradise!

• My birthday. My twenty-fifth birthday will be the birthday that all future birthdays are measured against — I don’t think it can ever be topped. I was spoiled with humbling amounts of love and thoughtfulness and attention and it’s hard to shake that grateful feeling that I really might be the luckiest girl in the world.

• Leaving Koh Tao is forever a low light. But this tearful goodbye, in which four friends saw me all the way to the pier despite a full week of festivities in which they’d more than exceeded their friendship duties, had me feeling all kinds of nostalgic about this little rock. I am so eternally thankful for my life here, and the time and love I’ve spent building it has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

• One final Bangkok blowout. This was a fun one — showing Ian around Bangkok for the first time felt like a big responsibility, and in seeking out places I knew he’d love I found a few new favorites myself, including Adhere to the 13th Blues Bar, Iron Fairies, and the Muse Rooftop Speakeasy. I think I’ve got the Bangkok bar scene pretty much nailed — my next mission is to start discovering some great restaurants there too.

• Watching the morning alms. On the other end of the spectrum from our nightlife indulging, waking up before dawn to observe an alms ceremony in Bangkok was a special memory, and produced some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken there. Damn, I love that city!

• Crashing with Wes. He’s just one of those friends where it’s always a joy.

• Pretending to live in Phnom Penh. I would love to make it a reality someday, but I didn’t mind playing for a week in the meantime. Riverfront sunrise runs, office hours on the balcony, evenings at trendy expat hangouts like Meat and Drink and Library — I was ready to start apartment hunting by the time eight days were up.

• Overlapping with Janine! Janine is one of my favorite new humans on Koh Tao, and it was such amazing luck that my last twenty-four hours in Phnom Penh overlapped with her first few. Southeast Asia is such a small world.

• Fulfilling a promise. I always told dear family friend Betsy, one of the Baackes sister godmother crew, that I’d visit the school she fundraised to build in rural Cambodia when I returned. And I did! It was a really special and emotional visit, and I’m so happy I was able to give Betsy a real time report of where her love and money went.

• Surprise! They seriously got me — and I welled up for days afterwards thinking of all the sneaky effort my family and friends put into making sure my big birthday was celebrated stateside, too. I have a lot of angst about fading from the lives of my loved ones when I’m away, and this was pretty much the greatest antidote to that anxiety a girl could ask for.

• Sister bonding. I see and talk to my little sister Liv all the time (she might even say a little too often, at times) but my big sisters are sadly a different story. So I was super excited that this trip home featured face time with both of them — a quick jaunt to Philly to watch Margaret run a marathon and a hop over to Amherst to have dinner with Sarah and co. and watch my niece Emma kill it on her high school basketball team. I’ve need to make sure my summer involves time with all of them again as well.

Showing off Thanksgiving to recent New York transplant Sam. I’ve always adored every minute of Thanksgiving, and getting to see it through the eyes of a craft-and-cooking-loving Australian first timer made it all the more special. And did I mention the amazing pear crumble and cranberry jello shot combo we created?

• Attending the Women’s Prison Association holiday fundraiser. A great cause, the cast or Orange is the New Black, and an excuse to dress up in colored tights and high heels? I could not be more in.

Stumbling upon — literally — a protest in response to the Eric Garner grand jury decision. I’d just walked out of Grand Central station, and, finding no cabs, decided to walk down to my friend’s apartment in Murray Hill. Blocks later, I walked straight into one of the most passionate protests I’d ever witnessed. Rolling my suitcase behind me, I decided to join. Over the next few days I’d encounter similar marches and individual protests and shows of activism — including a twelve-year old girl silently taping up heartbreakingly homemade signs — and each time I felt proud to be part of a society standing up and saying no more. Change is coming, I can feel it — and I felt lucky to witness a small part of it with my own eyes.

• Couch crashing. In Manhattan, I stayed with my old high school friend Steve and his amazing girlfriend and his adorable new puppy. Steve is one of those friends I have zero contact with when I am out of country, but he always makes the biggest fuss about my return. In Brooklyn, I stayed with my usual college crew, and felt just as at home as ever. I love that even after all these years I still have places to call (temporary) home in the city.

• Manhattan memories. I spend most of my city time based in Brooklyn, so it was kind of fun to run around Manhattan for once while I was showing Ian around. A night in Harlem, a double date with my best friend and her man, and a snowy stroll through Rockefeller Center are all cherished new Manhattan memories. (Of course, I had a darn good time dragging him everywhere from the Prospect Park ice skating rink to the Brooklyn Bridge over on the other side, too.)

• Hometown pride. I was pretty much bursting with it when we made our way Upstate for Ian’s last few days. A live John Oliver show at the Palace Theater, a boozy weekend brunch at City Beer Hall and a nightcap at our very own Speakeasy? What is this crazy cool city I’m suddenly from!

• Taking baby photos for an old crib-mate. Isn’t it crazy when the people you’ve known since you were babies start… having babies? Over the holidays, I had the honor of taking the first family portraits for dear family friend Patrick (I wrote a memorial post to his father last year) and his brand new baby. It was a really happy moment.
• Upgrading my phone. After two years my iPhone battery was all but dead and I was constantly waging the storage space battle. Upgrading to a 32GB model may have been the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, and that includes the ones to go to college and to not experiment with heroin.

• My Christmas dinner party. It’s a huge investment of time, money and love, but it brings me so much joy to have all my hometown friends sitting around the same table. I really cherish this tradition so dearly.

• Dressin’ up my dog. So, you’re saying buying reindeer antlers and making your dog wear them wasn’t the highlight of your holidays? Seriously though, pausing to take family portraits on Christmas Eve was one of the best moves I made. Even though I was being a cranky grinch all week (see below) I look back at those pictures and remember that I was with my family, and that’s all that matters.

Phnom PenhPhnom Penh

Lowlights

• After seven weeks of drama-free happiness with a rental motorbike, I returned back to Koh Tao to find my luck had run out. I went through four bikes in as many days, each one breaking down or otherwise leaving me stranded. Not the greatest tragedy, but certainly not ideal when I was trying to get both Heather and I around, and make the most of my final days on the island.

• Again, file this under more annoying than anything: the Koh Tao spa that I visited literally an average of 1.5 times per week for two months decided to alert me to the fact that they have a frequent visitor discount card on my very last visit. I quickly calculated I could have had two to three free massages in the time I’d been there for all the baht I’d forked over. My smiling inquiry into why this hadn’t been brought to my attention, oh, some twenty plus massages ago was met with an equally broad grin and a headshake. Frequent Spa-er Fail.

• On a more serious note: Cambodia. It’s always a heavy place to visit. It will break your heart. I have endless love for the place, yet I know that punched-in-the-gut feeling of casually observing poverty there very well. Confronting an sometimes uncomfortable reality is par for the course in Phnom Penh.
• So many goodbyes. These months were full of them. To friends, to surrogate family, to the guy I’d been dating. The only consolation? Being welcomed back into the arms of my stateside crew again.
• ER drama. I’ve already recounted this in more than enough detail, but spending my first day back in the US in the Manhattan Emergency Room was not exactly what I’d planned.

• Gas leak. The fact that there was a gas leak in our rental apartment was annoying — the fact that our host didn’t even respond to my emails about it after the fact? Not cool at all.

• New York nostalgia. In my six weeks back in New York, I spent only about ten days in the five boroughs, the rest of it spent ensconced upstate getting operated on and recovering. Normally, I’d go for a much more even time split, and while I love Albany I definitely missed my city time — I left NYC having not even touched base with some of my dear friends there, and I felt a little stir crazy spending so much time Upstate in the dead of winter.

• The freakin’ weather. You guys. Humans were not meant to live like this. That’s my theory and my seasonal depression and I are sticking to it.

• Fibroadenomas. You guys are probably pretty sick of hearing about my boobs by now — I know I am. However, with the worst of it well behind me, I am trying to focus on all the positives — the many people that came together for me, the fact that I am healthy, and the truly heartfelt response to that post.

• Holiday blues. Christmas was a strange struggle for me, though as usual blogging about it was cathartic and helped me understand my actions and emotions much more clearly. A lot of my usual beloved traditions were a bust this year, and I reacted with all the grace of an unnapped toddler. At the time I don’t think I realized what a toll my body was under, and looking back it’s no surprise it had such an effect on my mental state.

• An ugly truth. On that note, all my medical dramas this month kind of opened a Pandora’s Box for me regarding my physical vanity. I struggled to relax at my own surprise party because I was so concerned about my wonky eye and lack of makeup, and my first concern at finding out my surgery went awry was not how my immune system would recover but what scarring it would leave behind. Realizing how self conscious I am about my physical appearance was a big, unattractive wake up call.

Albany, New YorkAlbany

Budget

Month 41 was up there with some of the most expensive months I’ve ever had — in addition to my typical travel expenses I forked over my annual $155 PADI Divemaster fees and $45 to change my dive computer battery, splurged on two nights in a $100 hotel, reluctantly spent $100 for a last minute, one way train to Philadelphia after my emergency room fiasco and paid $254 to fly round trip from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. On the victory side, I scored my flight back to New York using frequent flyer miles, and paid just $88 in fees.

Month 42 was no bargain either. While time at home should be pretty cheap for me as I’m paying zip for accommodation and often eating groceries graciously provided by my mama (I need to treat her more often, though I do try to pitch in), I still spend loads on entertainment with friends I rarely get to see, and  occasional big electronic upgrades. For example, over the holidays I spent $150 upgrading the now-defunct phone I’d had for two years, threw $250 into a big Christmas party for my friends, and spent a cringe-worthy boatload on dinners, shows and other freewheeling fun.

Work

Luckily, I was earning. Month 41 was my lowest earning month of 2014 and I spent more than I made, but Month 42 was a windfall and I ended up back in black.

Some freelance writing, design, and even photography as well as personal projects (like Wanderland Wearables!) kept me busy while at home. I even cleaned out my closet at my mom’s house and unloaded a few things on eBay — an annual ritual for me.

On the blog side, I did a bit of branded content and social media stuff, and had great months for affiliate advertising. Surprisingly, I also had a welcome boost in the link sales I thought dried up long ago. I don’t count on them anymore and don’t spent time pursuing them, but they were a nice bonus when they landed in my lap.

New YorkNew York

Health and Fitness

These months were, overall, a bit of a health and fitness fail — as the holidays are for many. My final two weeks in Thailand were defined by decadent meals, over the top celebrations and zero attempts at exercise. In Phnom Penh I tried to get back on the wagon somewhat by checking out the local yoga studio and going for two sunrise runs, but it did little to offset my poor eating.

Once I got back to Albany I was initially buoyed by being back at some of my favorite exercise classes — I scored a great Black Friday package at a local barre studio that I got really into and I managed to nab a few BodyPump guest passes at my old gym. When I was in city. I took advantage of the gyms in my friend’s apartment buildings and checked out a new low-cost community yoga class. But nothing was enough to match up to my festive holiday face-stuffing.

And of course, there was the whole lumpectomy-followed-by-a-surgical-site-infection thing, too.

What’s Next

South-bound! Three weeks in New Orleans and various Florida cities, followed by a big hop to Central America.

ChristmasThe North Pole

Have I mentioned you guys are the best and it wouldn’t be the same without you?

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Onboard for Orlando http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/24/onboard-for-orlando/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/24/onboard-for-orlando/#comments Tue, 24 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=33308

For some reason, Florida doesn’t have the most exciting reputation as a travel destination. I never really understand why — the weather is amazing, natural wonders abound, and there are some pretty fantastic cities dotting those endless coastlines. Over two and a half weeks this January, I’d discover even more reasons to get excited about the Sunshine State, a place I return to over and over again thanks to the friends and family I have scattered across the peninsula.

I was thrilled when I found a cheap, convenient flight from New Orleans to Orlando on my favorite domestic airline, Southwest. Thanks to the frequent flyer points I racked up through their credit card sign up bonus, it was the first of many free flights I’ll be taking around the US this year!

Florida Travel Blog

Lucky for me, one of my favorite Florida residents lives within easy driving distance of Orlando — and she’s also got the job flexibility to come join me for a mid-week getaway. Last March, I couldn’t believe what a magical time I had at Dineyland using some my generous Dad’s Disney Vacation Club points. So this year, I asked if I could use a few more to check out a resort I’ve been strangely obsessed with for years — Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Landing late at Orlando International Airport and hopping on a free shuttle to the Disney complex, I fell fast asleep, ready to burst awake the next morning and explore.

Orlando_Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Bracelet

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Lobby

When Angie arrived I was giddily exploring, Kidani Village, the all-suite complex built specifically for Disney Vacation Club members. Though I’d read online that the neighboring Jambo House complex had slighter better facilities, we definitely appreciated the extra spacious quarters available at Kidani Village (which was all that was available for the busy post-holiday season by the time I booked.)

I mean, check out these digs! Though listed as a one bedroom villa, this room could actually comfortably sleep five thanks to a pull-out couch for two and a pull-out daybed for one in the living room. And with a huge master bath and an additional full bath off the living room, you could easily cram a rambunctious family inside.

That said, we were pretty happy it was just us girls.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Believe me, this jacuzzi tub in the master bath did not go unappreciated. I enjoyed a soak my first night, and Angie’s little sister Rae jumped in when she dropped by later in the week for a slumber party.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Mostly, though, it was all about the balconies — I wasn’t going to go if I couldn’t nab a savannah facing room. The novelty of waking up, flinging open the curtains and seeing if there was a pair of giraffes, a bunch of antelopes or a herd of zebras in my sightline did not ebb.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village One Bedroom Savannah View Suite

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Savannah

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Savannah

Though we were well into January, Christmas was still alive at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Impressed as always by the creativity shown by the Disney Imagineers, I decided to take the free “African Inspired, Disney Designed” tour, one of dozens of entertainment options on offer at the lodge — many of which, including an weekly African wine tasting, were adult-focused.

Both my lovely South African guide and I were surprised to find I was the only one on the tour, but over the next hour I got lost in the amazing stories of how the art and culture of various tribes through Africa inspired the smallest details in the hotel. I couldn’t help but think how most of them would be overlooked by the majority of guests. But Disney did it anyway, and I think that’s what makes them special.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Christmas Decorations

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Christmas Decorations

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Christmas Decorations

I also loved learning about the outreach program specific to Animal Kingdom lodge which brings young men and women from the African continent, mostly South Africa, to work in the lodges as game keepers, safari guides, receptionists, restaurant staff, and overall cultural ambassadors.

It really was a fun touch to get to chat to so many young people from Africa over my three nights at the lodge, all of them as enthusiastic about the opportunity as my friend Lindsay was about her own work with Disney.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Lobby

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village

After much mulling over, Angie and I decided not to go to the Animal Kingdom Theme Park. I kind of regret it now. But at the time, the price — almost $100 — seemed overwhelming, and Angie’s cousin who works in the park told us that they were reaching capacity every day of the week, meaning lines would be long and the park would be crazy crowded.

Luckily there was plenty to entertain us on-site, like two lovely pools and several January-appropriate jacuzzis.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Pool

If we had a complaint, it was an obvious one — the prices were insane. Luckily we had a full kitchen in our suite and I used it to make my own breakfast every morning, but I almost choked one day when an afternoon snack of a few clementines and a Diet Coke came to $7.

Still, we wanted to get the full Animal Kingdom Lodge experience, and so we decided to try out one of the three highly-rated onsite restaurants. Jiko and Boma were both tempting, but Sanaa won out for being right in Kidani Village — the other two were a chilly evening stroll away in Jambo House. I do admit that I lost my temper when trying to call from our room and make a reservation, a task which apparently requires your credit card, billing address, your mother’s maiden name and the serial code on your birth certificate. Finally frustrated enough to slam down the phone, we simply strolled the five minutes from our room and waited all of two minutes for a table. Maybe we just got lucky, but we gave a serious eye-roll to the reservations push from there forward.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Sanaa Restaurant

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Sanaa Restaurant

Sanaa is an African-Indian fusion restaurant, and I fell in love with the interiors and the savannah views during my tour. We returned for dinner, but in retrospect I’d suggest trying to hit the restaurant for lunch in order to take advantage of those front row savannah seats.

Feeling adventurous — and cheap — we decided to split a bunch of appetizers and sides. Still, we managed to over-order, ending up with a nan service, an appetizer sampler that included lamb kefka sliders and potato and pea samosas, and a salad sampler that included exotic options like bhel puri — whatever the hell that is. And, of course, order a wine flight each. Despite splitting what was essentially three appetizers and one drink, it was still a pricey meal at $40 — but I felt well worth it for the experience.

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Sanaa Restaurant

Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village Sanaa Restaurant

The next night, we headed to Downtown Disney for dinner, a movie, and some evening strolling. Long story short? We were disappointed. The fancy dine-in movie theater was a mess, and the entire complex felt like a construction site.

As we checked out of Disney the next morning, I turned to Angie and confessed that while I’d loved the hotel, I felt like some of the magic was missing from our overall Disney experience. She confessed to feeling the same. Compared to my Disneyland weekend in California, this was a bit of a letdown. I’d loved the compact size of Disneyland — we parked once and never returned to the car until it was time to go, easily walking between the parks, Downtown Disney, and our hotel. Here, Downtown Disney was a dump, we had to drive everywhere through the sprawling Disney complex, and though I don’t have direct comparisons to back this up, I felt like things were more expensive. From the airport check-in to the hotel check-out, things seemed a little less polished, a little more tired, a little less magic.

I wonder how much of my meh feeling was compounded by not going into the Animal Kingdom park — I’m sure that would have given the trip a more cohesive feeling. Alas, perhaps I’ll return someday to find out. But in the meantime, Disneyland might just be more my jam!

Still, we had one more Orlando stop to make before hitting the road back to Angie’s native Jacksonville.

Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Studios Orlando

The Orth family is well-entrenched at Universal Studios — Angie’s done PR for them throughout her career, and Rae is currently on the payroll. That made this visit extra fun. I loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories from both sisters as we strolled through the theme park.

Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Studios Orlando Seuss Landing

Universal Studios Orlando Seuss Landing

Universal Studios Orlando Seuss Landing

One thing I learned? I’m fairly Universal illiterate, having to admit sheepishly over and over again that I hadn’t seen the movies or TV shows that most of the rides were based on. Including, much to Angie’s horror and heartbreak, Harry Potter. I was a huge Seuss Landing fan, however.

Despite my complete disinterest in the fantasy genre, I had to admit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lived up the hype. I was in awe of all the details Angie pointed out to me, and butterbeer ice cream? Worth a trip to Orlando alone.

Universal Studios Orlando Harry Potter

And though we didn’t have time to properly explore, I was wowed by Universal’s CityWalk — it was everything I had been looking for from Downtown Disney, and more. I will definitely be returning there for my evening entertainment next time I’m in Orlando, thank you very much.

Universal Studios Orlando

And then we were on our way to Jacksonville. I was excited to explore a new city for the first time, but we were foiled by the lowest temperatures of the year — it snowed, guys! But my two nights there were not for naught — I met my dear friend’s sweet soon-to-be fiancé, toured Angie Away Base Camp, and spent time with even more members of the Orth clan and crew.

I will be back someday to see Jacksonville for real. Thanks for having me, Miss Angie!

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Universal Studios Orlando

And with that, I was soon off again. Stay tuned for Tampa!

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Photo of the Week 197: Guatemala http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/23/photo-of-the-week-197-guatemala/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/23/photo-of-the-week-197-guatemala/#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34219

Greetings from Guatemala City! I spent the last week unexpectedly returning to Antigua and then, thrillingly, heading back to the beach for a weekend in Monterrico with my friends from Brooklyn. While Monterrico is a low-key destination mostly popular with domestic tourists, I was thrilled to have my toes back in the sand, and to put in time with some familiar faces. Last night we made our way to Guatemala City, where they are working on an exciting architecture project, and this morning I am off again.

It’s my last week in Guatemala — that went fast! I’m working my way towards the Belizean border, because next week I’ll be greeting my mom, sister and cousin at the airport for a girl’s trip around the Caribbean coast. I’m overwhelmed with excitement at sharing this time them — it’s going to be a highlight of Central America, I know.

Happy Monday!

Photo A

Antigua, GuatemalaBack in Antigua

Photo B

Monterrico, GuatemalaBlack sand beaches on the Pacific Slope of Guatemala

Photo C

Monterrico, GuatemalaMy favorite kind of coco

Photo D

Monterrico, GuatemalaBeach vibes

Photo E

Cemetary at Monterrico, GuatemalaA colorful cemetery in Monterrico

Which photo is your favorite?

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New Orleans from Above http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/19/new-orleans-vip-sightseeing-flight-viator/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/19/new-orleans-vip-sightseeing-flight-viator/#comments Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=33305

My time in New Orleans was up, and it was time to fly away from what was quickly becoming one of my favorite world cities. But first, it was time to fly over it.

Viator Air Tour New Orleans

The weather was somewhat moody throughout my visit, and our VIP Sightseeing Flight got bumped back until it could get bumped back no more — my final evening in the Big Easy, just hours before I had to board a much bigger plane pointed towards Florida.

But as soon as we arrived and were handed our basket of white wine, cheese, crackers, and gourmet chocolate, all scheduling stress was very quickly forgotten.

Sunset Flight Over New Orleans

I was joined by my sister and her friend and fellow teacher Taylor, who were as pumped as I was about seeing their city from the air. We were also just a tad bit anxious — while I’ve been lucky to take quite a few air tours in my day, I find small planes slightly more intimidating than their helicopter cousins.

Good thing we had that wine.

Sunset Flight Over New Orleans

Scenic Flight New OrleansSipping wine in flight from a plastic cup — only in New Orleans

Our pilot picked up on our jitters and greatly enjoyed joking through this thick Louisiana accent about being honored that we were his first ever guests as head pilot. I laughed at first, but by the third time he made a joke along those lines I was actually getting ready to start asking for credentials.

But soon, there was a city unfurling below us to offer distraction. There were the lingering ravages of Hurricane Katrina — a Six Flags park that was flooded and abandoned, its star attraction roller coaster still half underwater; errant boats overturned and forgotten. Later, my research revealed that the eerie Six Flags remains have found new life as a movie set for films like the upcoming Jurassic Park.

Sunset Flight Over New Orleans

Viator Air Tour New Orleans

We timed our forty-five minute flight to take in the sunset, which we hoped would allow us to get a taste of both the daytime and evening flight options. It turned out to be a spectacular choice — the city was undoubtedly more attractive lit up for the evening, and the dusky, muted sky allowed just enough light for photographs.

Scenic Flight New Orleans

Viator Air Tour New Orleans

New Orleans is not a city with a distinctive skyline — it’s most famous district, The French Quarter, looks like nothing more than a dark rectangle from the air. But Downtown danced with life, and we squealed at the sight of the Superdome.

At one point, to Olivia’s loud protests, I even took control of the plane. Feeling the plane respond to my commands, even for a brief moment, was thrilling.

Scenic Flight New Orleans

Viator Air Tour New Orleans

Towards the end of the flight, the pilot asked us if we liked rollercoasters. We hesitated at the question, suspicious of what action our answer might trigger. He tried another tactic. “D0 you trust me?,” he asked, and we grudgingly admitted that by this point, having been safely navigating over the city for the better half of an hour, we did indeed.

And then the intercom filled with ear-piercing shrill screams, as we reacted to the wheel jamming down and then sharply up, the plane’s trajectory suddenly taking on the path of a track-less roller coaster. It was one of the greatest adrenaline shots of my life.

Sunset Flight Over New Orleans

Making our way back to solid ground, we cracked up when we realized Taylor’s was one of the many voices blaring landing coordinates over the intercom. “Whisky, tango, foxtrot,” she mumbled into her headpiece. To our laughter, she looked bewildered. “Haven’t you always wanted to say that?”

And we had one more surprise upon landing — The New Orleans Lakefront Airport lit up in all its Art Deco glory. Later, while poking around on Instagram, I discovered that there’s actually a fully restored café inside — a must do for my inevitable return to the city.

Scenic Flight New Orleans

Viator Air Tour New Orleans

Whether you’re a first time visitor or a long time veteran of New Orleans, I can’t think of a better place to toast to the city than from hundreds of feet in the air above it.

Lots of love, New Orleans — see you next time!

. . . . . . . . .

I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

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The Great Escape: Month 41 Roundup http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/17/the-great-escape-month-41-roundup/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/17/the-great-escape-month-41-roundup/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 15:05:02 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34531

Note: This roundup might be a tad late. Expect another coming up next week! (Why do I keep forgetting to publish these things when I write in my “roundup notes” file on an almost daily basis?)

Home sweet home away from home.

Traveling around Thailand — especially to places I’ve been once or twice or a billion times before, as I did this month — isn’t really challenging or exotic or life changing. It’s familiar. It’s fun. And it feels good. And that made this month fabulous.

My seven straight weeks in Koh Tao were up before I knew it, and I wasn’t quite ready to move on. Luckily, I wasn’t going far — just a quick jaunt with some of my favorite people around one of my favorite countries in the world.

Koh Tao Travel Blog PostKoh Tao

Where I’ve Been

• Ten (more) days on Koh Tao / Thailand

• Two days on Koh Samui / Thailand

• Five days in Bangkok / Thailand

• Four days in Pai / Thailand

• Six days in Chiang Mai / Thailand

Koh Tao Travel Blog PostKoh Tao

Highlights

• Being asked to speak at and participate in the first ever Koh Tao Writers Retreat. I found the sessions eye-opening and I really enjoyed speaking to the group about my journey with blogging. Erin, who runs the retreats, is a gem for bringing this creative community to Koh Tao! I’m looking forward to attending future retreats (she’s hoping to run them monthly) upon my return. Plus — this was my first ever paid speaking gig. Woo hoo!

• Squeezing it all in. My last ten days on Koh Tao were hectic, as suddenly I frantically tried to fit in all the things I hadn’t quite gotten around to yet — but it was the best kind of busy. Some of my favorite moments? A big group steak dinner night at Booker’s, my final Sunday Spa Day with my girl Janine, and an imported cheese and cider night with my friends Paivi and Anna, right in my own living room. It all went by so fast.

• Our group vacation to Koh Samui. I can’t explain the levels of giddiness in the air as a bunch of crusty Koh Tao expats boarded the ferry for a luxury weekend in Koh Samui. And those silliness levels stayed sky-high all weekend as we ate, drank, sang, and ate some more. Other than the initial errands we ran upon arrival we didn’t leave the villa once. It was perfect and I hope to plan something similar every year, specifically during the rainy season when it’s easier for my business-owning friends to take time off, and these crazy villas can be had for a song.

• Just making our flight. When the herd thinned and Brian, Chris and I were left to make our way to Bangkok, we had all the time in the world to make it to our ferry and connecting flight. There was not even the slightest of time crunches. Which makes it hilarious, and very very us, that we ended up sitting tensely in the cab, offering to pay our driver double to break the time space continuum and deliver us on time, and sprinting up the ferry just as the ramp was being rolled up. But hey — we made it! And we had a lot of laughs for our (self imposed) troubles. Even the monotony of being in transit is a good time if you’re with the right people.

Koh Tao Travel Blog PostYou guessed it! More Koh Tao

• Finding the perfect Bangkok hotel. I think I’ve raved enough about U Sukhumvit, but believe me, you will find me back on that rooftop within the year.

• Finally making it to a Bangkok Muay Thai match. I’ve been dying to attend one for years, but usually tend to find myself in Bangkok alone. While there are many activities I enjoy in isolation, attending a rowdy sporting event is not one of them. But it was worth the wait — I can’t imagine having a better time than I did with our crew of eight. Next time I’m checking out Lumpini!

• Being one of the boys in Bangkok. Okay, I mean Heather was there too, but we both ended up throwing sense and sensibility (and work and workouts) to the wind and just bro-ing out for our five days in Bangkok. From 3am french fry fights to mooning fellow pool goers to gambling at said Muay Thai match, it was exactly what I needed at the time.

• A dinner to remember. There was one notable exception to our un-civilization — our evening eating a home-cooked dinner with the Bangkok skyline in the background, a result of the new startup pairing talented locals with curious traveler. It was a really unique experience with delicious food and great company. While Heather and I’s experience in Chiang Mai didn’t go quite as well, I still can’t wait to use the company again.

• Running a 6K — really running it! And finishing it in under an hour! My last attempt at a race run was great fun but I ended up walking quite a bit. This time I ran the entire route except for water stops, and it was such a euphoric feeling crossing that finish line. I’m so glad Heather talked Chris and I into joining her — and that my team was so entertaining and understanding of my height handicap. (Small legs, people! Small legs!)

• Our overnight chariot to Chiang Mai. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow our overnight train north from Bangkok was the most luxurious rail experience Heather or I had ever had. Having taken many a night train before, we don’t exactly know how we ended up in this magical coach where beds ran perpendicular instead of parallel to the walkway and each set of beds shared an electrical outlet, but we sincerely hope that someday it happens again (it didn’t on our Southbound return from Bangkok, which was back to normal).

• Returning to Pai. While my original plan had me spending several weeks here and I was somewhat bummed that didn’t come to fruition, I soaked up every minute of our blissful four days. In many ways it was a repeat of my first trips — staying at the same adorable guesthouse, eating at the same amazing restaurants, buying another piece of art for my Dad from the same artist’s market. I can’t wait to return again — this is one of my absolute favorite spots in Thailand.

• Exploring Tham Lod cave. And while I loved pressing repeat, I also loved doing something new. I wasn’t so keen to do any excursions from Pai, having explored the outskirts by motorbike on my last trip. But Heather talked me into one, and I’m so glad she did. We had a blast riding around the bamboo rafts, photographing the creepy caverns and enjoying the very Thai-ness of this gem of a national park.

• Connecting with friends in Chiang Mai. It was so amazing to catch up with Diana, Torre, and a ton of other blogging friends — plus meet some of Heather’s Thailand crew. I love that I have so many friends spread across Southeast Asia.

• My Chiang Mai rituals. Y’all know I’m not the biggest fan of Chiang Mai, in general. But I do love my routine there — gorge on lunch at the same overpriced cafe, get a manicure at the same nail spa, and eat dinner at the same cheap street stall. I couldn’t seem to locate my old favorite teak yoga studio, but I replaced it with two new obsessions — my favorite BodyPump class from back in the US at a North Gate gym, and The North Gate Jazz Club for evenings out.

• FINDING BANANA MILK. Guys, I can’t tell you what a heavy heart I had when I arrived back in Thailand to the realizations that banana milk was nowhere to be found. I scoured 7-11’s from Bangkok to Chumphon to no avail. So you can imagine my excitement when I strolled into a Chiang Mai minimart and found an entire row of them staring back at me from the refrigerated aisle. I bought the store out of stock — and I have the picture to prove it.

• Hiking through Doi Suthep National Park. Not that I have too much to compare it to (something I’d like to change), but this was the most beautiful trek I’ve ever done in Thailand — and the history was fascinating, too! It was a truly wonderful experience.

• Yi Peng. This wasn’t just a highlight of my month — more like of my year, and possibly my travels entirely. A lot of planning and stressing went into getting us there, but in the end all the pieces fell together perfectly, and I could not have asked for a more special experience. I still get all dreamy just thinking about it.

• Realizing how much I missed Koh Tao. Even away for just two and a half weeks, it was amazing how much this traveler missed sitting still on my favorite island. As someone who has frequently wondered if their wanderlust will ever abate enough to make a home again, it was a peaceful feeling.

• Traveling with Heather. Always a highlight! From laptop parties to intense photoshoot sessions to daily foot massages (seriously, this girl pushes my already out-of-control spa addiction to new levels), I haven’t found anyone I prefer to travel with.

Koh Samui Blog PostKoh Samui

Lowlights and Lessons

• FOMO kills. I’m sure we can all agree I do more than enough gushing about Koh Tao, but there are some downsides to basing myself there. First of all, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, for the uninformed.) It is a dangerous, terrible affliction, and it means that I either go out most nights or stay in, do distracted by my condition that I am unable to focus or be productive in any way. I will have to search for a cure considering the long stay that I have planning coming up.

• Landlord drama. It seems to follow me. For reasons I don’t quite understand, there was a ton of awkward tension and stress over extending my apartment stay for an extra week after what was initially agreed upon. From what I could tell I’d been a model tenant, and it was the middle of the lowest low season the island had ever seen. So why I was told there was no vacancy and I’d have to make other arrangements baffled me — and resulted in me spending a day in tears trying to find a reasonable replacement. In the end I pushed back and was able to stay put, albeit for a little more money than I anticipated, which left me both grateful for not having moved and frustrated that I had stressed for nothing. Such a serious bummer as I would have loved to return to that apartment again in the future.

• Visas need tending to. Guys, I don’t know at which year of travel you are supposed to stop making ridiculous travel mistakes, but it is CLEARLY NOT YEAR FOUR. Just around day 58 of my stay in Thailand, someone made a passing comment about a visa extension, causing a lightbulb to go off in my head that I in fact needed a visa extension, and I needed it in the next 48 hours! Thankfully I was headed to Koh Samui, home to an immigration office, regardless, so I was able to course correct with little drama. But the scary thing is I didn’t remember the thought of a visa extension popping into my head ever — not when I got the visa back in New York, not when I entered the country, not never. And who knows when it would have had someone not jogged my memory just in time. Serious face palm, self, serious face palm.

Bangkok Travel Blog PostBangkok

• I am not always the hostess with the mostess. The more I travel alone, the more I am simultaneously thrilled and flustered by traveling with others — especially when I am the host, like I was in Samui. The weekend was overwhelmingly fabulous, but I felt anxious and personally responsible anytime even the slightest thing went askew. Curbing my “frantic hosting,” as one friend coined it, will be a lifelong challenge for me, I think.

• Freelancing is feast or famine. And unfortunately you have no say in when the feast comes. After weeks of doing next to no design work, several jobs fell in my life right as I was departing the island. I felt I had no choice but to take them on, which led to a ton of stress on my part and I’m sure a fair amount of annoyance on the part of the client when I was delivering at the last minute. Not ideal, my friends.

• The road to Pai is paved with vomit bags. Guys, that mini bus ride is no joke! Next time, I definitely need to stay longer, if only to put more buffer days between the three hour torture sessions required to enter and exit Pai.

• You can’t control the weather. Well, duh. But we were pretty bummed that the one afternoon it rained was the one we’d taken a tour on, and we had to skip our post-caving waterfall stop as a result. Ah well, we’ve both seen a lot of waterfalls.

• Travel is hit or miss. And our leather workshop in Chiang Mai was a serious miss.

• Mail in Thailand is not as cheap as I remembered. I spent a eye-popping figure this month posting stuff home this month rather than carry it around with me. As time goes on I feel more and more burdened by things — when will I finally learn to truly travel light!

• Bangkok is changing. I touched on this in a recent post, but I feel deeply saddened by what seem to be irreparable changes to the character of Bangkok. Yes, they can go back to not checking IDs and keeping ridiculous late night hours, but can they bring back the pop up combi van bars that used to line Soi 11? Can they bring back that air of playful seediness that makes the city special? I know I’m romanticizing the unruly, but the last thing the world needs is another Times Square. I fear someday we’ll be sitting around harping on the good ol’ days, when Bangkok had less rules and more rough edges.

Pai Blog PostPai

Budget

You know how budget guidebooks are always preaching the $30 a day lifestyle for Thailand? My friends and I were discussing that at one point this month and having a big ‘ol laugh about it. Is it possible? Heck yes. Did we have even the slightest interest in sticking to it this month? Nah.

Sometimes you just gotta splurge — and when you’re working on the road and constantly replenishing your funds, it’s a much appreciated possibility. Shoestring travelers will gasp as this, but I spent $1,854 in Month 41 — over $66 per day.

I have found that despite the fact that accommodation and some other costs are shared, traveling with others is always more expensive for me. More big nights out, more lavish meals, more splurging on fun activities (the only exception being transportation — I’m much more likely to take cheap local transit if I have someone else to laugh through it with). My biggest cost for the month was accommodation at $453, with food coming in at a close second at $410. Miscellaneous was a huge cost for the month at $292, which included the usuals like laundry, toiletries and phone credit plus outliers like all my Christmas gifts, my annual clothes-buying binge in Bangkok, and my $60 visa extension. Transport, which included two overnight trains, a few ferries, a flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and bunch of buses and cabs came to $272. Entertainment clocked in at $257, which apart from $20 in tours and tips was, ahem, all booze and big nights out. My spa and massage habit set me back $105, and health and fitness — Muay Thai, yoga, my run registration and other gym memberships and classes — rounded out to $65. Considering how much we saw and did this month, it was money very well spent.

Work

Alex in Wanderland traffic stayed relatively steady this month despite a marked decline in posting. However, I made a little less and spent a little more than I had the previous month — a sign of being back on the road! What do I save for if not to take some time to enjoy the road?

My partnership with my main squeeze Viator aside, this month was unfortunately a return to my more typical piece-meal income streams. A bit of design work here, a little freelance writing there, and a chunk of traditional blog advertising and affiliates over yonder.

LOLs

• I’ll admit that we were a few rounds of rooftop mojitos deep by the time we ordered friend bananas for a midnight snack. Which probably explains why it took Heather a few minutes to realize what had gone wrong. I watched her face go through a full range of emotions as she thoughtfully chewed the fried treat. “Um…” she finally concluded, pulling the remainder away and holding into the light. What she held, however, was not a friend banana but rather a spring roll drizzled in chocolate. We could hear laughter all the way back in the kitchen when we hysterically alerted the kitchen to the mistake.

• If you’ve ever wondered why I’ve so cheerfully attributed the “safety seventh!” motto to Thailand, the Midnight Bangkok Run we participated in gives a good example. You might think the city would shut down the road for a marathon of this size, but no — we ran alongside taxis, tuk tuks, and bewildered drivers, giving them big waves along the way. It was hilarious, the perfect comical execution of a charity run sponsored by, I kid you not, the Billion Million Trading Company®.

• These Bangkok pastries. Enough said.

• Heather might not find this as hilarious as I did, but there seemed to be a bit of gender confusion following us wherever we went. From the race sign in, where the volunteer hesitated to give Heather a female running bib to the ferry check in where the receptionist filled in all my information then awkwardly handed over the form for me to check M or F, to the hotel lobby where an employee cautiously confirmed that we were both, indeed, women, we were clearly not giving off ultra-feminine vibes this month. Or maybe it was a sign of Thailand’s uber-acceptance of their large trans community. Who can say for sure? All I know is that every time I think of Heather indignantly snatching the female race bib, I dissolve into very girly giggles.

Chiang Mai Travel Blog PostChiang Mai

Health and Fitness

I really fell off the health wagon this month. After seven weeks of feeling fit and active on Koh Tao, it all kind of fell apart once we got on the road. Koh Samui was a wine-soaked weekend. Bangkok was just out and out debauchery, including drunken nightly dips to McDonald’s and not a single stop at the gym. (Thank goodness for that 6K run or my body may have disowned me!) Pai was equally lethargic, though we did start to clean up our eating act. And in Chiang Mai, we finally got back into a workout routine, making time for both moat runs and an exercise class — but I doubt those daily Peanut Butter Party smoothies helped.

It really is amazing how slow it is to build back to a healthy routine and body, and how quickly it slips back away.

What’s Next

More Koh Tao, more Bangkok, a week in Phnom Penh, and home!

Yi Peng Blog PostYi Peng

Thanks for coming along for the ride, guys — and for putting up with my late post delivery! Look out for another roundup coming out soon. I’m in catch up mode now!

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New Year, New Orleans http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/16/new-year-new-orleans/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/16/new-year-new-orleans/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34358

I consider New Year’s Eve to be a pretty take-it-or-leave-it holiday, but in the last few years my December 31st game has been tight. In fact, I really didn’t think anything could top the fiery celebrations of the previous year in Baños, Ecuador, and I didn’t plan to try. I’d just stay in New York and do something low key, and fly out the next week when flights returned to reasonable level, I thought.

And then my sister invited me to New Orleans, and my best friend announced she was Louisiana-bound. And as it turned out, New Year’s Eve would be the cherry on top of an altogether unbeatable trip.

New-Orleans_004

Things started out pretty darn strong. For Christmas, my spa-loving sister had gifted us massages at The Ritz! Well, technically, she gifted us massages as a much cheaper spa, and her lovely boyfriend Oliver cancelled those reservations and rebooked us at The Ritz, making the difference his own generous gift. (Actually, The Ritz has a 20% weekday massage discount for Louisiana residents that they were so kind as to honor even on a holiday. Huzzah, Ritz spa!)

We arrived early to take advantage of the sauna, steam room, and pool — and, despite what our sporty outfits might portray, not the gym.

Ritz Spa New Orleans

Ritz Spa New Orleans

Ritz Spa New Orleans

The massages were absolutely fabulous, and the genius of my sister’s plan was revealed when we returned to the plush ladies lounge to start primping. We were downtown, we had free valet parking, and there were complimentary glasses of champagne in our hands. It was the perfect kick off to any New Year’s Eve.

Ritz Spa New Orleans

Properly beautified, we sauntered across the street to Domenica, the acclaimed pizza restaurant inside The Waldorf. There, we were joined by Zoe, Emma, and Oliver for our collective last meal of 2014.

Domenica New Orleans

Domenica New Orleans

Like The Ritz, Dominica honored their standard happy hour of half price pizzas and drinks from 2-5pm. We couldn’t have asked for a better evening — the food was perfect, our waiter was amused by our antics, and we enthusiastically recapped and ranked our highlights and lowlights of the closing year, and our hopes and plans for the upcoming one.

Domenica New Orleans

Somehow — and I’m a little fuzzy on the details here, which I’m going to blame on the mojito special — I ended up telling our waiter that we had all met through a Meetup group for people whose birthdays fell on December 31st, and thus it was currently all of our birthdays.

We doubled over when he delivered a complimentary birthday dessert with a wink — but Zoe had the last laugh when she left him her number on the receipt, unbeknownst to the rest of us (and yup, he called.)

Domenica New Orleans

Domenica New Orleans

At this point, our nights split off in two directions. Olivia and Oliver headed off to a swank house party in the suburbs — the perfect thing for two New Orleans residents to do, while Emma and Zoe and I headed off to Bourbon Street — the perfect thing for three bumbling New Orleans tourists to do.

Despite being several days into their trip, it was Zoe and Emma’s first time walking down the infamous road — and what a night to be introduced to New Orleans’ most debaucherous drag.

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

Thrilled not to be tied to a club or party with a ridiculous entrance fee, we mostly roamed the streets people-gawking, and occasionally dipping into roadside stalls to refill on the most ridiculous drinks we could find. Eventually we needed a break from the body slamming of the streets and ducked into Sing Sing, which was being serenaded by a soul-filled live band. It was the perfect Bourbon Street find, despite the debacle at the bar.

In an only-in-New-Orleans moment, I was served, sloppily, by a middle-aged bartender who was so drunk her supervisor had to step in for her to complete the transaction. Sober Bartender returned my card saying it was blocked, which I later learned was because Drunk Bartender had swiped it eleven times. I handed over a new card to Sober Bartender, which I’d regret later when I realized I was charged on two separate credit cards, launching a months-long dispute between my credit card companies in the bar.

But all that was in the future. In the moment, we laughed off Drunk Bartender’s antics and cheers-ed to live music, good friends, and drinkin’ straight from mini-champagne bottles.

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

At one point, I went to take a picture with my iPhone and realized it was almost midnight. “Where do we want to be for the start of 2015?!,” I asked frantically. Emma reminded us that there were fireworks in Jackson Square, though Zoe and I were skeptical we’d be able to get anywhere near it.

We quickly agreed — what the hell, let’s give it a shot. And it was with surprising ease that we made our way to the Square, pushed our way to the riverfront, and were standing with front row views as fireworks erupted over the Mississippi.

New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street

New Year's Eve Fireworks New Orleans

New Year's Eve Fireworks New Orleans

One word of constructive criticism, NOLA — a countdown would have been nice. But that aside, it was a magical moment. The huge, awe-inspiring show was complemented by smaller colorful bursts going off as far as the eye could see across the river. It was a great feeling of community — tonight, everyone was celebrating.

Swept away by the crowd as the last firework fell, we noted a distinct drop in temperature, and sought refuge (and snacks) in a bodega while we planned our next move.

New Year's Eve on Frenchman's Street

Bourbon Street seemed too hectic to return to, and so we pointed ourselves in the direction of Bourbon’s cool, hipster, skinny-jean wearing older sister Frenchman’s Street, where we sought more live music and good vibes. And we found them.

Inevitably though, our dying batteries and the dropping temperatures (we’d packed for the mid-seventies of just a few days prior, and were unprepared when things took an unexpected turn for the low forties) caught up with us, and we found ourselves yawning and shivering with increasing frequency. But that was just fine — the day had been perfect. We were satisfied to call it a night.

New Year's Eve on Frenchman's Street

New Year's Eve on Frenchman's Street

But there was one more stop in store for us. In my zombie-like state, I was focused on food, and rather than navigate the group home, I led us towards Café du Monde, where earlier, the post-firework lines had snaked around the block.

At this point it was rounding 2:30am and we were greeted by a radiant smile and a warm welcome from the man behind the takeaway counter. “Sir, I am so sorry you have to work right now!,” Emma said, mind wandering to the late hour, the chaotic crowds and the cold. “Oh ma’am,” he laughed but looked his voice was full of sincerity as he promised, “I just say… thank God we able to work.” He nodded, quietly confident, and handed us our beignets.

Something clicked, and I just felt completely overwhelmed by emotion. That, I thought, is the positive and grateful attitude I want to bring with me into 2015. Damn. It was the most beautiful interaction to end the night on.

(So was the interaction of those beignets with my mouth, but that kind of goes without saying.)

Cafe du Monde New Year's Eve

Cafe du Monde New Year's Evethankfully Zoe never outgrew disposable cameras

The next morning we woke up feeling surprisingly fresh and set off to explore the French Quarter. It was a gray day and most businesses were closed, but there was plenty to keep us amused.

French Quarter New Orleans

French Quarter New Orleans

French Quarter New Orleans

French Quarter New Orleans

As Olivia had been unable to add us to her own long-standing brunch reservation (seriously people, make ‘em early for the holidays in New Orleans), we found ourselves gravitating to the classic Court of Two Sisters jazz brunch.

I admit I was skeptical — it seemed suspiciously like a tourist trap, and I almost never feel like I get my money’s worth out of a buffet (I’m more of an eat-ten-meals-a-day than eat-one-big-one kind of girl).

Court of Two Sisters Brunch New Orleans

Court of Two Sisters Brunch New Orleans

Court of Two Sisters Brunch New Orleans

And yup — it was touristy, especially on this day when the place was packed with Sugar Bowl fans. But it was also unexpectedly delicious, and I got to try several Southern specialties that I’d never wanted to risk ordering a whole meal of. Plus, I got to sit outside in an airy courtyard. With two sisters. At Two Sisters!

It was perfect.

Court of Two Sisters Brunch New Orleans

Court of Two Sisters Brunch New Orleans

Eventually, we reunited with Olivia and Oliver for some post-brunch fireside cocktails at Bar Tonique, recommended by longtime reader Becky. It was the perfect cozy spot to wind down, but we howled with laughter when my sister admitted she’d only come under duress, and we looked up the scathing Yelp review she’d left after her last visit.

And after a much-needed nap, we ended our New Year festivities the same way we do Christmas — a movie. I adored the fancy dine-in Theaters at Canal Place, and will absolutely be returning on future trips to New Orleans.

Bar Tonique New Orleans

I could not have asked for a better way ring in 2015.

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Photo of the Week 196: Guatemala http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/15/photo-of-the-week-196-guatemala/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/03/15/photo-of-the-week-196-guatemala/#comments Sun, 15 Mar 2015 20:55:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=34217

The rumors are true: Lake Atitlán is stunning. It’s been a peaceful, relaxing retreat for a week of writing and reading, and I may even have snuck a high-altitude dive or two in as well. Those following along on Instagram know I split my eight nights here between the lakeside villages of Santa Cruz, San Pedro, and San Marcos.

This week I kind of reached a turning point in this trip where I looked ahead and really started to plot out the final moves that will bring me all the way back to the US in early May (see the rough outline of my 2015 plans here!). As of yesterday, I’m two weeks into my time in Guatemala with two more to go before I meet my family in Belize — one of the most highly anticipated moments of this entire trip! Once I see them off, I have just a few weeks before I need to get myself to La Ceiba, Honduras, where I can catch a direct flight to Grand Cayman. I still have some flights to book and final decisions to make, but it’s kind of crazy to think how quickly it’s going by.

This week is mostly going to be a work one for me, with a fun reunion with my Guatemala City-based friends next weekend to look forward to! For now, here’s a preview of what I got up to over the last one.

Photo A

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaWelcome to Lake Atitlán

Photo B

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaWalking the Santa Cruz shoreline

Photo C

Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz, Lake AtitlanA first: a toilet appearing in Photo of the Week

Photo D

Lake Atitlan GuatemalaBetter not get sick of volcano views

Photo E

Signs from San Pedro, Lake AtitlanSigns from a now-underwater restaurant in San Pedro

Photo F

Diving in Lake AtitlanDiving in Lake Atitlán

Which photo is your favorite?

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