Saturday, December 18, 2010

21 = 19/23 (...and other surprises!)

Well, I warned you all that posts were gonna be few and far between this year! Time is moving so quickly! I'm a second-semester college senior already, with post-grad plans and "real life" not far off on the horizon. In a few short hours I'll be 22, so I'd like to use them to reflect a little bit on this past year. Since last December 19, I've moved around the globe quite a bit. On my last birthday I was pretty heavily jetlagged from Brazil; this time it's from the East Coast. On my last birthday I was looking forward to flying to Italy in two weeks; this time it's Cancún. Over the course of the past 365 days I've sung with mariachi groups in Guadalajara and Madrid, I've played soccer in Boston and Bologna, I've sunbathed in Morocco and Greece. During my 21st year, I traveled to 19 of the 23 countries I've ever visited. And two in the middle of my Harvard senior fall semester, which I think is pretty sweet.

This past year was also marked by literally hundreds of new friendships that continue to bring me enormous joy. From incredible poets and aspiring filmmakers to enviable dancers and budding comedians, all of YOU made 2010 arguably my best year yet! I look forward to strengthening all of these relationships in the year- and years- to come.

Since we left off at the end of summer, I guess we should start at the beginning of the semester. I'm gonna do this in bullet form for the sake of speeeeeed, so here goes nothing:

* My first weekend back on the East Coast, I went to Brazilian singer Ivete Sangalo's DVD-recording concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was completely sold out and simply amazing. Special guest artists included Juanes, Nelly Furtado, Seu Jorge, and Diego Torres. The next day was the Brazilian Day parade in NYC, which was a big enough event to air live in 115 countries.

* In October I went back to New York for the East Coast Chicano Student Forum. The bus trip there was a traffic disaster- we left Boston three hours after our 5pm expected departure and didn't arrive to Columbia University until almost 4am! The Saturday conference was fun, but us Harvard kids got locked out of our host's room and instead slept in the reception of Columbia's Governmental Studies building until 5am. We were knocked out all the way back to Boston on Sunday morning, then arrived and took naps, then went to bed. Still, I consider the trip a worthwhile adventure because I met several friends from other schools with whom I'm still in close contact. :)

* The next weekend I went to a Tyrone Wells concert in Boston with some friends. He's a fantastic singer songwriter- check him out if you don't know his music. The concert was intimate and even better than I expected, so two thumbs up.

* The following weekend I took a road trip with my friend Yesenia, her sister, and her sister's boyfriend to Montreal. The three-day excursion was absolutely marvelous, and it put me right back into spring semester of last year. We stayed in a hostel, spoke some French (and Portuguese!), and pretty much explored the entire city on foot.

* I went to the Harvard Arboretum with Eliot House and Diego (my Mexican brother from springtime Eastern Europe madness), and experienced real fall foliage for the first time in my life.

* On Halloween night, I was surprised by a phone call from my Santorini-ferry-friend Marely saying that she was in Cambridge. We ended up partying with hundreds of Harvard kids and several of her roommates in the dorm room next to mine. I had originally wanted to escape the Halloween frenzy, and that night ended up being one of the semester's most memorable!

* In a fit of wonderful spontaneity, I bought a plane ticket to Spain five days before Thanksgiving and went across the pond to spend the holiday with my brother. In addition to seeing him, I also saw Madrid, Oviedo, Santander, Bilbao, and Barcelona! And to top it off, the night before my flight home I got to be in Barcelona as the home team- my favorite club in the world- demolished Real Madrid 5-0!

* At the beginning of December I was awarded a generous 9-month post-graduate traveling fellowship to Brazil through Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. I'll be mainly based in the São Paulo office as I support national educational and public policy endeavors, but I'll also have an opportunity to travel and work on various projects throughout the country. Out of all the places I've been, Brazil continues to enchant me the most and I couldn't be more excited to return next June!

* I finished all my finals two nights ago and feel very confident about each of them. For those of you that don't know, I took Intensive French this semester just for kicks. Le français n'est pas difficile!

* This morning I gave myself an early birthday present and bought all my tickets for January travels. I haven't told anyone as of this moment, but starting January 5th I'm headed down to Los Angeles for a few days, then over to Cancún! I'll spend a few days on the beach there and in Playa del Carmen, then I'll bus it to Belize, maybe take a ferry into Honduras, make my way back up through Guatemala to visit a friend in Mérida, and do some pyramid-climbing at Chichen Itza before flying up to Boston out of Cancún on January 20th. The best part about the trip is that the average January temperature in the region hovers around 82 degrees! It's gonna kill me to fly straight back into the Boston snow, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there...

So there you have it. Last semester in a pretty legit nutshell. Life is so much better than I ever imagined it could get, and all praise and glory goes to God! I pray that 2011 brings you all immense love, joy, and peace. May it be a fresh start for each of us, and may we enjoy health and harmony to the fullest. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Summer 2010: Extended Sparknotes Version

I spent six secret solitary days in Santa Rosa after returning from Bologna, quietly recovering from my nine hour Italian jet lag and mentally preparing for my summer south of the border. Lots of relaxation with my parents and not even one plate of pasta. Soon enough it was time to pack again, only this time I'd just be bringing my backpack and a guitar.

The flight from San Jose to Guadalajara was forgettable, but I recall everything after that. I caught a taxi from the airport headed to the Nueva Central Camionera, where I would catch the five and a half hour bus to Melaque, the destination closest to La Manzanilla. Stuck in traffic, the taxi driver decided to strike up conversation. Or rather, he decided to begin a monologue. It wasn't that I was shy or disinterested; he just didn't let me get a word in edgewise as he raved about the girls from Los Altos de Jalisco with their ojos tapatíos- the prettiest in all of Mexico. After five minutes he paused to ask if I was married. Hearing my negative response, he offered to drive me to a brothel. I politely declined, saying I needed to get to the bus station as quickly as possible. He shrugged and asked what soccer team I liked; I was keen enough to spot the red and black car freshener dangling from his rearview mirror and lie, "Atlas, claro." He smiled broadly and continued with his monologue. Eventually we arrived at the bus depot and said our goodbyes. As I turned to leave he called me back and insisted on giving me his phone number for the next time I found myself in Guadalajara, promising to help me look for a jaliscience girlfriend with green eyes and a body "like that".

I missed the 7:40pm bus to Melaque by three minutes. Instead of arriving in La Manzanilla at 1:30am, I would have to catch the next bus at 10pm and arrive closer to four in the morning. No big deal, I was finally back in Mexico and life was good. I dropped my backpack, set down my guitar, and took a seat in the general waiting area. I pulled out my journal and began to write, but within two minutes the only other vato in the room strutted over and sat down across from me. I could tell he was an OG because of the three teardrops tattooed near his left eye.

"Oye homie, ¿de dónde eres?" I told him that I was from California and he immediately launched into the details of his six years locked up in Pelican Bay State Prison. He showed me huge scars on his abdomen and left shin, and then the Grim Reaper tattoo on the back of his shaved head. I couldn't help but notice the "SUR 13" emblazoned on his left hand. His name was Alex, but he said they called him "Kevin Smith" across the border. He told me that he missed gang life in California, where it's all about respect and status. In his hometown of Tijuana, things were getting too crazy and he had to flee to stay alive. Now he was hawking stolen merchandise out of a duffle bag, trying to raise enough money to buy a ticket to Querétaro. By the way, did I perchance need a bottle of lotion, a Discman or maybe a leather jacket? No? Well they're here if you need them. What about a nice gold watch?

When Alex's homie Manny- an 18th Street disciple- showed up and asked for 20 pesos to buy some Cokes, I was friendly, albeit wary. I artfully fished 18 pesos out of my pocket, lying that it was all I had. Suddenly Kevin Smith hit me with a question: "Yo do you have any primas around 27 years old? Let me get their emails and Myspaces." At first it seemed funny that this hardened cholo was asking me about Myspace profiles, but then I remembered that Myspace is full of gangsters, all of whom are slowly making the move over to Facebook. I wrote down the invented name and email of Caterina Hernandez, my supposed 24-year-old brunette cousin with blue eyes. He asked if I wanted the Myspaces for any of his six sisters, but I lied that a girlfriend was coming to visit me in La Manzanilla so I was already set. Around this time I told Alex that I was gonna check on my bus, but before I could escape with my backpack and guitar he stopped me. He reached deep into his pocket and pulled out something thin and pointed. "You have a piece of paper?" he asked, handing me the pen. I pulled out a scrap and he spelled out his MSN Messenger screen name for me: Alex13Mickey. "Hit me up sometime, homie." I told him that I would, knowing that I wouldn't. And with that, I left those sureños behind and snuck into the first class waiting room, laying low for twenty more minutes until it was time to board my bus.

Bus travel in Mexico is significantly better than bus travel in the US. You normally have a choice between first and second class; the former is plush, with comfortable seats, drinks and snacks, movies and radio. And best of all, it's cheap. My 15-minute taxi from the Guadalajara airport to the bus station cost $20. My 5.5-hour first class bus ride from Guadalajara to Melaque cost $25. I managed to sleep on the way, which was a huge blessing because the road is extremely curvy and I would have definitely been nauseous had I been awake. The trip was pretty uneventful with the exception of an annoyingly talkative, ridiculously effeminate Guadalajara native seated in the row across from me. As I was writing in my journal at the beginning of the journey, he leaned over and asked, "What are you doing? Is this your first time in Melaque? It's gonna be my first time, I'm so excited! I hope the beach is nice, do you think the beach will be nice? Am I bothering you? I feel like I'm bothering you. I'm sorry, I'm just so excited! I'll shut up now. But did you say this is your first time to Melaque? I hope the beach is nice!" After around twenty minutes of fake sleeping on my end, he curled up in his seat and passed out. I woke up to my watch alarm at 3:45am, fifteen minutes from Melaque.

To my extreme delight, a taxi driver was waiting for me as I got off the bus. He introduced himself as Victor, groggily set my backpack and guitar in the trunk, and verified again that I was indeed the Mateo he was being paid to drive to La Manzanilla. As we wound along the coastal road for twenty minutes, I could see dozens of crabs scuttling across the pavement due to the recent thunderstorm. There were frogs too, and bats in the trees. When Victor dropped me off at the steps of my summer home, I had to barge through a terrifying gauntlet of flittering lightning bugs and fleeing geckos, but finally I made it. Liz Cabrera- a wonderful friend from Harvard and the contact who made possible my summer in Mexico- opened the metal gate, gave me a big hug, and unlocked the sliding glass door of my first floor bedroom. She had made a colorful welcome poster and prepared my room immaculately, but by that point I would have slept on a concrete floor. It was nearly 5am when my head hit the pillow, and I was running on five hours of sleep from the night before. Needless to say, within seconds I was dreaming with the little angels, gently rocked to sleep by the rhythm of crashing waves.

I woke up at 11am to glorious light streaming through my sheer window curtains. As I sat up in my bed, I could see the turquoise ocean and all sorts of pink and purple flowers blooming in the front garden. I quickly organized the few clothes that I brought in the empty dresser, took a shower and made myself a sandwich in the upstairs kitchen. Liz was teaching a class, so I went back downstairs, pulled out my guitar and started playing in the sunshine. Over the course of the summer I would spend countless hours like that, inspired by the natural panorama and La Manzanilla's small town tranquility.

Those first few days blend together. Liz gave me the town tour which consisted in a couple small stores, a few restaurants, Juanit@'s taco stand, the Foundation classroom, the church and the beach. There's one paved street in La Manzanilla that circles the Jardín, or main square. And that's pretty much all there is to the town of 1000 residents. No post office, no hospital, no high school, no street names, no policemen, no library. I found myself living in a place where you're more likely to see a herd of cows in the road than a convertible, a town whose power and water would fail for up to 20 hours every time it rained, and sometimes even when it didn't.

But don't think I didn't love it. For every little thing La Manzanilla lacked, there was something else in abundance. Hospitality, for example. Trust. Generosity. Jellyfish. Iguanas, crocodiles, and canclos. (Don't look up the latter unless you want to have nightmares for a week. Seriously, don't.) What I liked most about La Manzanilla was that time moved slowly. Whereas the clocks at Harvard go ticktockticktockticktock, Mexican time in my summer pueblo was more like tic.



And that's the way I liked it. A change of pace is a wondrous thing, especially if you know it will only last for two months. Waking up without an alarm to sunshine and ocean waves, taking a nap in the afternoon heat after a turkey and avocado sandwich, and falling asleep after tacos and a telenovela episode should not be a privileged lifestyle left only to retired Mexicans and Canadian hippies. Don't think I was lazy; when it was time to prepare lesson plans, photograph graduation ceremonies or teach English, I put on my game face and took care of business. When it was time to work, I worked. That's a virtue of which I am very proud, a skill some of my college counterparts and many members of today's work force lack. Let's be honest- when it's time to work, they browse Facebook. They check their emails. They go to the bathroom or eat a snack or get distracted by a million different things. Am I right or am I right? It's a question of work ethic into which I'm not gonna delve any further, but know that I went to Mexico to work with an educational foundation, and that I did work.

To combat the monotony of life in a coastal paradise, Liz and I escaped from La Manzanilla pretty much every weekend. We began our adventures right off the bat- I arrived on a Wednesday, and two days later Liz's Harvard roommate (and honorary comadre) showed up to visit. A couple quick words about Rosalía: she's crazy. Banda music and all things Mexican exacerbate her condition, as do starry skies and conversations about philosophy after 3am. She has the ability to write Shakespearean verses but chooses to speak her own variant of Spanglish, a dialect understood by few and in which I am a sorry beginner. I had the pleasure of taking a Brazilian Cinema class with her during my sophomore year, and the even greater pleasure of taking her to my Adams House formal. Through Rosalía I met Liz, and through Liz I landed my volunteer stint with La Catalina Educational Foundation.

Our special guest arrived Friday evening, and as soon as she was settled the three of us walked down the hill into town to do what everyone else in La Manzanilla does on a Friday evening... to eat tacos at Juanit@'s. You'll notice I use the gender-neutral @ symbol, and that's because Juan liked to be called Juana. I don't know when or why that switch occurred, but I do know that Juanit@ has a God-given talent for making tacos, and I gladly partook in that gift two to three nights a week. We ate more than we should have and then made sure to dar la vuelta around town, which meant walking from the beach to the Jardín and talking to every third person we passed.

Early Saturday morning we caught the bus from La Manzanilla to Melaque, and then another to Autlán de Navarro. The former ride was 20 minutes and comfortable, while the latter was 2 hours and hellish because of its unending curves and my terrible motion sickness. Rosalía suffered quietly as well, but upon arrival we voiced our anguish and vowed not to return to La Manzanilla unless drugged up on some magic Dramamine pills. By the time we walked to our hotel room we were feeling considerably better, so we ditched the nap idea and went to get lunch with Ruby, one of Liz's friends from Autlán (and the cousin of another Harvard classmate, Salvador). Ruby took us first on a mini tour of the city, which just so happens to be the birthplace of my godfather, Carlos Santana. We snapped some photos with his rocker monuments and then dined at a nice restaurant with live mariachi. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to check out the cathedral and say some prayers of thanksgiving for safety on the road and the blessed companionship of true friends. The three of us took a quick nap at the hotel, lulled to sleep by the sounds of Los Temerarios emanating from our color television. When we awoke it was dark and time to get ready for the big dance, a baile in Autlán's Plaza de Toros featuring bull riding and the moderately famous Banda San José de Mesillas.

Autlán has a population of around 50,000 people, and I would wager that around 10% of all its residents were at that dance. The arena was packed with dolled-up Mexican girls and their cowboy counterparts. I had the good fortune of accompanying Rosalía, Liz, Ruby, and a friend named Zaira to the event, all of whom were dressed to impress and looking sharp. I registered lots of envious stares as we entered and found our seats, but I didn't mind one bit. The show started with an opening band covering lots of Mexican songs I recognized but had never learned by heart like everyone else around me, followed by bull riding (the bulls mostly dominated their riders, with the exception of one champ). Finally Banda San José de Mesillas came onstage in their black slacks and purple jackets, belting out their #1 hit "Por Que Sin Ti" with 5000 fans. I only knew parts of the chorus, but I fake lip-synched the rest and nobody knew the difference. After several hours of standing and dancing and sitting and singing, the concert finished and we walked back to our hotel. It was after midnight, but along the way Rosalía decided to stop at a street vendor's cart and buy a hot dog overflowing with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, jalapeños, chips, cheese, and Lord knows what else. She took one bite, said she didn't want it and gave me the rest. Crazy? Perhaps, but I ate it.

After spending the next morning wandering around Autlán's downtown market, we stopped by a pharmacy to buy our magic motion sickness pills and caught a bus back to Melaque. Since these were drowsy pills, we slept like babies the whole way. Then we got on the bus to La Manzanilla and slept some more. And then we got home and took naps. These were powerful little pills, for real.

But in time their effect wore off and the trio was back in action, now with a fourth partner in crime- Shanna, a former volunteer in La Manzanilla who had skipped town before I arrived and was now back for a quick visit. We spent the week watching World Cup games in the mornings, tag team English teaching, and sneaking into a private pool in a wildly unsuccessful effort to teach Rosalía how to swim. One night we all had a late guitar session and spiritual discussion. One morning Rosalía cooked an unbelievable Mexican breakfast for the rest of us. I don't know when she learned how to cook between AP classes, rock band practices and Harvard, but she did and for that we were all grateful. The highlight of the week though- for me- was our visit to the Wyndham Luxury Grand Bay Hotel on nearby Isla de Navidad, an exclusive resort fit for kings and rich tourists. We went there for lunch, not so much to eat as to drop our jaws in awe of the incredible layout- more pools than you could ever need (including one with a swim-up bar!), private beach access, a gorgeous dining area, tennis courts, a yacht dock, a hairdresser and a shoe shine boy. Honestly, look it up. We just so happened to eat lunch outdoors on a day when the entire Monarcas Morelia professional soccer team was fooling around on the ping-pong table and in the pool directly in front of us. No big deal, just another day living the life in Mexico.

Eventually Rosalía and Shanna left, so Liz and I returned to our miserable reality of afternoon naps and evening tacos. But we weren't stuck in that rut for long, because the following weekend we set out on another adventure, this time to Liz's pueblito of San José de Gracia. It was an epic journey by all accounts. We left La Manzanilla in a taxi at 4:40am on Friday in order to catch a 5:15am bus to Autlán. At 8:30am, after two orders each of 5 street tacos for 10 pesos, we boarded a rickety bus to Ciudad Guzmán. Three and a half hours later we pulled into the Guzmán bus station, expecting to meet our ride there and discovering that he was without a cell phone and nowhere to be found. We waited anxiously for 25 minutes and eventually the talented Mr. Tire showed up, decked out as usual in his cowboy hat, boots, and black and white shirt with two roosters stitched on the back. He must cherish that shirt dearly, because he wore it Friday, Saturday AND Sunday. Nobody really knows why we call him Mr. Tire, although one of Liz's cousins told me that during his childhood Mr. Tire was unbeatable in the game of sitting inside a tire and rolling down a hill. After meeting the legend, I would not be surprised at all if that were the truth. So Senor Neumático packed me and Liz into his truck, tossed our bags in the back and set off on the bumpy road to San Chepe City. By the time we arrived an hour and two micheladas later, our magic pills were just starting to wear off and we had the energy to eat bírria and drink Fanta, health food that broke our drug-induced slumber and brought us back to normal.

San José de Gracia is like La Manzanilla, except there are more cows and less beach. Okay, there's no beach. Also, besides the cows, pretty much everyone in San Chepe is related to Liz. That was my favorite aspect of the town because it meant that we were invited to more delicious meals than we could possibly eat, we had free tour guides our age, and I got to play soccer with kids older than 7 (no offense to La Manzanilla's finest). For the first time in my life, I drank pajarete- a delicious morning concoction made by mixing coffee grounds and sugar with milk straight from the cow's udder. Everyone told me that I was gonna have an upset stomach, but I felt fine and even went back the next day for more small town Starbucks. Saturday afternoon we hiked to the top of the tallest hill for a nice panorama of the land; it was cool to see other small pueblos in the distance. That evening we went to mass, and then the next day took the soccer bus to nearby Zacoalco, where we cheered for the San Chepe team in their semifinal game. They tied 1-1, but everyone in the stands still attended a celebratory barbeque at one of the players' houses on the way home. Small town living, gotta love it. Early Monday morning Mr. Tire drove Liz and me back to the Guzmán bus station, where we caught our buses back to Autlán, Melaque and finally La Manzanilla.

Days and weeks in La Manzanilla kind of just blur together. Liz and I were almost always busy teaching, planning the summer program, watching our novela, eating tacos or taking naps. Sometimes it would rain and the power would go out, other days it was sunny and the power would go out. For three days straight Liz and I went running every morning. We taught ourselves how to cook enchiladas, chilaquiles, eggs, pasta and Frosted Flakes (my specialty). One time I found a scorpion in my closet, and another time I saw a spider catch a lizard in its web and then suck it dry. We went back to Autlán a couple times for various reasons, and once to Manzanillo, where we got lost and walked for three and a half hours. I traveled one overcast weekend to Puerto Vallarta, where I strolled up and down the boardwalk six times and had a serendipitous encounter with a friend from high school. My last two weeks in La Manzanilla marked the first two weeks of LCEF's summer program for kids. I was the PE teacher, which is actually a harder job than one might imagine. The difficulty didn't lie so much in the lack of materials, but rather in the fact that this was the laziest group of adorable snot-nosed kids I had ever seen in my life. I would say, "Let's warm up by jogging one lap around the field." Barely half of those little rascals would finish the lap, after which they would drop dramatically to the ground like they had just completed the Boston Marathon. Then we would stretch for a few minutes and I would start explaining the activity we were gonna do that day, at which point they would complain about being tired and thirsty and hungry and in sandals and not wanting to get dirty. After a few days of this, I got wise and invented activities based around something every kid loves on a hot day... water balloons! We played Capture the Flag and relays and Three Flies Up and Hot Potato and volleyball and occasionally I just threw a balloon or two at some of them if I felt like it, which they LOVED. The summer program was a success due to good planning, quick thinking and creativity on the part of all three teachers: me for PE, Liz for English, and Isaura for Art.

But eventually all good things must come to an end (at least that's how the saying goes, right?). My time in Mexico was almost up, so Liz and I decided to spend our final weekend together exploring Guadalajara before I had to fly home. I said my goodbyes to everyone in town and we caught an afternoon bus to Autlán, where we spent the night. Early the next morning we hopped on a three-hour bus to Guadalajara, taxied to our hostel, dropped off our bags and went in search of sustenance and adventure. We found a taco-motorcycle (faster than a taco truck!) and ate to our heart's content, crossing our fingers that Moctezuma wasn't out for revenge. Later we walked to the city center, where we met up with another of Salvador's cousins who's studying in Guadalajara (the younger brother of Ruby from Autlán). Carlos drove us to Zapopan, where we visited every mall and dined on scrumptious Chinese food made by authentic Chinese-Mexicans. After dinner we went to the movies to see the new Adam Sandler flick called Grown Ups. It was stupid and we loved it.

After Liz left on Sunday I met some of the travelers in my hostel and we all went out to sightsee in the center a bit more. Back at the hostel we played guitar and talked about studying abroad- one of the German guys and a girl from New Zealand had just arrived in Guadalajara to study for a semester at the university, and they were staying at the hostel until they could find apartments. On Monday I met up with Boone, a California girl I met in Rio de Janeiro who had spent her summer in Querétaro studying Spanish. Small world, huh? We grabbed something to drink with two of her program friends and then walked around San Juan de Dios, Guadalajara's enormous indoor market where you can buy everything from deep-fried bull testicles to pirated Britney Spears cds (if you're into either of those things...). The next day Boone and I got together again to walk around Parque Agua Azul, where we enjoyed fine greenery, fought with aggressive birds and tried to catch butterflies on our fingers. In the evening we went to the theater to see El Origen, better known by its English title, Inception. If you still haven't seen that film, check it out right now. Right now! It was trippy and we loved it.

On Wednesday I spent my last 220 pesos on a Chinese lunch buffet and a taxi ride to the airport, and before I knew it I was saying adios to Mexico through the plane window. Had that been my entire summer, it would have been sufficiently wonderful. But there was more!

I spent a couple days at home and then flew up to Oregon to visit my brother in Eugene, who was working there all summer while living with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. Since he had Spanish finals and it was his girlfriend's last week in the USA before her semester abroad in Chile, I had to fight hard for David's attention. Luckily my lovely friend Alex Gnoss (remember her from my Moroccan escapades?) was also working in Eugene, and willing to take me hiking to lakes and rivers and waterfalls. Did you know that Oregon's natural beauty is positively breathtaking? If not, now you know. I had a marvelous week with Alex, David, and his girlfriend Kerry, whom I finally had the pleasure to meet. Unfortunately time in Eugene is pretty similar to time in Cambridge, so the clocks went ticktockticktock and before I knew it I had to fly back down to the Bay Area. Besides a five-hour flight delay at the gate, there were no real problems.

I laid low the following week in Santa Rosa because I had to focus and fill out a Fulbright scholarship application. Among other endeavors, I'm applying to teach English in Brazil for nine months following graduation. It would be fully funded and amazing. I'll keep you all posted.

This final week of summer has been fantastic. I had a chance to play soccer, go to church, and see almost all of my closest friends. Last night I ate a spontaneous dinner downtown with sixteen amigos, probably the most hilarious event I've attended since Karina's birthday celebration in the cabin of a sleeper car on an Eastern European night train. I've missed those fools a lot.

Anyway, I have to leave in a few hours to catch my plane back to Boston. I'm eager to see all the friends I ditched sixteen months ago, but not so much for the Harvard coursework. Alas, they don't give diplomas out for nothing, right? Summer- it's been real. Readers- thank you for making it all the way to the end. I'll try to post something again before I graduate, but no promises. Peace and love to you all.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

End of an era...

And I'm off once again, writing this post from 35,000 ft in the air somewhere over Greenland. True to my promise in the last entry, it's not mid-June. Mid-June is next week, at which point I'll be chilling on the beach in Mexico and my blog posts will most likely hark back to my time in Brazil ("Today I played soccer on the beach and swam in the ocean"). My weekend in Milan with Letizia, her sister Isabella, and their friend Adriana was amazing. The highlight was watching Internazionale (a team from Milan) beat Bayern Munich 2-0 for the Champions League title on big screens in the Piazza del Duomo with thirty thousand screaming fans. Words can't describe the level of excitement and energy and noise erupting from that piazza as the referee blew the final whistle- pictures are good, video is better, but you needed to be there in person for the full experience. All of my friends in Bologna (and around the world) were super jealous that I got to be in Milan for the celebration. I took the train back to Bologna around 9am the following morning, and there were literally so many hungover people in the train station trying to buy tickets that they told us to just get on the trains for free. The ride was around three and a half hours to Bologna, and everyone in all nine cars was hollering victory chants the whole way. Celebration had lasted all night and into the morning, and it would continue the next day and much of the following week. I can't even imagine the madness after Italy won the World Cup in 2006.

My exams all went extremely well. I earned "trenta e lode" in Portuguese Literature and in Sociolinguistics (which means perfect score, plus subjective "honors"), and a 30/30 in Contemporary Italian Literature. And I traveled to 15 countries during the semester. Not bad, huh? Not bad at all.

One hour after I finished my last exam I hopped on a bus to the Bologna airport and flew to Paris for six nights. I stayed in a hostel the first night and met up with my friend Marely for dinner and some evening exploration in the picturesque Montmarte neighborhood. The next five nights I stayed with my Harvard hermano Andres in his wild apartment in the Latin Quarter. I spent my second and third days checking out all of Paris with Marely and her roommate Ashley- we saw Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, Les Invalides, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and lots of other touristy places. We ran into the mayor of Paris at an outdoor tennis tournament, we ate baguettes and cheese in front of the Wall of Peace, we climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, devoured chocolate at Angelina's and feasted at a fondue restaurant with the rest of her program. Friday night we said our goodbyes because Marely was leaving Paris the next morning- luckily the lovely Cat Stewart had just arrived in the city and I was able to continue my exploration with her. We ate Chinese food in the Opera district and watched a 3D British street dance movie, totally overlooking the bad acting and instead marveling at the dance moves. We're both almost at their level... just a little more work, that's all. Saturday morning Cat and I took the metro to Vincennes Castle, which was pretty cool but not breathtaking. Our trip was infinitely enhanced by the discovery of a floral park behind the castle- in my opinion the best place in Paris to take fun pictures. We did some jumping photos atop a huge "PARIS" sign and portraits amongst vibrant flowers and art installations. Check out my May Facebook album for some visuals.

Cat had to leave for tennis that afternoon, and from then on I tagged along with Andres and his friends. We went to a beautiful mosque and drank mint tea (which totally gave me Moroccan déjà vu), and then walked around Père Lachaise cemetery and paid homage to Jim Morrison, the coolest person buried there. I left a guitar pick at his grave on behalf of my best friend Martín Cruz, who adores The Doors. Saturday night we went out to an authentic French dinner with a group of program friends, and then to a Brazilian-themed club called Favela Chic, which was actually recommended to me by a Brazilian friend from Rio who had spent a semester in Paris. It was a lot of fun- overly crowded, but with a great mix of music and even some samba thrown in for good measure. When samba came on it was fairly easy to spot the Brazilians on the dance floor, haha. Everyone else pretty much didn't know what to do. For the record, I am Brazilian.

Since we arrived home at 5am, Sunday was pretty lazy. We woke up in the afternoon and it was raining, so we relaxed in the apartment and I eventually walked around a bit to the Pantheon and a few churches. That night Andres had a bunch of friends over at the apartment for a low-key goodbye dinner, since everyone was leaving Paris that week. All attendees were speaking French and I found that I could actually understand pretty well. I just couldn't respond. I'll work on that starting in the fall at Harvard. On Monday morning I went with one of Andres' friends to Versailles, which was incredible. The palace itself wasn't even open, but the gardens were by far the most immaculate I've ever seen. They're huge, and every inch is manicured to perfection. Green everywhere, as well as white statues and tranquil lakes and maze-like footpaths. It was well worth the three euro transportation cost from Paris. That night we went out for goodbye drinks because Andres was leaving to Germany in the morning and one of his roommates was leaving to Barcelona. I noticed that French people are peculiar in the way they sit at outdoor venues; that is, they sit facing the street. Everyone. Always. Even couples never sit across from each other- strictly side-by-side, both watching the action in the street and opposite sidewalk. Mighty curious, those French people. I relaxed Tuesday morning and eventually made my way to the airport and back to Bologna. Plane flights have become second nature to me this semester. No big deal. Just grab a backpack, throw some clothes inside and go. That was more or less my philosophy the past five months.

I spent four more nights in Bologna, mostly saying goodbyes and packing. It definitely wasn't as difficult for me to leave that city as it was to leave Rio. Then again, I was leaving the city all semester long, so I guess I grew accustomed. On Thursday night I traveled with my roommate Stephen to the town of Forlì to see our roommate Ludovica's photography exposition, which was awesome. I had no idea that she was such an incredible artist- humility is one of her strongest virtues, unfortunately. I'm sure she hid other talents from me all semester as well, but we'll stay in touch and I'll discover them eventually. I traveled to Rome yesterday morning and checked into a hostel near the train station. My Harvard friend and former Let's Go colleague Julia came by the hostel with a friend at dinner time and we cooked some delicious pasta in the kitchen (the same thing we did two years ago at a different hostel in Rome after we finished our routes). This time she was in the middle of her Rome route for Let's Go, but much less stressed than the first time around. It was fantastic to catch up with her and hear about this past year at Harvard and everything that's been going on in her life. After they left the hostel I used the internet for a bit and then went to bed around midnight. Got up at six this morning, caught the train to the airport, hopped on my first flight to Frankfurt, waited an hour in Germany and boarded this massive plane to San Francisco. And just like that, my junior year abroad comes to an end. It went ridiculously fast. I can't believe I'm a senior at Harvard! In the words of Jimmy Carson, that right there's some weird wild stuff.

I'm extremely anxious for this plane to land, to see my parents and to eat In 'N' Out on the way home. Sure, my body will think it's 3:30am at dinnertime, but whatever. Time zones have very little meaning to me anymore. Nothing a nap or two can't fix. Speaking of which, I'm about to catch some zzz's right now. Thanks for following me through Europe, loyal readers. I'll keep the blogs coming from California and Mexico. Until then, I love you all and if you're in Santa Rosa, SEE YOU SOON! =D

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ketchup on my life...

[Attention readers: I've recently received a string of threatening emails warning me that I had better update this blog soon, OR ELSE. The clever culprit signed each message with a frustratingly indistinct epithet, but I think I have an idea of who it is. In any case, I've learned enough in this life to know not to cross anyone who closes a note with the words, "Love, Mom". You can thank my cyber bully for the long-overdue blog post to follow.]

My last post was published on Tuesday, March 23, six hours prior to the commencement of my second backpacking journey of this spring semester. It described in detail what I thought was a reasonably epic adventure- four different countries in ten days, little sleep and lots of new friends.

Prepare to be blown away. Since that day, I've explored 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 --> TEN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. With NINE different languages and EIGHT different currencies. I've seen fire and I've seen rain, I've seen sunny days on volcanic islands that I wished would never end. I hiked in the snow-covered Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria, gazed at a blood-red sunset over the Mediterranean from the highest hill in Athens, harassed wild peacocks with an umbrella in Poland and came from behind to win a Herculean pillow battle in Budapest. And all this on a budget.

My trip started once again in Milan, where I caught my three-hour Easyjet flight to Athens and arrived at my conveniently located hostel in the Plaka neighborhood around 4pm. I checked in, took a quick nap and awoke to another big hug from a friend (Moroccan déjà vu?), which was once again better than an alarm. This time it was from my Harvard friend Jing, who brought along with her another Harvard girl named Jessica and a dude from the London School of Economics named Alex. A few minutes later two more of Jing's friends would join us, making us six in total. We left the hostel and walked around for a bit in search of both sustenance- which we found in the form of melitzanes moussaka, a delicious meat and eggplant casserole- and photo opportunities, which were plentiful given the bright nighttime lighting on the stunning Acropolis. We headed off to Lala Land relatively early that night so we'd have energy for our intense Athenian exploration the next day.

The next day, March 25, happened to be Greek Independence Day. We were treated to blue skies, sunshine and a festive military parade through the center of the city. Since this was a real opportunity to mingle with the Greek people, I put on my sunglasses and polished up on my pronunciation of "Καλημέρα!" ("Good morning!"). I got so good that more often than not my salutation would elicit a wordy response, in which case I would just smile and nod my head until they realized I was an ignorant tourist. But it's not that I didn't understand a word they were saying, like one might imagine. You know how people say, "It's all Greek to me"? Well, Greek wasn't all Greek to me. Greek shares a bunch of the same sounds as Castilian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Italian (or rather, those languages ripped off some of their sounds from Greek). Most masculine nouns ending in -a in the Romance Languages come straight from Greek (el mapa, o planeta, il sistema, etc), which explains my ostensible familiarity with a language I was hearing aloud for the first time in my life. That said, I'm not claiming I can understand Greek- I'm just saying that I recognized certain sounds in an otherwise indecipherable linguistic garble. It felt cool nonetheless. After the parade finished our group of six walked down Ermou Street (shopper's paradise) to the Monastiraki neighborhood, where we devoured a lunch of souvaki pita (grilled meat and vegetables on a skewer served with pita bread) with tzatziki (a surprisingly scrumptious cucumber and garlic yogurt sauce). I would come to discover that Greek food is some of the best in the world, hands down. That afternoon we took some amazing pictures of the Ancient Agora and hiked up Lykavittos Hill to watch the sunset over the city and the sea. Breathtaking.

At 7am the next morning we were up and in the ferry on our way to the mystical island of Santorini. During the eight-hour ride I struck up a conversation with four American girls in the cabin who were studying abroad in Salamanca and Paris; turns out one of them knew Jessica, my Harvard friend and travel companion who was sitting at the front of the cabin! It took both of them a few minutes to place each other, but eventually they realized that they had met at some political conference in northern Virginia, something like that. Small world? Do I even have to say it anymore after all the coincidences I've experienced in my travels? Oh yeah, the day before while watching the sunset I met two girls who knew two of my Harvard friends, and one of the other girls in the ferry knew a different Harvard friend. No big deal.

Our maritime approach into the Santorini port felt like a movie scene- specifically the "Cliffs of Insanity" scene from The Princess Bride. The only difference was that these cliffs were frosted with luxury hotels and churches, all completely whitewashed except for their sparkling blue roofs. If you need a better image, or you can't wrap your mind around snow-covered cliffs that are not actually covered in snow but rather in white buildings, Google "Santorini" images and prepare to be amazed. From the port we each rented donkeys and rode up the sides of the cliff 700 feet to our hostel. Haha just kidding, but we could have! Instead we were picked up in a van by George, the fantastic hostel owner, and driven to our hostel in the central town of Fira. We dropped our backpacks and ran to catch the bus to the town of Oía, one of Santorini's prettiest and the best place to watch the sunset. More amazing pictures and another breathtaking sunset, followed by a pasta dinner and our bus ride back to Fira. That night Alex and I went out in search of Santorini's nightlife only to find mostly-empty bars and discos. We realized that March 26 was still a little early for island tourism, but recognized that Santorini would be poppin' during the summer. Can't do much better than warm summer nights in outdoor island clubs overlooking the sea to get people in a party mindset, right? The next morning my travel companions caught another ferry to the island of Mykonos, but I explored a little more on Santorini because I was returning to Athens that afternoon. It was another perfect day, but the Greek islands get over 300 sunny days per year, so I wasn't entirely surprised. I took some panoramic photographs from the highest point in Fira and then lazily made it onto my 3pm ferry with no difficulties whatsoever. The ride back was uneventful and by midnight I was sleeping like a baby in my hostel dormitory.

I decided to take it easy my last day in Athens, spending nearly three hours in the fascinating New Acropolis Museum and exploring a couple of open-air markets. I met a cool Canadian guy in the hostel who is writing a book about his experience visiting every Major League Baseball stadium without once taking a plane, and in the meantime traveling around Europe for six months. If you ask me, the people who sleep in hostels are some of the most interesting people on the face of the planet. For dinner I ate a gyro sandwich near the hostel and then researched- using my very own Let's Go: Europe 2009 guidebook that I found in the hostel library- things to do in the remaining cities on my trip. I went to bed early because the next morning I had to wake up around 5am to meet my travel companions at the airport and catch our plane to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Jing, Jessica and I made it through security and onto the plane with no problems. Alex and the other two friends were headed other places, but Jing had two more Mexican amigos from England getting ready to meet us in Sofia. She's an organizer, that Jing. We touched down on Bulgarian soil after a short flight and took a taxi to our hostel, where we dropped our bags and went off on a self-guided city tour. Sofia is much smaller than Athens and there are far fewer things to take pictures of, but it was a pleasant introduction to Eastern Europe and I'm glad we went. There were a couple gorgeous churches, especially the Nevsky Cathedral, and a bunch of statues with which we took silly photos. Diego and Karina arrived late that night and went with us on a hostel excursion to Rila Monastery the next day, high up in the snow-covered Balkan Mountains. We ate lunch at a Rila restaurant and then did some gentle hiking with four Portuguese guys and our Bulgarian tour guide to a hermit's cave and a few nice vantage points on the mountain. We were back in the hostel by late afternoon, where we relaxed and I played some songs for all the guests on a beat-up guitar. We enjoyed a complimentary pasta dinner and around 7pm took two taxis to the Sofia train station to catch our night train to Belgrade, Serbia.

Apart from the cramped quarters and seven different passport controllers knocking on our sleeper cabin door between the hours of midnight and 6am, the trip was reasonably comfortable as far as night trains go. Not even one gypsy tried to climb through our window and steal our belongings, which was fantastic. We arrived at our hostel bright and early in the morning, before check-in, but the wonderful receptionist let us sleep in the empty private room for a few hours to regain our energy. Around 10am we began our self-led tour of Belgrade, a four-hour walk that included a surprisingly modern pedestrian shopping district, an ethnographic museum where Jing dazzled on the piano, and lunch in the fanciest budget restaurant I've ever seen (imagine eating in private opera box seats, with a golden cord to summon servers). Our tour was cut short by rain, but we were tired anyway and glad to watch a movie in the hostel with the other guests. That night we went out to dinner with the Serbian Society of the London School of Economics, whose members were in Belgrade for a spring break conference. We feasted on as much traditional Serbian food as we could; I don't know what everything was but I know that I liked it! After dinner we went out to a club called Plastic, where the rapper 50 Cent would perform the next night. In my book, good music and no cover is the recipe for tons of fun at the disco. This place had both, and we partied almost until the break of dawn, at which point we grabbed a taxi back to the hostel.

The next morning the same fantastic receptionist surprised us with free coffee and waffles- the perfect way to start a long day of Serbian exploration. This time we left modernity in search of history, spending over an hour taking lots of hilarious pictures with the old cannons and tanks outside of the Belgrade Fortress Kalamegdan. When we ran out of ideas for silly poses we decided to take a walk along the Sava River, stopping for lunch on an Italian boat restaurant and window shopping in a mall on the way back to our hostel. Prior to boarding our 9pm night train to Hungary we passed by a grocery store to buy party supplies and a cake for Karina's birthday, which we proceeded to celebrate all night in our tiny sleeper cabin. We had party music courtesy of Diego's laptop, we had streamers and cardboard hats and a colorful birthday sign, we had cake that we even offered to the conductor but that he didn't want, we had it all. I'm certain that it was the most unorthodox birthday Karina has ever had... perhaps not the best, but definitely unforgettable!

We beat the sunrise to Budapest and were therefore extra thankful to find our Happy Flat van waiting for us in the train station parking lot. Jing had booked an entire apartment for the five of us in Budapest rather than a hostel, and it turned out excellently. We had two bedrooms, six beds, a bathroom, a kitchen and a huge common room with cable TV, all to ourselves! Sometimes renting apartments in a foreign city is a disaster waiting to happen, but Jing found a goldmine. We napped for a few hours and then took to the Hungarian streets, which were way more crowded with tourists than I expected but still remarkable. For the first day we kept our adventures in Pest (the part of the city on the eastern bank of the Danube River), visiting the gothic Parliament building, St. Stephen's Church (one of my new favorites), and the fancy Opera House, among other sites. At night we met up with three of Karina's friends from Monterrey who were also on spring break in Budapest, listening to outdoor music with hot wine and steaming cinnamon funnel cakes before calling it quits relatively early.

After a long and restful sleep, we awoke to sunshine and slightly warmer weather than the day before, not to mention the soothing sounds of Hungarian MTV, thanks to Diego and free cable in the apartment. We set out to explore Buda in its entirety around 1pm after a delectable Sicilian lunch in the city center (you can't escape Italian food anywhere on earth!). The panoramas from atop Gellért Hill were gorgeous, as were the views from Buda Castle. I especially liked the Disneyland-esque Halászbástya, or Fisherman's Bastion, with its countless spires and arches. On the way back to Pest we came across a massive pillow fight, presumably the work of a devious flash mob organizer. We didn't participate, but you can be sure we took pictures and refereed as best we could. That evening we went out to dinner at a restaurant called "Mini" with one of Diego's Hungarian friends from LSE (the portions were mini but the prices were maxi...), and then to a club called Play for "Barbie & Ken Night". We didn't know it was a themed night, but I'm not one to complain about an excess of Hungarian Barbies. Play was one of the best clubs I've ever seen, definitely comparable to the discos in Florence and Berlin, boasting two huge rooms with two different djs, as well as private rooms upstairs for smaller self-important groups. We danced until 4am and then caught a taxi back to our flat and passed out from exhaustion.

Three hours later I was up and out of the apartment, walking briskly down empty streets toward the train station with my pack on my back. I caught the 8am train three hours to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I would spend the first half of my peaceful Easter Sunday. I am very proud of myself for my Slovakian stopover because it was an instance of pure spontaneity. When I was looking at the map in my Let's Go book in Athens, I noticed that Bratislava was more or less directly between Budapest and Vienna. How could I pass right by and not visit? I arrived in the city without a map on Easter Sunday, a day everything is closed, tourist offices and map vendors included. I didn't know what languages they spoke in Slovakia, nor what currency they used. I couldn't name a single sight in Bratislava, if there even were sights to be seen. I had no idea how far the station was from the city center. But I looked at all this as a chance to test my traveling abilities, as an opportunity to measure my capacity for navigating a foreign situation with no help whatsoever. And let me tell you, I dominated Bratislava.

Before exiting the train station, I climbed up to the top level and looked for a window. When I found one, I saw in the distance a tall hill with a statue at the summit. "That's where I've got to go," I said to myself. And so I went hiking, backpack and all, to the highest peak in Bratislava, where I found the Slavin Memorial Statue and managed to survey the entire city, mentally picking out points of interest and their approximate locations. I snapped some panoramic photos and descended, making my way to the historical center and from there discovering just about all there is to discover in Bratislava on an Easter Sunday. I visited the Opera House, the Bratislava Castle, the Nový Most bridge and several beautiful churches where I took the time to lift my praises to Him who guides and watches over me through all these remarkable journeys. After around four hours of walking, I made my way back to the station and caught the next train to Vienna.

The first thing I noticed about Austria is that nobody jaywalks. Groups of people- teenagers included- will just wait at the crosswalk for the signal, even if there are no cops, no cameras and no cars anywhere in sight. That bewildered me. The second thing I noticed is that drivers respect pedestrians, always giving them the right of way no matter what. Again, a huge change from Brazil and Italy, where crossing the street is always a life-and-death game of Frogger. The third thing I noticed is that German is just an ugly-sounding language, plain and simple. I'm not saying it's not cool or that I wouldn't want to maybe learn it someday; I'm just saying that it's not, nor will it ever be, a romantic language.

I made it easily from the Vienna train station to the metro to my hostel around 4:30pm, grabbing a kebab on the way and taking a long nap after check-in. At 9pm I woke up, put on all the clothes I could fit at once, and ventured out into the freezing cold to see what the area around my hostel had to offer. Not much. I was back in my dorm room by 9:45pm, I wrote in my journal for a bit, and I went back to bed. The next morning I met my dormitory roommates, three University of Miami students studying abroad in Spain. I was planning to explore Vienna on my own in the pouring rain, but we were leaving the hostel at the same time and they invited me to tag along. We took the metro to the center and walked around a bit, taking pictures of the Hofburg Complex, the Town Hall, the Parliament Building and a couple theaters. I felt like I was a character in the The Illusionist, prepared to see Edward Norton around every corner. I really liked the Albertina art museum and the Burgtheater, where we watched an incomprehensible German play starring two vagrants, a rich man and his leashed, radio-ad-reciting zombie servant, with a special guest appearance by a brusque little boy. We got back to the hostel around 10pm, at which point we played "Uno" in the hostel bar with three Brazilian girls and eventually headed up to bed. Vienna is probably a fascinating city, but I had only one full day there and it rained from start to finish. That's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Needless to say, I was ready to leave Austria the next morning in search of nice weather in the Czech Republic.

The trip from Vienna to Prague was cheapest by bus, so that's what I chose. In hindsight, it was a great decision. It took a little longer than the train, but I got to sit with the Brazilian girls from the night before and speak Portuguese the whole time. From the Prague bus depot I was able to walk to my hostel, and in those twenty minutes I already knew I would like Prague more than Vienna. The sun was shining brightly and lots of people were out in the streets, not rushing around but simply hanging out, shopping and eating lunch in the squares. My roommate Christian and his friend Max from Bowdoin were also in Prague, so I organized to meet up with them for dinner and in the meantime simply wandered around near the hostel. I had pretty high expectations for Prague because of numerous gushing reviews I'd heard from other travelers, and the city would come to meet them and exceed them with ease. It was infested with foreigners, but I'd choose sunshine and tourists over icy rain and locals any day. Christian, Max and I met at the hostel around 7pm and went out to dinner, after which we met up with another friend of Christian's and three of her travel companions in one of the main squares for hot wine and funnel cakes (I'm convinced that if someone sold hot wine and cinnamon funnel cakes in Harvard Square during the winter, he would be able to retire and move to the Cayman Islands by spring). We went out for a bit to a nightspot called Le Chapeau Rouge and then a couple others nearby; they were all fairly quiet because it was a Tuesday night. I got back to the hostel around 2am and was about to fall asleep when I heard some Brazilians enter and start changing into their pajamas, laughing and whispering to each other so as not to wake me. I told them in Portuguese that it was fine to turn the light on if they needed it, and they responded with surprised remarks about the number of Brazilians they keep meeting. It surprised them more to find out that I wasn't Brazilian at all, but rather an American who had studied in Rio de Janeiro. Regardless, I instantly became one of the crew and they made me swear I would go out with them the next night.

I got up early the next morning to take full advantage of the beautiful weather, first stopping at a supermarket to buy breakfast and lunch and then following a route I had created for myself with a map from the hostel through all of Prague's top sights. Beginning with a panoramic view from the tower in Old Town Square, I walked through the city and along the Vltava River and across the Charles Bridge and around Hradcany Castle and up to the "Dancing House" and back to Republic Square, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells of one of the most captivating places I've ever been. Prague's architecture is permanently striking and incredibly diverse, ranging from medieval to baroque to renaissance and more. I especially liked the statues along the Charles Bridge- check them out in Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" music video- and David Cerny's hilarious Peeing Statues in front of the Kafka Museum (they write quotes from famous Prague residents with their streams!). I had been planning to stay another full day in the Czech Republic and take the night train to Poland, but after all that exploration I realized that I had seen everything I meant to see in Prague. I didn't see the Brazilians that evening, so I was off the hook for going out with them as promised and instead turned in early. Eight long hours of the next day were spent on the train to Warsaw, but I was glad to arrive refreshed and ready to go rather than exhausted and miserable from a sleepless night.

My friend Beata, a Warsaw native who studied abroad in Bologna last semester and was good buddies with my best friend Martín, met me at the train station as I arrived and brought me back to her house, where I would be for staying two nights. After so many nights in hostel dorms, it was magnificent to have my own room and the creature comforts of an actual home. In my limited experience, I think Polish hospitality is the best on earth (or at least tied for first place with some other country, maybe Mexico). Despite the language barrier, Beata's parents treated me like a king, with savory home-cooked dinners, humongous breakfast buffets and warm smiles. Beata took it upon herself to be my tour guide through every inch of Warsaw, starting that very evening with the Old Town and its iconic Mermaid Statue. We met up in the historic center with Monika, another Polish friend who had studied abroad in Bologna, and went to drink tea at an underground teahouse. Afterwards we walked around for a bit and then Beata drove us along the Vistula River, stopping at "La Playa" (an area along the river with sand and a restaurant during the summer) on our way back to the house. I went to bed around midnight and slept eight glorious hours, subconsciously reveling in the absence of noisy Brazilian roommates.

The next day's sky was as gray as Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, a gift to Poland from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but that didn't stop us from visiting Royal Baths Park and marveling at the dozens of wild peacocks behind the Palace on the Water, or from eating pierogies and drinking fruit kompot, or from walking around the university zone munching on heavenly pączki, Polish doughnut-like pastries. When Beata had to go to class I went with Monika to a cool 3D photo exhibition showing Warsaw's squares and monuments as they were at the turn of the 20th century. It was sobering to walk around the city afterwards and see just how many of those places had disappeared completely or were largely destroyed due to wartime bombings. Poland has a fascinating history, with far more than its fair share of tragedies. Little did we know as we were taking silly pictures in front of the Presidential Palace that the next morning would bring another terrible catastrophe upon the nation.

I woke up on Saturday, April 10, to breaking news that there had been a deadly plane crash. Beata and I ate breakfast in silence, glued to TV reports that the presidential couple and 96 other Polish government officials were on the plane, en route from Warsaw to Russia to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre (a mass murder of Polish officials carried out by the Soviet secret police in April 1940). Both Beata and her mom were stunned, frozen in disbelief. It felt like September 11th in that time seemed to stop, with the news stations replaying the same footage over and over for hours on end. Eventually Beata decided that it would do no good to watch the reports all day, so we took the car and visited the immaculate Wilanów Castle, the incredible Warsaw Rising Museum, Chopin's Statue and the manicured roof of the University Library. Dark clouds covered the entire sky but it didn't rain, thus creating an appropriately solemn atmosphere throughout the city. That evening we joined thousands of others in front of the Presidential Palace to add our candles and flowers to the spontaneous vigil in honor of those who passed. It was a time of ardent national solidarity, an especially unique experience for me as a tourist but an event that I wish never would have occurred. Early the following morning Beata drove me to the central train station, where we said our goodbyes and I boarded my train to Berlin.

I didn't really know what to expect from Berlin. I'd been thinking of it only as the last city on my adventure, the place where I would eventually catch my plane back to Italy. Instead Berlin hooked me with its enthralling history and reeled me in with its extraordinary street art, but not until day two. When I first arrived in the city, the air was damp, the sunlight was weak and the temperature was hovering somewhere around freezing. With a wardrobe intended more for the Greek islands than Siberia, I decided that my warm hostel was more enticing than a solo tour through the city. I stayed in for the entire afternoon, venturing out around 7pm to grab a currywurst plate from a corner stand (hot pork sausage with curry sauce and french fries, a Berlin specialty) and then returning to the hostel when my teeth started to chatter.

God must have taken pity on me, because the next day's weather was absolutely gorgeous. I decided to participate in a "New Europe" tour of the city, which had been highly recommended to me by several travelers. These tours are given in most of the European capitals by engrossing American and British college-aged students who work entirely off of tips. The Berlin tour was over three hours long and covered most of the city's important sights and stories. My guide, Summer from SoCal, had lived in Berlin for 5 years, moving there the day after her college graduation because she had fallen in love with the city during a 17-hour layover junior year returning home from a semester abroad in Italy. (Don't worry about me, my stopover in Frankfurt is only two hours!) Starting at the Brandenburg Gate, we made our way to the Reichstag Building, the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie and a bunch of splendid squares, churches and museums. We finished our tour at the foot of the imposing Berlin Cathedral, where Summer acted out (she was a drama major, so she literally acted out) a hilarious version of the story of the falling of the Berlin Wall. By 3pm the outing was over and we were free to go. I decided to be ambitious and visit the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall on foot, walking 3.1 kilometers to the start of the 1.3 kilometers of murals that represent a colorful memorial for freedom. I was so glad I made that extra effort because the East Side Gallery became the highlight of Berlin for me. The murals were remarkably unique, painted by artists from all over the globe and each with a different positive message. They were recently restored to their original conditions, so the colors were wondrously vibrant and there wasn't a mark of graffiti anywhere. I asked a few tourists to take pictures of me in front of my favorite pieces and then walked all the way back to my hostel. That evening I organized my backpack, devoured another currywurst for dinner and chatted with a British roommate named Jo, a recent high school graduate who is traveling alone for six months before started university in Engand. Way more adventurous than I, and three years younger. I'm telling you, hostel dwellers are some of the most amazing people you'll ever meet.

I slept well that final night and caught the metro to the airport in the morning with no problems. My flight to Milan went smoothly (the volcano in Iceland erupted furiously two days later, luckily for me), I took the airport bus to the central train station and then the regional train back to Bologna. I arrived "home" around 8:30pm after grabbing a kebab to go (woah, déjà vu from my first trip?), but this time the apartment was empty. Steven was in the US for a wedding, Ludovica was in Turkey visiting her parents, and Christian was in Sicily with some Bowdoin bros. That's more or less the story of this Bologna apartment. The solitude didn't bother me because I was exhausted from the day's travel, more eager to fall asleep on my pillow than to talk about my three-week adventure. I gave thanks to the Lord for keeping me safe and healthy on my journey, and then I passed out until late the next morning.

Christian came back the following day with three friends, so the apartment was crowded and lively for a change. They were supposed to be in Bologna for a few days only, but the volcano had a different idea, cancelling their flights and stranding them in Italy for over a week. No big deal for us or for them. We're exchange students in Europe, after all. What could they possibly be missing at school? Haha just kidding... But seriously. The change of pace at the apartment was nice, but eventually all good things must come to an end and the ash cleared enough for them to fly home.

The last week of April was crunch time for figuring out my summer plans. My idea to spend two months in Honduras with a nonprofit organization working on sustainable development was rejected by all three grant committees to which I applied, so I had to decline that gracious invitation for lack of funds. Another possibility was to serve an editorial internship with Budget Travel magazine in Manhattan, but they were too slow in offering the position. Even if they had told me they wanted me right away, I don't think I would have accepted for this summer. In the two weeks following my trip I had been doing a lot of thinking and a lot of praying about where I would be happiest this summer, and by the end of April I was certain that a full-time office job for no pay in New York City was not the answer. During this time a friend suggested I write to some travel journalists to see what kind of advice they had for me. I sent emails to Rolf Potts and Pico Iyer, two of my favorite travel writers, and to my delight they both responded within 24 hours telling me to forget the office job and to TRAVEL this summer. Their joint validation of my gut feeling was a definite relief; I could forego the NYC internship and still be on track for my dream job. That same day I emailed my friend and recent Harvard graduate Liz Cabrera (who I knew was working with a nonprofit in Mexico) to see if there were any summer openings with her organization or if she knew of any other opportunities for me. She responded excitedly, telling me that she's actually the Program Director and would probably be able to make a spot for me in La Catalina Foundation, her nonprofit in La Manzanilla, Jalisco. She told me that she would speak to her bosses and give me a definite answer by that Friday, April 30.

The rest of that school week I caught myself daydreaming about summer on the beach in Mexico, getting my Spanish fluency back and working to make a positive change within the tiny community of La Manzanilla. Friday finally came and Liz gave me the formal invitation over Skype video, even offering me free housing for the entire summer. Through the window behind her I could see palm trees, white sand and turquoise water, but I would have accepted even with a less paradisiacal background. Words can't express the excitement and blessing that I felt- I had been praying that I would have summer plans set by May 1, and He delivered with a few hours to spare. Since Christian had taken me out to dinner the night he found out that he got his summer internship with Deutsche Bank, I returned the favor that evening and we went out to eat at a nice trattoria. I finally crawled into bed around 1am, but even then I was too adrenalized to sleep.

My sleeplessness was unfortunate, because at 4:30am I had to be up to catch a train north to Lake Como, where I was meeting my former Harvard Italian tutor Kendra at 9:30am. She had been working at a school in Brescia the whole time I'd been in Bologna, but this was our first chance to connect in Italy. We spent the morning walking around the lake, which was especially serene because of the mist and fog partly covering the surrounding mountains. If the name "Lake Como" doesn't ring a bell for you, think of the final scene of Ocean's 12 that takes place on the terrace of the Night Fox's mansion. Remember? That mansion is on the bank of Lake Como, and not just that one but a bunch of others as well. Kendra and I strolled around for a few hours and took pictures, and then around 1pm we hopped on the train north to Switzerland, where we would be spending the night at a lovely hostel overlooking Lake Lugano. The weather wasn't much better across the border, but the city was charming and the lake was picturesque. That Saturday happened to be International Workers' Day, so almost everything was closed with the exception of restaurants and churches. We ate an early Italian dinner and headed back to the hostel around 6:30pm, deciding to "take a nap" for a few hours and see how we felt after. I woke up fully dressed at 10pm and saw that it was pouring rain outside our dorm room. I looked down at the bunk below me and Kendra was already in her pajamas, fast asleep. Lugano was in no condition to be explored at that hour or in that weather, so I brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas and fell back asleep until 8am the next morning.

I have no idea how I slept thirteen hours straight, even taking into consideration the fact that I slept only three hours the night before. I'm usually one to wake up naturally after eight hours no matter what. We were obviously very refreshed the next morning, but it was still raining so we decided to eat a leisurely breakfast in the hostel and just catch each other up on our international lives. That Tuesday she was moving to Israel to start work at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, so this would be the last time I'd get to see her for a while. I thoroughly enjoyed our extended conversation right up to the moment I had to catch my train back to Bologna at 11:30am. Or rather, my four trains back to Bologna. I had told the man in the Lugano ticket office who was trying to put me on the bullet train that I had lots of time but little money. It cost me six times less than the price of the high-speed train ticket to get back home, but it also took me six times longer, with three different changes along the way. I got back to my apartment around 6pm, ate dinner with Christian, played guitar and wasted time on the computer until 1am, entirely incapable of falling asleep after such a restful weekend.

May in Bologna has been characterized by ugly weather and studying. I would complain, but I've discovered that they're utterly perfect complements. Besides, a little studying is a small price to pay for all the fun I've been having here in Europe over the last five months. This past Wednesday I handed in a ten-page paper for Contemporary Italian Literature, and Thursday I had a written midterm in Italian for my Brazilian Literature class (slightly confusing, yes). Both went pretty well, no big deal. On Wednesday I have an oral exam in Portuguese and then I'm headed to Milan to spend a few days with a Brazilian friend I met in Buenos Aires last semester. The following Monday I have my oral exam in Italian and then Wednesday I'll take my oral exam for Sociolinguistics. Three hours after my last exam I'm flying to Paris for a weeklong French cultural and linguistic immersion experience. I'm thinking of it as a sneak preview of next year, since I've already decided to learn French as a senior. I paid 40 euro roundtrip from Bologna and I'll be staying with a Harvard friend in his apartment, so my adventure shouldn't break the bank even though Paris is outrageously expensive. I'm especially excited for the reappearance of some former blog celebrities who will all be in and around Paris while I'm there. One is Ana Clara, a carioca friend I met early on in Rio last year. Another is Cat, the Harvard friend/tennis player/favorite person trifecta with whom I met up in the Algeciras bus station in Spain. Still another is Marely, the girl from the Athens-Santorini ferry who knew my travel companion Jessica. This is the nature of the globalized world in which we're living, readers. Or at least the one in which I'm living. Meet people in one part of the world, jot down their Facebook contact information, and see them down the line somewhere entirely different. I LOVE IT!

So there you have it, ladies and gentleman. Ketchup on my life since March 23. I applaud you for making it all the way to the end of this Homeric saga. If you just skipped ahead to the finish, shame on you (but I can't say I blame ya!). Until next time, my loyal readers. I promise I won't keep you waiting until mid-June.