Monday, July 3, 2017

Arriving in the Rain - an Airbnb tale

Hi all,

So this story is about the time that I arrived in Munich, Germany during a downpour. It was summer 2016, and I was on my European Backpacking Adventure. Munich had won my heart back in December 2012, so I was excited to revisit it during warmer months. I was arriving on the Eurail train from Switzerland and had been traveling and journaling all day.

To set the scene, picture me wearing my large backpack on my back and the smaller one on my front. My umbrella is thankfully easily accessible in my backpack's pocket, and I'm wearing a comfortable travel outfit. My train has pulled into the suburbs of Munich and the rain has started to fall on the windows. I've got the directions from the Airbnb host as screenshots and have the apartment's "location" pinned on my Google Maps app.

The train pulled into a tunnel and then stopped at my station. I exited and crossed to the other track to take the short journey to the apartment's local station. I was underground now and naively hopeful that the rain would be light when I reemerged. No such luck.

I vividly remember climbing the stairs out of the station toward a grey plaza. The rain could be heard before I saw it. Sheets of rain. People coming down the stairs were shaking their umbrellas and coats off and looked miserable.

I gathered up my willpower, set my Google Map GPS to show the direction of the apartment, and walked up into the deluge. Okay, that's a little extreme, but my point is that I was really thankful that I had my umbrella. I had to stand at a corner to wait for the traffic light. My sneakers felt wet already. After crossing I headed toward a neighborhood area as the directions instructed. Here's where it becomes a story and not just a soggy arrival anecdote.

I couldn't find the apartment.

The rain continued as I walked up the street and down the street looking for the number and frowning at my phone's directions. (I should note that I've had this happen to me in other cities, so it's me not the directions (mostly), but still.) I found refuge under an overhang and tried in vain to message or call the host. This is a downside of not having (buying) internet access, aka a SIM card, when I travel. Feeling frustrated, I went to the only door on the street that looked open and found a German Kindergarten. It was after 4pm so only the secretary was there.

She was incredibly helpful and let me use the phone to call the host, but there was still no answer. I sadly thanked her and stepped back into the rain, thinking about how my backpack's contents were surely completely wet. Note to self: Don't assume when feeling defeated.

I wandered down the street again and stopped at a cafe to try to use wifi. Again, no luck. The shop was empty and I felt guilty for not buying something, so I exited and started toward the bus shelter across the street.

That's when I saw a tall, lanky guy walking toward me and waving under his umbrella. My host! I admit that I wasn't the most likable person in that moment, but he tolerated my annoyance like a saint and invited me into the apartment. I found that my backpack was not that wet, I let my sneakers dry by the heater, and we had a nice cup of tea together and chatted.

All's well that ends well, as he would say. So that's the story of how I got discombobulated in Munich when trying to find my Airbnb apartment. I did help him write up clearer directions for future guests and I had a great, albeit rainy and cold, stay in Munich in mid-July. We even played soccer one evening! But that's another story.

Until next time... thanks for reading!

Happy travels!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My love-hate relationship

Hi all,

I'm going to write about something I think most travelers have experienced. The love-hate relationship. Not with someone, or with the feeling of endless travel, but with a city. You adore this city, idealizing it as you plan your trip. But then you get there and it stomps on you, steals your money, and throws you overboard. This is a story about Paris, France.

I had visited Paris in June 2007 as the starting point of a group tour across France, Spain, Morocco, and Portugal for intrepid high schoolers. Well our plane from Virginia was delayed, we missed our flight from New York, and we spent the day at a Newark mall instead of on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. But I'll tell that story later. Oh and then there was the MRD trip to London and Paris in 2011, in which my flight group missed the Paris part and had to meet up with everyone in London. Basically Paris was a blip in my memory, and a sore spot, and I was determined to visit it fully in 2016. As the start of my big European Backpacking Adventure!

Flying in was exciting and the first days were enjoyable. But cold. Parisians were wearing coats in the middle of June. I wandered, I recolored my hair, I sipped classy drinks and ate fine food. I tried to live as a local and experience Paris correctly. I had a plan to see the tourist sites on the weekend, after I moved from my current Airbnb to a hostel across town. A teaching family I knew was also going to be in Paris the day that I moved, so I planned on dropping my stuff off and then exploring with them. See I made good plans. I was nice to the city. And it repaid me by kicking me in the stomach.

*Here's where it gets TMI. You've been warned.*
I thankfully have a habit of packing up most of my stuff the night before I leave a place. Plus I'd only just arrived 2 days ago, so most of my stuff was still packed. My Airbnb was in a cool student neighborhood and the host (in messages, he wasn't in town) had recommended a pizza place nearby. I wandered naively down there, had a beer, and ordered what ended up being a full pie.

It looked fine. I took a photo of it for Instagram (later deleting it after the horror) and dug in. I was never going to eat it all, but I made a decent dent. Then my stomach felt... unsure. I had another beer to settle it. I decided not to have any of my wine when I got back to the apartment and got ready for bed. I remember listening to a Spanish CD from my laptop to lull me to sleep.

*Some of this story I wrote the day after the "incident", so let's now time-travel to my nice hostel in Paris (where I moved).*

June 17th, 2016.

I just realized today is my half-birthday. 25.5.

Sucky day to celebrate though because today... (graphic, read on at own "ew" risk) I woke up with what I assume has been food poisoning. Probably from the combo of pizza and beer last night. Throw-up count is at 4 (3am, 4am, 9:30am, 4pm) and my stomach was empty-empty when last I saw its contents (water). I've been dizzy all day and my muscles feel super weak and useless. 

I'm at a hostel now, and a very nice Argentinian woman bought me gatorade, which has helped. A French woman also gave me some strong paracetamol and stomach spasm medicine. I laid down on a couch in the hostel (room wasn't ready yet) for several hours midday. No lunch.

Tried to have the tiniest bit of banana when I woke up in the afternoon after incident 4pm and that was a trigger on my poor stomach. Last expulsion seems to have helped my dizziness though, and I now have a bed (bunk, so gotta be careful) so I'm down for the next several hours. Didn't get to see the teaching family today on account of trying to not feel like death.

Being sick sucks, but the positive factors are: 
1) I've learned I don't give a __ what strangers think of me.

2) I'm able to be respectful even when I'm white as a ghost and lacking stomach bile.

3) People are super nice, just, there are really good people all around. 

4) I'm in this hostel until Sunday morning when I'm planning on going to Monaco, but nothing is booked, so travel-freedom has taken that pressure off my mind.

5) This hostel is clean and the hosts are very helpful. One guy carried my ridiculous, huge purple backpack up the stairs for me and the main host let me sleep on the couch downstairs for those hours.

6) I honestly don't care if I don't see all the sites in Paris. Which I may well not. I got to Notre Dame. Yes the Eiffel Tower is special, but I won't cry about not getting to see it on this trip. I'll be in Europe again someday when I live here.

Stay hydrated and healthy my friends,

I don't think you really need the gory details, but if you've read this far apparently you want them.
Still reading? Okay I'll tell you.

My body rejected everything possible that night at the apartment. I thought I was okay in the morning, waking up around 7am, and even walked down the street to a supermarket to buy a banana and some yogurt as breakfast. Foolish me.

I packed up my bags fully and managed to walk down the street wearing my 20+ pounds of luggage (backpacks) on my poor body. Mind over matter, legs just keep moving. I got to the metro and held on to the railing as the train rolled and rocked in that usual way. Except that my stomach was not happy. I thank the universe that the doors of the train opened at a random, open-air station just as the banana and yogurt decided to leave me. That was the 9:30am incident. I managed to get my front backpack off before spewing my guts on a plastic chair bench and the wall behind.

This will make you laugh with pity - I felt so guilty for the mess that I tried to wash it all away with my water bottle. Then I found a station manager and explained that he should call someone to come with a hose to wash it away. So thankful it was an open-air station...

Now I wasn't crazy enough to try to get on another train and continue my journey to the hostel. My weakened body was going to have to make the trip on foot. At least it was a nice day and I felt capable to walking with my backpacks as long as I could breath fresh air and rush to a bush or trash can if needed. (My willpower is pretty strong some days. Still, I definitely wished I wasn't traveling alone right then.)

I had the GPS coordinates on my phone (Thanks Google Maps!) and started off on the longest trek of my life. Well it felt like that because I was slower than a snail and didn't feel I was getting any closer. I passed through a park that had a dinosaur statute in it. I dragged myself along a row of endless identical houses on an empty sidewalk. That's when I sat down and surrendered to the streets of Paris. Accepting that the city had beat me and that we shouldn't be together anymore.

I considered just booking myself into the next hotel I saw, but I didn't see any. I considered paying a driver however much was necessary to get me to the hostel but then worried about getting sick in their car. I considered ordering a taxi but my phone just had wifi access, not calling or instant internet. And again, the car movement worried me. So I sat there.

Eventually, superhumanly, I summoned enough energy to pull myself up and trudge on to the hostel. It was a very welcome sight. But it was like 11am and the room wouldn't be ready until 4pm. The host was lovely. She saw I was in a miserable state and let me collapse on the couch in the "game room" down some stairs.

I shamelessly covered myself completely in a blanket and lay still like a corpse on that couch for the whole afternoon. I probably creeped some people out. I tried to get up once in the afternoon and incident 4 told me that my mind was not going to win this battle of wills over my body. Luckily I was in a bathroom. Then, as the journal entry says, I met nice people who helped. I survived, got to my room, slept, and later got online to apologize to the family since we hadn't met up. It hadn't been a set plan, just a maybe.

The next day I was better. 24 hours of destruction and the poison was out of my system. Thank your body today - it knows what to do in these situations, even if disgusting.

So then I had a lovely weekend wandering around the sites in Paris, as I'd planned. Even met someone cute. But that's another story. See you later!    

Happy traveling!
- Christina

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My first trip across the border

Hi all,

So let's jump in, to the car. My first trip outside of the USA was to nearby Canada. I was 9 years old. We lived in upstate New York so the drive wasn't that bad, considering that my family often took road trips to the beach in Virginia.

My younger brothers and I (ages 9, 6, and 3) piled into the backseat and waiting for my dad to finally be ready. After checking the house for the 20th time, we were off. I remember being so excited to see Niagara Falls and watching out the window of our brown Toyota as we flew by trees, entered the grey highway, and finally approached border control.

This was pre-9/11, and I guess the rules for border crossings were looser at that time. I'm fairly sure my parents didn't have passports. Us children certainly didn't. So we pulled up to the border control officer's roadside toll box. It seemed to me like we were just stopping to pay a toll, but then it took longer than usual.

The officer seemed to be telling my mom that she couldn't take us, her children, across the border without showing our birth certificates. Whether my parents hadn't researched this or it was a new rule, I'll never know. But we were halted there at the US-Canada border as my mom and dad tried to convince the officer, and soon his boss, that the 3 of us were not being smuggled out of the country.

I was bored with the wait so I fidgeted with my crank-down window handle, and ended up sticking pennies into a hole by the door handle. That door always jingled with cash afterward. My brothers must have been asleep because I don't remember any ruckus from them. I didn't know why we had been held up until my parents started talking about it back in the car later on.

After what felt like hours, but was probably more like 30 minutes, my parents signed some documentation and the border staff let us through. Perhaps it says something about my travel patience personality that my first experience involved waiting at a border.

So we got through and went to Canada. That weekend we stood by the massive Niagara Falls from the Canadian side and took photos. I'll save myself some humiliation by not posting them because 9-year-old me was not fashion-forward.

That was my first trip "abroad". I don't remember if I felt the travel bug then, but I do remember being fascinated that there were hotels and interesting things to see that I wouldn't have seen if we hadn't taken the trip.

So that was my start. And I'd like to stay that I've been traveling ever since, but it wasn't until 2005 that I got my next chance. But that's another travel story. See you later!

Happy traveling!