History intrudes on the present on the Isle of Iona, Scotland

Another place that sticks out in my mind when I think about Scotland is the Isle of Iona. This tiny island, located in the Western Isles, is beautiful and steeped in history.

To get to Iona, you have to drive through the Isle of Mull and then take a ferry. I remember Mull as being brown and dreary, but it was January in Scotland, so it may not be that way the rest of the year.

Isle of Mull, Scotland

Isle of Mull

Finally, you arrive on Iona. The town is tiny, lining one street. Since it was the off season, the island’s only hotel was closed. It was cold the day we were there – I remember our bus driver hunkering down in a telephone booth while we wandered around – but we were blessed with moments of sunshine.

There is something almost mystical about the beauty of Iona. Standing on the edge of a cliff, with the sea crashing against the cliff’s base, it feels as if you could be standing on the edge of the world.

According to legend, Iona is where St. Columba, the first Christian missionary to arrive in Scotland from Ireland, landed, and set up the first abbey. The abbey still stands, and the squat structure adds to the island’s beauty.

Iona Abbey Scotland

Iona Abbey Scotland

Iona Abbey Scotland

History is tangled up here. Behind the abbey, there are ruins of a Viking village, from the era when the Vikings were conquering and settling in Scotland and England. The stones sticking out of the ground, outlining where the buildings stood all those centuries ago, is fascinating and somehow a little unsettling.

I would love to go back to Iona, hopefully in the relative warmth of summer, and with a camera that will allow me to take more pictures. I would recommend a visit to Iona if you are ever in Scotland – it is worth the trip out to the Western Isles!

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Geghard Monastery, Armenia

I’m a sucker for unique buildings like this monastery carved in rock. Hopefully one day I’ll make it to Armenia to see it! In the meantime, check out my new article over at The Circumference.

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A contradiction in my travel planning

So, here’s the thing. I love “accidental finds” – being open to trip tangents, going to random places, and enjoying them. But I also really like learning everything possible about a country before I go there. I’m not sure if this is a contradiction or not.

Before I went to Chile last year, I read travel and history books, followed blogs about expat life there, read plenty of Neruda poems, and watched some Chilean TV. I really wanted to get a sense of what it was like to live there. That’s also one of the reasons I stayed at an apart hotel in Santiago the whole time – I got to know the downtown area really well. I didn’t overplan – each day I decided what I wanted to do, some of which was on my itinerary and some of which wasn’t. But I definitely came there with plenty of preparation, and perhaps, a preconceived notion of the country that I perhaps shouldn’t have had.

I think I just really like to learn about other places. I’ve read about countries and regions I’ve never been to just because I didn’t know anything about them. And it’s also very nice to think about vacation while you’re slogging through the nine to five. But maybe it is a little weird. This year I’m thinking I might go to Nicaragua, but that probably won’t happen until December, which is when I usually take my big vacation. But I have already checked out a couple books on Nicaragua. I’ve brushed up on its history and I already have a general idea of what part of the country I’d like to stay in. Yes, I am prepared. Super prepared. But that doesn’t mean I won’t find random, accidental things while I’m there. And maybe I’ll have some insights into what I encounter while I’m there that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

What about you – do you just hop on a plane and see what you find? Or do you like to get into the minds of the locals and learn about the country beforehand?

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My travel bulletin board

Bulletin board

The travel mementos that are displayed most prominently in my house are things that have absolutely no value other than sentimental. My bulletin board is covered with postcards and ticket stubs for trains, planes, and museums from places I’ve visited. I keep other things too, like concert tickets, but most of the items on the bulletin board relate to my travels. I think it’s a great way to remember places I’ve been (free souvenirs!)

I started the bulletin board originally because I once had a dorm room with a bulletin board that was empty and needed to be filled, so I stuck a postcard from St Andrews on it, and eventually other things gathered around it. Now I make a point of setting aside tickets and things and taking them home with me so I can stick a pin in them and display them. (Mostly this works. Sadly, I don’t have my Prague Jazz Boat ticket because the wrong pile of receipts and stubs went into the trash that night.) Of course, it’s also a great conversation piece!

I keep lots of different things to put on the board. Here’s a few highlights:
1) Plane ticket stubs to Germany, the Czech Republic, Chile, etc.
2) Train tickets from all over the UK.
3) A hand-written invitation from my friend to a Thanksgiving dinner we held while living in Scotland.
4) A rubbing of a seal from the St Andrews city museum.
5) A postcard from Chicago, because that’s the first place I ever got sent on a business trip (souvenirs don’t always have to come from far away places!)

What sort of mementos from your travels do you display in your home?

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Inspiration in St Andrews

My entry at the We Said Go travel writing contest has been posted! The contest theme was “inspiration.” I chose to write about St Andrews, Scotland, because it is still my favorite place on the planet (so far).

I think there may be Facebook voting after all the entries are posted, so I will keep you guys up to date!

Please check it out!

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Hostels: Find the diamonds in the rough

Hostels have a certain reputation, and it’s not always a positive one. They are (one of) the cheapest ways to travel, the haven of backpackers worldwide. You live in close quarters with strangers and can spend weeks eating breakfasts of toast, orange juice, and, if you’re lucky, cornflakes. Sometimes hostels can live up to this reputation and be cheap and dirty, but with a little bit of research, and some luck thrown in, you can find some truly unique hostel gems. Here are some of my favorite hostels that I’ve stayed in.

Loch Lomond, Scotland
Loch Lomond Hostel
This hostel is located in a 19th century castle that sits on the site of Robert the Bruce’s hunting lodge. It lives up to the castle moniker, feature a grand central staircase and a dining room with a vaulted ceiling. The hostel sits near the town of Luss, close to the banks of beautiful Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain by surface area.

Loch Lomond Hostel

Loch Lomond Hostel

Florence, Italy
Hostel in Florence Italy

The hostel I stayed in while touring Florence was a redone traditional villa. Still sporting its bright yellow paint with white trimmings and set in manicured gardens, you can imagine the days when this magnificent house belonged to a wealthy Italian family. While it is outside of the city, you trade convenience and location for the overall experience (and with no increase in price!).

Hostel in Florence Italy

Mainz, Germany
While the hostel I stayed at in Mainz wasn’t particularly remarkable, it was fully modern, cheaper than staying in Frankfurt (our main destination) while still be close to public transport, and boasted a full breakfast (fruit, meat, bread, granola, etc.). I would definitely recommend it!

And, finally…
The worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in
Now, to be fair, this hostel in London, England, was only 8 pounds per night, so you can’t expect too much. And it was across the street from a tube station. However, the thing that made it so terrible was that it was so strange. Rather than have communal shower rooms, they had a shower in the corner of each bedroom (even in 10-bed co-ed rooms). It made it very awkward to shower and change, but I suppose worse places exist.

What great hostel finds have you stumbled upon? What was your worst hostel experience?

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Don’t count your money on the bus (and other things most travelers already know)

There has been quite a movement on travel blogs and Twitter in recent weeks for solo (female) travel and how irrational the stereotype is that it’s not safe for people (particularly women) to travel alone. This came up again recently because of the woman who was killed in Turkey while traveling by herself. While tragic, her death is not indicative of a problem with solo travel (many people get killed in their neighborhoods and homes as well).

Quite a few good posts of come from this, but I read one in particular that resonated with me, because my parents have similar fears when I travel (solo and not). It’s hard to overcome worrying parents (and friends) but I’ve started trying to break through to them by having them realize that I’m smart about traveling – most travelers are in fact. They know what they should and should not do while they’re traveling. Because in some ways it’s not that different from what you would do at home.

Let me illustrate this with a story. Growing up, my mom on various occasions tried to put the fear of god into me about Mexico. “Don’t ever go to Mexico,” she said. “I got robbed on my first day in Mexico!”

Sounds pretty bad, right? But after many years of this, when I was in college and planning a possible trip to Mexico with my then-boyfriend who was from Mexico (which sadly never happened), I finally heard the full story, not just the scare tactics story. Turns out, she got robbed because she got on the bus her first day, sat down, took out her money, and started counting it. Sensing an opportunity, of course somebody took it.

My response to learning this was, of course, incredulous. You stigmatized Mexico for decades because you did something stupid? I wouldn’t count my money on the bus (or metro, or in the middle of the street, you get the idea) at home in DC. My mom grudgingly admitted that this was true. At the time my mom went to Mexico for the summer, she had lived in the same city her entire life, so she hadn’t had much travel experience at all. However, I think I have more street sense than that. And I think what people like my mother fail to realize is that people who are prone to travel have a strong sense of the world and by and large aren’t going to count their money on the bus.

In general, the same rules you would follow in a city at home apply when you’re traveling. Here are a few points on what most seasoned travelers already know, and perhaps people new to travel haven’t thought about.

  • Don’t count your money on the bus. While I’m not a proponent of money belts (they seem a little extreme to me), I do make sure to not carry much cash, sometimes in multiple places separate from my wallet. Also, leave any extra credit cards or other important things behind before you leave the country (for example, I know my Discover card doesn’t work abroad, so I always take it out of my wallet before I embark on a trip). Try to give people as few opportunities to steal from you as possible.
  • Don’t go off with strangers. Again, you most likely wouldn’t do this at home, so you aren’t likely to do it when you’re traveling. I never saw the Taken movies, but for some reason my parents did (I guess they wanted to freak themselves out more than they already were). As soon as they started describing the plot, I stopped them – clearly the girls shouldn’t have gone off by themselves with a stranger, and I would never do that. However, I do have a friend who travels constantly, and has sometimes broken this rule with nothing happening to her. While in Croatia, her and her friend meant some locals and they went on a week-long camping trip together and had a great time. I personally wouldn’t put myself in that situation and risk something bad happening in a country where I don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, but it worked out for her.
  • Don’t make yourself conspicuous. Sometimes this is hard, of course, if for example, you may be the only blue-eyed blond on a street in India, but you can do things to minimize your conspicuousness. Whether I’m walking around a city at home or abroad, I try to look (as much as possible) like I know where I’m going. If you look like a lost tourist, that’s when people may try to take advantage of you. I always carry a map with me in case I need it, but I study it before I leave the hotel, so I’m not standing on a street corner looking at a map and pointing out the fact that I’m a lost tourist. I also think part of not being conspicuous is respecting the culture you’re in by talking with the locals and tailoring your behavior to the situation as necessary (for example, Americans stereotypically can be very loud, but this may be disrespectful in other cultures or settings). I think the people around you can sense that you’re there to learn about their culture rather than to gawk at it.

What other basic tips would you give your fellow travelers? What would you say to doubters of solo travel?

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