The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. These mighty Midwestern states somehow never made the cut for family road trips, my own independent explorations but I was determined to see them before moving to South Africa for a research position in South Africa. Seeing all 48 continental states had been on my bucket list from the beginning but the dream became reality when I found a shotgun rider to accompany me on the adventure. I had met Kim when I was teaching at a university in Sonipat, India. I had glimpsed a flash of blonde hair down the hallway and thought I was dreaming, since I thought I was the only one. One morning at 6 AM, she bopped into the gym when I half-heartedly ellipticalling and thoroughly immersed in rationalizing the story line of the Bollywood music video that brought the team captain and his cheerleader girlfriend from their high school football field into the depths of an Amazonian jungle. Her voice interrupted my reverie, “so I must ask, what are you DOING here?”. I explained my nerd camp gig, she explained that she was a law professor and, as the two blondes at OP Jindal University, we were instant friends. We had a few adventures in India, involving take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, American movie nights with a giant stuffed tiger, a hardcore yoga class and a lot of street side chai. Long story short… an unidentified health ailment sent her home from India early and the near death experience convinced her to take some time for soul searching and adventures. We kept in touch and I mentioned my impending road trip. Despite being an American born and bred, she had never been on a road trip and jumped on the invitation to join. I hesitated before I allowed her to enlist, “You know we’re going to have to go to some random places, right? I want to finish the 48 states and I don’t think I saved the best for last”. She didn’t hesitate for a millisecond, “sign me up! I can’t drive but I can DJ”.  And thus, the Great American Road Trip was born. After some arbitrary route planning on my part, before I knew it I was at the airport in Pittsburg, PA, picking up Kim and her suitcase full of “Southwesternwear” (i.e. leather and tassels), body glitter, sidewalk chalk and all sorts of fun surprises.  After a quick hug, we set out without much of a plan besides finding coffee and donuts as soon as humanly possible.  I’m not going to delve into the details of our adventures that followed because (a) it would be impossible (b) it’s not important.   However, traveling some of the most boring states in America did teach us some important lessons about road tripping, and more importantly, lessons about life.  I’m going to share a few of them: 1)  It’s The People That Make The Journey Worthwhile Our trip didn’t include any epic national parks, beautiful coasts, big cities or extremely noteworthy destinations so especially on a trip like this, people make the miles worthwhile. “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings.  Ask me to go on one, anywhere.  We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history, and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit.  Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always.  Because stories are more important than things” -Victoria Erickson Some had legendary reputations– for example, at Wild Turkey distillery, we got to hang out with Jimmy Russell, the longest master distiller in the world.  For someone know as the “master distiller’s master distiller”, Jimmy was incredibly humble and down-to-earth, easy-going guy who laughed as his childhood dream to leave the family distilling business for a future in baseball.  After distilling bourbon for 61 years, the profession still hasn’t gotten old, despite having plans to be flown to Japan and Australia, he still seems most satisfied in his simple Kentucky home, making bourbon and making people happy. Others, we just stumbled on.  Route 66 was a jackpot for finding interesting people.  Our foray into Kansas involved a stop to the abandoned mining town of Galena.  After our obvious out-of-town vibe turned every head in the main town diner, Kim directed us further down Main Street to an old Kan-O-Tex station which was reconstructed to look like the set of the Pixar movie Cars (acknowledging that Galena inspired Radiator Springs, the setting of the film).  We said hi to “Tow Tater”, a reconstructed car outside, and poked our heads into the shop where we were warmly greeted by Melba Rigg, the voice of “Melba the...

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

If you’re thinking about Peru travel, start here with Part 1 to learn general tips or a suggested itinerary for things to do near Cusco.  Here’s a continuation of our itinerary, through Puno, Ica and Lima. Day 8. Lake Titicaca and Puno. Ideally, we wanted to do a 2-day Lake Titicaca tour which included a homestay on Amanti Island which was a better deal (two-day tour, three meals and accommodation for 75 sol… we paid 40 sol just for the day tour/ transportation and had to purchase lunch separately) but it wouldn’t get us back in time to make the bus to Ica. Instead, we booked the one-day, two-island tour through our Qoni Wasi hostel. We first went to Uros, the small man-made floating bamboo islands. When we first pulled up to an island smaller than my house, we weren’t sure how we would spend an hour there… it only had three huts and maybe five people living there. But the time passed quickly, as we learned how about how they built the island, how they find food and how the educational system works. What a fascinating way to live… and I guess family squabbles are pretty easy to resolve… they cut the island in two and anchor their half somewhere else! The next stop on our boat tour was the natural island of Taquile, to see a completely different lifestyle and, fortunately for us, completely different weather (sunny skies!).  Here, the island was large to support brick and concrete buildings, farms, animals and all things needed for a fairly modern life.  Although life looked a lot more “typical” on Taquile, they still had unique governance and dress that made it interesting to visit.  Unmarried men wore plain white hats whereas married men wore flashy rainbow colored ones… before they could get married, they had to knit this hat themselves.  Having a “pre-marriage challenge” like this one, probably gives you some idea of what a peaceful people they are… they also have a town council where they manage village decision-making safety and such without a police force. After our tour of the islands, we headed back to Puno, where the skies had turned stormy again.  As one of the poorest cities we visited so far, there wasn’t too much we wanted to do in the city itself but we did check out the Plaza del Armas and the shops and restaurants around the adjoining Jiron Lima street (the main pedestrian path in town).  Puno’s proximity to the highlands and Alpacas make this one of the best places in the country to find cheap, homemade textiles.  I rarely buy anything when I travel but I couldn’t resist thick knitted gloves (10 sol), wooly leg warmers (10 sol) and a warm, knitted poncho with llamas marching around the perimeter (30 sol). We also had an incredible three course meal (including beverages) for 18 sol at Lago de Flores restaurant- taquitos with homemade guacamole, Jimmy tried alpaca and indulgent chocolate cake for dessert.  It seemed to have won the locals over too because we basically shared the restaurant with a dozen Puno security officers who were happily stuffing their faces. Day 9.  Epic Bus Ride from Puno to Ica.  Our 9th day involved an epic bus journey from Puno to Ica, which you could potentially avoid with a flight.  It was easier to find nice, direct, comfortable night buses to Arequipa (we were pleased with Peru Bus) but options to Ica were more limited.  After arriving at the Arequipa terminal, bleary-eyed at 4 AM, Jimmy picked out Flores bus (the option the locals use) to get to Ica.  In general, we had been advised to splurge on reputable buses since some buses can get held up by thieves who want to hold the bus hostage steal things.  In order to board the Flores bus, we had to get fingerprinted and videotaped and we squeezed into seats as far away from the smelly toilet as possible.  The bus made stops along the way and random townspeople would board and walk down the aisle selling pears, meat pies, popcorn, jello, fruit popsicles and small sandwiches.  They’d join us for a stop or two, until the driver dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.  In addition to the excitement of seeing who was going to hop on the bus, the scenery also helped entertain us for the 12-hour ride.  Most of the route followed the coast, so we loved to peer out the window at abandoned beaches and wild, untamed coast.  We also knew Ica was famous for its desert but we didn’t expect our whole route to be sandy hills and dusty roads. Day...

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Between having a dissertation to finish in the next month and a half, jobs to apply for and a million other things to do and only one hand to type with, I won’t be able to write as much about my trip to Peru as I would like to. Peru is a colorful, spirited and incredibly diverse country. In two weeks, we visited desert, beach, cloud forest and islands on the highest-altitude lake in the world.   If we had more time, we could visit the jungle, more beaches up north and/ or the Colca canyon, famous for its Condors. Peru is also an incredible bargain when it comes to tours, food and accommodation (especially outside of Cusco… anything related to Machu Picchu will be more expensive). Peruvians are quieter and more reserved than I expected from people of South America, but still warm and friendly. Huffington Post recently published an article where Peru placed 9 on their list of 15 top countries to visit in 2015, claiming the country will reach levels of culinary excellence akin to Thailand or France (I’m not sure what the French would say about that). Peru is still developing so especially in cities like Puno, most restaurants appear a bit dingy, potentially unclean, causal mom-and-pop operations and it took my brother and I a little while to warm up to the chicken and rice- based diet (especially since he got sick early on). But toward the end, we began to appreciate the fresh seafood, zesty dishes with an incredible flavor without being drowned in spice. It’s not the healthiest food but quite satisfying, especially when paired with an energizing, citrusy Pisco Sour or, my brother’s new addiction, the radioactive yellow Inca Cola. At the very least, I thought I’d share the two-week itinerary for the trip my brother and I just completed and non-trivial Peru travel tips and tricks we learned along the way. First, if you are planning your own trip to Peru, wait to book most of your tours until you arrive in the country. If you plan to trek the Inca Trail, securing a permit will need to be done months in advance (unless you go in the rainy season like we did, but I don’t know if I’d recommend that). You’re better off waiting for everything else (for example, tours of Lake Titicaca, bus transfers from Cusco to Puno, desert fun in Huachachina/ Paracas) since there’s a million tourist companies everywhere and prices will be three times cheaper booked in person, instead of online. Furthermore, tour companies have basically synched what they offer so you could pay a little more for a faster boat or a smaller group but basically all the tours follow the exact same schedule and take you to the same places. In almost every country I travel these days, I usually just withdraw money from the ATM (I have a Charles Schwab Checking Account with no foreign transaction fees) but Peruvian ATMs charges 12-14 sols for each withdrawal (~3 sol= $1 USD) so you might be better off bringing cash to exchange. Peru also has incredibly varied weather that can change quickly so when they tell you to dress in layers, they aren’t kidding. We went in mid/late January so it was hot, sunny and dry in Lima, Paracas and Ica, and the strong sun made sun protection important. In Cusco and Puno, it was the rainy season and weather could change from blue skies and hot (because of the high altitude, the sun is also very strong here, even if it feels cooler) to cold and rainy in the blink of an eye. In general, it’s not worth trying to look pretty in these cities- everyone is in hiking boots, wearing practical layers and a backpack with rain gear and sun protection. Day 1: Cusco. Everyone recommends that visitors to Machu Picchu spend a day or two tin Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (3300 m above sea level) and explore the “center/naval” of the ancient Incan empire. We took altitude pills prior to arrival so we had no major problems with nausea and lightheadedness but we did notice getting winded really easily. Mint tea, coca leaves and rude water are local remedies that can help if you don’t have pills (I read somewhere that smelling lime or your armpits also helps haha. It’s a rather small, incredibly historic city with gorgeous nature and fresh air easily accessible beyond city limits. We arrived around 11 AM, walked around the main plazas (Plaza de Armas) and cathedral in the city center and headed up the hill to the Sacsayhuaman ruins,...

What I learned from being carried off the Inca Trail on a stretcher

What I learned from being carried off the Inca Trail on a stretcher

The Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for years and I was convinced the Inca Trail was the only way to get there. Often, anticipating arrival is the best part of seeing these World Wonders and I wanted to approach these famous ruins the same way the Incas did… I wanted to be weary from walking through the cloud forest for days and I wanted to work for the view… not just descend from an air-conditioned train like the rest of the tourists. The first couple days were perfect. Our trek departed from Cusco on January 21st, just a few days before they closed the trail for the month of February which is the height of the rainy season. We had read blogs about hikers who had to navigate trails that had become rivers and who were soaked to the bone for the four-day journey. So we bought waterproof pants and shoes, placed all of our belongings in multiple layers of plastic bags and mentally prepared ourselves for grey, damp days. Fortunately, months of preparatory sun dances had paid off and we barely had to deal with any of that. The first day, the sun illuminated our path, warmed our shoulders and lifted our spirits, seemingly a good omen for a successful journey. Our group was great- a total of eight people, all between the ages of 23-28. Three Irish gals kept everyone giggling with their silly slang, jokes about hooking up with the chef and “wasting” their camera batteries on pictures of donkeys and puppies. There was a Parisian man who kept my brother company and made sure we “enjoyed ze life on ze trail” by tempting everyone with post-trek beers and eventually, a bottle of rum. Two girls from the Netherlands originally rallied the group with brave words about being the first to summit and quickly changed their opinions to “everyone who makes it is a winner”. Our guide, Juan Carlos, stopped us fairly regularly to explain the medicinal powers of “mentcha” (good for the altitude and good for digestion!), hallucinogenic properties of moon flowers and mushrooms (“one bit and you’ll be flying to Machu Picchu in no time”) and the ruins we encountered along the way (Machu Picchu may be the grand finale but there’s plenty of Incan remnants throughout). In general, day one of the Ina trail has earned the reputation of an informative walk in the woods and we found there was nothing challenging about it. On the other hand, day 2 was infamous: 6-7 hours of trekking which included climbing 1000 meters to the summit (4215 meters above sea level) and descending down the coldest part of the trail for a couple hours. Day 2 was when you left civilization and no longer encountered little villages with people selling quinoa energy bars, ponchos and Inca Cola. After day 2, there was no turning back. But, on the positive side, after day 2, it was all downhill (literally, for the most part)- day 3 was a long day of gentle slopes and cultural knowledge then day 4 would be an early wake-up and a two-hour walk to the Sun Gate. The altitude and misty weather made Day 2 challenging but the congenial encouragement shared amongst the group helped everyone conquer the mountain hours earlier than expected. Just as the camping tents became visible and the smell of lunch filled the air, I squinted to check where site 10 might be, thinking, “I am so tired of tip toeing down these slippery rocks”. As soon as my eyes left my feet, I felt myself catapulted through the air about to face plant in the small stream right next to the path. I caught myself in a push-up but then my hand slipped on another rock and all of a sudden, my ear was resting on the bank of the small stream. The Irish gals shouted from behind, “Katie, why are you lying down? We’re just a few meters from camp!”. I dusted myself off and joined them for the final stretch, nervous to investigate the arm hanging limply and uselessly by my side. When I peeled off my glove, I saw that my displaced wrist made my arm look like a lightening bolt and trying to lift my forearm closer to my face was nearly impossible. One of the girls from Holland was a doctor and when she finished her hike, she confirmed what I knew but tried to deny, “this bone is definitely broken. I don’t like this shape. She needs someone to fix the bone as soon as possible”. I murmured, “can’t we wrap it and...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Part II of the road trip went through North Carolina which has been my stomping grounds for the past four years as a graduate student.  Asheville is the perfect mountain getaway for fresh air, good beer and wacky people.  Tourists do not usually flock to Raleigh but there’s a lot of free, fun stuff if you know where to look (and thanks to me, you’ll get some good tips!).  This was our first stop in Philadelphia for years and we only had an afternoon to spend but it’s a fun, blue-collar, down-to-earth city, covered in colorful murals and mosaics, cobblestone streets and interesting neighborhoods. Asheville, NC: • Nine Mile Restaurant: A vegetarian-friendly, Caribbean fusion restaurant and one of my favorite places to eat on the planet.  The restaurant is in more of a residential area of Asheville and has a low-key atmosphere with reggae music spreading the love. Stop by for lunch served from 11:30-5 for generous portions of gourmet pasta and rich dishes.  Two of my favorites (I’ve been to this restaurant three times) are Soon Come (fresh sliced bananas, apples, currents & grilled pineapples, sautéed with white wine, butter & pumpkin spice- tossed with cheese stuffed tri-colored tortellini and onions) and the Empress Menen Salad (apples, toasted almonds, chickpeas, smoked gouda and house tempeh with sesame garlic tahini dressing). • Bend and Brew yoga:  Beer and yoga?  You can find almost any activity paired with beer in Beer City USA, known as the “hoppiest place on earth” with the largest number of microbreweries per capita.  A traveling yoga teacher offers a 1-hour beginning yoga class followed by samples at a local brewery.  We participated in the Tuesday 5:30 PM class at Highlander Brewery.  Highlander is one of the biggest breweries in Asheville and its right next to Asheville Distilling Company where you can get a free tour and tasting, fridays and saturdays at 5 and 6 PM.  If you want to skip the yoga, definitely check out The Wedge brewery in the River Arts District.  The extensive lawn, lawn games and art galleries near by makes it one of my favorite places to hang out.  For even more suggestions on how to have fun with beer, check out #12 on the “unusual beer experiences in the USA” article I wrote for Epicure & Culture. • Pritchard Park: It’s a small park in the middle of downtown but it’s a magnet for Asheville’s famous weirdos.    You can find jugglers, free hugs and people adorned in leather assembles challenging you to chess matches.  It also hosts a friday drum circle from ~5-10 PM which is a great way to satisfy your inner tribal creature. • Moob Music Factory: Moog Music synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments are designed and lovingly handcrafted in the Moog factory in downtown Asheville, N.C and they open their factory and showroom to the public for tours and playtime.  I stopped by to play with these motion detector instruments, inspired by Soviet security alarms.  The staff is knowledgeable and fun and it’s all free. • French Broad Chocolates: I’ve had friends that come to Asheville just to stock up on chocolates and baked goods from this factory.  Their Factory & Tasting Room is now offering 1.5 hour tours on Saturdays at 11am which take you through the entire process from cacao harvest and fermentation to chocolate bar, as well as backstage access to the facility, and an in depth tasting of our chocolate for  $10.00 (reservations recommended!).  Even if you can’t go on the official tour, you can visit the factory for daily self-guided tours from 2-5:30pm or just stop by to get a sugar rush of yumminess. • Art Loeb Trail:  This 30.1 mile trail is one of the longest (but most popular) in North Carolina.  Many people backpack and spend 2-3 nights on the trail but we hiked section 3 as a day hike.  The most popular section of the trail has spectacular views of the valley, transverses several mountain balds and ends in the Shining Rock wilderness.   When we went in mid-October, the post-summer wild flowers made the hike especially memorable.  It’s an unmarked trail but we encountered plenty of people so the route was relatively obvious. • Stay in a teepee (Eagle Rock Cove, Swannoanoa):  Slightly outside of Asheville, but if you’re looking for a cheap way for alternative mountain living, check AirBnB for unique housing accommodations including this tipi.  The owner, Everest, is undergoing a permaculture operation and he’ll be happy to tell you about his mushroom growing and show you his cute little bunny rabbits (which he eats).  I’ve written articles on USA glamping opportunities, where similar accommodations will cost...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

If you like free live music and hearty soul food, this road trip is for you! Explore the origins of jazz, blues and bluegrass where it all began. We moved quickly across the south with only a night in each city so here are budget-friendly attractions suggested by locals. We tried to keep admission prices under $5 and meals under $10 so you can have fun without breaking the bank. I’ve included a few things that we didn’t get to see but were highly recommended to us. Much of what we decided to do depended on the day of the week so I highly suggest you check out event calendars for each city you visit. New Orleans: I wrote a whole post about this city back when I was feeling ambitious.  Find the detailed itinerary here! Indianapolis, MS: You’ll feel like you’re the Deep South with this stop because there’s not much going on in this town beyond cotton fields. We stopped here to break up our drive with an amazing museum visit. • B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St, Indianola, MS, ): Fantastic, interactive exhibits that provide an overview of Mississippi Delta region, B.B. King’s life and the beginning of Blues. We debated this museum or the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. There’s probably more to see in Clarksdale (especially if you can go to Ground Blues restaurant and live music venue, opened by) but after comparing our options and experiencing this, I’d highly recommend you chose the same!  Tickets for students are a steal for just $5. • Blue Biscuit Café (501-503 Second Street): good southern soul food and authentic, live blues right across the street from the B.B. King museum. Apparently, you can even spend the night in one of their two villas! Memphis, TN: Although there’s not much shaking on Sundays (when we arrived), Memphis had a surprising number of things going on and could have easily spent a second day. • Explore an Egyptian obsession: Apparently, the people of Memphis love to compare themselves to Egypt, the country who houses Memphis’ namesake city. Both Memphis and Egypt strongly depend on their rivers (The Mississippi and the Nile respectively) and the city is dotted with tributes to this ancient nation. The University of Memphis has an impressive Egyptology Gallery (142 Communication & Fine Arts Bldg.
The University of Memphis) and a giant Ramses II statue on a lawn. The city’s skyline includes a giant pyramid that will house the world’s second largest Bass Pro Shop. It wasn’t opened when we visited but they expect to open December 2014 and the building will include climbing walls, laser galleries, bowling alley archery range and fitness facility. • Riverfront: The city has built paths along the Mississippi with beautiful views of the skyline and the river. Check out the Steamboats at Beale Street landing. • Mud Island: Right near the riverside visitor center, there’s a monorail station that will take you to Mud Island (by monorail $4 or by walking). At Mud Island, you can walk along and get your feet wet in the giant sidewalk scaled model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a good place to go to spend time outside and learn more about America’s biggest river at their Mississippi River Museum. • Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St): We didn’t have time to visit but everyone raved about this museum and we checked out the interesting exterior. Partially housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, you can stand where the assassin shot him and see the room he was staying the day he died. • Central BBQ (147 E. Butler): “Go where the locals go” for Memphis-style barbeque. Here you can taste the slow-cooked pork served wet with the sweet, tangy, molasses/tomato/vinegar-based sauce that the city is known for. • Cheesecake Corner (113 GE Patterson Ave): This unassuming cheesecake, quiche and wine bar doesn’t look like much from the outside but all the locals know it as the best place to get dessert in town so you will probably have to wait in line. $10 buys you a mighty slice of delicious cheesecake and you can chose from dozens of flavors. • Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave): What began as a joke after a hunting trip has become a true tradition at the fancy Peabody Hotel. Each day at 11 AM, a red carpet is unrolled for the hotel’s ducks to march from their penthouse on the top floor to the fountain in the lobby. At 5 PM, the ceremony is reversed as they march back to their home for the night....