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Monday, February 20, 2012

Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John

Although the header says "Living it Up in London", I'm keeping this blog updated with my other travels. The following is the week I spent in the U.S. Virgin Islands during winter break.

Virgin Islands


This fall, a long-time friend, library co-worker, and roommate of mine, LeAnn, moved to the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas with her boyfriend, Sean, to begin a marine biology grad degree.  Since I hadn’t had the chance to visit her in Los Alamos, my boyfriend Daniel and I decided to visit her over my winter break. The Virgin Islands are definitely pricey, but we were able to stay at their lovely place at a village on top of a mountain. The mountain roads were perilously twisty, often barely big enough for two cars to be on at once. It really reminded me of the steep cliff drive in southern Italy.


USVI Trivia:
*The native peoples include the Taino, Arawak, and Carib tribes.
*The official languages are English, Spanish, and patois, which is a blend of Danish, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and African languages.
*There are four U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and most recently, Water Island. You don’t need a passport to go, but if you go to a British Virgin Island like Tortola, you’ll need one. A passport also comes in handy while going through customs.
*The U.S. Virgin Islands are self-governing unincorporated U.S. territories. They have a governor, but they are not allowed to vote in U.S. elections.
*Virgin Islanders drive on the left, but they have American-made cars, so the steering wheel is on the left, too. Makes for a rather surreal driving experience.
*There’s no sales tax on items, so the price you see is the price you pay.
*On a really clear day, you can make out Puerto Rico from the university beach.
*Groceries are mostly imported, and they are costly. A package of Oreos was over $5, for example. A pomelo was $7.99, when they’re $2.99 in the states. Islands are expensive.



The highlight of my trip was learning how to snorkel, as Sean taught me while he was taking us on tour through the St. Thomas mangroves. Although I inhaled saltwater through my sinuses more than once, I eventually caught on and enjoyed the mermaid-like feeling of gazing at coral reefs and beautiful sealife down below. I saw beau’gregories, squirrelfish, queen angelfish, stingrays, flounders, anchovies, rockfish, clownfish, crabs, etc. At the end of the day, LeAnn and I would sit and identify the animals that I had seen. I’m not a biologist, but animal identification really grew on me. It makes me want to know the animals and plants around Wisconsin better. Daniel and I snorkeled at three beaches, the one near the university, Solomon Beach on St. John, and Coki Beach on St. Thomas. Perhaps there’s good snorkeling in Wisconsin?


St. Thomas, for being part of the U.S., definitely has a very Caribbean feel and rhythm to it. Reggae and island music, stray chickens in the streets, modest buildings, touristy restaurants offering pina coladas and frozen drinks, a bustling capital city, Charlotte Amalie, with a relaxing feel behind it. Cruzan Rum is made on St. Croix, and it’s definitely the pride of the islands-they even give you a free shot when you get off the plane. Island perks. A 750ml bottle of rum was only $10, and many other liquors were nearly as cheap. So if you like rum, get thee to the Virgin Islands.
The four of us spent a lot of time in Red Hook, which has shopping, restaurants, and a marina with ferries come and go. LeAnn, Daniel, and I took a ferry to St. John one day and explored the island. Virgin Islands National Park has a beautiful trail leading to the beaches, with tamarind, bromeliad, and other tropical plants along the way. The no-see-ums, however, are invisible insects that leave itchy bites that last much longer than mosquito bites. My bites itched for a week afterwards. After the beach, we ate at the Lazy Dog café, browsed the shops (St. John’s Spice Shop was my favorite) and took the ferry back to Red Hook Marina.



To Sum it Up:
Best foods: curry chicken and rice, fried plantains, Ting grapefruit soda, swordfish sandwiches, mango anything, mussels, johnnycakes, pate. I missed out on conch fritters and goat curry.
If you go: Coral World is a sealife amusement park where you can feed stingrays and pet sharks, and then go to Coki Beach later, after the cruise shippers have left.
Duffy’s Love Shack is a delicious café in the parking lot of Red Hook. Try the volcano drink for me.
Frenchtown had LeAnn and Sean’s favorite pizza place called Pie Hole, which was upscale, only had about seven tables, and had woodfired pizzas and fresh pastas.
Virgin Islands National Park on St. John-simply gorgeous.

Special thanks to LeAnn and Sean. :)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Italy, Six Months After: Part II

Amalfi Coast and Rome







Our last day of the trip was spent travelling through the small coastal towns of Amalfi and Ravello. I had the juiciest plum I’ve ever had from a fruit stand outside of Positano, at the Belvedere lookout point. With a sign advertising Viagra for stands of chili peppers and a man hawking 1 euro postcards, it was a little touristy, but oh damn son, that was the finest plum I’ve ever eaten. The small town of Amalfi was on the sea and had a famous church. I stopped for a chocolate pastry and wandered into dress shops with Emily. I bought two simple, lovely blue and white sundresses and made myself stop before I bought the entire contents of the shop. We took a boat out along the Amalfi coast where the captain pointed out more rich people’s houses, whom I had never heard of. I jumped off the ship and treaded water in the most gorgeous ocean, while others from our ship cliff jumped. Best Sunday morning of my life.


The last stop on our journey was Ravello, which is known for its cameo jewelry. I bought a mediocre calzone, watched a wedding procession, and bought a few souvenirs, while conveniently leaving my wallet at the shop. Luckily, I had just enough time to miss the group photo while I ran like hell back to the shop before the bus could leave. I’ve never sputtered so many “grazies!” Hopefully  they realized my gratitude.

Journeying back to Rome was fairly uneventful, but I signed up for a walking tour of Rome the next day, it being my last day in Europe before heading home. I had a drink with the tour guide, Ben, and some of the other people from our group. Ben informed us that Aussie girls were easy compared to Americans, because many Aussies travel around the world and have fun, while Americans tend to travel for school and are therefore more serious…yeah, I don’t know. He was more than a little odd.

Rome


After feasting on a delicious 6 euro Italian brunch at the Plus Roma, including ham, soft delicious rolls, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt, Emily and I took the bus and subway to the Colosseum. We found a lot of tour guides hawking a 30-euro tour of the Colosseum, which I thought was pretty expensive, but in the end we caved.  After a brief talk outside with the tour guide waving around a history book, we went inside and eventually made our way up to the second floor of the Colosseum. It was colossal, circular with rows of worn stone benches and arches and a grand stadium feel. In the center was the arena, which looked like an ancient maze, but we were told it was much more intricate, as the lions, tigers, hippos, and other animals lived down there for the gory competitions. The guide told us the horrors that had happened between the gladiators, the slaves, and the animals, the smells in the heat, the cheering of the crowd, the ripped-apart bodies, the animal carcasses being fed to the live ones at the end of the day. Unbelievable.



After buying a folded pizza sandwich at a restaurant  that we weren’t allowed to sit inside in, for some reason, I bid my friends farewell and went to find the Rome walking tour guide. Out of another group of Aussies, I was the only one from the states, which the tour guide seemed pretty excited by. Being from Iowa, he asked me about the Packers and expressed disappointment about Wisconsin's new governor. We walked around the city, passing monuments, including the Basilica and the temples. Frankly, I don’t remember much because it was incredibly hot and tiring, but luckily Rome has free drinking fountains with delicious, cold water. Pompeii had them too. 

After a gelato stop, I picked up a few souvenirs around the Colosseum, found little else to do, and traveled back to the hostel to pack and say goodbye to Emily, Caroline, Brooke, and the other girls I had met. Luckily, I have most of them on Facebook. I only knew them for three days, but they made my trip so worthwhile. :)

It’s been five months since I studied abroad. I’ve covered my bedroom door in photos so I don’t forget. Sitting down to write this was surprisingly easy once I concentrated-all the details have flooded back during these few hours of writing. Thanks for coming back to read this.


I also want to thank McIntyre Library for letting me bring Rosie along for the trip. She made a worthwhile travel companion, and no one could resist her charms.



Italy, Six Months After: Part I

Before the spring semester gets too crazy, I wanted to write about my Italy journey after all this time. It's the trip I took after I finished my three weeks in London. It's long, so I've made this into a two-parter.


Italy, Part I



After my three weeks were up in London, I wished all of my new friends a reluctant farewell and took a taxi with Aubrey to the Heathrow airport on a rainy Thursday morning. By nightfall, I was alone in Rome, waiting at the Fiuminci airport, anxiously hoping that the driver I booked online to the hostel would show up. For dinner, I bought a salty prosciutto sandwich at the airport and bought a copy of Water for Elephants, a nod to my favorite boss, Bebe, who had told me she loved it several years ago.

The taxi driver showed up at about 10:30 pm, and we made our dark journey to the Plus Roma hostel, quickly driving through a humid, city-lit Italian night. After a minor scare at the check-in desk with missing paperwork, later found, I hauled all my London luggage up a windy hill, found my little cabin that was mercifully empty, and sat down on the bed.  At that point, I realized that I was all alone in a new country, my new friends gone back home, and felt so miserable I couldn’t move.  It was an inevitable and crushing bit of depression and homesickness.  Finally, I took a hot shower in the shed-sized hostel and felt a hundred times saner. The cabin had three beds, a bunk bed and a single, so I took the single and fell asleep.

The next morning, I left my suitcase behind the luggage desk and wandered down the hill to the bus stop. The tour I signed up for was the Italian Adventure tour through Busabout, a three-day journey through southern Italy, starting in Rome and going through Pompeii, Sorrento, Ravello, the Amalfi Coast, and the Isle of Capri. 

What I remember best about Italy are the Australians! Busabout is an Australian tour company, and the majority of my fellow tourmates were Australian women in their 20s, a couple of Australian guys, a few Britons, and two of us from the states. My seatmate, Jessica, and I introduced ourselves, and after we arrived at the Pompeii entrance, I just started talking to a slender, friendly looking girl with long brown hair, who quickly turned into my favorite companion on the trip. Her name was Emily Brown, twenty years old from Sydney, who had just left her job to travel around Europe from August until Christmas time. Her friend Caroline was from Manchester, England, who I really liked as well. I’ve said it before, but one of the things I love best about traveling is the quick affinity you get with fellow travelers that often turns into friendships. They need you as much as you need them.

Pompeii


Pompeii itself was very hot under the Italian August sun. Our tour guide was a short, friendly Italian guy, dressed in lightweight white clothing, who every few minutes would call out “Busabout! Helllllllllo!” and I kid you not, “Mama-mia!” I always thought “Mama-mia!” was a stereotypical phrase…but he loved using it. We ventured through the ruins, lots of crumbling foundations, archways, bits of a ghost town. Pompeii was founded by the Oscan people in 8 B.C. and was buried in volcanic ash when Mt. Vesivus erupted in 79 AD, suffocating many of its inhabitants. You can see several people, including a dog, who look like curled-up plaster casts, mouths gasping, limbs tightened. They broke my heart. Pompeii had a large bakery with bread in its ovens. Also, a brothel, which you’re free to explore, stone beds and illustrated signs of two figures performing various services. It’s small and dark; a client there would have been little privacy.

After the two-hour tour, I ate my first margherita pizza from the Restaurant Suisse, near the entrance to Pompeii, and then we headed off for the town of Sorrento.


Sorrento


Southern Italy is, hands down, the most beautiful part of the world that I have ever seen. Lush Mediterranean flowers and green twisting trees, and breathtaking, heart-pounding winding roads around cliffs that make the La Crosse bluffs I know seem infantile. Looking out the huge tour bus window and seeing hundred foot drops to a sparkling blue ocean was phenomenally scary, like a roller coaster. I loved it.
We checked into our hostel, the Plus Sorrento. My sleeping space was basically a locking shed, with two cots, a wooden shelf, and a concrete floor. We were warned against ants, which would later appear in my bed. My shed-mate’s name was Brooke from Hawaii, who turned out to be a model and a master of body painting.

After settling in, our group wandered into the small streets of Sorrento, with little shops selling sundresses, books, limoncello, lace, and items covered in lemon illustrations, lemons being a very important crop in southern Italy. A limoncello tasting was lovely. Limoncello is made from steeping fresh lemon rinds in alcohol, and a shot of it is very powerful, but finishes with a great lemon flavor. Worth trying once, unless you despise lemons.

Dinner at the Red Lion was my favorite meal of the trip. The gnocchi with tomato sauce was savory, the fresh fish melted in my mouth, the bread was plentiful, and the tiramisu was perfection. I sat with more Australian girls, and we compared our driver’s licenses and currency. They were interested that my license had to state my height, weight, and eye color. Their currency was reds and purples. After a delicious mojito, I went back to my shed and fell asleep.

Isle of Capri


The next morning, we took a ferry to the Isle of Capri, which is basically a gorgeous island for the rich and famous. Our ferry included a stop at the Blue Grotto, which is a tiny sea cave just big enough for a few rowboats to go into. It was overpriced at 15 euros and you’re expected to tip if the rower lets you swim, which technically isn’t allowed. Our rower was an old flirtatious man, making my friend sit on his lap so I’d take a photo (deleted immediately). Creepy. I did not swim, and I did not tip. But the water was a heavenly blue.


On the Isle of Capri, I had another pizza, and a few friends and I took a bus up to Capri Town, which was full of luxury clothing and jewelry shops and gelato stands. We wandered up in the steep hills, taking pictures and marveling in the view. We stopped to pet a woman’s Chihuahua and eventually made our way down to a rocky public beach. My friends chatted up some guys while I took a dip in the ocean, which was really pretty (except for the soggy hotel slipper that kept circling back to me). I can’t describe how much I love swimming in the ocean, extra buoyant from the saltwater and impossible blues and greens of the water. After meeting a young Canadian teacher reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants, I took the ferry back to Sorrento and relaxed, ants and all.


Look for Part II: the Amalfi Coast and Rome!