The Bottom of the Valley

Oban, Scotland, summer 2019

Dear Reader,

If you are sitting at the bottom of a wet and cold valley, it may become hard for you to imagine the beautiful and warm beach on the other side of the hill. Sometimes, when we feel sad, we also feel hopeless and like things will never change. Conversely, when we feel happy, we become optimistic that things will always continue to be this way. Well, we are not always sad nor are we always happy. Often, it is the case that when we feel sad, we also tend to feel longing for “simpler,” or “happier” times. I recently learned that nostalgia—crudely defined as ‘a feeling of longing and wistful affection for the past’—was once considered to be a disease.

In 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer created the term “nostalgia” from the Greek “nostros” meaning “homecoming,” and “algos” meaning “pain.” Sufferers of this psychological disorder would feel intense longing for the past as well as severe melancholy. Unfulfilled ambitions, heartbreak, and homesickness are some triggers that could evoke nostalgia within patients. Treatments to this disease were gruesome… and could be both physically and psychologically harmful (more on that here). Nostalgia used to be a serious “diagnosis,” yet today it is considered nothing more than a feeling or a state of mind.

A trip down memory lane can be nice. If we remember the good times and they bring a smile to our faces than the nostalgia is ultimately helpful. However, if we remember the good times and feel a bit of anxiety and sadness, then the nostalgia is ultimately harmful. Getting stuck on “memory lane” is more likely to happen when we are feeling bad, sad, or hopeless about our present situation. The nostalgia in this way can make us feel even worse if we continue to ruminate on “better” days.

Why do our brains get stuck in this melancholic state? I opened this entry with a metaphor. Consider we are sitting at the bottom of a valley. All around us is brown landscape, dark clouds, and wet earth. When we are put in such a sad and hopeless place, it is natural for us to dream and recall better days. However, in this metaphor, there is a beautiful, warm beach just beyond the hill. The problem is, instead of moving forward and searching for that warm beach, we are sitting in our cold, wet valley thinking about the warm beach from our past. When we have recurring, unhelpful thoughts, we are ruminating. Rumination means that we are focusing our attention on the source of our distress and allowing these thoughts to consume us. In this way, our rumination has made us blind to the possibility of future happiness, or in the metaphor—future beaches.

Delving into our past does not have to consume us and, if we are mindful, can ultimately help us out of our valleys. Introspection is when we think deeply about our thoughts and feelings in a self-reflective way. It is the process of asking ourselves, why do we feel the way that we feel? and what does this mean? This can be a long and deeply personal process, but if our past haunts us, then it is most necessary. The past is in the past and that is okay. If things are bad now, that does not mean that they will be bad tomorrow, next week, or the next year. We must learn from the past, if we can get passed the past, then we should. Of course, we can feel free to take a trip down memory lane every once and a while if the memories bring us pleasure. However, if the past becomes a continual source of sadness and anxiety, then we must find it within ourselves to close that chapter and start writing a new history for ourselves.

Sometimes we find ourselves in valleys. Sometimes the hills are so high that we become disoriented. Sometimes the past will tempt us and make us feel weak, stuck, and unsure of our next steps. However, we are strong people, Dear Reader. Forward is the only way to free us from the wet valley. There is so much goodness in the world; I hope from the bottom of my heart that we all get to see it from the top of the hill.

Love,

Raven

100% Chance of Uncertainty

Dear Reader,

How much does the weather affect your life? I was recently in Cartagena, Colombia and everyday for a week the days were hot and sunny and the evenings were comfortable and breezy. The weather over there is so predictable, I’m sure many take it for granted. Here in Boston, every night before I go to sleep I check the weather on my phone because I want to be sure that I am prepared for the next day. The last few days have been irregular with highs in the 60s, but today it felt more like January with light precipitation and temperatures in the low 30s.

While I expect cold weather in the winter and hot weather in the summer, the unpredictability of the day-to-day (or even hour-by-hour) forecast is enough to drive one mad. I am the sort of person who walks everywhere. This means that knowing the temperature and likelihood of precipitation is of the utmost importance to me. Yesterday, I saw that there was a distinct chance of rain from the early to mid-morning, so I decided to bring my umbrella with me. While the air was moist, there was no rain when I began my walk. By 8am, the rain was forecasted to stop, so I ditched my umbrella on this advice. However, after walking for about an hour more, I sat down at a cafe and looked out of a window to see that it was raining moderately. I felt so betrayed! I pulled out my weather app and the page updated before my eyes. Where there used to be gray clouds was now replaced with rain droplets. And, according to the updated forecast the rain was due to continue for two more hours….

I do not do well with uncertainty. If it is going to rain, it is going to rain. I will carry my umbrella all-day if it is going to rain without (or with little) complaint. However, when the forecast changes dramatically throughout the day, I feel as if I am being fed misinformation, rather than a true account. It is raining today outside of my window as I write this, yet the forecast says it’s dry….

I recently learned from my boyfriend that through a government auction, 5G telecom companies recently won the right to a wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum that is located extremely close to the wavelengths that meterologists use to predict the weather. Meteorologists understand and predict weather on a molecular level through satellites. These molecules are measured at a certain frequency. If telecom companies operate at a similar frequency, then there could be unintentional negative consequences for meteorologists. This was all news to me. In my mind, predicting the weather was as simple as looking at some clouds and measuring air pressure to predict sunny versus wet days.

Weather forecasts are precise, but, of course, still have their faults. Learning that the accuracy of forecasts could decline due to competition in the electromagnetic sphere makes me shudder. Will I be doomed to step out of my house each morning wondering just what is to come? Should I plan on carrying an umbrella whenever overcast skies are predicated? I’m kind of exaggerating, but at the same time, I feel that for those of us who do not live in high-pressure systems, weather is EXTREMELY important. We plan our days and lives around weather. Thunderstorms for an afternoon can mean cancelling a child’s pool party, a company picnic, or a long-awaited day at the beach.

At the time of this writing, research into the effects of the licensing are still being carried out to determine to what extent (if any) 5G networks will have on forecasting. The general feel of the internet seems to indicate that the results will be negative, however, there are some sources denying that any tangible effect will come from this.

For me, at the end of the day, Boston is Boston. I do not expect it to routinely be 80 degrees and sunny. I don’t even expect the weather to be consistent from day to day. However, it would be nice to at least trust the forecast and not have to impulsively refresh the page every few hours just to make sure that things have not dramatically shifted. Until that day, Dear Reader, for me “clouds” = “umbrella” and “light rain” = “it’s going to pour.”

Wishing you a dry and pleasant winter.

Love,

Raven

Madonna Lives in East Boston

East Boston, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

How often do you explore your own city? While I have a number of plans in my head to visit different parts of Boston, I have a tendency to collect rather than enact these plans. Today, however, I finally made a long-awaited visit to East Boston. If you have ever considered a trip to Boston, you likely did an online search beforehand about things to do. Popular places include Boston Common, Fenway Park, and Harvard University. As a resident, I have already visited all of the top Boston sites, however, I’m still eager to see new things.

One day at work, I was speaking to a colleague and was telling him that I wanted to see more of Boston this winter. We were stationed in East Boston at the time, and he mentioned that this part of town has a large statue called “Madonna Queen of the Universe,” which was of the Virgin Mary. He did a Google search of the statue and showed it to me on his phone. I was astounded! This is a seriously large and imposing structure. Never had I thought that something so prominent was right here in Boston. How could I have not known about it!? In that moment, I decided to make “Madonna Queen of the Universe” the next stop on my Boston-based adventures.

East Boston

To get to the statue, I took the blue line on Boston’s subway, known as the “T”, to Maverick station in East Boston. East Boston is separated from downtown by a body of water, which means to get to this section of the city one must either take a bridge or tunnel. The T goes through a tunnel and emerges just on the other side of the water. East Boston is home to a large Spanish and Portuguese-speaking community. I passed a number of restaurants and stores, which had signage completely in Spanish. East Boston is also seemingly divided along economic lines. The houses by the water and beachfront are noticeably newer and nicer than the properties located more inland.

The walk to “Madonna Queen of the Universe” was long from Maverick (48 mins according to Google Maps) but it was 60 degrees today (in January) so I thought a pace would be worth it. The statute is located on a hill, which means that the rear of the statue is highly visible from its surroundings. As I walked up the stairs to the structure, it was unclear to me where exactly the entrance was. There is a building underneath the statue and I saw a woman enter through a side door so I just quickly followed her in. I was momentarily stunned.

Madonna Queen of the Universe

I had walked into a large, dark auditorium—a church altar actually. The altar was huge and filled with paintings, figurines, candles, and many other religious and festive items. It makes sense that the statue would be associated with a church, however, I was not expecting it. I walked through the building until I found an exit that led to the statue. Even if you are not religious, you may likely be impressed with the shear size of the statue. The statue sits in its own courtyard on the side of a hill and overlooks East Boston, Boston, and beyond. The view was truly marvelous!

Madonna Queen of the Universe

I took a view pictures, enjoyed the view, but did not stay long to admire the statue. I began to walk back to the T station, but decided to end my short trip to East Boston with a stop at the beach. Although Boston sits on the Atlantic coast, beachfront access is relatively limited and heavily concentrated in East Boston and the outskirts. I found an entrance to the beach near Orient Heights and walked towards the water. The sand area is limited, but the beach was near empty on this January day. Just beyond the water, visitors will see the Boston Logan International airport. From the beach one can see planes taking off and landing and hear the roar of the engines.

East Boston

It is amazing how much there is still to see in the place that I call my home. While I only made two stops in East Boston, I know that there are many other little things and places that I would like to see and experience. Dear Reader, if you think you’ve seen it all, my best advice to you is—just keep looking!

Love,

Raven

What to Drink—Part 2

Green tea, Tocumen airport, Panama

Dear Reader,

How is your brain operating right now? Is it totally natural or is it perhaps under the influence—of caffeine or alcohol? Yesterday, I began to explain to you my little un-scientific experiment in which I gave up caffeine and alcohol on my vacation (yesterday’s post here). Today’s post is a continuation of this train of thought, but this time with details about my actual experience abstaining (temporarily) from caffeine and alcohol. To recap, I am not a heavy consumer of either caffeine or alcohol, but I am rather consistent, which makes me interested to see the (hopefully positive) effects of complete abstention from these products.

Last week, I went on vacation to Cartagena, Colombia and Panama City, Panama. These two locations served as the backdrop of my little experiment. I gave up tea on the day that I flew from Boston to Cartagena. Although Cartagena is in the same time zone as Boston, I was still pretty tired upon my arrival to the Southern hemisphere. The next morning, at breakfast, I forewent a morning cup of tea once more. Initially, I felt fine, but as the day progressed, I quickly grew tired and started to get a small headache building up around my temples. Luckily, the headache was not incapacitating, and I was able to go about the rest of my day as planned (albeit with mild to medium discomfort). The following morning, the headache persisted, but to a lesser degree. On the third day, the headache had disappeared, but I was super tired without the caffeine. My sleep routine was poor for a few reasons, so it is unclear to me just how much the lack of caffeine affected my levels of fatigue. I went the rest of the week easily without caffeine (but with a few naps here and there).

As far as alcohol goes, I am not a big drinker, so I did not have any physical withdrawal symptoms. However, I did notice a difference in myself when I went to a restaurant for dinner one evening. When I go out for dinner, it is routine for me to get a drink. During a normal work week, this could mean a single drink for a Friday or Saturday night meetup or date—or even no alcohol at all, while on vacation, this could mean a few nights in a row with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. For me, the most noticeable side effect of (temporarily) giving up alcohol was in my mindset. Usually, after being seated at a restaurant I would immediately scan the drink menu and start with the cocktail section. If I couldn’t find anything with rum and coconut, then I would usually navigate to the wine or beer sections, depending on my interest that evening. With alcohol out of the picture, I was eager to see what other fun Colombian drinks that I could order.

Limonada de mango biche
Limonada de coco

On my first evening in Colombia, I ordered a limonada de mango biche, which was a mango-lime slushy. This flavor was new to me and it got me excited to see what else I could try. Another night, I got the limonada de coco which was another slushy, however, this one was thicker, perhaps, with a yogurt base and flavored like coconut. I can say that this drink is now the second best “mocktail” I’ve ever had (the first being a virgin Mai Tai in Hawaii). For me, the abstention of alcohol improved my enjoyment of the meal. When I order alcohol, sometimes I feel like I need to control myself and only order one. While this is always for the best, the need to restrain myself, while I am enjoying myself can be psychologically stressful. However, with the mocktails, I am always satisfied with just one. The ability to enjoy my drink without feeling like I needed to hold back brought me peace in my dining experience. As an added bonus, mocktails are cheaper than cocktails!

On the very last day of my trip, I cracked. I was in the Tocumen airport in Panama waiting to board my flight back home to Boston. I needed to catch up on some work and with a few hours to spare in the airport, I decided to sit down and get to it. Once I took a seat, I felt so extremely tired and couldn’t bear the thought of reading or writing substance-free. In this moment, I began to feel like my caffeine-free lifestyle would not hold up once I landed back in Boston. So, I caved and ordered a green tea (contains even less caffeine than black tea!). Although I broke on this day, I’m glad that I did not shatter and slide back into an old habit of black tea. The next day at work, I felt clear-headed in the morning and did not crave tea. In fact, I felt clear-headed all day. While I did experience a tired spell at around 10am, it wasn’t debilitating, and I was able to push through until I regained energy at about noon.

Overall, I feel like my caffeine-free experience has been positive. I don’t know how to accurately describe this, but my brain feels very… clean! It is as if everything internally has stabilized. Caffeine can make me feel really energetic, and its absence really lethargic. “No caffeine” feels like my energy is somewhere in-between—never super alert, but also never feeling like I am on the brink of collapse. It’s a good feeling and I am going to do my best to sleep more and drink less caffeine so I can hold onto to this sensation. I think, realistically, I will need to take in caffeine every once and a while. From this day forward, I will try my best to make sure that my caffeine intake does not become a thoughtless habit. The same is true with alcohol, I will allow myself to indulge on special occasions only. In this way, I want both alcohol and caffeine to be a treat, rather than an expectation or habit.

I am glad that I undertook this mini experiment. I learned a lot about my body and mind. It’s good to know who I am without caffeine and alcohol. Have you discovered your most natural self yet, Dear Reader? If not, why not get to know this person, if only for a week, they might just surprise you.

P.S. my teeth also seem to be at least a shade whiter. What a nice bonus for my struggle!

Love,

Raven

What to Drink—Part 1

Dear Reader,

When I was on vacation last week, I conducted a very un-scientific experiment on myself. I wanted to see what would happen if I went without alcohol or caffeine. To preface, I’m not a serious consumer of either, but I am consistent—1-2 alcoholic beverages a week on average and 1-2 cups of black tea a day on average. My decision to undertake this experiment was made in connection with one of my new year’s resolutions—to be healthier. The “to be healthier” goal is actually a bunch of smaller, more concrete goals that relate to my overall health, fitness, and personal maintenance in general.

I chose to focus some of my energy on considering the effects of caffeine and alcohol on my body because I believe that these two substances have some negative side effects (but also some positive ones!). The negatives (for me personally) include:

Headaches

  • If you drink caffeine regularly, you may already know the feeling of skipping your morning pick-me-up. For me, going even one day without caffeine will give me a headache. Why is this? Caffeine constricts our blood vessels and reduces blood flow. When caffeine is reduced, blood vessels widen, which can trigger a headache.
  • Alcohol. We all know what a hangover is, even if we don’t have first-hand experience. Since school, I haven’t had too many real hangovers, however, even sometimes with only one glass of wine, I will still get a throbbing headache the next day.
  • Both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which means that they increase your need to…um…pass fluids. This can lead to dehydration if we are not careful. Dehydration can lead to headaches if we are not careful. For me, I know that the dehydrating effect of these substances contributes to my headache symptoms.

Bathroom Breaks

  • Like I mentioned above, caffeine and alcohol are diuretics. For me, this means that I make frequent trips to the restroom during the workday and a few more trips when I opt for a glass of wine with dinner in the evening.

Vitamin Absorption

  • Did you that caffeine inhibits the absorption of vitamins and minerals into the body? I suspected so much, when I increased my intake of vitamins (Airborne/ EmergenC type products) to prevent the onset of the common cold and simultaneously increased my caffeine intake so I would stay alert in my encroaching sickness. Drinking cups of black tea felt dehydrating and like I was not reaping any benefits of the vitamins. I did become curious about whether caffeine was the culprit and found some articles online to suggest that my suspicions were somewhat valid!
  •  Alcohol also impairs nutrient absorption—however, I’m sure this fact surprises exactly no one.

Sleep

  • We all know that caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep at night. That’s why we drink it though right—to stay awake? It’s a stimulant, that’s its job. Well, when consumed too close our bedtimes, caffeine can also make it harder to sleep well, i.e. it decreases our quality of sleep.
  • Alcohol, a depressant, can make it super easy to fall asleep, however, it can also decrease the quality of our sleep.

In my life, caffeine and alcohol also have positive effects! For example, every morning, I really do look forward to my first cup of tea to begin the day. Caffeine routinely helps me through my long days, my tired days, and just any other regular day to be honest. Caffeine is also a social activity for me. There have been a number of times when I have used a coffee shop as the backdrop for a work meeting or social event. With alcohol, I frankly like the taste and the feeling. For me it was an acquired taste. When I first tried wine in college, I felt as if everyone in the world was just trying to prove something by effortlessly ingesting this punchy liquid. However, the taste has grown on me and I look forward to trying different varieties of wine and beer. I also enjoy how alcohol frees up some of my inhibitions, which would normally make me anxious in social situations. And, like caffeine, alcohol is also a good anchor for evening plans.

While my goal with my break from caffeine and alcohol is not meant to be permanent, I thought it was important for me to “reset” and see how my body feels without these substances. One thing that I have already learned from this experiment is that our bodies have minds of their own…. I did suffer from some withdrawal side effects and had some interesting realizations that I will elaborate on further tomorrow in part 2. Until then, Dear Reader, drink plenty of water; your body depends on it more than either caffeine or alcohol.

Love,

Raven

Last Day Luxury— Panama City

Panama City, Panama, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

When I travel, I typically try to do and see as much as I can on a budget. This past week, I was lucky enough to take a vacation in Cartagena, Colombia with a one-day stopover in Panama City, Panama. While about 90% of this trip adhered to my adventures-with-frugality principle, the last 10% was dedicated to pleasure without reservations. Specifically, I made sure to take care to watch what I was spending on all days, except the last full day of my trip.

In the first 90% of my trip, I did the following:

Travel to Cartagena

I flew from Boston to Cartagena, Colombia in Delta’s Basic Economy class, which meant that I had to make some sacrifices in my own convenience to save money (more on that here).

Destination

I got lucky with my choice of location; the cost of living is way cheaper in Cartagena. Taxis to the city center cost $7, a fancy meal at a nice restaurant costs under $30, and a bottle of water (and many other beverages) cost under $1.

Accommodation

I opted to stay in a private room in a hostel that was located just outside of the main tourist area near downtown Cartagena. The place was safe, clean, and my expectations were reasonable. Also, this place included breakfast, which made the mornings much more pleasant (and cheaper)!

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Tourism in Cartagena

I love to see new things, so I can content myself with free activities like walking around the city and visiting public places like malls, markets, and beaches. As far as paid activities go, I’ve also really come to enjoy hopping on and off the City SightSeeing bus which operates in several locations internationally (more on that here).

While traveling and saving money allowed me to see what I wanted while staying comfortably within my budget, it can become tiring to default to the less convenient or less comfortable option when making decisions. For me, saving money in Cartagena meant sleeping on a rather firm bed, eating similarly basic foods every day, and cold showers. By the end of my stay, I was quite exhausted due to many factors including not sleeping well, the Colombian heat, not drinking caffeine (but that’s another story to be discussed in a future post), and just from running around most days. I am quite familiar with this sort of fatigue and have come to anticipate it on my travels. Therefore, now, when I travel on my own, I always try to make my last day my most relaxing.

My stopover in Panama (aka the last 10% of my trip) became my “luxury” experience. Luckily for me, the cost of living in Panama City is also cheaper than in the Boston (but way more expensive than in Cartagena). To make my last day and evening special, I went out of my way to find a nice hotel for myself, which was in the modern part of the city and included a pool, a gym, as well as breakfast. I am still a cheap person at heart and admit that I didn’t even pay for the hotel room out-of-pocket (between $100 and $200, can’t remember the cost), instead I was able to use credit card points that I had saved to cover my entire one-night stay.

Lobby in Cartagena
Lobby in Panama City

When I entered the hotel lobby I felt overjoyed. While Cartagena’s lobby was basic and offered a direct view to some of the city’s homeless inhabitants, the lobby in Panama sat across from a little shopping plaza, was air conditioned, and had nice furniture including white leather sofas and glass tables. When I checked in, I learned that I was assigned a room on the 24th floor, which meant that I had an expansive view of the city. That evening, I ordered room service for the first time in my entire life. Surprisingly, it was not even that expensive, this may be because unlike in the US, there was not an exorbitant tax added on to the sticker price.

Room Service

My evening in Panama was the most relaxing of my entire trip and I feel as if I had made up for all of my sleep deprivation in the soft mattress overlooking the city. So often, travel and vacation can bring us unintended stress and discomfort. When I travel, moving forward, I always want to make sure that my last night is the best night. Sometimes we suffer from the last-day-of-vacation blues when we allow thoughts of work and routine to penetrate our vacation mentality. However, if we make the last day of vacation, a new experience for ourselves, then we can perhaps shift our mindsets away from being sad that things are ending, to being joyful that good things are still beginning.

At the end of the day, vacations should be relaxing. If we get home exhausted and feeling like we need a “staycation,” we can inadvertently cause ourselves to feel more negatively about our whole vacation experience. While I am a strong advocate of budget travel, I also think it is important to allow ourselves to just relax, enjoy, and not have to make a sacrifice with every decision we make. Whether on vacation or in life, Dear Reader, I hope you will take a full day every once in a while to just relax and make yourself happy.

Love,

Raven

When in Panama…

Panama City, Panama, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

Today, I began my trip from Cartagena, Colombia back to Boston, MA. Instead of taking a flight straight to the U.S., I decided to prolong my adventures and include a 27-hour stopover in Panama City, Panama on my return journey. I am a fan of the “long layover.” So often when I travel, I have one destination in mind and then a surprise layover on the tail end of my journey (if feasible). I took advantage of another stopover opportunity last winter when I traveled to London, via Reykjavik, Iceland.

With literally only one day to do everything I ever wanted to do in the country of Panama, I tried to time my itinerary carefully so as not to miss out on anything. My flight got in rather early, which meant that when I got to the hotel, all I could do was drop off my bags and connect to the wifi. I was keen to visit the Panama Canal, but I learned last night that my tour had been cancelled (it seems that I was the only one to have signed up!). I was frantic, trying to book something at the last minute to no avail. I did some more research and found that I could just get a taxi and head over to the canal on my own. In my searches, however, I did see that City SightSeeing bus tours had a route that started just 15 mins away from my hotel and made a stop at the Panama Canal. I had a very good experience with this tour bus in Cartagena (more on that here), so I booked the tour without any hesitation.

Panama City, Panama, winter 2020

Panama is a small country with a big city. From the tour bus the skyline stretched out much wider than my camera lens could capture even from a great distance. Like many places, Panama City has an old city, known as “Casco Viejo,” and a modern district. If Panama City were a face, then Casco Viejo would be no more than a dimple, and it looks a little rundown as far as “old city” standards go to be honest. The Panama Canal sits just 20 minutes west of the city on the Miraflores lake. The Panama Canal, in my opinion, is just one of those things that everyone knows exists, but far fewer people have ever witnessed firsthand. It’s kind of like the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal in its reputation.

For those of you who are wondering about the Panama Canal, I’ll take you on a mini tour right now. On the drive up to the Canal you may pass the U.S. Embassy, which is gated and set behind the lush green of a suburban setting. As you approach the site, you will cross a bridge and the first thing you will notice on your right is what appears to be a dried-up river (pic above). Panama was hit with a drought this year so this may explain why there was no water under this particular bridge. Continuing on the path you will exit your vehicle and enter a small lobby which features a ticket counter for admittance to the Miraflores Visitors Center (where the Panama Canal observatory deck is located) as well as tickets to the Panama Canal IMAX experience (narrated by Morgan Freeman). At the time of this writing, tickets to the observatory deck are $20 each (Panama is a dollarized country and they use USD paper currency).

Miraflores Visitors Center, Panama Canal

You will make your way up two sets of escalators passing by a gift shop, filled to the brim with Panama hats (pun intended) and other souvenirs, as well as, a cafe. From there you most go outside and cross the street to the Miraflores Visitors Center. You will scan your ticket and make your way up to the fourth floor. From there you will go through a pair of glass doors which will bring you to the observatory deck. The floor is crowded, and eager visitors line the rails facing the locks. You will hear a voice over the loud speak (both in Spanish and in English) giving you a play-by-play of what is happening in the lock as well as some interesting facts about the structure here and there. The feeling is similar to a sports match in which we are unfamiliar with the rules but are excited to take part in the action.

Panama Canal

A British yacht is making its way from the Caribbean Sea to the lock chamber closest to you at a snail’s pace. You are eager to see the water displace but are discouraged when you hear the announcer say that it will be awhile before the ship can enter the lock. The busiest times for ships occur in two shifts, one in the mid-morning, and the other in the mid-afternoon, each for about 3 hours. Connecting with the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific can take as little as 8-10 hours, which is miraculous considering going the long way would take about two weeks. In the second lock, you see a cargo ship heading east and smoothly and slowly sliding its wide frame through the canal’s seemingly narrow walls. You look back at the first lock to see that the British yacht is being tethered and not much other action is taking place. The observation deck is getting pretty hot, especially with other bystanders pressing against your elbows. So, you take your pictures and leave the observation deck to decide whether you will visit one of the two small cafés or the restaurant before you make your departure.

Panama Canal

If you just want to see the canal, you can do the whole thing in like 20 mins for $20 (transport would cost anywhere between $20 – $60 from the city roundtrip). If you want the full experience, you could do a full-day trip and even take a boat tour to go through the locks yourselves (this will cost you $200+ and 7+ hours of your time). I can’t say I was drawn to the Canal because of its reputation as an engineering masterpiece, but for me, an hour at the “8th wonder of the world” was well worth my time and money. When in Panama, Dear Reader, one surely must see the Canal!

Love,

Raven

A Farewell to Cartagena!

Cartagena, Colombia, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

Today, is my last day in Cartagena, Colombia. A week can be such a long short time. Some days I tried to fill my time with as many activities as I could and other days, I just… lived! As I am reflecting on my week, I wanted to take this time to share with you some of my observations and thoughts about Cartagena.

Arriving in Cartagena

Visitors will immediately notice that the Rafael Núñez International Airport is rather small and looks like it has not been updated since the turn of the century; also, there is no WiFi. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city is by taxi. You will have no trouble finding a taxi as drivers swarm the small arrivals lounge. It is important to note that taxis only accept cash. To get cash, I highly recommend that you go to an ATM rather than an exchange booth—the rates that you pay to exchange will likely be higher than to withdraw. Taxi rides to the center of the city will only take you 15 to 20 minutes and the cost… is super affordable! I only paid about $7 for cab fare!! Make sure to go with an authorized cab for safety reasons, but also so you are not seriously overcharged.

Talking to Strangers

I had to talk to many people for one reason or another here in Cartagena and, on a whole, I would say locals here are much friendlier than in some other countries. In the U.S., addressing strangers on the street is quite formal, one typically says “ma’am,” “sir,” or “miss” for adults (in the South, greetings are more familiar however). In Cartagena, the greetings were much more familiar, and strangers became amigos and acquaintances became mi amor. This is quite different than my experience in Russia where people were referred to as “girl,” “grandma/ grandpa,” or “young man.”

We live at night

Cartagena is definitely a night city. Stores open late and close late. People eat late and stay out late. Perhaps, this makes sense as the days are hot, while the evenings and nights are cool and breezy. This is the high season, but still, every night of the week the streets are teeming with life and there is always some sort of fiesta going on in a few parts of the city.

Whatsapp

Whatsapp—the texting/ call through wifi app—is really big here. One giant hassle for me while traveling is that I do not have cellular service abroad. However, on this trip I was very lucky to find out that the hotel communicated via Whatsapp! Also, I scheduled a tour to see the Volcán del Totumo (more on that here) and was happy that I could communicate with my tour guide through Whatsapp texts.

Colombian Spanish

¿Hablas español? If you know some Spanish you will be happy to discover that Colombian Spanish is rather uncomplicated and a more “pure” version of the language. For non-natives, places like Argentina, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and parts of Spain can be a challenge to communicate because the Spanish spoken there is very unlike what is taught in the classroom. Many of my Spanish teachers in school were Colombian, so, perhaps, I am just biased here….  

Accommodations

I am a budget traveler and I warn those of you who are also budget travelers to not go too cheap with your accommodation. I paid about $30 a night for a basic single room. Positives – good (cheaper) location, clean room, breakfast included, friendly staff, air conditioning. Negatives – the toilet broke, the bed was incredibly firm, and no hot water (water is not freezing, but there is only one temperature—cool). If you have any doubts about the safety of a location, I highly suggest doing your research and looking at the location on Google maps. It’s a terrible experience to feel unsafe and unhappy in your accommodation, so, don’t go too cheap!

Street Food

It’s everywhere! Even in the less touristy parts. Try the arepas (fried corn dough pastry), they all look the same, but a few vendors claimed to me that theirs were the best. There is also a healthy selection of fresh fruit, with mango spears being most popular.

If you are looking to travel to South America, do consider Cartagena! It is an underrated Caribbean jewel and it’s rather inexpensive! These past few nights I’ve been going to the equivalent of a four-star restaurant and was delighted to find that most entrees are under $20 (USD)—even the fancy fish ones. At the end of the day, we make our own happiness and adventures. If you do decide to travel down here, Dear Reader, I hope that you will make the most of your time!

Love,

Raven

Wherever the Bus Takes Me

Cartagena, Colombia, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

Cartagena is a city comprised of many neighborhoods. Like many older cities, Cartagena has an old historical center as well as a modern areas. Today, I had the pleasure of taking a bus tour through Cartagena’s many parts.

Ordinarily, I forgo bus tours in favor of walking. Cartagena is the sort of city where if you stand in the center, you can get anywhere in an hour on foot. For me, this is doable under normal circumstances, however, for me the Caribean heat made walking a far less desirable option. To see the city, I purchased a ticket for the Cartagena City Sitghtseeing hop on, hop off bus tour.

I boarded the double-decker bus near the old city in the Muelle de la Bodeguita area. From there we headed to the Getsemani area, which is just outside of the main tourist drag. Getsemani is the grungier option, more local, and very backpacker friendly. Leaving Getsemani, we drove along the coast to Bocagrande – the rich, exclusive area of the city. Bocagrande sits on the water and is home to many of the city’s luxury hotels including the Hilton and stores. On the ride, I began to think about how Cartagena’s neighborhoods reminded me of those in Buenos Aires. Getsemani is similar to Bueno Aires’s slightly sketchy and somewhat charming San Telmo neighborhood. Bocagrande is much like Buenos Aires’s Puerto Madero, which is also situated on the water, just as its name would suggest.

On the long drive, I also looked at the details in between the bus stops. Cartagena’s development is certainly uneven. Tourism is booming, but this profitable industry cannot carry the whole city. Cartagena is a somewhat poor city. Behind large modern buildings, hide small impoverished communities. These communities are filled with hardworking people, who will stand on the street all day selling you snacks and water, because your patronage and tips are their source of survival. These people are creative and determined to make a life for themselves and their families.

Interestingly, Cartagena also has nice modern public buses. These buses look a bit sleeker (but smaller!) than Boston’s to be honest. A big difference to me though was just how overcrowded these vehicles were. While we can all expect to get up close and personal with strangers during rush hour, many of us would be shocked if rush hour meant that we literally would have to hang off the side of the bus rather than stand uncomfortably in it. See the pic on this above – I literally did a double take on the tour bus.

Some cities, in my opinion, are a whole despite their many parts. To me, Boston is like this, it is comprised of about two dozen neighborhoods (and even more surrounding areas), yet the greater Boston area feels somewhat united. Cartagena, however, feels like a bunch of parts that all happen to be next-door neighbors.

The bus tour was an overall good experience for me. Sometimes it is nice to just sit back and let things happen around you. Sometimes, we just need to go with the flow and go where the City Sightseeing bus takes us.

Love,

Raven

Evening Stroll along the Walled City

Cartagena, Colombia, winter 2020

Dear Reader,

I have an idea for an invention – a virtual reality snow globe. To explain this idea, I would like to take you inside the beautiful scene that I witnessed in Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena was founded as a port city on the Caribbean coast in 1533. The city still retains much of its historical charm with the colorful, colonial architecture, stone roads, street vendors, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage. One particular feature that makes Cartagena stand out is its walls. Cartagena’s downtown area is surrounded by 11 kms of walls with a few fortresses nearby (now a UNESCO World Heritage site). Some parts of the wall are quite wide and can be used as gathering spaces. Other parts of the wall are more narrow and only allow one or two to pass by. It is easy to get from the north to the south side of downtown just by walking along the walls.

Although I had already explored the walls in the mornings, yesterday evening, when I was looking for a restaurant for dinner, I decided to walk along the walls again. The difference from day to night in Cartagena is astounding. The walls in the morning were near empty and comprised mostly of locals (smoking, sleeping [homeless], joggers, and those waiting for their work shifts to begin) with some early-bird tourists on a morning stroll in the mix. In the evening, the walls were lively; people seemed to be occupying all parts and even dangling limbs from some edges attempting to capture the view of the sunset over the Caribbean.

The scene on the wall in the evening was absolutely beautiful. It was the sort of moment that engaged my senses fully and made me feel as if time had slowed down. A wedding ceremony had just wrapped up on the wall and the bride and groom were being photographed as guests were moving to the reception venue (which was conveniently located just down the wall). The wind, bells from street vendors, car horns, and the sweet and melancholy sound of a trumpet made up the haunting soundtrack of the moment. The scene was purple and orange from the setting sun, the air was comfortably warm, and the breeze appropriately gentle.

There was so much joy in the air that evening. The wedding party certainly added to the delightful feeling. We bid farewell to the hot Caribbean sun and turned our gaze to the magnificent view of the city (the Bocagrande neighborhood) at night. There was so much life in that moment, a shear contrast from the morning crowd.

Now, what if I could bundle up this experience and serve it to you as a virtual reality snow globe? Unlike a traditional snow globe, my VR version would allow you to experience the scene right from the center. The viewer would be able to witness the beauty of the lights and sounds from all angles for a period of, let’s say, 90 seconds. In that time, you could walk forward or back, turn your gaze towards the setting sun or the city. You could watch as people passed you by and see their expressions as the wedding party processed to the reception area. Wouldn’t this be a cool little gift to bring back home to friends and family members? I did my best to capture this scene, however, I must say that my 34 second video (i.e. me turning slowly and shakily in a circle with an iPhone) just does not do the moment justice.

Some moments are really beautiful, Dear Reader. Until my VR snow globe hits the market (only in my dreams) these special times may only truly live on in our memories. When we have beautiful moments like this one, let’s capture them, remember them, and share them to prolong their beauty. This little moment reminds me that sometimes I just need to unplug and experience my surroundings. The evening was beautiful, uninterrupted, and complete even though it had no clear beginning or end. I am excited to experience more of these moments and I know that I will because good things happen when we seek them out. When we start looking to see the beauty around us, we will find it, indeed, time and time again.

Love,

Raven

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