78 Hours in Minnesota: The Pros

My whirlwind of a weekend home is over and I already miss it. I mean, I don’t miss the utter exhaustion, my inability to tell which day of the week it was, or the distance from my husband (not the largest ocean, but a pretty big one none-the-less)…but on a whole, it was a pretty magical trip.

I’ve never traveled so far (24 hours there, 21 hours back) to be somewhere for such a short amount of time. So I guess I should explain why…

The real why goes back to July 3, 2016. My wedding day. And there, standing next to me (on the opposite side of my soon-to-be husband) was Nora. A woman who wrote out my invitations, shared a room with my sister and other bridesmaid, Erica (both strangers to her), and has been a source of comfort and conversation since we met in the early days of university.

She was my witness on our marriage license.

And on October 1, 2017, it was her turn to get married. Now, living halfway around the world, I couldn’t write out her invitations (and let’s be honest – she has better handwriting anyway), I couldn’t dye or tie her lovely keychains to mark the seating chart, and I couldn’t be with her to try on various wedding dresses (which she had done with me).

All I could do was be there. So I did.

And despite the travel hours logged, I am so happy that I did. Fun fact: I did not cry at my own wedding – I was not going to waste that professionally applied make-up! But I sobbed like a baby at Nora’s, my heart bursting with joy.

I finally got to meet Sumit, her now husband – the ocean between us preventing that from previously happening. And I got to steal small moments with her when she wasn’t taking a million photographs, greeting everyone that came to her wedding, and spending time with the man she will now be spending the rest of her life with.

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If that was all I got from my weekend home, it would have been enough.

But I got more.

After a three-hour delay in Amsterdam, turning my nine-hour flight into twelve hours, I finally got to see my parents and sister. Excepting my sister, they don’t get out much and so I hadn’t seen them in over a year. We immediately got into the swing of things: My father shouting at traffic, my sister getting exasperated by my mother, and me trying to Skype a medical appointment from the backseat. So little time.

I got to have dinner with the three of them, plus my grandparents and my first meal back in the states was a burrito (Chandler has trained me well). It was delicious, even if it was from the freezer section of Trader Joes.

The next day I got to visit with even more family as my grandparents opened up their home to anyone who could claim relation to me : ) A feast was laid before us and we spent the next six hours eating and catching up. Our time together was way too short, but I got all the most important updates: deaths, divorces, and new dogs. My family is a country song.

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Vegetarians eat ham, right?

Moving on from Paris, we made our way to Leysin via train. Now I have to say, trains are my favorite way to travel…to most places. We did take a pretty terrifying sleeper train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi back in 2014 on our way to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam. I’m pretty sure I shared a bunk with a rat – a top bunk that I somehow got placed in even after paying the upgrade for the bottom bunk. So that train sucked.

But European trains are incredible. Especially when traveling first class, something we were forced to do when purchasing our Eurail passes. At the time, we thought the train passes were a little pricey – $812 for both of us to take trains on 5 separate days anywhere in France, Switzerland, and Italy (next year it will be $900, because I’ll be 28 and no longer considered a European “youth”).

After that initial fee, anytime you travel between countries you have to pay a reservation fee of $20-$50, it was starting to feel ridiculous. Until we traveled round-trip from Leysin to Zurich and learned that those tickets alone would have cost almost $800. That was when we realized that Eurail is actually quite reasonable! But more on that in my next post.

First things first, we settled into life in Leysin. Chandler had grad school classes Monday-Friday, usually from 8:30-5:00, with homework half the nights during the week. Needless to say, we didn’t see a lot of each other.

While he was gone, I was in my Swiss paradise. An Airbnb that was nice & cozy with a great view of the mountains.

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But as lovely as the apartment was, I didn’t want to spend all of my time there. Our first full weekend in Leysin (after Chandler’s first week of classes), a colleague from our school in Accra was in town on her way to the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Another colleague from Accra was also in the program with Chandler and so the four of us set off on a morning hike.

Lazy things that we are, we took the cable car to the mountain peak and planned a hike that wound around and back down. I should also probably admit that the route was chosen very specifically because it passed a fromagerie that we had every intention of stopping in when we came across it.

The views from the top were stunning, but a bit limited due to the fog/clouds that surrounded us during our hike. That said, it made the temperature quite enjoyable for the four hours we spent strolling along.

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We finally made it to the fromagerie about two hours in and were pretty hungry. We looked at their chalkboard menu and one thing stood out: Fondue. But no matter what we said, they wouldn’t serve it to us.

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Paris: Uninhibited, but not romantic

I’ve been to Paris twice now and I just have to ask, why does everyone find this city so damn romantic? I have to say, I don’t get it. Now don’t get me wrong, both times I definitely enjoyed myself (July 2010 and June 2017); Paris is an incredibly fun city. It just doesn’t make me swoon.

And I can even say that I’ve experienced it in very different ways: the first time I went, I was studying abroad in Rome and I went to spend an extended weekend with a friend who happened to be studying abroad in Paris at the time.

I was in college, I was single, and I was poor. We ate crepes and spent hours at Notre Dame. I ate the one vegetarian option at each restaurant we went to, because in 2010, Paris wasn’t exactly vegetarian friendly. We walked through the red-light district for the required Moulin Rouge pic. I went to the Opera House and the Louvre while she was in class and I was skipping my own. I slept in her dorm room because I couldn’t afford my own place. We went dancing at clubs until hours I can no longer stay up for. I made the trek up to Sacre Coeur and got to behold the most romantic city in the world a metropolitan city.

Skip ahead seven years. My husband and I have well-paying international jobs with a seven-week summer vacation to fill. We wanted to visit friends in London and then take the train to Leysin where we’d spend the bulk of our summer. Who wouldn’t want to stop in Paris on the way for a few days of baguettes, wine, cheese, and, of course, shopping? Especially now that I could afford to see Paris with a different bank account!

Ever the Millenials, we ignored the high prices of hotels and opted for an Airbnb. Late to the game, this was the first Airbnb we’d stayed in just the two of us – our actual first Airbnb was in São Tomé this spring when we rented a place with two coworkers and some family.

There was some pretty hilarious confusion (or at least we thought so) during check-in. Our host had left the building fob for us to find and as I was in the lobby looking for it, a couple asked us if we were staying at the Airbnb on the fourth floor. Well guess what? We were. So they handed us the key fob for the building and a key. We got to our room and found our separate key hidden where expected and assumed the one on the fob was also for the front of the building.

We went out for lunch (Chipotle, Chandler’s last chance at it), a wine shop, and I experienced my first Parisian shopping moment (having been way too poor to buy clothes the first time I was there!).

We got back to our Airbnb, showered off (because Paris was experiencing an excruciating heat wave) and while Chandler was still in his towel, we got a knock on our door. It was our neighbor, frantically asking if we by chance happened to know where his key was.

Turns out, there was an Airbnb next door to ours and since the apartments don’t have numbers on them, all the renters could ask us was floor number. They had given us the wrong keys! We handed them over to a furious apartment owner – sorry, dude. Not our fault! I then went back down to the lobby and within about 30 seconds more of searching, found our fob still waiting for us. Whoops.

But our cranky neighbor aside, we were seriously enjoying our apartment and the view it provided. We were about three blocks from the Louvre.

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If you want to be a tourist, it was a wonderful part of town to be staying in. If you want a few quiet, relaxing days, I don’t especially recommend it. We loved it. We spent our first afternoon wandering around the neighborhood, eating our London cheese, and drinking our Parisian wine. FYI, if you’re nearby, I heartily recommend stopping by La Derniere Goutte for a nice conversation and a couple great bottles of wine.

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The next day found us up bright and early, grabbing breakfast on the go at the boulangerie around the corner – one of the only things open.

Our plans for the day started with the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral. It’s not too far from Notre Dame, but I hadn’t made my way over on my last visit. At 10 euros it’s a pretty steep price (for only 7 more you have access to all of the Louvre), but the stained glass windows are more than worth it.

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There are 1,113 scenes from the New and Old Testaments depicted across the cathedral’s 15 windows, each of which are 15 meters high.

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Leaving My Comfort Zone (Again): Volta

I know just last month I posted about how I’m over “roughing it” and plan to vacation to higher standards in the future…but that plan got side railed when three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers came to visit us last week.

Before arriving, they talked to current Peace Corps Volunteers living in Ghana to get recommendations on things to do outside of Accra. My Teaching Assistant has lived in Ghana her whole life and when I told her some of the towns and activities recommended, her response was a raised brow and, “Why would anyone want to go there?”

One trip she could get behind was a visit to her home region: Volta.

Volta makes the tourist list in Ghana for the Wli Falls (highest waterfall in West Africa),  Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary (not a real sanctuary), Tafi Abuife Kente Village (cloth making), and hiking (Mounts Afadja, Aduadu, and Adaklu come to mind).

We were just up for the weekend (we had plenty to show our guests in Accra, not to mention Cape Coast), so we made our plan simple. Leave Accra early Friday morning to make it to our hotel near the falls by noon. Make the hike to the lower base of the falls that afternoon. Saturday, our friends would hike to the upper falls (while we relaxed and read!), followed by a drive to the Tafi Abuife Kente Village, then back home to Accra.

Friday morning we left nearly on time and were on the road about an hour before Chandler asked our driver to stop so he could use a restroom. Our driver was visibly concerned. He didn’t know of an acceptable place to stop. Chandler assured him any gas station would do, and that’s why he got to pee outdoors – something we haven’t done since we were Peace Corps Volunteers ourselves:

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I was tempted to hop out and see what a “female urinal” is…but I figured if you’ve seen one hole in the ground, you’ve seen them all.

An hour later when my bladder had filled, our driver breathed a sigh of relief. We were nearing The Royal Senchi Resort which, in his mind, was a much more appropriate bathroom stop:

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I have to be honest. As we walked around the grounds, I was no longer sure the Wli Falls held any appeal for me…I was wondering how we could convince our guests that they’d rather stay put for the night : )

However, despite my best attempt, we pushed on. At about this point, the gravel disappeared and the remainder of our drive was pretty bumpy. I was feeling pretty car sick by now and told the driver I needed to stop. He was still appalled from the morning stop with Chandler and so he asked if it would be all right to drive to the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary for the stop. It wasn’t on our list, but I figured a bathroom was a bathroom.

Man, am I glad the monkey “sanctuary” wasn’t on our list. Driving through the town it became pretty obvious it was just a tourist trap. You pay money for a local “guide” who takes you through the village to find the monkeys (that are already hanging about and easy to spot). You are then “encouraged” to buy bananas and feed them to some already overfed monkeys. The bathroom break was enough for us and before long we had made it to our destination:

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The Island That Doesn’t Speak English

This sounds like a hyperbole, but I can honestly say the only English I heard spoken in São Tomé was from our Airbnb host, Ito, the dive shop owner at Club Santana, and a smattering of staff at Pestana Hotel. The rest of the time, we got away with mixing English/Spanish/Portuguese…and I only speak the first one.

Luckily, two of the members of our group were fluent Spanish speakers and two others could ask questions in Spanish. None of us really knew Portuguese, the official language of São Tomé.

But let’s back up a moment, to an event that assured me we were going to have an interesting vacation. We hadn’t even left Accra yet, we were still in the airport. We had passed through security twice, once at the entrance and again to get to the gates.  We had walked past the first set of gates and had to round a corner to get to ours…and there stood two dudes with airport security tags.

They asked us to come to a small table so they could (yet again) search through our belongings. Chandler went first and his guy was meticulous, touching absolutely everything. That is, until he got to my swimsuit top. He pulled it out of the bag and turned his concerned face to Chandler to ask, “Sir, is this yours?” Chandler was quick to explain that it was mine and we often split our belongings up between bags. The man instantly released the swimsuit, zipped up the bag and waved us all through. Swimsuit tops save the day.

Then, we got on the plane and a torrential downpour began. We waited on the runway for 45 minutes for it to let up. The pilot announced that even though we had been held up, we’d still make it to São Tomé on time. To no one’s surprise, except maybe the pilot’s, we arrived exactly 45 minutes after our scheduled time.

Add this to the fact that despite the 28 rows of seats on the plane, I was placed directly behind the family of one of my student’s. They have three kids. We should have known this was going to be less of a vacation and more of an adventure.

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Resort Hopping in São Tomé

I learned a lot about myself this week. I learned that I’m over “roughing it.” I learned that sometimes, when I want to relax, a resort will suit me just fine.

This year, we decided to spend spring break in São Tomé. If you’ve never heard of this country, don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t either before moving to Ghana. It’s a small set of islands (São Tomé and Príncipe) located west of Gabon and south of Nigeria.

We went with four other people, and to cut down on costs, decided to share an Airbnb. We thought we’d have a low-key, quiet week at the house. For anyone who’s ever spent any time in Africa (I hate to generalize, but for me this has usually held true), something will inevitably go poorly. Whether it’s power outages in Ethiopia, a city-wide day of rest in Djibouti, or Ghanaian food that can’t be made fish-free (a moment of truth: Nothing went wrong in South Africa).

In São Tomé, it was 24 hours without running water. And as much as I’d like to blame the Airbnb for this, it’s definitely a country-wide problem. Also, for as beautiful as the house was, it had been built by the ocean in 2002 and was, 15 years later, absolutely falling apart. The downstairs hosted every kind of bug imaginable, and our bathroom was even home to a very large roach and a very small crab.

That said, the upstairs was light and airy and had wonderful views. I read three books while on vacation here : )

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Eventually, however, a girl needs some water (and light to read by in the evenings – man that house was as dark as a dungeon at night!).

We ventured to Omali Lodge on our second day in São Tomé. As you can expect, island food isn’t very vegetarian friendly, but we were able to dig into some homemade mac & cheese, rice & veggies, chips, and of course, dessert – a brownie with peanut ice cream. However, the real reason to go to Omali is for their cocktails. Their passion fruit margarita was divine.

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When Your Christmas Flight Gets Cancelled Twice

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Monday, December 19th, while my sister was on a flight from Amsterdam to Accra, we got the call that Starbow Airlines had cancelled their Christmas Day flight from Tamale to Accra.

This was unfortunate because approximately two months prior we had purchased three round-trip flights between Accra and Tamale heading north on the 22nd and back south on the 25th.  We were staying at Zaina Lodge in Mole National Park, and at $500 a night, we didn’t really want to extend our stay until Monday. But with the promise of elephants, infinity pools, and relaxation, we didn’t really want to cut our trip short either.

Lucky for us, both the lodge and the airline were accommodating and we moved our reservations to the 21st to the 24th. My sister was going to have one less day to adjust to jet lag, but we figured she could do that just fine in an infinity pool with a mojito in hand.

Our flight up to Tamale was a breeze – they even served us our favorite local juice, Blue Skies. And I promise my next blog will be about our actual stay at Zaina Lodge (still haven’t gotten through all my photos yet!). But, unfortunately, our time living it up in luxury had to come to an end, and at 12:30pm on Saturday, December 24th, the lodge drove us back to the airport.

We arrived at 3:00pm a full hour and a half before our flight was scheduled to leave and were surprised to see only one line in the airport. We were under the impression that multiple airlines flew out of Tamale. We got up to the front and asked where the Starbow check-in was (everyone behind the counter had AWA – Africa World Airlines – gear on).

They were surprised to have to tell us that Starbow had cancelled their flights for the day. We then found out that it was AWA’s last flight of the day and it was booked. We were put on the wait list at numbers 12, 13, and 14. Promising, right?

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