Walking the Path of the Gods in Italy

In Italy, the evidence of belief is everywhere in gorgeous, glorious form. The columns of the Temple of Vesta stand sentinel over the remains of Rome’s ancient forum, a radiant dove watches from high above St. Peter’s tomb in the Basilica, and carved into smooth marble, Cupid and Psyche embrace for eternity in Florence’s Uffizi museum. But of all the beautiful buildings and prized masterpieces in Italy, I found conviction most clearly in the landscape—Amalfi Coast’s Path of the Gods.

I’d originally envisioned a January hike through the Amalfi Peninsula as another multi-day Patagonia-like affair, including one day on the famous Path of the Gods, or Sentiero degli Dei. It seemed entirely possible from the blogs and one book on the topic, and I’d done at least three whole hours of planning. My friend and I would hike from the town of Amalfi to the town of Sant’Agata over three days, stopping for pasta and wine and a comfortable bed.

Hard to go wrong.

Of course, when we arrived to Salerno—the point for which we would take a SITA bus to Amalfi—it was snowing and windy, and everything absolutely did go wrong.

Undeterred, and with a slightly-above-freezing temperature in Praiano the next morning, my friend and I asked our hotel owner for directions to the Path of the Gods. He took us to the window and traced the path we would climb up the steep mountainside. It wouldn’t be the full Path of the Gods, but it would be the most beautiful part.

“Up to the convent, then up again, over to that town, then down to Positano,” he explained. “Two hours, no problem.”

path of the gods pentraveler
From Praiano, the Path of the Gods is straight up to a convent, then west to Nocelle, then down to Positano.

“Easy peasy,” I said to my friend. “I bet we could make it all the way to the end of the peninsula if we wanted to.”

amalfi peninsula pentraveler
Just to be clear on the extent of my delusion–you can barely see the end of the peninsula in this photo. I thought I could hike this whole thing in one day. On the plus side, no one can say I’m lacking self-confidence.

The hotel owner pointed us to the stairs across the street from our hotel, conveniently marked with a “Path of the Gods” sign. Up we climbed through the town’s narrow stairs, flanked by white houses and framed with bright pink flowers and lemon trees. Painted Roman myths mixed with Christian paintings and sculptured gods dotted the climb along the stair’s wall and then the forest as we gained elevation.

path of the gods 1 pentraveler
I think this is Medusa.Or the sun with curly rays.

Thankfully, the wind had quieted today, none of the fierce gusts of the previous days in Italy this trip.  The sun rose and warmed our skin, although a broken pipe pouring water into a spontaneous ice sculpture reminded us that it was still quite cold.

At about stair number 1,000+, we reached the convent of San Domenico and the church of Santa Maria a Castro, a sweet rest stop. Two men and a dog arrived shortly after us—one, the caretaker of the convent, opened the small church and asked if we wanted a snack.

Never one to turn down an espresso in Italy, I chatted with the man, practicing my Italian.

He said for a few days in the summer everyone from the village comes up to the small church for a special mass, the whole area lit with candles. Inside, the church was cool and dark, its frescoed walls looking untouched since the 1400s when it was built.

san domenico pentraveler
Easy to imagine this beautiful church from the 1400s filled with candlelight.

Freshly caffeinated, we continued up past the church, where the Path of the Gods was immediately less clear. Exposed small rocks led up with a sharp vertical drop to the side. We scrambled up, wondering aloud if we were still on the path.

But then—a sign. (An actual one, no doves or anything like that.) To the right, a hike to the summit, and to the left, continuing the path to Positano. We veered left, walking the two-foot ledge fit snuggly into the cliff. I say “snuggly”, because I am happy being literally dangled from a rope two stories high, but if you have a fear of heights, this is probably not the path for you.

path of the gods 3 pentraveler
It helps to think of these types of paths in comforting terms because otherwise you might just be terrified you are 400m/1300ft+ above sea level with a sheer drop to your left.

Time faded as we followed the mountains’ curves into hollows and out along its ridges. We passed a ruined house and belled goats roaming above us on the mountainside. The path widened briefly, where a couple sat snacking on the most amazing location for a picnic bench I’ve ever seen. White and orange markers reassured from time to time that we were, in fact, going the right way.

mary statue path of the gods pentraveler
Every second of the Path of the Gods is breathtaking. Sometimes because you think you are going to fall off the cliff edge, but mostly because of the view.

The exposed cliff toyed with perspective, feeling never quite closer to our final destination, and I finally admitted there was no way we were making it to the edge of the peninsula today.

Eventually, we started a descent that curved back along a hollow into a wooded area, then out again with guard rails appearing as we approached the town of Nocelle.

guardrail path of the gods pentraveler
Don’t be fooled, guard rails are very rare on the Path of the Gods.

In Nocelle, the first sight that greeted us: The Kiosk of the Path of the Gods. Closed. “Get your prosecco here!” the sign said anyway.

I glowered at the sign. I wanted that a bubbly drink very much after the last four hours. Why had our owner said only two?! Until that moment, I’d been quite happy with our nearly solo January walk—we’d passed only seven other hikers the whole time. But faced with a closed refreshing beverage shop, I had my moment of doubt.

Just then, two cats appeared, purring like little motor boats, so I took the solace they offered, and we started the descent through lovely Nocelle. 1,700 stairs of descent, to be exact.

nocelle stairs pentraveler
Purring cats in Nocelle tried their hardest to make up for the closed beverage shops.

By the time we reached the road, I was ready to fall to my knees—not just in gratitude for being done with the stairs, but also because 1,700 stairs is A LOT.

We crawled/walked the last stretch to Positano and collapsed into the first restaurant we found open along the beach. With a glass of prosecco and gnocchi on the table, the stairs were forgiven and I found all that was left in my heart was the lightness, once again, of a beautiful experience.

positano sunset pentraveler
The sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in January from the nearly empty beach in Positano is something to behold, and hold onto, long after it has sunk below the waters.

Traveling with wrong and light on the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi view at sunset

As the sun sinks lower over the steep mountainside 3km up from the town of Amalfi, Italy, I shift my backpack forward, and a bubble of laughter escapes my lips. My friend and I just finished descending 300 steep steps to the hotel where we’d booked a room for the night, only to find it definitely, fully shut down. Now we have 300 steps back up to the roadside—and the nearly empty road—with our bags and no working phones.

“CIAO!” I yell, laughing fully this time.

Absolutely everything about this day has not gone according to plan—which has made it my favorite day so far on this two-week Italian trip.

Pastries in Sicily
Another cannolo? Why, yes, grazie! We were probably a combined 30 pounds heavier post-Sicily portion of the trip.

Lost and delayed

First, there was the Catania, Sicily, airport, where we couldn’t figure out how to leave our rental car. No attendants, no instructions. Just our flight time approaching rapidly. And again, no phone. (Note to self for next trip: Pay the extra $10 to turn on international service!)

Thankfully, a kind stranger passed by and pointed to a box where we should drop the car key, about five feet from where we stood. (He was also kind enough to not roll his eyes, raise an eyebrow, or make other totally warranted comments about dumb tourists.) We dropped the key, and then wandered the perimeter of the walled and wired parking lot, unable to locate the exit. Just as we were starting to ration out the remainder of the cannoli—it had been at least 12 hours since the last—a freezing blast of wind hurried us along.

Oh, did I mention it was below 32F? Ever since we’d visited Erice, a castle on the top of a mountain, we’d had fierce wind and cold—very un-Sicily like weather.

By the time our plane landed in Naples, we were a few hours behind schedule. The tourist information booth advised on a bus to Salerno, from where we would take another bus to Amalfi. But by the time the bus was 30 minutes late, we caught a horn-obsessed taxi to the Naples train station. Cars and people packed into chaotic, lively streets, and we were most certainly no longer in laid-back Sicily.

Delayed and freezing

We disembarked the train in Salerno and I couldn’t stop laughing—because not only was it sunny, it was somehow snowing, too. In southern Italy, where the averages are usually 45-55F in January.

As the wet, windy snow smacked us across the face, I asked a fruit vendor when and where the bus to Amalfi departed.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not running today because of the snow.”

Va bene,” I said. “All right.” Except it was definitely not.

Freezing and kinda screwed

We ducked into a café and I had my third espresso for the day. While divine inspiration continued to elude me, we loitered outside the café.

Three burly, bearded men approached us at the corner, cigarettes hanging from their lips.

“Are you lost?” the burliest one asked, in perfect English.

I smiled widely and sent up a “grazie!” because here was divine intervention in the flesh—the travel angel.

If you’ve traveled extensively, you know what I’m talking about—a stranger who helps you find your bus, or hotel, or a secret spot to eat with no motivation other than helping a foreigner who is clearly hopelessly lost and clueless.

Now just delayed again 

Over the next ten minutes, the trio found where we could buy tickets, when the next bus would arrive (not canceled after all!), and directed us to the exact bus spot, finding us again even after we thought (wrongly) we were on the right path.

The bus ride to Amalfi unwound like a dream—switchbacks tucked in tight U-shapes into the cliffside, the ocean a sheer drop to the left. The sun haloed clouds and outlined castles on outcrops. I overused “Wow.”

Amalfi coast views
Awe-inspiring and carsick-inducing views await along the Amalfi Coast road in Italy.

From the town of Amalfi, we caught a bus to our hotel-keeper meet-up point on a road 3km up the mountainside from the town. While no one was waiting as promised, we saw the sign for our hotel and remembered the 300-steps-down description. So down we went through the lemon and orange tree groves, tucked into narrow winding terraces.

Stairs in Amalfi
If anyone tries to tell you 300 steps aren’t that much, they are using an alternative fact.

Which is what we’re walking back up now. And why even though it’s getting dark and there seems to be absolutely no one else on this mountainside and we still have 200-some steps to go back up, the scenery is so lovely that I really don’t mind at all.

“CIAO!” I yell again, figuring if we can find a person with a phone, we can at least call the hotel keeper.

“HELLO!” I switch to English in the completely unrealistic chance anyone who is listening doesn’t realize I am not actually Italian and do, in fact, need assistance.

Unhelped but also fine minus a little huffing and puffing, we arrive back at the top of the stairs and start walking back down the road as the sun sets.

Amalfi view at sunset
Beautiful views make everything better, even after 600 steps up and down from an abandoned hotel.

Just as I’m ready to flag down a passing car, we spot a roadside market and ask to use their phone to call the hotel number. A man answers, and we work out a deal with him after explanations pass on both sides. He takes us back into Amalfi, from where we catch the 8th transport of the day to Praiano, just 6.3 miles west on the peninsula.

We hop off the bus and thankfully our hotel for the next night is open and has space, so we settle in. The hotel owner points us to the two open restaurant options, where I inhale the most amazing spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and red wine on our red-and-white checkered tablecloth, set across the room from a wood-burning pizza oven.

Outside the window, a stiff wind sways a tall tree’s neon-lit branches, and I find that I can’t stop smiling.

Nearly everything went wrong today, and yet, I’ve never felt so light.

Praiano in January
Lovely Praiano in the early morning January light, quiet and beautiful.

Finding Heaven and Home on the North Shore

Sunrise on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.

I left Minnesota at 17 and promised I would never, ever live there again. The winters are too cold (-4C/24F as a high should not be a thing). The land is too flat. Everyone thinks Fargo is a part of your state. Tornadoes.

But, oh, Minnesota summers.

Now, that’s another thing altogether. The air is clean and buzzes with cicadas. Oaks and maples and willows rustle in soft breezes and the 10,000 lakes come alive with laughter from beach-goers and bird songs. Fireflies create magic shows at dusk — little bursts of light as you walk through the woods. Thunderstorms rattle your windows and bones and you snuggle in tighter to watch the lightening and wait out the pounding rain.

mn-best-and-worst
Good and bad things about living in Minnesota.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I were looking for a quick ocean getaway location. But with a heat wave hitting everywhere along the East Coast, a radical idea popped into my head and out my mouth: “What if we went to the North Shore?”

The North Shore of what exactly, you ask?

A little slice of heaven on earth, in fact.

Specifically, this slice is along Lake Superior in Minnesota. (Ok, so technically, it’s only heaven on earth for a few months of the year unless you are a polar bear.)

The coastline of Lake Superior, Minnesota
Look! So beautiful! For at least three months every year!

The North Shore stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, through the border with Canada, and arches all the way to Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and third largest in volume. It is so big that almost half of Florida would fit inside its shores.

Actually, I am pretty sure it would be okay to lose Florida, so consider that a suggestion.

Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.
Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.

I’ve been back to Minnesota off and on over the years to visit family, but I hadn’t been back to take just relax and explore, so that’s what my friend and I decided to do.

From Minneapolis, we rented a car, skirted Lake Wobegon and a few Paul Bunyan and Babe statues, and arrived three hours later at a recommendation from my sister: New Scenic Café.

Just north of Duluth and across the street from the lake (“It’s big, but I can still see the other side,” my friend said, not yet impressed), New Scenic Café should be a required stop if you are in the area. Armed with a Duluth Bent Paddle beer, we started with honey-glazed figs, followed with an heirloom tomato and truffle oil sandwich and finished with a passionfruit panna cotta.

This was not the Minnesota fare I remembered.

mn-traditional-food
This is the Minnesota fare I remembered.

From there, we hugged the road that hugged the lake, and drove a bit farther to our home for a few days, a wood cabin right on the shore. To celebrate our arrival, we popped open a bottle of wine and parked in lounge chairs beneath a big oak along the water. For breakfast, the lodge offered us wild rice and cranberry pancakes and trout lightly fried with wild rice batter. Oh, and a hot plate of homemade cinnamon rolls for good measure.

Full and happy, my friend was at this point sufficiently impressed with the lake’s size. “Maybe we should swim,” he suggested.

“Maybe you should swim,” I suggested.

Instead, we hiked at Tettegouche State Park and stood in awe at the shoreline and waterfalls. More wild rice dishes for late lunch, local beer, and a bedtime of 6 p.m. Oh, yea, we were partying hard.

High Falls at Tettegouche State Park
50-foot High Falls at Tettegouche State Park is a few miles of easy hiking into the park.

The next day, we biked to Split Rock Lighthouse, which was built after 29 ships were destroyed or damaged in one violent November storm on the lake. Lake Superior has long treated ships like they were silly toys trespassing on her domain — since 1816, 240 ships have been destroyed or damaged in just one area of Lake Superior (affectionately known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes). Even in recent history, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 on the lake during a fierce November storm of hurricane-force winds and waves 35 feet high, swallowing the crew of 29.

mn-lighthouse-split-rock
Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

On our way back, we found a secret little rocky beach and napped in a hammock, determined to stay up until at least a non-senior citizen hour tonight. For dinner, we switched it up with a Minnesota-style pizza (very flat and not crisp) and local beer and a game of speed cornhole, which I totally won, which makes sense, since being good at cornhole is a requirement if you live in the Midwest at any point in your life.

Our last day, we commandeered a free canoe from the lodge and paddled out on the lake. I was completely calm and chill about the fact that I could see clearly 35 feet down in the water, a brown film covering the rocky bottom. It didn’t bother me at all that if I fell into the water I would be freezing in its average depths of 483 feet and most assuredly immediately gobbled up by a giant fish, who could see me easily through this clear water and was obviously trailing our canoe already just waiting for that to happen.

Nope, I was totally cool and collected.

Canoeing Lake Superior
I believe that is the tip of a lake shark along the rocks in the middle of the photo. It’s a real thing. Just ask any Minnesotan.

We (okay, fine, mostly my friend) paddled until we found a little river coming out from the mainland, and turned in, sure we were going to hit Gooseberry Falls, the most visited state park in Minnesota. Yellow flowers reflected in the still river, a murky brick red after the clear lake.

After a few turns, the sound of the waterfall louder and louder, we hit water too shallow to continue, so beached and walked up.

Gooseberry Falls MN
The official story is that we paddled over the Gooseberry Falls.

Returning back home to the city where I live now was harder than I expected, with its traffic and rush and what-do-you-do and who-do-you-knows.

“What if I just live on the North Shore?” I asked my friend.

“You’d starve in winter,” he said.

“But I’d totally have a greenhouse,” I said.

“Well, then maybe you’d be okay. But awfully cold.”

Now I’m beginning to wonder: Is it possible that that little Minnesota star has just been in hibernation inside me all these years? Flannel shirts and ice skating and snow angels and summers with fireflies and thunderstorms—I feel a longing tight in my chest. Maybe these do still feel like home, even after all the amazing places I’ve lived and traveled in the last 15 years.

Maybe they’ve always been home, even when I’ve sworn they weren’t.

It’s as if someone with a lutefisk is gently slapping my cheek, in a Minnesota-nice kind of way: Never say never. You betcha you’ll come back.

sunrise
Sunrise on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.

When your path diverges: 6 steps to making a decision

So you’re walking along your chosen path and everything is going well. The sun is out, a little warm breeze tickles your skin, and you turn the corner and BAM — in front of you is a completely unexpected choice. To move forward, you must choose.

I’m not talking about the “what should I do tonight” or “what do I wear today” or “should I go to this party” decisions.

I am talking about the major forks in life — “do I quit this job” or “do I stay with this relationship” or “do I move somewhere new” — in which you want to make a decision confidently, after thinking about it.

Decision: de·ci·sion \di-ˈsi-zhən\

1) a choice that you make about something after thinking about it : the result of deciding

2) the ability to make choices quickly and confidently

The hard thing about any major decision is that you will lose something big (and known) just as you gain something big (that’s a little or entirely unknown). You may have to say goodbye to people you love or to a job that gives you a big salary but little satisfaction.

This knowledge of potential losses is exactly why it’s easy to feel paralyzed and stuck and unable to make the decision. It’s a fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown.

But, Dear Reader, I suggest that we make the second half of 2016 the (Half) Year of No Fear. So, suit up in your superwoman/man spandex, and let’s go make this decision.

superwoman 2
If you wear this spandex as you make your decision, you will probably make it faster than you ever imagined.

First, make sure it’s an actual decision.

We have too many stressors in everyday life; let’s reserve time and energy for actual decisions that have real consequences. Don’t waste your mental energy on things that just need to get done but have no actual forks. Example A: Applying to job is barely a decision. You are likely to be one of many, many applicants in today’s market. Sure, it’s worth discussing with your partner if it is in another city, but it’s not worth sweating over at this point. Whether to accept a job you’ve been offered is an actual decision.

Make sure you know the difference and spend your energy accordingly: Will taking action A have a direct (no further “if, then” involved!) impact on me beyond time tomorrow or next week? Will taking action A have a direct impact on someone I love tomorrow or next week? Yes to either = actual decision.

confused
I’m begging you: don’t obsess over non-decisions!

Next, do something you’re scared of.

Sometimes we need a little boost of confidence to get past the decision-making-induced fear. Do something you’re scared of and you’ll remember, “oh, yea, I can do scary things!”

Just think of something you are scared of: snakes, spiders, water, Ronald McDonald. And the next time you see one of those things, give it a hug or stand still without screaming and inch closer or dip your big toe in. And look! You’ve survived. (If you did not give the snake a hug. I do not recommend that.)

jump fear
I am terrified of snakes and not-clear water. On a recent canoe trip, our armada came upon a platform with a rope swing. Then a water snake cruised by. I rolled my shoulders, held my breath, and jumped anyway. I shouted “GO AWAY SNAKES!” my whole swim back to shore. Then I did it again. 

Make sure to look at your decision process as a journey.

Especially if your decision is going to take awhile (which is okay!), settle in and take care of yourself. Along the way to your decision, things might get messy (as in, tears, drinks, more tears, more drinks), so make sure you’re ready to weather that walk.

Exercise often to get a boost of endorphins that give confidence and clear your mind. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Feel all the elated/sad/confused feelings that come up along the way, and recognize them as normal and okay. It’s okay for this journey to be messy. No one is asking for it to be pretty. It just needs to get done.

paths diverge
Your decision is a journey and eventually you’ll get to the point where the path splits and you’ve got to make a decision. Pack up everything you need for the hike to get there.

Ask for advice from friends/colleagues/loved ones.

You don’t have to take their advice, but chances are good they will give you empathy and love and support, which is exactly what you need to make big decisions.

Bonus: They might point out something you didn’t think of. For example, if you do leave your job and go get expanded experience elsewhere, a friend can point out that job could want you back later for a higher salary/position. Did you think of that?

grumpy
i made a meme contribution! so exciting!

Then consider putting a timeframe on making the decision.

If it’s a decision without a timeline attached, ask yourself how long it would feel okay to live in the limbo where you are now. Give yourself time to make a well-considered decision, but not so much time that you wallow and spin.

deadline
Find yourself an amazing alarm clock if need be. This one I found (ok, it’s a clock tower, not an alarm) is in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Finally, play out the two options in your mind.

See if you can live with each option for a full day, as if you have already chosen one path. How do each of the decisions feel in your body when you hold onto them, as if you have decided? I can nearly guarantee that one of them will cause you to stand up straighter and feel a little lighter. That’s a pretty darn good indication of a path forward that you will feel good about later, even if it’s hard.

And if all else fails, play this song over and over, singing with a fake mic, until you come to a decision via confidence or going crazy. Definitely do the fist pump thing:

Once you’ve made your decision (with or without Kelly Clarkson’s help), you will probably feel all bubbly and relieved—a huge weight has rolled off your shoulders and you can skip down the streets once more.

At this point:

  • Be graceful, especially if your decision means moving away or leaving someone behind. Be your absolute best self every day during this transition. Don’t say a single hurtful word.
  • Accept the negative consequences of the decision you made. A whole other future was likely lost. It’s okay to be sad about this. Be sad. Feel the feelings.
  • Own your decision. You made it, no one else. Now give what you chose all you’ve got.

Recently, I’ve made a lot of big decisions (over months and definitely with tears and wine): job life, love life, and location life. None have been easy but I got through the messy path and arrived at decisions. So here I am, back in the States, with a great job, and starting over in the other department.

I made it. You can, too.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, 1920

Season by Season: Fall in Love with Where You Are

Like a shy suitor, Padova, Italy, has revealed itself to me slowly over the last year and a half. Never quite sure where I would like to call home, this city has won me over, brick by brick, season by season.

After five years of feeling like I didn’t fit where I lived, this slow intertwining of myself with Padova is a gift.

I am falling in love with where I am.

Winter: Solstice and ghosts

I first visited Padova with my sister in the dead of winter 2014 — literally, on the shortest day of the year, winter solstice. Arriving here from sunny, brash Rome, we were cold, and it was dark and so medieval — close-in streets, cobblestones, almost dreary. I half-expected knights to round a corner with someone in chains, miserable and wet, in tow.

We met up with Dan, an Italian friend of mine from a lifetime ago in the jungle of Amazonian Ecuador, who kindly showed us Padova’s strange astrological clock in the main square and introduced us to the joys of a cocktail called “spritz.”

padovaclock
Designed in the 1400s, this clock is curiously missing one of its 12 astrological signs.

At night, we walked the city’s streets, quiet and nearly alone with the city’s university out of session for the holiday. The specola loomed out of the darkness, a 1,000-year-old tower with a complex history of torture, defense and even discovery — in the late 1700s, it was converted to an astronomical observatory.

We wandered to a lovely circular open garden, where a huge Christmas tree warmed the space with lights, and a few couples marveled. I imagined this is where the ghosts of the specola come to spend their time in the long cold nights.

pratodellavalle
I imagine ghosts glide across the bridges to Prato della Valle in Padova.

I imagined I could return here some day.

Fall: Every movie ever about Italy

The day after returning in September, I joined new friends at a neighbor’s vineyard near Padova to pick grapes (not grapefruit, as was originally explained to me, to my great confusion).

Here, I met Paolo, a 70-something-year-old who proceeded to create the most Italian experience I could possibly imagine in all my “Walk in the Cloud” dreams — but for real.

First, we sat in a stone building, the door thrown open wide to let the lovely early fall warmth circulate. Paolo began loading the table as he finished preparing dishes: risotto with fresh-grated cheese. Salami with bread. Homemade strawberry wine. Grappa — northern Italy’s grain alcohol of choice — white wine, coffee.

Paolo chatted on toward me as if I completely understood what he was saying (I had absolutely no idea) but I smiled wide anyway, happy to be in what felt like a real-life enactment of the vineyard scene in every movie set in Italy I’ve ever seen.

Only after we were good and decently liquored up were we given a pair of sharp scissors and sent into the vineyards. I snipped along, the majority of the grapes making it into the basket below but a fair number into my mouth — juicy, sweet and rich explosions on the tongue. The sun lowered in the sky as Paolo’s cat Mimi meowed along with us in the field.

DSC_0683[1]
Sweet mimi followed us to the fields for grape picking.
At the end of the row, we took a mildly-earned break for more wine (really, we were just starting to sober up) and salami and coffee. And heck, why not, one more shot of grappa.

Spring: Poetry and invention

Last weekend, I parked myself at café on a plaza next to a profusion of white blossoming trees. I ordered a café and chocolate croissant (in Italian, thank you very much!) that sticky-flaked on my fingers.

I thought about how this was the appropriate moment to use Italian’s newest word, petaloso, which means “full of petals,” and was added by blessing of the Italian Language Academy that makes such decisions just this February. A young boy wrote this word for a class paper, and instead of correcting him, his teacher submitted it to the Academy. They agreed.

DSC_0202[1]
A perfect example of “petaloso.” (Padovan friends, please don’t disown me for this!)
Now, my new Italian friends, with one exception, hate this word and love to talk about how ridiculous it is. I have since suggested other new words — biciloso (full of bikes) and vinoloso (full of wine) — with no success so far.

A man walks by, asking to another man, “Hai visto la luna? / Did you see the moon last night?”

I think: Yes, and I was struck (lunaloso).

Summer: Inside and known

I have yet to know Padova in the heat of summer, but this year, I should. I’m told it’s the kind of hot that presses you into the cool ground and saps all but the energy to create lazy daydreams at midday.

But may I please confess, Dear Reader, that I believe I have found Summer inside of me here in Padova already.

Take, for instance:

  1. Some weeks ago I wandered the streets at night with my boyfriend. We had a drink at a wine cellar, walked arm in arm, and he dipped me for a kiss, both of us laughing under a charming street lantern.
  2. People here regularly say “Mamma Mia!” in all earnestness — and I jump (just a little bit, enough to be kooky-cute but not crazy) every time I hear it.
  3. Paolo has sent a bottle of wine just for me via a friend.
IMG_0875
Reason No. 120: Stumbling upon festivals occurs with delightful frequency, like this one for Carnivale, from which we exited with lots of confetti in the hair.

I have to leave Padova for some weeks, so I will keep this light burning bright. I can’t wait to return in the heat of summer to know this city further.

Padova, until then — un bacio.

 

Four Reasons to Get Off the Couch and Go Travel

Inevitably in the life of a traveler, you are having a glass of wine with a friend, talking about where you’re headed next, and they will pop the question:

“But why do you need to travel?”

Or some variation thereof.

As if it’s a choice, I always think, followed immediately by — I am so incredibly lucky. Travel is an incredible privilege, and of course it’s a choice.

But I think once you cross a certain line — maybe it’s a number of days abroad or a surprise experience or your first foreign friend — it also becomes a part of who you are, and you can’t stop traveling any more than you can stop getting older.

San Juan de la Costa, Chile
I travel for stumbling upon beautiful moments like this, in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

When I’m the U.S., I can be in my city of residence for maybe one month before I start to itch to be somewhere else. At two months, my leg starts to twitch and I’m booking a flight, and by three months, I’m on a plane.

I remember once in the last five years being asked where I was going next, and responding, to my own surprise, “I have no trips planned.”

Which immediately set off a major internal panic attack and frantic Kayak search for flights.

IMG_0877
Entirely accurate self-portrait of how I get when I don’t have a flight on my calendar.

But the best way to answer this question of “why travel” is to recount one of the many, many amazing days exploring a new place.

#1: Travel for the taste and feel of a new place.

Last month in Chile, I spent a day in Bahia Mansa, this tiny fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, rugged cliffs and forested hills.  The one road into Bahia Mansa dead ends at the pier’s dusty parking lot, framed by wooden seafood stalls. At the entrance to the town is a sweet cove of a beach, where I sat in the sun, eating blueberries and cherries I bought from a family at the weekend-only market one town over.

Savoring the slight sweet-tart of the blueberries on my tongue, I watched a puppy wildly chase seagulls along the sand – only to wildly run away whenever the water broke a little too close to his paws.

Bahia Mansa Chile
I totally wanted to run after this puppy that was chasing gulls and then save him from the waves he was running away from.

#2: Travel for the lazy discovery of something new.

I had gone to Bahia Mansa with the plan to see penguins by boat, lured by a flyer left in my hostel. On the pier, a man came up to me with the same flyer, and I said I was in. Vamos!

But no, he explained, he needed a minimum of five people, and we were now just three. So, in about 30 minutes we would go, he said.

Having played this game before, I clarified: “Are we going in 30 minutes or when you get five people?”

He smiled. “Five people.”

So I settled into life on an active fishing pier, watching the bartering between fishermen and buyers. Two fishermen pulled up nets full of crabs. People approached, jumping back with squeals and laughter when the claws moved. Families came and went, heavy bags of fish in hand.

DSC_0504
This little guy was fascinated by the just-caught crabs.

After an hour, the penguin guide hurried to me with his thumbs up —good to go, we were now five. I hustled to the boat launch with three other tourists — and it’s clear we are still definitely not five.

The guide goes back to search for his missing No. 5. We keep waiting.

This person supposedly shows up, because the guide comes back and says, “Vamos!”

Only now he checks the boat and realizes we are missing our illustrious captain. The guide goes in search of El Capitano, and we can see the outcome at the end of the pie: He is found eating a leisurely lunch at one of the stalls.

We wait some more.

#3: Travel to meet wonderful people.

The day before coming to Bahia Mansa, I was two towns to the south on a beautiful but ginormous-fly-filled beach. I spent my quick 30 minutes there fending off attacks from kamikazing flies like a crazed person with a branch — imagine the sound of bees, but twice the size.

DSC_0443
I was not the only one battling the monster flies on this beach.

A kind family offered me a ride back to my beach town, so I took it to avoid another hour walking with these aggressive flies. (Which apparently only plague this town for three weeks in January, so avoid those few weeks if you can!)

I arrived at my hostel, and within seconds realized I had lost my phone. I was sure it had fallen out in this nice family’s car, and I was hopeful they would bring it back.

Now waiting in Bahia Mansa a day later, as I spied the penguin guide and our now-satiated captain coming back up the pier, a couple approached me, asking if I speak Spanish. Thinking they wanted to chat, I was slightly tripped up when they ask if I was at a beach yesterday and lost something.

Yes, I answered hesitantly, because this was not the people of the van who gave me a ride.

“Where were you yesterday? Were you batting flies with a branch?”

I laugh, happy my crazy performance made me recognizable as it clicks into place — this couple has found my phone!

They found it in the sand, they explained. They saw me get into the family’s car, they’d been waiting for me to call the phone to find it, and they even went to the police station to see if anyone had reported it missing.

They were so happy to find me, and me them. I exchanged big hugs with the woman, and we exclaimed over and over how amazing it was that we found each other (as the penguin guide was tapping his foot in the background, as if I had kept him waiting for hours).

We said goodbye, and I sent a big thank you to the universe for the incredible kindness of strangers.

#4: Travel for the thrill of adventure.

I have an awe- and terror-filled relationship with the ocean.

I love to be on the beach — at least 30 feet back from the waves.

I love the sound of waves crashing from my room window at night above the tsunami hazard line.

And I love the idea of body surfing, but there is no way in hell I am going in to try unless it’s crystal clear and there are at least 5 people around me creating a perimeter for sharks to bite first.

But penguins!

I will brave this shark-infested body of likely death and drowning for a look at penguins.

As we exited the harbor, I kept a white-knuckled grip on the bar under my boat’s seat as large swells rocked our tiny boat. We hugged the jagged rocks — a little too huggy for my comfort.

The guide asked the captain if we could make it through the rocks in the swells.

“I’m going to try,” the captain said. (Sometimes it’s better to not speak a language!)

By the time we got to the penguins, I was feeling quite green and had decided against my odds for making it to land safely if we were smashed against the cliffs.

DSC_0534
Do these penguins realize their adorableness will not save them from being shark stew?

With my eyes closed half the time and a forced breath at least twice every minute, we made it back to the pier. I wobbled back to the beach and collapsed to the sand, digging my feet and hands into its warmth.

The next day, the local news reported massive irregular swells along the Chilean coast of up to 5 meters (16 feet). We had been just ahead of the storm.

Bahia Mansa Chile
The view of Bahia Mansa from a path to a lighthouse in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

I finished the day in a hammock with a glass of wine. Seriously, traveling is the best.

Why do you travel?

When Your Choices are the Known and the Unknown, Choose Adventure

One of the many reasons I travel is for the heart-pounding moment of choice: Do I follow a known path or take the plunge into the unknown?

At home, I often follow a routine. The same route to and from work. The usual places for lunch. A standard grocery store. Knowing these places, and being known by others at these places, is what makes them home.

Abroad, that comfort and quality of being known is stripped away, and so the field of “known” is much narrower. You know where you get off the bus, and where your hotel is. That’s often it.

Abroad, I end up exploring further and pushing my limits, even in tiny ways.

IMG_0138
When traveling, I would totally ride into the sunset for parts unknown.

Case in point—in northern Chile last month, I set out in the morning from my hotel thinking “walk,” which nearly immediately turned to “bike.” The man at the rental store assured me a lovely little town awaited just 9km up the valley with only a “more or less” hard up-hill slope.

Sold, I looked at my half-full water bottle and thought, “this should be enough.”

Now this is a rookie mistake anywhere—why in the world would you not just take the two minutes to go back to your room and fill up the water bottle? I literally passed by my hotel again on the way out of town.

But this is impatient me, who can’t wait to explore a new place, even if it means just two more minutes.

Backtrack for water? No way! I’m 100% sure there will be shops along the way where I can stop if I need it. And there are some clouds in the sky—no problem!

So let me step back now and describe where I was when I made this brilliant decision.

Pisco Elqui is in the heart of the Elqui Valley in the middle-north of Chile, in the high desert foothills of the Andes.

The average temperature in January is around 74F at 1300M (4265ft), with a whopping .2mm of rain that month. In a year, Pisco typically gets only 107.5mm (4.2in) of rain.

This clear, arid climate makes for stunning star-gazing, so Elqui Valley is home to some of the world’s most important observatories.

It is a desert nearly empty of many types of vegetation, other than an occasional cactus and some low-lying bushes. The valley is framed tight in steep shades of tan and pink-rock slopes. Improbably green pisco vineyards cover the skinny valley floor, pressed for water the last few years as snow cover has declined by 60 percent and reservoirs depleted by 80 percent.

DSC_0946
The beautiful Elqui Valley, as seen from Pisco Elqui, where — you guessed it — Pisco vineyards abound.

The key word in all of this is, of course, desert.

I started my bike ride, which quickly turned into walking with my bike up the “more or less” hill (read: mountain.) Beautiful views framed every direction, and even though January is the height of tourist season, I felt completely alone in this beautiful place.

DSC_0965 (1)
Pisco Elqui gets about 4 inches of rain per year.

Of course, after some time of continuing to walk my bike, I started to get quite hot.

Those few clouds somehow decided it was time to move on.

And I had about two sips left in my water bottle.

With at least 5km left to my destination, I had a choice. I could:

A) Turn back. It was downhill, and a shorter, known distance back to the hotel.

B) Keep going and hope for the best.

A planner by nature, I went through the various scenarios within Option B.

I pictured myself passed out on the side of the road, lips cracked, barely able to breathe from lack of water.

I squinted at the cactuses on the side of the mountain, trying to decide if I had any idea how to get water from them (I didn’t).

I frowned at the valley floor, trying to decide if I could scale the loose-dirt slope to the river that had to be down there somewhere. Not that I could drink that water, but at least it would be cooler, and I could wait until dusk to walk back without passing out from heat.

ScenarioB_faintfromthirst
Totally likely Scenario B: I faint southern-belle-style from lack of water and some very kind but confused (next town only 5km away) strangers find me.

Shaking my head, I looked at the road ahead.

Yes, I decided, I can go on. 5km (I really need to learn the conversions!) can’t be more than a 30-45 minute walk, and with two sips of water, that’s totally doable.

Really, I thought, the chances of me passing out of thirst were probably 1 in 50, at best.

Fear, you are not winning today.

I am woman, and I roar.

Even when slightly thirsty.

My reward: a little convenience store with ice cream and water not 30 minutes away, and very pretty town.

And a super fun downhill (read: mountain) bike ride back to my hotel, where a pristine pool awaited.

IMG_0201
Pretty sure this was heaven on earth.