South American Shenanigans

Traveling solo is such a different experience than traveling with a group. I love both of them but one certainly allows for more alone time. Instead of blogging, I was getting to know my new friends and forming connections. Now, back home, I can relay some of the experiences from our journey. I hope you enjoy.

(March 3rd)

This trip would be memorable no matter what but it’s impossible not to comment on the fact that we are traveling internationally during a unique moment in time with the coronavirus. On the plane, I joined in with others wiping down their tray tables and seatbelts. The prevailing counsel was that surgical masks were not an effective means of preventing the virus but there were certainly plenty of people wearing them. Ironically, I spotted several people wearing masks but only covering their mouths, not their noses. Interesting strategy.

The first meet-up point along our journey was the Miami airport. From there, four of us headed to Montevideo, Uruguay. As I got on the flight I realized I was going to be seated behind a family with two small kids. Always a risky way to spend an international flight. Especially since the parents both were sporting face masks. However, the masks didn’t last very long so I figured I probably wasn’t in danger of virus spread. Instead, they did a different kind of spreading. Namely, taking over the entire bulkhead row — with an inflatable air mattress. For real.

The dad had a hand pump and filled the whole thing only to realize that the width of the bulkhead wouldn’t allow it to fit. You can imagine how the flight attendants reacted to this inventive but flawed plan. However, this display caused the guy to catch our eye and he received the moniker, “Buff Daddy.” In a small-world twist, days later we would see the family again. Had “BD” not made such a scene we probably never would have realized the Universe was once again putting us along each other’s path.

That evening we went to a bar hosting a karaoke competition. It consisted of tables singing together as a group against other tables. The microphones were hooked up to a game that assessed the accuracy of the group. We chose the apt name “Shenanigans” for our team. However, that’s not a word that is familiar in the Spanish language so it was pronounced “She-nan-NI-gans” which is really a much more fun way to say it. We were less than a day into the trip and were already developing our own codes and inside jokes. There’s no better indicator of good times ahead.

The next day the remainder of our crew joined us and we quickly got to the business of acquainting ourselves with one another and Montevideo. We meandered around town with a tour guide that explained how Uruguay was like the attractive woman constantly being fought over by Spain and Portugal and then Argentina and Brazil. That wasn’t his analogy but I think it’s pretty spot-on. We’d spend the next week admiring her beauty in Montevideo, Punta del Este, Jose Ignacio, Pueblo Eden, and Colonia del Sacramento.

There are some interesting dynamics at play on this trip with the six of us. Three are fluent Spanish speakers. Three are mothers. Three are married. Three are single. Two live on the West Coast. Two live on the East Coast. All have worked at advertising agencies. Two are pescatarian. One is vegetarian. One is Cuban, one is Brazilian, one is Uruguayan. The Americans hail originally from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri. Such an interesting crew.

As a person who loves language, I’ve been enjoying practicing my Spanish. I have also realized that my fluent friends were not as omnipotent as I assumed. I knew that accents were distinct and that Castilian Spanish words sometimes had different meanings but it was interesting to watch the fluent speakers ask each other what certain words meant. “We don’t have that in Cuba.” “That’s just something we say here.”

The most fascinating was learning that in Argentina and Uruguay, words with “l”s are pronounced differently. It will be difficult to express this in written form but I’ll do my best.

K-sa-dee-yah (In Mexico)
K-sa-di-zjah (In Uruguay)
K-tha-dee-yah (In Spain)
K-sa-dill-uh (In America, lol)

Ply-yah (In Mexico)
Pla-zjah (In Uruguay)

See? Isn’t that tremendously fascinating? I found such enjoyment of practicing my Spanish that at one point while translating statements on tiles at a tourist shop, the salesperson asked if we were part of a class and if my friend was my Spanish teacher. She wasn’t completely wrong.

After a few days in Montevideo, we were off to the ritzy beachside town of Punta del Este. Apparently, this paradise is home to global celebrities and is pretty hopping during high season. We were there during the second week of the off-season so our hotel was filled with a lawyer’s convention. Slightly less glitz and glamour but that’s okay because we had some sophistication awaiting us in the nearby village of Garzon.

(March 7)

Francis Mallmann is a world-renowned chef. You may know him from the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Uruguay episode or from Chef’s Table on Netflix. He is a master of grilling and for someone known to cook meat incredibly well, he also brings vegetable dishes to life in vibrant ways. As we were researching activities for the trip we knew we’d want to stop by his restaurant. What we didn’t realize was that our stay overlapped perfectly with the start of harvest at the associated winery, Bodega Garzon. We splurged for what became one of the absolute highlights of the trip. Many of the ladies even said it was one of the best experiences in their life. However, the evening had a pretty inauspicious start.

The event started at 6pm and we were already running late. Then we realized that we had miscalculated the distance and it was going to take us longer to get there than we thought. Packed sardine-style into our mini SUV we ventured out for the 75-minute drive. About halfway there the GPS turned us onto a dirt road. And then it got less and less maintained. At several points, we questioned if this pot-holed, winding, dirt road was really going to lead us to the 2019 New World Winery Winner. As they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn. About 5 kilometers before we eventually reached the glistening building there was literally grass growing between the ruts of the road (trail?) and we spotted a cow carcass decomposing. No joke.

But then, we got to Bodega. It was comforting to see a row of tour buses in the parking lot. Clearly, we had taken a different route than them! We were invited into the vineyards and allowed to help pick some of the grapes. Talk about Instagram photo opportunities. Next was a tour of the winery. Then, they told us to meet them in the town square for dinner. We were excited to see the real road that the buses had used. However, we instead were greeted with yet another dirt road. People here must have great tires.

Once we arrived in the town square a different greeting was awaiting us. Imagine the most stunning Pinterest-level outdoor wedding reception. Now triple it. There was a fountain filled with ice and bottles of wine. There were grapevines threaded through pergolas covering the family-style tables. Every chair had a deep burgundy throw blanket mirroring the color of Bodega Garzon’s award-winning Tannat wine. As we were wandering I noticed a few people taking photos with a man in a chef’s coat. Now, truth be told, I’ve never watched the Mallmann episode on Chef’s Table or Parts Unknown. But, when I know something in my gut, I know it. That had to be Francis Mallmann and so it was. We slyly followed him until the moment presented itself for me to ask if I could have a photo with him without interrupting his work. The connection was made and served us well when we later had the opportunity for a group photo.

Although my clothes and hair will never not smell like smoky campfire ever again and while I had to see lamb and cows pinned up on the “iron cross” — it was a once-in-a-lifteime experience.

You might wonder how one spends the day after an incredible outing like Garzon. Well, for us, we go riding horses at the beach. WHAT?!?!? Who am I?

(March 10)

Long-time readers may remember my previous visit to Uruguay. It only involved a single stop but it absolutely captured my heart. Colonia del Sacramento (CdS) is an incredibly charming small town (a UNESCO world heritage site) and was up next on our itinerary. However, there were 3 hours of road-tripping to make it happen. That turned into a 9-hour trip when you included the visit to Casapueblo, the Chocolateria in Pueblo Eden, the Lataia factory (that had closed for the off-season only a week prior), the wrong turns at various roundabouts, a police blockade in progress, and dinner with 3 enormous beer bottles and a mosquito-infested bathroom. The she-nan-NI-gans continue.

CdS was every bit as endearing as I remembered from my visit in February 2016. As we meandered I had several moments of introspection about how my life had changed in those four years and how the town had stayed the same. Even without looking at a map I found that I had muscle memory of where to turn to navigate the small town. One thing that had changed though was the number of restaurants advertising vegan and vegetarian options. When I saw the first one I remembered back to how difficult it had been to find veggie options in meat-centric Uruguay on my first visit. Then we passed another sign. And then another. I created a narrative in my head that after my previous visit the restauranteurs gathered and talked about the growing trend of Americans visiting the town looking for vegetarian options. The butterfly effect in full effect (in my head).

We drove back to Montevideo for our last night in Uruguay. The next day meant saying farewell to two of our companieros that were returning home. Four of us were to continue on to Buenos Aires via the ferry. There were tears but also excitement about the next chapter of our adventure. Patagonia has been high on my travel bucket list.

As we boarded the ferry we were handed white cloth items, I assumed they were masks. Nope, they were shoe booties. Everybody was handed them and wearing them but there was no obvious reason why. We went with the flow and put them on. While sitting on the boat (still docked before departing) I received an email from the US State Department — I had signed up for alerts in advance of the trip. The email essentially said that the Argentinian government was about to release a Presidential decree about coronavirus specifically for travelers arriving at the Buenos Aires airport from countries including the United States. Well, this could get interesting.

(March 11)

The ferry ride lasted about 2.5 hours and when we docked and departed there was no mention of the Presidential decree. I guess because we were arriving at a ferry port from Uruguay, we were in the clear. However, during the ride, we had learned of our own President’s decree — that all travel from Europe would be suspended. It wasn’t stated whether that included American citizens so we started researching online to see if there were any implications for us in South America. It was about 9:30pm at night and we planned on just heading straight to the hotel since we had a 7am flight to catch for Patagonia.

Before the trip, I was able to secure foreign currency for Uruguay and Chile from Bank of America. However, for some reason, they didn’t offer Argentinean currency. None of my girlfriends had withdrawn any either. Given our lack of local funds, we decided to take an Uber from the ferry port to the hotel. However, the wait time prompted us to ask a taxi driver if they would accept cards. Because they did we canceled our Uber and hopped in with a nice guy that immediately recognized my friend’s accent as Uruguayan. He was also from Uruguay and the two started chatting immediately. By the end of the ride he had shared his WhatsApp information should we want to have him give us a tour when we returned to Buenos Aires after our Patagonia adventures.

Upon checking in at the hotel we noticed a hastily printed sign that referenced what I’d read in the State Department email. Very casually the front-desk clerk said, “Oh yes, you know that you won’t be able to leave your room or come down for the breakfast buffet, yes?” It was so emotionless that I almost thought he was joking. We pushed for more details and they explained that the Argentine President had just announced that all travelers from COVID infected countries must self-quarantine for 14 days. We asked if this meant we weren’t allowed to even go across the street for dinner. He told us that in the original decree (which supposedly didn’t include the US) there was the threat of a 15-year prison sentence for any traveler breaking the quarantine. But he told us that the language had been changed so now it was self-imposed and that he wasn’t policing us.

I have watched and read my fair share of dystopian stories. For a while, I’d been melodramatically saying that the current climate (even before COVID) had parallels with the demise seen in Handmaid’s Tale and Atlas Shrugged. Now, here we were in a politically-unstable foreign country, with no local currency, with an unclear European travel ban into our country, and as recently as a couple hours ago a 15-year prison threat for us being outside our hotel room in Buenos Aires. Shiz just got real.

We decided to proceed with checking in. Room service was closed and we were all hungry (though frankly my appetite was pretty quickly disappearing) so we walked across the street to an empty Italian restaurant. The worker looked shocked to see us which made me feel even more unsettled. I asked if we could order food and take it to go if need be. He quickly recovered and motioned for us to sit down. As we looked over the menu the silent TV in the background was broadcasting a scroll: “URGENTE” with news updates including that Tom Hanks had the virus. As we waited for our meal and ate, we went around the table discussing each of our perspectives on the situation and weighing various pros and cons.

We felt we had four options: 1) Continue on to Patagonia and just see what happens. 2) Stay in Buenos Aires at this hotel until our flight departure on the 18th. 3) Return to Uruguay and ride things out with my friend’s family. 4) Cut bait and bail, going back to the US asap.

At different points in the conversation, each option seemed like the most likely path to pursue. But, as disappointing as it was to lose out on Patagonia we were mostly leaning toward the 4th option. We considered that while we might be able to get to Patagonia the tours might be canceled. Or, we might get stuck there for 14 days. Or, our access to US dollars might get cut off. Or, or, or…

We decided to head back to the hotel, see what flights would be available, and try calling the US embassy for any additional advice. We settled up our tab and walked across the street. It’s worth noting that the street was almost completely bare. It was so creepy. The valet attendant stared openly at us and I broke the intensity by warmly smiling and saying, “Hola.” He responded in kind. Then, I noticed a young woman walking our direction. She and I made eye contact and I watched as her aperture widened and she saw four Americans in front of her. I kid you not, she slowly pulled her t-shirt up over her nose. I jabbed my friend and said, “Holy crap, that woman is covering herself because of us!” she looked back and confirmed it was still happening. Yep. It was time to get the fudge out.

We got up to the room and started making calls to book new flights and cancel upcoming reservations. At one point we had hold music going on four different devices. Thankfully, we were all able to get on flights for the next evening. We finally went to sleep around 3am. The next morning, the sun was shining and we could see life continuing on from our balcony perch above the city. However, we weren’t allowed to attend the breakfast buffet so they delivered it to us. After several hours of the “Urgente” news broadcasts my friend said she needed to watch something else but every station was blasting the same content.

Thankfully, our Uruguayan friend from the previous evening was more than willing to pick us up and take us to the airport. There we saw many other Americans in the same situation. In waiting lines people would share their stories. “We were in Mendoza when the news came out.” “We were able to get flights back to the US but we had to separate onto two different planes.” While we were going through duty-free the checkout clerk said, “It’s good you decided to go home. I’ve been hearing that our President is going to shut down all travel with the US, tomorrow.” While that turned out to be only partially true — he banned US travel into the country so assumedly we would have still been able to get out, at the moment it validated our decision like cement.

I should playback my mental state during all of this. During the whole trip, I had been aware of COVID and had heightened my senses to how we were being perceived roaming through Uruguay. I had brought a spray hand sanitizer and was using it liberally. Although I didn’t want to contract the virus, I especially wanted to show the locals that we were being considerate. As my friend put it when I questioned the healthiness of people sharing microphones at the karaoke bar, “Josie, these people are all locals. They’re not traveling. WE are their threat.” That stuck with me when we would stop at small little towns in the country and I’d see the locals watching us out of their periphery. Throughout the week we had all been getting emails from our employers about working from home. Emails from companies about how they were adjusting policies. News alerts from Italy and China. Then, on the ferry, I got that email and I started getting nauseous. I chalked it up to motion sickness and took some ginger pills. But my hands were shaking, too. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain it had been a panic attack. See, I had just read a post on Facebook by a friend of mine whose parents happened to be part of the Princess Cruiselines evacuation. The experience they shared was horrible. It was at the forefront of my mind as I considered what might happen when we got off the ferry. At the hotel, I questioned whether we should even bring our bags upstairs or whether we should just immediately go to the airport. What if our checking into the hotel signaled our agreement to stay there for 14 days. (I mean it did, didn’t it?) What if when we walked across the street to the restaurant we would be stopped by armed police? What if we were stopped at the airport and quarantined there? What if we were stopped in Miami and quarantined there? Although I was checking my luggage I pulled out the necessary items for being stuck in isolation for 2 weeks. Suffice it to say, I was a wreck. But I’m not sure my friends knew it. Fear and anxiety snowball and I was doing my best to remain calm and breathe deeply, which I also wasn’t doing because, hello, COVID is a respiratory infection.

At no point was I worried about my own health of contracting the virus. I was primarily worried that if I caught it I might spread it to others whose immune systems couldn’t handle it or add to scale that would hinder the health system’s ability to manage it. I felt irresponsible for being on the trip in the first place. I felt irresponsible for leaving Argentina. I felt like a monster of bad decisions. But then, they let us off the boat, and they let us cross the street, and they let us eat, and they let us check out, and they let us ride to the airport, and they let us on the plane, and they let us in the country. Then, at home, I called our state COVID hotline and asked if I should self-quarantine. I was told that I posed no risk based on my situation and should simply practice healthy hygiene and employ social distancing but had no need to be in isolation. Huh. Maybe not a monster after all? I’m still not convinced but at least I was breathing more easily.

(March 14)

So now, I’m home. Thank God. The U.S. is in a national state of emergency. Yikes. It’s hard to believe that I was supposed to be on day two of hiking a glacier today. While I don’t need to self-quarantine I am appreciating my solitude to reflect back on this last week and soothe myself so I can be ready to support my family, friends, and community for whatever is ahead of us. These stories I’m sharing and the photos I’m posting have given me a reason to smile and that’s no small thing these days. I hope that they may spread a little joy to you, too.


Surfing in South America

I am a fairly seasoned traveler — I mean, I have my own travel blog so surely that’s some kind of street cred. But for some reason, with this upcoming trip, I have been really anxious (which is different from excitement or eagerness). For me it manifests as a feeling of trying to hold 15 over-filled water balloons that are covered in vaseline. Those suckers are slippery and at any moment one of them might pop causing all the others to blow, too.

Hi, I’m Josie. I have anxiety. But that certainly doesn’t stop me. (I am really sounding like a bad pharmaceutical commercial.) I am grateful for the various tools and techniques I can employ to help ground me and transform that anxious energy into more productive feelings. First, I call my mom. Then, I take deep belly-expanding breaths. I reflect on times I’ve been nervous before and how things worked out. Finally, I remind myself that the tickets are non-refundable and it’s time to get over myself. Voila! I am once again enthusiastically looking forward to this trip!

About 15 years ago in Miami I met a delightful new friend. Then, we had the good fortune of both living in San Francisco and continued our friendship. I cheered her (and her hubby, also a good friend, but this story focuses on her) as they moved to Paris with a brand new baby. Then, I was able to tag along for a leg of their European family road trip. Next, they moved to New York City. (I know, can they be any cooler?) Then, she went and became an entrepreneuer with a wildly successful crib sheet business. They now have two kiddos and my respect and admiration for her is immense. So why am I writing this Leslie Knope-esque ode to my friend? Well, she’s having a milestone birthday this year and she’s originally from Uruguay. Hence, why I am en route to Miami to meet up with six ladies to spend a week in Uruguay. Then, several of us are continuing on to Buenos Aires and Patagonia. Dang, I am lucky to have met that noble land mermaid. (That’s another Parks & Rec reference for those playing at home.)

Let’s quickly ride the roundabout back to my anxiety. I should be clear it has nothing to do with my friend or the soon-to-be-friends going on the trip. It also doesn’t have to do with the itinerary; I’ve been to these countries before and none of the activities are particularly hair-raising. You might think it’s related to coronavirus but the last time I was in South America was right when the Zika virus was reaching it’s fear-mongering apex. (Side note for long-time readers, remember the guy whose sign pointed to his friend and said “He has Zika. I don’t. Kiss me.”) Anyway, I am of reasonably good health (thankfully) and consider the long-term risk were I to contract covid19 to be pretty minimal. (Gosh, I really hope I don’t later look back on the naivete of this post and my arrogance.)

Suffice all of this to say that my anxiety doesn’t have much basis in logic. But, then, I don’t know if that would be considered anxiety. I’d probably instead call that common sense red flags. Anxiety (for me) is in the body not the mind. It is a nervous energy that buzzes just below the surface but close enough that it seems to constantly be threatening to breech. I share this because I suspect it may surprise some of you that I get anxious about travel. I believe it’s totally normal. However, as Jon Kabat Zin says, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.

And so, I’ve packed up my anxiety alongside my swimsuit and hiking boots and my hand sanitizer, and off to South America we go. (Please note, I will only be metaphorically surfing. I have ‘common sense red flag’ feelings about the ocean, namely I’m a poor swimmer and there are literally a lot of fish in the sea. Nope, no gracias.)


Meeting needs and touching hearts

If life has taught me anything, it’s that we are made better by others. For instance, that title is something I borrowed from a coworker that perfectly captured the essence of my most recent wanderings; a trip that focused on being the “other” that made someone else’s life better.

Back in summer I joined a new company, Veterans United. It’s an amazing place filled with even amazing-er people. They coordinate (and subsidize!) several service trip opportunities. Given my lack of affection for winter weather, I was excited to jump on the January Jamaica service trip train. Along with 26 coworkers, we journeyed together for a week of serving the rural community of Harmons, Jamaica.

I’d never been to Jamaica. Sort of. When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my Dad attended a work trip there so I suppose you could say I joined as a stowaway. But I believe their trip was full of pool time and glass-bottomed boats whereas mine involved hauling marl (small rocks) and taking two-minute ice-cold showers.

Won by One has been serving materially-poor Jamaicans for over 30 years. That experience shows in the relationships they have with those they serve and with the skill and efficiency they demonstrate in building houses, supporting students in school, and creating economic development opportunities. They create a space that allows volunteers to step into a really unique serving environment.

The town of Harmons is small. So small you can’t easily Google its population or find any relevant information on Wikipedia. Jamaica is divided into multiple civil parishes (think of them like US states or Canadian provinces) and the parish of Manchester (which includes Harmons) has an estimated 190,000 residents across 500 square miles. That’s a lot of land and not many people. So, what? So, if you’re a service organization you’re going to need to travel far and wide to serve the community. And, we did.

Getting to Harmons isn’t easy and the last part of the journey isn’t very comfortable, even in an air-conditioned bus. The pot holes created by bauxite mining trucks are no joke. And they’re on winding, mountainous roads that barely accommodate more than one vehicle yet cram two into the space. We arrived in Montego Bay during the first quarter of the Chiefs/Titans game. I’m a life-long Chiefs fan and Mahomes was predicted to lead us to a division championship and Superbowl appearance. We landed and were down by 10. Ugh. As our team of service trippers snaked through the customs line, I would share updates on the game. Finally, by the time we all got through customs and immigration, we found ourselves at an outside bar/shack watching the game and witnessing our boys take the lead. Along the 3-hour drive to Harmons, I continued to share updates from my phone and, as a bus, cheered when we learned we were headed to the Superbowl — for the first time in 50 years. What a memorable moment.

By the time we reached the Harmony House (where we’d be staying), it had been a long day. But, we had 30+ suitcases full of donations that needed to be unpacked and sorted. So we got to it. It was pretty cool to see items that my friends and family had donated from Missouri get put into piles there in Jamaica. We also turned in our phones, officially going off-the-grid until Friday. Electronic-free, we retired to our bunk rooms and slept hard until the 7am wake up call.

We were given a tour of the property, including the “Blessings Store” that sells donated items at minimal cost. Again it was fun to see the luggage my brother and sister-in-law had donated sitting in a small room in Harmons, waiting to be used by a grateful Jamaican. We walked around the town and were greeted with warm, genuine smiles. We were taught the customary Jamaican greeting: “Wa gwan?” that sounds like a super-relaxed and lilting, “What’s going on?” We saw the library that Sunny had built for the community, complete with video games. It has two walls and the supports are made of wood. Yes, wood. Wood-wood. Tree-limbs-wood. It may not be a first-world library but imagine the world those books open to its visitors. Pretty cool. Next, we had our serving opportunities and I was assigned to the marl haul.

Marl is basically small rocks that get used during construction in a multitude of ways. We created an assembly line to pass bags of marl from the hillside where it was chipped from a rock to the entrance of a railcar that housed lumber for the newest economic venture, a saw mill. We were using the marl to build a ramp so they could use wheeled vehicles to move the lumber rather than physically stepping up and down into the box car. It was hard, physical labor but it was also gratifying to see the ramp grow with each deposited bag of marl. It was also delightful to connect with the foreman, Gangha. He sang songs and made jokes, making the time pass quickly.

That evening, still phone-free, we played dominoes (a Jamaican favorite) and cards. Although we were the only service group present, the board of Won by One was also staying at the Harmony House that week. One of the board members brought her mother who introduced herself and asked that we all call her, “Nana” and treat her like an adoptive grandma. We did, and how. Nana is an absolute hoot and a spit-fire. She loves playing cards and had brought along her own deck of “Five Crowns” which we played until late in the evening. I’m happy to share that I won handsomely that first night and was smart enough to quit while I was ahead and not stay up until 2 and 3am the subsequent evenings.

The next day was a full day of service assignments and I was sent to help with the foundation of a new house. We met Rose and her daughter — they were joyous about the prospect of having their very own home and welcomed us into their family. First, we arranged large rocks into a rough rectangle. Next, they put up wooden boards that would act as the casing for the concrete. There was quite a bit of adjustment until the boards were finally square and leveled strings were positioned. The boards were anchored into place with tree limbs. I didn’t ask but I assume that 2x4s are a valuable commodity and not to be wasted on something so temporary.

Waiting for the experts to square and level provided an opportunity to get to know Rose. Her friend Susan was also there, along with her son. Throughout the day other friends and family would also walk down the street and watch the progress of Rose’s foundation. The kids were extremely shy but equally interested. We had been coached that there was something we were there to do that was more important than building houses and that was building relationships. So, I put on my most disarming smile and started talking with the kids. Side note: I am so grateful to my 14 nieces and nephews for equipping me to do this with some degree of ease. We fell into comfortable conversation about the best Jamaican fruits, how we each spell our names, our favorite types of candies, and eventually played some pretty awesome hand-clapping games. “Double-this, Double-that, Double-double, this, that.”

Far and away, befriending Rose’s daughter was the highlight of my trip. I was so excited that I got to see her again on my second day of service. However, it’s also unfortunate. School is free to attend and so it would have been better for her to be there than at the house. But, with no local buses and schools being several miles away, transportation is expensive. Additionally, specific uniforms are required and she doesn’t have the approved shoes to wear. So, instead of being at school, she was with us on the work site. Building on the relationship we started, I asked if she wanted to practice reading. She said yes, so I started having her read different words — from my water bottle, the cement packaging, and wherever else we could find. The previous day, Susan’s son had shown me some Jamaican currency. He had wanted to see American currency so this day I had brought some. We played with the coins, even hiding them in the marl sieve to be ‘discovered’ and counted. A coworker later told me that I was a natural teacher and that it was a joy to see me with the kids. I say again, for me, it was the absolute best part of a really amazing trip.

In addition to the house-building service opportunities, we also visited an orphanage and an infirmary. The former consisted of pouring love out by playing soccer and reading to kiddos that had either lost their parents or had been given up for any myriad of reasons. The latter involved pouring love out by reading psalms and rubbing lotion on the hands of individuals with physical or mental challenges living in a government-run home. In both places, it would have been easy for the residents to choose despair and yet, many were smiling. Their reaction to our presence was emotionally overwhelming. I spent a good portion of my time at the infirmary sitting alongside a woman lying on the porch whose only control of her limbs included tapping her hands and feet. I sang songs and she tapped, I stopped singing and she stopped tapping. And so, I just kept singing songs and she kept smiling and tapping. My heart was broken wide open and just like the Grinch, it grew three sizes that day.

Part of building community is interacting with people in informal ways. During the week we had three different gatherings with the locals of Harmons that involved games, talking, and lots of dancing. While the leaders of Won by One are American, the majority of the staff are Jamaicans and they would bring their families and friends to the festivities. I got to meet Gangha’s daughter, I got to eat ice cream alongside Sunny, I got to do the Electric Slide with Nana. And so many others that I haven’t introduced to you in this blog post. Rose and Susan weren’t able to attend because of the distance they’d have to travel.

Although this was clearly a terrific trip that I enjoyed immensely, you may have noticed something I haven’t mentioned. It’s pretty expected that I’m going to talk about food and drink in almost every Wander with Josie post. Let me tell you, I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rice and peas — which actually aren’t peas at all but rather kidney beans. But, when you’re on a service trip surrounded by folks that don’t know where their next meal will come from, you don’t find any reason to complain. We did have one free day in Montego Bay and I was looking forward to a Red Stripe on the beach. However, we were informed that we were still representing the Won by One team and given the mixed feelings about alcohol among Jamaicans (many point at rum bars for the decline in their communities) we were asked to abstain. So, for lunch, I ordered a virgin piña colada. Honestly, I didn’t even miss the alcohol.

Jamaica marks the 29th country I’ve been privileged to visit (and probably the 1st in which I didn’t consume a drop of booze) but even more notable, it’s home to my newest friends and is a place I plan to return again and again.

Note: Since I wasn’t able to use my phone to take many pictures I’ve included some of the photos the Won by One team captured and if the pic is any good the credit likely goes to them. Also, if you’d like to sponsor a student’s transportation and uniform costs, you can do so here: https://www.wonbyonetojamaica.com/eligible-students/ Or, if you’d like to make a general donation, visit: https://www.wonbyonetojamaica.com/donate/


I love a good wine valley.

I don’t mean to sound bougie, but the fact is I have been to several wine regions throughout the world. However, the Douro Valley might be my favorite. The rolling hills with terraced vineyards follow the curvature of the Douro River. It creates an effect almost like a verdant Norwegian fjord. Okay, I’ll cut myself off. I’m sounding snooty even to myself. I’m just saying, it’s pretty.

Airbnb is my go-to site for lodging but they’ve also started offering ‘experiences’ as an additional service. You can sign up for various activities like walking tours or cooking classes. Since Carolyn and I hadn’t done much in the way of research for Porto, we turned to Airbnb and booked a Douro Valley wine excursion. There were several on offer but this one included a boat ride and listed they could accommodate special diets: vegetarian (me) and gluten-free (Carolyn). Sold!

The evening before our tour, we received an email with information on how to find our small group in the morning. It also mentioned that the weather forecast was calling for “very cold” temperatures which could be “even lower” on the boat ride. They encouraged us to bring a warm coat and layers — which we didn’t have. I immediately took to my weather app, because I was shocked the forecast could have changed so dramatically, so quickly. But, no. It was still supposed to be 67 degrees. These Portuguese folks wouldn’t make it in Michigan.

Our tour guides were charming young men. Jose (pronounced Joe-say which sounds a lot like “Josie” to my ears) had been an apprentice and this was his first time ‘leading’ the tour. Bruno co-founded the company so joined Jose for support. This made the tourist to tour guide ratio almost 3:1, which was perfect. Our group consisted of two Canadian women, a couple from York (England), and a student from Washington DC studying abroad in Barcelona.

We all quickly bonded over our shared appreciation of wine. As we drove out of Porto and deep into the Douro Valley, Jose shared facts and historical tidbits. I did not retain any of them, yet, was captivated by his story of visiting New York. He had been working on a cruise ship and it was docked in NYC for three hours. He hailed a taxi and spent $200 driving through the streets, seeing the city, and eating at a McDonald’s. The thing he thought was most exciting was to see a “yellow bus with kids, like in the movies.” I furrowed my brow and then realized he meant a yellow school bus. Something most Americans likely take for granted but must be distinctly American. Huh. I guess it takes traveling thousands of miles away to learn about your own backyard.

The Douro Valley views were spectacular. I brought my selfie stick along, and although Carolyn scoffed at first, I think she came to appreciate the wider angle we were able to achieve for our photos together. At least I did, and it’s my blog, so I’m sharing my perspective. The tour guides brought along some local pastel de nata and handed them out at the first lookout point. (You might remember me talking about these delicious treats in Lisbon.)

Finally, we made it to our first winery, Quinta da Foz. Their guide was brusque but endearing. He had a speech habit of saying, “It’s like this…” For example, “It’s like this, we have people stomp the grapes but they must do it in a synchronized, rhythmic way or it’s all wrong.” “It’s like this, there are many variations and distinctions of Port wine, but you will never be able to learn them all, today.” I may adopt the line. “It’s like this, by saying this phrase I’m indicating I am very intelligent and you need a bit of an explanation to better understand what I’m saying, but I wish to sugarcoat the fact that your knowledge is inferior.” The wine was delicious, so Carolyn and I both purchased bottles. Never mind the fact we were flying the following day to Morocco for a week and then back to the United States. Hello, fragile souvenirs.

Next up was the boat tour. We saw another bridge built in the style of the Eiffel Tower and more European names on Port warehouses. We also learned that the vineyards plant olive trees along the edge of the water as a means of protection for the grapevines. If a disease or bug invades the area, they will travel by water and start attacking the olive trees, first. Smart. Plus, who doesn’t love olive trees? On the boat, we enjoyed more wine and a spread of meats, cheeses, and fruit. I had happened to sit near the front of the boat (aft? stern?) so was able to enjoy maximum sunshine. I swear I wasn’t trying to do a photoshoot but it sort of turned into one. You’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

After wines at the vineyard and wine on the boat, it was time for wine at an olive oil farm. This one also came with a veritable feast from the owner, Fatima. She was part of the ninth generation to carry on the family’s tradition in the same home. Check out my picture of the ornate family tree. Carolyn and I had our fill of gluten-free and vegetarian treats, along with more wine. We toured the warehouse facilities and I was enamored with the Laverne and Shirley-type operation amidst the backdrop of a gorgeous, rolling-hills landscape. I can see why nine generations would choose to call this spot home.

Needless to say, it was a sleepy ride home after all of our wine tastings. We got back to the apartment and decided to put on our PJs and order-in food. I pulled up my food delivery app (let’s be honest, apps) and found a Thai place that looked good. It was a 70-minute wait but that sounded better than putting on real clothes. I kept my phone in front of me to watch the progress while Carolyn and I gabbed about all sorts of random topics. “Oh! The driver is picking up our order! Should be here in 10 minutes! Yay!” led to 20 minutes later, “Hey! They just canceled our order!” I guess because my phone number was not local, when the driver arrived, he was unable to call me. I hadn’t received an alert in my app that the driver had arrived, which is precisely what I told the customer service rep. She refunded the order and re-submitted the order to the same restaurant. I can just imagine the cook being like, “Uhhh, didn’t I just make this same gluten-free, vegetarian order?” Regardless of what the cook must have thought, it was sent out to us, and this time I was at the door waiting when our food arrived, almost 3 hours after first placing the order. But, they say good things come to those who wait, and it’s true. Our food tasted more delicious because of the fact we were in our PJs and sipping the last bit of our complimentary Port from our Airbnb host.

As we settled into bed for the night we mused about what fun we’d had in Porto and the Douro Valley. Carolyn, an equally type-A planner, gave me the best compliment I could have asked for, “Hey, Josie. Thanks for organizing the wine trip today. That was really great.” Ah, to be appreciated for doing what you love.

Sweet dreams, Portugal. Tomorrow, Morocco.


Strolling through Porto

The solo part of this journey is coming to a close as I meet up with Carolyn in Porto. I hesitate to say “she’s joining me,” because I am actually crashing the trip she planned to Morocco. Almost six months ago, she told me about a yoga retreat happening in Marrakesh. I booked my reservation the next day. Portugal is directly north of Morocco, which is part of the reason I’ve been gallivanting about the country most of February.

As I drove to Porto from Fatima, Carolyn arrived from her connection at London Heathrow. We met up at our super cute Airbnb in the heart of the city. I was greeted by twice the number of steps as my Lisbon thigh-burner apartment, but at least they were wooden (not stone) and uniform. The effort was worth it; sitting in the cute little floral chair with a knit, white pillow and looking out onto the very first street of Porto. It was like a scene out of a movie with the lit street lamp out the window, a view to the alley-shrine with six actively glowing candles, ancient window boxes with flowers that likely bloom year-round, the sheen of recently-wet cobblestones, the pealing of a church bell in the distance, and the clack-clack-clack of travelers en route to their next destination. Cracks of sunshine peek onto the narrow street through the overlapping tiles of the roofs. This place is the definition of charming. Oh, and freshly baked croissants are delivered to our door each morning.

We didn’t do much in the way of preparation or planning for Porto. However, there was one tourist site we were eager to visit: Livraria Lello. It is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal and, according to Lonely Planet, the third best bookstore in the world. When J.K. Rowling was teaching English in Porto, she often visited the bookstore and it’s easy to see how it may have inspired some of the Hogwarts environment.

Normally, I am all about people doing what they need to do to get a cute tourist pic. However, in this bookstore, there was only one way up, which happened to also be the one way down — along the grand, ornate staircase. People would stop to take a photo halting traffic both upwards and downwards. I could maybe be okay with that if it were just a quick snap but they’d have their “Instagram boyfriend” snap four or five pictures, only to have the next person on the staircase repeat the same behavior. Finally, American-Josie came out and I pushed through, past the tourists who were horrified that I was ruining their photoshoot… on a staircase. Harumph. Pro tip: take a cute photo with the staircase in the background and stop no traffic.

On the hilly streets of Porto, we observed entertainers of all varieties, including a man painted head to toe in bronze paint sitting amidst cobblers’ tools at a workbench. It was one of the first times a ‘statue person’ actually made me do a double-take. I didn’t snap a photo because I covet my Euro coins. Later, we walked by a church with a man carved into the wall. As I contemplated which saint he was meant to represent, I momentarily questioned if maybe he was also a street performer statue. But, I guess it would be hard to collect tips up there.

Carolyn is a fan of bubbles, in the sense of sparkling wine. So, we found a balcony restaurant and enjoyed a bottle as we watched life on the Douro River roll by. English names spot the hill on the opposite side. The Brits were responsible for the trade of port wine and still maintain warehouses there. We’d be doing our own port winding on the river, soon. But that’s another day and a different blog post.

We continued our wandering and happened upon a craft fair. I intentionally didn’t pack any rings for the trip but had found myself subconsciously aware of their absence. The first booth had interesting geometric rings. I really liked them and one stood out. Normally, I would look at the rings for 10 minutes then compare with each subsequent stand’s offerings. Not today. I picked up the one I liked, inquired about the price, put it on my right hand ring finger and pulled out my credit card. Carolyn has known me for over two decades and has never seen me make a decision so quickly and confidently. I’ve known me for 38 years and haven’t either. They say travel helps you to know yourself, I guess that must be it?

We finished off our Porto evening with a decadent dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant adjacent to our quaint apartment. Not a shabby way to spend a day.


Finding myself in Fatima

The ride to Fatima was a pleasant one and without issue. I’ve become a pro at the Lisbon bus depot — even considering that one time, when I had to use my international phone minutes to call my taxi driver, only to learn that the ‘pick up’ spot was about 20 feet away from me but around a corner, so I was walking around blindly saying, “I’m here.” and him saying, “No, you’re not.” But, that, was a different day and a different journey.

The small town of Fatima is likely not on the bucket list of many non-religious travelers. However, as a Catholic, I was looking forward to visiting a place where the Virgin Mary had appeared. Back in 1917, she made six apparitions to three children, encouraging them to pray the rosary daily to obtain peace and end the Great War.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Years ago — decades actually, I had visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I remember it as a bustling place filled with pilgrim tourists. It’s located in the northern part of Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis. Fatima, in contrast, is a rural town with a population of about 12,000. As the bus approached the Fatima station, we passed dozens of shopfronts selling religious artifacts. As I de-boarded and walked to my hotel, I passed 20 more religious shops. Clearly, this town had one main export.

My great-aunt had visited Fatima in the 70s. As a souvenir for my father, she gave him a guidebook and rosary. When my dad learned that I would be going to Fatima, he found the guidebook and a retro tour badge with my aunt’s name. Once in Fatima, myself, I looked around the town through my aunt’s eyes from the 70s wondering what her experience had been and how things had changed.

The area around the shrine is immense. A traditional basilica sits on one end of a large, paved square. On the other end is a modern basilica. Both are enormous in scale. Near the modern basilica is an artistic statue of the crucifixion, bold in its starkness. By the old basilica is the actual shrine, a structure the size of a small church. It’s partially open like a street cafe with wide-open windows. (I assume the reason for this is to allow visitors to spill into the square while keeping the pews and altar protected.)

I meandered past the shrine and into the antique basilica. I’ve had plenty on my mind, even while trying to be a carefree wanderer. I sat on the steps outside the church and looked out at the enormity of the square. How many others had sat in this same spot, or stood out in the crowd looking up at this church, with heavy hearts, tired minds, and spent souls? I prayed a bit and wanted to take a photo so I could remember the moment in the future. Upon framing my selfie, I saw someone looking over my shoulder. Two someones. Actually, two somethings. Large angel statues were above me and I suddenly felt at peace. I once had a palm reader (yeah, I’m not your typical Catholic) tell me that I was special because most people have one guardian angel but I have two. I wonder if the palm reader had envisioned me there on the steps of the Fatima basilica with my two gargantuan guardian angels overhead. I smiled contentedly to myself and carried on with my exploration.

Services are held throughout the day at the old basilica, the new basilica, and the shrine. I wanted to soak up as many of those experiences as possible so I attended Portuguese Mass in the basement of the new basilica. If you squint your eyes you’d have thought you were in any church basement anywhere in the world. But the congregation was different. So many nuns, sisters, priests, brothers, and other committed religious folks. Tourists from many different countries and a number of individuals with visible ailments plus many more of us with hidden scars. Although I don’t speak Portuguese, and couldn’t follow the exact prayers or sermon, the effect of so many gathered together in prayer made me teary-eyed. I looked around and noticed everyone else had similar furrowed brows and faces fixated on some agony in their life. We were all praying so hard. Suddenly, I thought, “Y’all, we gotta smile. God has got this. Our Mother is here and she hears us. We good.” I left mass feeling spiritually refreshed.

Alongside the shrine is an area for velas — candles. People dedicate the candles in memory of answered prayers, as the representation of requested aid, or for any other reason. The candles come in a wide variety of sizes. I saw one woman with a 5-foot-tall candle and another with a squatty votive candle. I gathered my loose change of small euros and bought a random collection of candles that my coins afforded. I keep a prayer list on my phone so opened it up and reflected on each person while my candles blazed. Afterward, I took about 15 photos of the candle area. The candles melt all over each other like puppies huddled in sleep. However, my phone chose to delete most of them without my authorization. Harumph. But, I suspect God didn’t need the photos to hear my prayers. And, it did keep the most impressive photo of a large flame blasting up from the gas pipes, below.

While I’ve had a fair amount of luck finding vegetarian food in Portugal, Fatima was to be a different story. Everything on Google Maps was seafood. Every. Thing. I expanded my search radius and finally found a pizza restaurant. It was a bit of a walk but given my recent multi-mile adventures, I figured I was up to the task. What I hadn’t considered was that it would be a long walk along small-town neighborhood roads. I finally reached my destination around 6pm. I slowed as I approached and saw empty seats through the windows. I wondered if it was actually open when I remembered most locals don’t eat until at least 7:30 or 8pm. A woman noticed me at the door and welcomed me in for a terrifically delicious dinner including complimentary olives and integral (wheat) bread plus cheese spread, sardine pate, and salted butter. Yes, I skipped the sardines. The mixed salad was actually mixed greens and not just mixed sizes of wilted iceberg lettuce, and the dressing was tasty. The wine was good and plentiful — $5 for a half bottle! And then, the pizza was downright delectable.

Night had fallen and I attempted to order a taxi to take me back to the shrine for the evening rosary service. However, in small Fatima, no taxis were available on my app, TaxiVuelo. I decided it would take a really bad person to kidnap someone in such a holy city, so headed back on foot and made it without incident.

Seeing the basilicas and shrine at night was like seeing them for the first time. They were marvelous and their scale seemed somehow magnified by the moonlight. I wandered a bit before finding my place in the inside-outside shrine. The evening service I was attending is called the “International Rosary” which I assumed meant it would either be said in Latin or English. It turned out to be both, along with other languages. The Rosary consists of five sets of ten Hail Mary prayers. At the conclusion of each set, two other prayers are said. The International Rosary meant that each of these set points was an opportunity for a pilgrim from a different country to use their native tongue. For instance, a German tourist said one of the transitions, and then a French tourist. It was a culturally cool experience but left me wanting, spiritually. I decided to be spunky and do prayer ‘my way,’ excused myself from the shrine, stepped out to the paved path where folks approach the old basilica on their knees, and popped in my earbuds to pray the English Rosary. It was the spiritual equivalent of a warm, cozy blanket.

I slept well that night and had planned to ‘take in’ another Mass and Rosary service in the morning. But, after the previous evening’s experience, I decided to walk the Path of the Portiquenos, instead. It’s on the outskirts of town, in other words, a 15-minute walk away, and is where several of the Fatima apparitions occurred. There’s a paved path among olive trees with Stations of the Cross along the way. Traditionally, there are 14 stations that chronicle the day of Jesus’ death. However, here in Fatima, there is a 15th station that recognizes the resurrection of Jesus. Just a little Catholic trivia nugget. You’re welcome.

Again, I certainly wouldn’t expect a non-religious person to find Fatima all that thrilling. But, for me, it was a special place, indeed. It’s also the last of my solo journeys on this particular trip. Up next? Carolyn in Porto!


Enjoying the February sun in Cascasis

Whenever I travel during the winter months, I have one underlying goal: warmth. This trip has had a couple of sunny days but the temperature has yet to break the 70-degree-happy-Josie mark. Until, Cascais. It was 73 when I arrived. Y-E-S!

I checked in at my hotel, which is always fun to do after several weeks of Airbnb stays. The charming, young lobby attendant asked me where I was from, and, upon telling him, asked me to share some Missouri slang. The best I could offer up was “y’all” and “howdy.” He feigned appreciation but I felt like I’d let him down. He told me, “My name is Alfons, but that can be hard for Westerners to say, so you can call me Alfonso.” He also said he’d lived all his life in Cascais. I interrupted him so as to have him repeat the pronunciation: Cash-kay-ees. I had been giving it a far more French flair.

As a vegetarian, Portugal has seen me eating a lot of Italian, Indian, and Thai food. However, one of the top-rated restaurants in Cascais is, in fact, vegetarian! World of Wonder was a labyrinth. I believe I counted six distinct seating areas including three separate dining spaces (meaning separate buildings, not just rooms), a patio (across the street from the main dining area), and a rooftop. I figured the roof would have the most bountiful sunshine and I was right. However, it also had an aviary’s worth of birds.

For the most part, as soon as a table would leave, the restaurant staff would magically appear and remove their plates. Occasionally, a scrap of pita would fall and several pigeons would convene. However, at one point, a pigeon was able to knock over an entire basket of bread after the diners departed. It was pigeon mayhem for several minutes until the ‘big gun’ seagulls started barking and swooped in for their share. At that point, the waiter came out flapping at the birds. But, because it’s a vegetarian restaurant and you have to assume they’re ethical, animal-lovers, the shooing was done in a rather equanimous manner. I enjoyed the show from behind my half-pitcher of sangria and under my sun hat.

My hotel was 50-feet from a beach and given the sunshine, I borrowed a beach towel and headed for the water. The beaches are plentiful in Cascais and the one I chose was a small cove which made the waves slightly less aggressive than their counterparts on view in the distance. However, occasionally, a large wave would drift ashore and soak those sunning too close to the water. I watched more than one group swiftly grab their things as water fought to catch them. There was a large rock in the middle of the beach and several folks had to take their soaking items and lay them out on the rock to dry. It was, yet another, fun dance to watch — especially while donning my swimsuit in the middle of February.

The next day, I headed off in the direction of the crashing waves alongside the train track. They were spectacular. There was a terraced observation point that jutted out into the water. The United States would definitely have regulated against the structure but it was thrilling to sit above the water with no barrier. At one point, an older couple struck up a conversation with me and mentioned the waves were even bigger “down at the lighthouse.” I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where they meant. (See what I did there? Lighthouse? Fog?)

I searched for the lighthouse on Google Maps and found it was walkable, so I went. Similar to Lagos, what I found was a clifftop perch staring out into vast ocean views. I took advantage of my selfie stick and snagged some pretty awesome pictures while also spending plenty of time just sitting and experiencing. It sealed the deal, Cascais was even more lovely than Lagos. No small feat.

Cascais is a small community, and as I spent my three nights there, I enjoyed spotting people I “knew.” Like, the waiter from the previous day’s dinner, walking to work in the morning. The hotel offered free breakfast across the street at a small yogurt shop and I started recognizing the other guests staying in the hotel. Breakfast was also the time when the evening lobby attendant, Maria would swap out with the daytime lobby attendant, Alfons. Both were friendly with me, and on my last day, when I came down late and no eggs were left, Maria went into the back and had a fresh batch made, just for me. I still hadn’t come up with any more Missouri slang to share with Alfons but he was impressed that I was able to call him Alfons and not Alfonso. Seriously, who are these English speakers he’s been meeting?

I headed back to the train station without consulting a timetable and was happy to see a train was due to depart in ten minutes. Up next would be a transfer to the bus station in Lisbon to drive to Fatima, Portugal. I popped in my headphones and listened to the rosary while the train took me away from Cascais and the waves pounded their farewell out the window.