top ten

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: #1 Home

A little while back I wrote a series on the top ten places I’ve visited around the world, and I just realized I never post the last one. Coming home from Morocco reminded me of how much I love our little home in Astoria, Queens. No matter how amazing the adventure is, no matter how transformative the experience, I’m always struck by how much I love to come back home. I seriously get giddy when I’m in line for Immigration.

When Mike and I were looking for a new apartment (2.5 years ago) I was really pushing for Brooklyn. However, even the smallest apartments on the very border of the “cool” spots were still over $1,500 a month. Mike kept mentioning Queens and I said, “over my dead body.”

I finally gave in and looked at a few apartments in Astoria. Now we have an enormous apartment (by NYC standards), our rent is cheap (by NYC standards) and I fall in love with the area all the time. Here are some reasons why I call Queens my home:

1. Our landlord is awesome.

2013-02-07 10.03.01

Here he is fixing a leak 15 minutes after I sent him a text about it. Our cat is a huge fan of him.

2. This was the first apartment where I was allowed to paint the walls, and it was the first time I got to buy furniture, so it really feels like home.

2011-12-12 00.56.46

You’ll notice there will always be a cat in any picture of our apartment.

Dewine’s bar

3. The restaurants are amazing. Here are some of my favorites:

Dewine: You have to try the Dates and Devils.

Queens Kickshaw:  delicious craft beers and even more incredible grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m a huge fan of the Gruyere and the Gouda. Brunch is also amazing – get the poutine!

Mundo:  Once you try the Red Sonja you will crave it for the rest of your life.

LIC Market is a hole in the wall filled with rich food.

4. There’s lots to do. You can visit the Museum of Moving Image, where you can practice doing voice overs, see old movie clips, and use original filming equipment. It’s even free on Fridays. You can get some delicious fresh greens at the Astoria Farmer’s Market. You can take a stroll through Astoria park and visit the Socrates Sculpture Garden, the Noguchi Museum, or MoMa’s PS1 for some culture.

The Noguchi museum

5. For celebrity hounds, Astoria’s the place to be. The Kaufman Astoria Studio brings actors like Paul Rudd, Julia Roberts, Will Smith, Meryl Streep and the muppets of Sesame Street to our humble neighborhood.

Paul Rudd Loves Astoria, and I love him 🙂

6. People are friendly here. I know my mailman, all the store owners  and the regulars on the street. When I lived in Manhattan I never saw the same face twice, but here I feel like I’m a part of a community.

If you’re looking for a place to live in New York City, don’t forget to look at Astoria!

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #9 Mozambique

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:via. Wikipedia

Inhambane, Mozambique

Although I went to Mozambique to be a volunteer and expected my time there to be a great sacrifice I actually had a lot of fun. Inhambane (pronounced In-yum-bonni)  is about an 8 hour bus ride from the capital, or a 45 minute plane ride from Johannasberg, South Africa. The bus ride shouldn’t take so long, but the border passing can take 3-4 hours and the roads are terrible. Sometimes we drove in the ditch along the road because that had less potholes.

My neighborhood for 7 months.

I lived in the bush for 7 months with a few other volunteers. We had a little turquoise house with chickens running everywhere. Electricity was rare, and there was no running water. We used an outhouse and bucket showers. To get water, we either used the dirty rainwater well (which made me sick for a month) or walk a half mile to the well. Everyone in the community knew me, and when I’d go for walks and get lost even strangers knew where I lived, and were able to walk me home.

Me with two of my students.

I went to Africa thinking I would need to be on guard all the time, but I’ve never felt safer in my life. I hitch hiked everywhere I went, something that I would never do anywhere else. I met amazing people while I was hitch hiking and even visited two different families in South Africa after they gave me a lift. When I’d tell people my reason for being in the middle of the bush (I was a volunteer teacher at a teacher training school) they’d usually buy me lunch and offer to let me use their beach house for the week. I was constantly surprised by people’s kindness and hospitality. If you don’t feel like hitch hiking you can also take a chappa but you can’t be claustrophobic or sensitive to smell.

I was at the beach whenever I was free.

The two beaches of Inhambane, Tofo and Barra, are insanely beautiful. It was only after I arrived that I learned these beaches are internationally renowned for the scuba diving, and people come from all over the world to see the Whale Sharks. My great regret is not taking a scuba diving lesson while I was there. It was about $500 which was my stipend for 6 months so I couldn’t justify doing it, but now that I look back that seems really cheap for a once and a lifetime experience. Oh well, you live and you learn.

The peaceful beach!

 

The beach was along the Indian Ocean and the water was always warm. The sand was soft and white and on most days I was the only person for miles. One of my fondest memories was running along the beach at sunrise with my friend, Pricila. The colors of the sky reflected on the wet sand and it felt like we were standing inside a rainbow.

The laid back, friendly night life.

 

 

During the busy season there were 200-300 people tops. It was mostly Australians, South Africans, Germans and Swiss. Since the area was pretty small everyone got to know each other really fast and it always felt like a giant party with all your friends.

The city of Inhambane was an hour long drive from the beach. Again it could be faster but the pot holes are so bad. This is where I’d go everyday to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables. At the time I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I realized that all you need to do to escape poor health is not live in a developed country. The food was really fresh and healthy there.

The colorful details!

 

Inhambane city was adorable. Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony (they speak Portuguese, if you were wondering), and you can really see the influence in the architectural features of this city. The building’s were all bright colors, and there were blue and white tiles everywhere. When I visited town, I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. the restaurants were delicious, the Indian ocean was always in view, the people were friendly, and the market place was exciting and unique.

My favorite part of living in Mozambique was having three distinctly different lifestyles; The cosmopolitan city life, the modest rural life, and the fun nightlife of the beach. Inhambane is definitely a place to visit.

If you can't afford to stay at Flamingo Bay you should definitely go there for lunch!

 

If you’re on a budget rent a bungalow on the beach at Fatima’s. It’s only about $10 a day. If you want real luxury, stay at Flamingo Bay (that’s where I took the header picture for my blog). It cost about $500 a night but your hut is on stilts in the water and when you wake up you’re surrounded by millions of flamingos. Don’t miss the full moon party at Dino’s. Verdino’s and Sem Ceremonia are excellent restaurants in the city. And don’t forget to drink a 2M beer!

The rest of the top 10 list:

Nothing better than drinking from a coconut on the beach1

Nicaragua
The Catskills
Portugal
St. Petersburg
Nepal
Israel
Vieques
Turkey

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth #8: Nicaragua

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places #8: Nicaragua

I first visited Nicaragua when I was 12 years old on an international volunteer trip with Bridges to Community. We went as a family, and before leaving, my mom made sure to tell us that we would have to use outhouses, we would eat rice and beans for every meal, and tarantulas and scorpions would be hiding in every dark corner. We cried and begged to go to Disneyland instead, but my parents thought it would be better to expose us to a lifestyle so different from Westchester, New York.

Some of the many cute kids in the villages.

Little did I know that that 8 day trip would change my life forever. I went back 9 more times (four of those times were trips I organized with my college) to help build schools, wells, orphanages and homes. It’s the reason why I went on to volunteer in Mozambique and Kenya.

Our first trip was to Bajo De Los Ramirez. You can only visit this town during the dry season because the “roads” were all dried up river beds. We were the first white people they had ever seen, and I remember the kids kept running up to touch my skin, and then would scream and run away laughing. When we arrived the whole town got together to greet us and sing and dance for us. I even got to use some of my 7th grade Spanish to introduce myself, “Me IIamo Tracy. Soy de Ustados Unidos. Muchos Gustos!”

Yummy!

We slept on the floor of a church and in the morning pigs would come in and wake us up by licking our faces. We bathed by getting a bucket from the well and taking it to a makeshift shower that was obviously made by men because the plastic wrap only went up to our belly buttons. It didn’t help that it was downhill and the only road was at the top of the hill. I’ll never forget when my sister was taking a shower and a bus full of men drove by and they all started cheering and hanging out the window to get a better look. She made their day!

We spent most of our time building a brick school house, and taking the first census the town had ever had. I think I was the only kid in my middle school who came back from Spring Break knowing how to lay brick!

Me and my beautiful brick wall. Unfortunately I was going through a chubby, awkward phase.

On our last day, the villagers roasted a giant pig for us. It was a startling experience for me because I had just started eating meat after being a vegetarian for 5 years, and now I was eating something that was oinking at me a few hours prior. However, the taste quickly overwhelmed my conscience.

If you go to Nicaragua, you must visit Lake Nicaragua. There is an island for every day of the year, and each island has something unique. One island we swam to was inhabited by wild monkeys. There was no way to get on the island so we just floated around in the water. The monkeys thought we looked funny so they hung from the tree branches and bobbed our heads like it was a game of whack-a-mole (and we were the moles). Eventually we had to leave once the moneys started throwing coconuts at us.

Beautiful Volcano Masaya.

Volcano Masaya is also a must see. There’s a constant haze of sulfuric gases coming out of the imploded crater. It is active, so you need to be carefull. If you climb to the top of the hill there’s an enormous cross because early settlers thought this was the mouth of hell. I saw a porcupine up there!

The cloud forest.

 

And if you have time, take a hike in the cloud forest. It’s so high up you walk through the clouds, and everything gets soaked because of the condensation. This moisture makes for some of the lushest greenery I’ve ever seen. The car ride to the trail is horrifying – they use left over Soviet Union hummers, and they can hardly handle the steep incline and the slippery mud. There’s nothing like watching the car in front of you sliding back towards you. But at least there’s a great view of the coffee fields to distract you from the many near-death moments.

The mural we painted!

And if you have extra time, you should definitely visit the Museum of Archaeology in Ticuantepe! There you can see the mural my classmates and I painted!

On one trip, when we went on a walk through the jungle, I was bitten by a poisonous ant and went into Anaphylactic shock. They gave me three Epi-pens but nothing was working. Through my convulsions I begged the team leader not to bring me to the emergency clinic because I was afraid if my parents found out they would never let me go back to Nicaragua. Yep, that’s how much I love the place.

Eventually my tongue swelled up to the point where I could hardly breath anymore, and they took me to the clinic. It’s a good thing because the doctor said the skin on my ears almost split open! If anyone’s ever seen Hitch, I was twice as swollen as Will Smith after he eats the shellfish. But I’d still do it all over again!

The Old Cathedral

Nicaragua’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited, and it has all the natural beauty of Costa Rica except for half the cost! For some Spanish culture, you can visit Granada. Or for military history, visit the old, national prison where you can still see the blood stains on the walls. Or for some local flavor, visit one of the many market places, and hire one of the young boys to help you. It will only cost about a dollar, and he’ll be one of your best tour guides! No matter what you like to see when you travel, Nicaragua has a taste of everything.

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: The Catskills

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #7 The Catskills

Two summers ago, Mike and I dusted off our boots, filled out water bottles, strapped on our backpacks and headed for the Catskills. we’ve both done a bit of hiking (Mike was an instructor in New Mexico and I took a 5 week camping trip across California and Colorado) so when we studied the maps and saw that most of the peaks were under 3,500 feet we thought it would be an easy stroll in the park. Big mistake!

These were some of the steepest trails we’ve ever done. We could only walk about 5 miles each day because the terrain was so difficult. It was also a dry season, so almost every stream was dried up. We found out afterward that the trails we took were better suited for day hikes because there are no sleeping grounds and hardly any water sources. That’s right – we’re hard core!

One of the coolest finds was a plane that crashed into the mountain in the 70s. It’s been slowly decomposing, but you can still see the control panel and the engine. It’s amazing that everyone survived.

I loved seeing all the stages of a forest. These saplings (in the above picture) were growing on top of a giant bolder. One day their delicate roots will brake the boulder into tiny rocks. Pretty impressive how small changes can make a big difference!

Nothing brings out your inner child like being out in nature!

When we reached the highest point, and it seemed like there was no one else around, we took of all our clothes and had naked lunch! I have to say this was even better than skinny dipping. Nothing feels as good as lying on a warm rock on the top of the world in nothing but your birthday suit. It’s the closest you can get to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

On the third night it started to pour. The pounding on our tent kept us up all night. In the morning we were soaked and shivering, and dog tired. It made the next part of the hike much more difficult. The picture above is a just a small sampling of what the terrain was like. Those rocks were covered with wet moss. It’s extra scary when you have a thirty pound backpack pull you backwards.

But all the rain made the streams much more picturesque!

The trip was definitely hard, but fun and romantic. You really get to know you partner when you’re eating cold sardines in the rain.We had to be cheesy teenagers and carve our names in the rock. Our plan was to visit this spot every five years, but for the life of me I will never be able to find it again. Let me know if you come across it 🙂

I don’t know about you, but when I go hiking I want to feel like a hermit. We only ran into 6 people the whole time, so that was a big bonus. The Catskills are beautiful, and challenging, and a must see. It’s no wonder there’s so many people in the Catskills 3500 club – to become a member you need to hike all of the 35 peaks that are above 3,500 feet and you need to do the four hardest ones again in the winter! We climbed 4 of the 3,500 feet peaks in our week long trip. We seriously considered trying to join the club, but the winter clause reminded us that we are not that crazy.

Top 10 Most Amzing Places on Earth: Portugal

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #6 Portugal

This is a full color picture taken after lunch. I love the spooky quality!

I went here with my brother and parents about 6 years ago. I had made plans to live in Mozambique for the year (a former Portugal colony) and we thought it would be cool to hear some Portuguese and visit a country that I rarely hear about. Originally we were supposed to travel all around Portugal and Spain, but my brother got sick so we had to limit ourselves to a hundred mile radius of Lisbon.

One of the coolest things about Lisbon in the winter is that it’s foggy until about 1pm, so it felt like we were in a haunted dream scape every morning. I kept expecting to see Macbeth with his skull lurking around each corner.

This giant fake christmas tree lights up at night! I think it was the tallest structure in the city.

Another cool thing, they have the world’s largest fake tree in the city center. You can always see it peeking up above the fog. Oh wait! There’s a third cool thing: there’s amazing graffiti everywhere. We even found a tag that looked like my brother!

Rye next to his doppleganger

 

 

 

The seafood was incredible in Lisbon and I highly suggest eating in the old city in a tiny cafe with tables out on the stone stairs. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant but if you’re ever in Lisbon just follow the sent of amazing food and you’ll find it. We ate there three nights in a row and were never disappointed. If you don’t want to go all the way to Lisbon you can try out the restaurant my sister manages! Aldea is an amazing Michelin star, nouveau-Portuguese restaurant in the flatiron distract of Manhattan. I just ate there the other night and was blown away by the creativity and flavors of each dish. This is a restaurant for true food enthusiasts.

Anyways, back to Portugal. Since we had to come up with a new itinerary, each of us took turns reading the guide book and planing a day trip. I think my trip won. And I’m only saying this because when we got off the bus in Sintra my parents looked at me like I was crazy for taking them to a deserted village. But as soon as we walked through the gates a fairytale land opened up before our eyes. Booyah!

Quinta da Regaleira

Back in college I took a history of architecture class, and I never get to use this vocabulary in every day conversation so please indulge me for a moment. Sintra’s castles seamlessly blend Romanesque and Gothic architecture with hints of Arabic pattern and design. Sinuous columns detailed with delicate stone tracery gave the castles a weightless, ethereal quality, which was only heighten by dark, lush forest and mountains in the distance. The pastel hues of ancient homes made where straight out of a children’s book. If Beauty and the Beast were to take place anywhere it would be Sintra.

We spent most of the day in the Quinta da Regaleira. This castle is surrounded by the most amazing gardens, grottoes and waterfalls.  We walked along a stone path (through a lake), behind a waterfall, through a tunnel, and then looked up and realized we were inside a stone well. Fortunately it had dried out years ago. All you could hear was the trickle of water and the buzz of a hummingbird. It was truly magical.

The path to the waterfall

And as if that weren’t enough, there were peacocks walking around! It’s like they asked a little girl what she would want her fairy kingdom to look like and then they made Sintra based off her every whim. Oh and I mustn’t forget, there were also horse drawn carriages, and ancient Greek ruins. No wonder Sintra was named a Unesco Wolrd Heritage site. When in doubt, always visit the Unesco sites!

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: #5: St. Petersburg Russia

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

We ran into a guy with a pet bear. I felt like I was in a John Irving book!

#5: St. Petersburg , Russia

Every now and then my parents let us kids decide where to go for the family vacation. My brother, who was interested in Russian history picked St. Petersburg. I had traveled a lot by that point but I was unprepared for such a unique country.

We happened to go for the tricentennial of St. Petersberg. If you know nothing about Peter the Great, he’s definitely an interesting character. He is credited with Westernizing Russia. He made all the Russian officials move from Moscow to what was basically swampland and called it the gateway to Europe. He traveled around Europe getting ideas for his great city and for ideas on how to govern his country. I call St. Peterburg the cliff notes version of Europe because it has the canals of Amsterdam and Italy, French architecture, a world-class art collection, and the cosmopolitan feel of London or Paris. We went to at least three or four museums and castles each day! And if that wasn’t enough, during the summer they have White Nights so it was still bright out at midnight!

The Church of Spilled Blood

We were immediately stunned by the Church of Spilled Blood (It has a thousand different names). It looked like it was made out of candy. No picture I’ve seen has captured the bright, intricate details covering the entire building. We went out of our way to visit this church every day of our 8 day trip. And if you think the outside is spectacular, the inside was just as amazing!

The interior of The Church of Spilled Blood. This is all tile mosaic.

The shear size of the castles and museums were stunning. We spent 12 hours at the Hermitage and didn’t see a quarter of the art. Anyone that’s traveled to Europe will probably say they got tired of the castles after awhile, but the castles here are out of this world and every room was more breath taking. Every thing was covered in gold, or velvet, or murals.

Just another hallway in an amazing castle

It was the first country I visited where most people didn’t know a word of English- although I’m sure that’s changed in the last 10 years. Even the written word was indecipherable because they use a different alphabet (Cyrillic). There were hardly any signs of American pop influence which was refreshing. I’ve never understood why people travel thousands of miles to eat at a Hard Rock Cafe and shop at a Gap.

I will always love St. Petersburg because I had the best meal of my life there. We followed an incredible scent to a hole in the wall restaurant (actually it was in the basement and you had to duck to avoid the rafters). I ordered beef stew and wine from Georgia. I don’t understand what was in that stew but I’ve been pining for it ever since. And that wine – it was the only glass of wine where I actually tasted all the things a wine connoisseur “says” they taste when they drink wine. Hints of plum, sun soaked cherries, and just a touch of raw earth, or whatever. IT was really good.

Don’t miss Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. It’s a bit out of the way but the water fountains are spectacular. We had to take the subway, and had no idea how to read the signs. An old lady noticed our panic and I guess she asked if she could help in Russian. We pointed to the picture of the palace in our guide book and she took my brother’s hand, and we followed. She stayed with us for two subway transfers and helped us out when we arrived. Then she disappeared into the crowd like a magical babushka. The palace sells a limited amount of tickets and we were out of luck – that is until we bribed a guard and he let us in! To Russia with Love.

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: Nepal

This is the bottom half of a prayer wheel. In the background there’s a thousand hand-painted deities.

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

#4 Nepal:

My mom’s one of the only people I know who makes best friends with waiters and busboys. She became especially close with a busboy named Kharma Sherpa, who was from Nepal, and is, indeed, a Sherpa.

Actually Sherpa is a tribe in Nepal and Tibet, and it’s a pretty common last name. Since Sherpas live at the base of Mt. Everest they are used to the altitude. They became famous for helping the early European explorers trek that big rock.

As a whole, they are really friendly people who love to help whenever they can. Unfortunately Kharma was deported, but my mom promised she would visit within 2 years. My dad didn’t feel like taking the long flight, so when my mom asked if I wanted to go instead, I said hell yeah.

The view from the cockpit

On our second day in Kathmandu we headed to a tiny airport and boarded a 20 person plane. We took an hour long flight around Mt. Everest and the Himalayan range. The beauty was almost too much to handle – I cried the entire time. I got to go in the cockpit as we flew around the peak. It was amazing to think that we were flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet and yet there were people who were still 4,000 feet above us!

Monkeys were everywhere!

 

In my opinion we spent too long in Kathmandu. It’s a crazy, loud, congested, city. The drivers are horrific, and you need to be vigilant at all times. It’s definitely worth seeing, but I wouldn’t spend more than 2 days there. All your senses are in over-drive. I would suggest spending a week in Times Square to prepare. And bring lots of Advil!

Here’s a bus trying to pass another bus while swerving to miss oncoming traffic (our car).

Next up Kharma drove us to Chimoio, Nepal’s jungle. The road there was crazy, and later on I watched a program called The World’s Most Dangerous Roads, in which they showcased this road. It was a windy path that would be considered a one way street in America, but there was two way traffic as well as mopeds weaving in and out. We drove past two separate, over-turned buses. Half-way through traffic, stalled. My mom and I got out and walked ahead to see the cause. There was a head on collision of two buses. No emergency vehicles could get through. Some people volunteered to help the startled survivors out of the buses. Other people were piling up stones along the cliff so as to create a make-shift lane for cars to pass.

He looks cute an innocent but he can kill at any moment!

In Chimoio, we stayed near the river where all the elephants went to bathe. I got to ride this fellow into the water and then wash him with rocks – that’s the only way to break up the caked on mud. It was only afterwards that we learned it’s illegal to bathe elephants in the river because too many people were killed by elephants who got overly excited in the water and rolled around.

Next, I went on a jungle tour with Kharma and a guide. My mom was too afraid of crocodiles so she stayed behind. The guide told us to be extra careful of hippos – they’re aggressive and unpredictable. Of course, we ended up stumbling upon four hippos sleeping in a giant puddle of mud. Our footsteps woke them (they have incredible hearing) and they started making their warning grunts. Then the tour guide whispered the last thing you ever want to hear, “Oh shit!” He told us to duck under the bushes. This scared me even more because I’m deathly allergic to ants and I didn’t have my epi-pen. I figured I was more scared of the hippos than ants so I ran. The bush was thick and we couldn’t see them anymore. Suddenly we heard them fighting and the ground shook as they started to charge. The guide broke out running, and we followed, not knowing if the hippos would chase us or not. Well, I’m writing this post, so to make a long story short, we made it out alive.

That’s me getting ready to leap off the mountain!

So let’s see, I survived the world’s most dangerous road, water aerobics with elephants, and charging hippos. Jumping off a cliff with just a glorified nylon blanket seemed like the safe next move. We headed to Phuket(a popular hippy town for backpackers) and went paragliding. I thought it would be terrifying, but it was one of the most peaceful experiences of my life. I felt like a bird soaring above the trees.

The stunning terraces on all the mountainsides.

All of the Stupas had Buddha’s eyes painted on the top.

The view of the Himalaya’s from the plane.

Top 10 Amazing Places on Earth: #3 Israel

Top 10 Amazing Places on Earth: #2 Vieques

Top 10 Amazing Places on Earth: #1 Turkey



Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: Israel

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Me on a camel! Not the smoothest ride.

3: Jerusalem, Israel

I had heard that there was an organization called Birthright, that gives anyone of Jewish decent a free trip to the homeland. I thought it was a hoax, but I had to apply anyway. A minute after sending in the application, I got an email that they were going to call me for an interview.

I panicked because I’m only half Jewish and I’m not religious at all. I quickly skimmed Wikipedia articles about Judaism and reviewed the few Yiddish words my Grandma used to say: mishigas (craziness), kvetch (complain), mazl-tov (congrats), zay gezundt (bless you), shlemil (fool). A minute later a guy called and asked,

The stunning Baha'i garden

“Have you ever been to Isreal?”

“No.”

“Would you like to go?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, you can go on our June trip!”

“What?!? That’s mishigas!”

A few months later I was eating olives on a Kibbutz, riding a camel across the Negev desert, playing Frisbee with Bedouins, sticking a prayer in between the cracks of the Western Wall, and floating in the dead sea. I kept waiting for the catch, for them to say, “alright pay up.” But it was completely free. Yes, free. The plane ticket, ground transportation, food, hotels, everything was free.

I developed a thing for soldiers!

Israel was the most peaceful place I’ve ever visited. In the old quarter, there’s a Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Moroccan section. All the people who live there seem untied by their mutual respect of the hallowed ground.  In the major cities you could hear the birds flying. All the buildings in Jerusalem are made from the same white stone, so it looks like the whole city is carved out of a giant, white mountain. Every building or monument we visited was at least 1000 years old. And the people were beyond friendly.

In front of the Western Wall - one of the most important sights in Judaism!

I didn’t run out and plan my Bat Mitvah after the trip and I’m certainly not a zionist, but I left Israel feeling a great pride in my heritage. I would definitely go back – even if I have to pay! If anyone in your family’s history is Jewish I would highly recommend contacting Birthright. And even if you’re not Jewish I’ve heard of a lot of churches and mosques organizing discounted trips. And even if you’re not familiar with monotheism, you should still go!

p.s. if you visit the dead sea don’t shave your legs beforehand.

Top 10 Amazing Places on Earth: #2 Vieques

Top 10 Amazing Places on Earth: #1 Turkey

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: Vieques

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited (in no particular order):

2. Vieques, Puerto Rico 

When I was in fourth grade, my former Hippy mom, thought it would be fun to take a family trip to an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. We took a 10 person plane from San Juan to Vieques. There was no door on the plane and the pilot offered to let my dad try flying it for a bit. When my dad politely declined, the pilot offered my eight year old brother the wheel. It’s a miracle we made it to the island alive.

There was only one hotel in Vieques, and they didn’t allow children. Since the owner grew up in Brooklyn and had a serious hankering for rugelach (you can’t make this stuff up) he agreed to let us stay as long as my parents brought him rugelach from a specific Brooklyn bakery. He also had an over-sized glass eye that looked as if it would fall out at any moment.

Here’ the kicker, the hotel didn’t have any electricity. Imagine three kids, 8,10 and 13, without t.v., music or electric light. It was rough for the first few days, but then we got used to entertaining ourselves, and almost got kicked out for singing Salt n’ Pepper’s Shoop too loud. It’s one of my fondest memories with my siblings.

via. Abe’s bio-bay tours. This is what it really looked like!

The most amazing part of Vieques is Mosquito Bay. This is a bioluminescent bay, and there’s only about 5 or 6 of these left on the entire planet. The water is filled with dinoflaggalites (basically the plankton version of fireflies) that glow when you touch them. So when we went swimming at night, every time you moved your hand the water lit up neon turquoise!

We went canoeing at midnight on New Years Eve and watched fireworks in the sky as we sat on the glowing surface of the water – each stroke of the paddle created an underwater firework. It was truly magical. I wish I could find pictures from this trip, but I was 10 and I probably dropped my disposable camera in the water.

The last time I checked the hotel we stayed at turned into a nudist colony. I don’t think they would allow children there, even if you brought a suitcase of rugelach! However the island has developed quite a bit since ’94, so I think you’ll be able to find another hotel that even has electricity.