It’s More Fun in the Philippines

My #asianadventure continued to the Philippines to meet my handsome half-filipino beau. His grandparents, aunt, uncle & cousins all live outside of Manila and he’s been venturing to the Philippines his whole life. After three years of being together, I was finally going to meet the rest of the family that I had heard so much about. Upon arrival we landed at a buffet and I quickly learned that ten days in the Philippines would be filled with food, family love, and the combination of the two familial food pushing, that followed by naps. 

His Lolo & Lola (grandparents) were the most welcoming hosts and I instantly felt apart of the family. Anytime I walked past his Lola in the house she asked, “Are you hungry? You should eat,” regardless of whether or not we had just eaten 20 minutes prior. There is nothing as sacred as a grandmother’s love, that’s for sure. Their home was in a quiet gated community with lush green surrounding it and a backyard that felt like a secret garden. They had many different tables for eating meals and I giggled when I started to realize we ate each meal in a different outside eating location. His Lola’s homemade food was never-ending…pork, fish, rice, rice and more rice. Lechon (pig), chicken adobo,  prawns with their face on… I’m not a super adventurous eater by nature but I was trying it all. I even tried one “no thank you bite”, as my mom called it growing up, of balut, a duck embryo. The many filipinos that I met on the cruise ship had stressed the importance of trying this “delicacy” and with the pressure of Basti’s family…I figured I couldn’t miss a cultural opportunity. But one bite of that salty but strange hard boiled duck baby and I was DONE, thank goodness for San Miguel’s beer to chase away the taste. On a yummier note, I got to try Basti’s favorite breakfast…tocino which is a one of the most popular cured meats in the Philippines, reddish brown candied glazed pork paired with garlic fried rice and a runny Sunny-Side-Up egg. GAME OVER. The most delicious mango you’ve ever imagined after for dessert. You can start to see why the food commas inspired so many naps. 

We made our way out of the house and into the crazy Filipino streets aka the Wild Wild East. Pedicabs, Jeepneys, & motorbikes with four people to a seat crowded the streets lined with stalls, general stores, & automobile repair shops. Jeepneys, the most common mode of transportation in the Philippines, are very iconic to the country. Originally made from U.S. Military Jeeps leftover from WWII, they are known for their crowded seating and kitsch decorations. No two look the same varying from usually a bright red, yellow or turquoise paint job and some phrase like “Gift of God” with a picture of Mary painted somewhere on it. I started to realize the rules of the road is that there are NO rules. Cross whenever you “feel” it, whip a U-Turn here sure, pull over to pick something up. No signaling, no problem! Just glad I wasn’t driving! I think the most vivid memory I have of driving is when we passed a truck full of pigs in the back of a truck being transported to be our food…you can’t see that on the 405!

We had a cultural day in Manila starting at the National Art Gallery filled with historical works of art. We then went on the most entertaining walking tour with a one man show performed by Carlos Celdran. His tour called Walk This Way was filled with humor, drama, singing, hat changing, candy throwing and so much more. We explored Manila’s ancient walled city of Intramuros and learned so much about the fascinating history of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines. Conquered by the Spanish priests to spread Catholicism for 300 years, and then the US for 50 years, it is a hodge-podge culture. Back when the Spaniards came over, people still believed the Earth was flat so the Philippine Islands were the last chuck of land before phewwwww kerplunk….the drop off they imagined. The King only sent priests that he hated to the islands with the hope that they wouldn’t come back. One of the most interesting facts for me was about the language. Every word in their language that has to do with describing abstract things like nature, spirit, love are in Tagalog the native language, anything describing objects like paper (papel), ceiling (cielo) are in Spanish, and anything describing a brand like Coke, Kleenex, Kodak (it’s even a verb to kodak, take a photo) are from American products. Manila was bought along with Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands to the US for 1 million dollars at the turn of the century. It even fought to be the 50th state at one point. In the 1920s, during the American Occupation, Manila was “the Pearl of the East” with the first movie theater, the first Asian country to import Coca-Cola and the first Pan Asian Airline. Then everything changed when the Japanese invaded during WWII and were brutally massacring anyone and everyone until Douglas MacArthur the US General ruling the roost, made the decision to drop a bomb on his precious city of Manila to get Japan out. Since  then the US only repaired buildings that they had built, which were minimal in comparison to what was destroyed and the city has never recovered. Knowing what a glittering hub of cultural collision it once was and seeing the poverty stricken city it is now was very hard to believe. Our history lesson eventually led to a ride in a local’s pedicab with a genuine smile and calves of steel who managed to cross four lanes of traffic and safely get us to our final destination of the tour: St. Agustin church. Four hundred and forty four years old, it is the last remaining church built in Manila. There was a wedding going when we got there, the most romantic way to end a perfect day saturated with history and new sights. 

Driving through the city, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the poverty. Bamboo based huts with tin roofs, stuck together with some spit and hope were built on top of each other. We sat in traffic and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the street life out the window. Chickens and street dogs ran around the stores selling everything from roasted chicken and nuts to deodorant and SIM cards inside. Kids walked home from school, average people from work. Everyone in nice clean clothing, although they lived in a city that needed a power wash and a lot of love. I was surprised by how together people looked, dressed up nicely, while the appearance of houses and shops were so below the poverty line. Another example of how the third world can make enough to survive and feel good in their day to day clothing but not have enough to fix their leaky roofs or pay for their kids to go to college. I was so humbled by the smiling and laughing. I saw joy, not struggling, love, not fear or sadness. My favorite moment of the trip is captured below. I had my window rolled down taking the life in that I saw and this happy father, probably not much older than me, was over the moon excited to engage and show off his bundle of joy. 

Candi & Fish, Basti’s sister and her boyfriend flew from Australia to join in on the final few days of fun. They were the last puzzle piece of Basti’s family I had yet to meet and it was long overdue. They were welcomed with a home-cooked buffet as well and wined and dined until they passed out from a long day of traveling. The next day we hopped into the car for a little road trip to a couples retreat through the provincial Philippines to Laiya beach in the city of Batangas. We arrived to this fabulous bungalow haven with no other guests around. White sand beaches, lush mountains behind us, a beer in hand, it couldn’t get any better…until we realized we could get $8 massages (tip included) in the said bungalows listening to the waves crash. If I ever go missing, this is the ONLY clue I’m giving you to where you can potentially find me. The other guests were mainly filipinos and since they mainly try to avoid the sun at all costs, we were truly the only ones on the beach both days. We ate and drank and drank some more. Sharing sunsets and memories to last a lifetime. The next morning we woke up to the most gorgeous orange and pink sunrise and went for a perfect morning swim. What a way to start the day! One more massage couldn’t hurt before hopping back in the car to return home. (twist my arm….)

Back at la casa de Aguto’s, yet another filing buffet awaited us…but this time it was different. Banana leaves were laid down on the table and to truly enjoy this family style feast we got to do it the traditional Kamayan way, eating with our hands! Lola giggled when we said OF COURSE to that style of eating and we slid our food off our plates and chowed down. A night I will never forget!  

My whirlwind trip to Asia was winding down and I started to reflect on the incredible cultures I had been submerged in. Seeing this country as well as South Korea with locals (and transplants) was the most amazing way to experience a foreign country. After a year of traveling, the biggest difference I noticed in this continent was how cool I felt to be American. As a millennial, growing up with Bush in one nation under fear, I don’t feel the patriotism my parents and their parents have felt as an American. I am grateful for the first world education and endless opportunities that it has given me but through traveling I’ve noticed we don’t have the same international rapport we once had. After roaming through Europe and South Africa this year, I got so tired of the “what a joke your country is, Donald Trump for president?” comments that I was receiving, I started to be happy when people assumed I was Canadian rather than a stereotypical loud mouth, ignorant American. I only say that because I saw such an overwhelming amount, especially on the cruise ship. It was cool again to be from America and I was really taken back by that reception. Definitely inspired me to be a singing sensation in Asia…just saying. 

With a permanent food baby of rice in my belly, it was the first New Years that I didn’t focus on health & wellness but rather on gratitude. I saw too many ribcages from hunger to worry about the extra pounds of love I had gained on vacation. I am hyper sensitive to the fact that the culture I am accustomed to is worried about our waistlines while others are worried about starvation, fixated on the hottest diet while entire countries face malnutrition. If we took more time to focus on the unequal distribution of wealth and less time worrying about our abs, we could make a difference. Even if we just start by appreciating our own perfect bodies of any shape & size, appreciating the ability to be well fed to the point of wanting to make a change and exercise, that alone would make a tidal wave of difference. 

My time in the Philippines was priceless, filled with family love, eye opening experiences, and first, second, third (we aren’t judging you ever!) rounds of food. Someone described the filipino culture to be similar to a famous dessert of theirs called halo-halo. It translates to “mixed together” because it’s a little bit of everything: shaved ice & evaporated milk which are added to boiled sweet beans, jello and fruits. I will forever cherish the glimpses I saw of true filipino culture, mixed together with the ingredients of generosity and love. 

KOREA OR BUST

I headed to Busan, South Korea, four days after Christmas to continue the momentum of a year of traveling. With 2016 on the horizon, the past year drifted through my brain as I watched the clouds pass by out the airplane window. What a year 2015 had been, consumed with the thing I’ve wanted my whole life…to travel! Every month Basti and I managed to be in a different state, country or continent. Starting with January in the Caribbean, February in Los Angeles, March in Kauai, April at the Grand Canyon, May started our adventure in the Baltic Sea where we sailed through Scandinavia and Russia, June, July and August also brought us to the British Isles, September was spent in Italy, October in Cape Town and my solo trip Zambia, November landed Basti in Australia while I flew back home (and to Kauai…dare I say, again) so it seemed only natural we would finish off with a bang with December in Asia. Basti flew off to the Philippines to stay with his family that lives there and after Santa shimmied down the chimney, I was off to join him. One more continent to cross off the list before we rang in the new year.

As a first timer in Asia, I flew to Busan to meet my beloved best friend Becca, who has been living there for the past year with her boyfriend, teaching English to little adorable Asian babies in track suits (I just have to throw that in because it’s my favorite mental image…who needs plaid uniforms when there’s adidas KOREA style) We had no trouble finding each other at the airport, where I stuck out as the only blonde in sight and she stuck out because she was sobbing and screaming at my arrival. We hugged the entire half hour cab ride ‘til we got to her quaint apartment. Traveling inspires more traveling and the more I see the more I crave going to new places, to feel that shock factor again. Korea, as my introduction to Asia, was quite a shock. The toilets, the doors, the street signs, everything made my brain light up and take note. “OHMIGOD, IM HERE” kept ringing in my mind and out my mouth.

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After a little belated Christmas morning, we wandered out to see some sights. A beautiful temple was hidden directly behind their house and my marvel continued. Peacefully and quintessentially #asian, it sunk in that I was actually there and that a lot more temples and happy buddhas were to come in the future. We adventured to Gamcheon Village, the Santorini of Korea, recognized by it’s colorful pastel houses on top of each other with funky street art lining the walls. By adventured, I MEAN adventured because even though I was there with my two best buds who had been successfully living there for 10 months, I realized getting lost is a big part of walking out their door. But hey, that’s the fun of it right? We took a train, to a bus stop and hopped on the one that they assumed was right. Stepping into a crammed pink and purple bus blasting K-POP, I was in all my glory. Some old Korean fisherman, with his catch of the day in what looked like a tiny ice cooler you would get in your hotel room, poked fun at Brendan? Us? I still don’t know but it was harmless and completely in Korean as if we understood the joke. When we got to the top and everyone exited, we took that as our cue to get off. Different culture, different languages, same gut instincts apply. We wandered this colorful cultural hub and I started to realize it wasn’t just the area they lived in or the train we were on, pretty much everyone was Korean. And the three of us pasty white kids, I loved it.

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Our wandering led us to dive into my first Korean barbecue experience. While waiting for a table, some Korean college kids timidly approached and before they could speak, the Bears (how I will now refer to Becca and Brendan when referring about them together) already knew what they were about to say. “Excuse me do you have some time?”, one of them asked. Giddy, my eyes widened, local celebrities I guess! They wanted to know what we were doing in Korea, where we were from, basic questions and once they learned the Bears lived there teaching, they were even bigger fans. All the while I just freaked out inside that we were being INTERVIEWED, helllooooo. Get me outta here, I’m a celebrity! The whole thing was classic and after a lot of broken english and peace sign photos, they went there way and we went inside for a Korean feast. I learned all about the soju swirl, a drinking tradition while cooking your own meat. Lots of kimchi, sprouts and other translucent side dishes came our way while we cooked something that looked like fat bacon in a grill in front of us. I say we but WE mainly just made Brendan cook us some meat while we giggled like school girls and drank our soju.

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We were off to a bang, and halfway through our meal our new Korean friends came by to ask us out to a drink after. We finished and met them at a silly international bar, where even there we were still the only caucasians. A few beers later with broken English in between, we were playing fooze ball with our homies and loving life. We parted ways only to be greeted by another group of Korean strangers asking us where we were from. I had already fallen in love with the kind culture, filled with couples who match full on head to toe outfits (outwear and shoes included), fluffy accessories that garnish bags, hats, cellphones, etc and the color teal…seriously the national color of the country, I swear. Koreans just know how to have more fun with a pop of color and a pom pom on everything!

The highlight of the next day was a Korean spa experience. If I felt like I stuck out on the train, there’s no hiding when you’re butt naked with 200 Korean women of all ages. Inside SpaLand, no joke the Disneyland of spas, we soaked, scrubbed, sauna-ed and I had an experience I will NEVER forget.

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On New Years Eve, we ventured to Seoul to meet up with Becca’s sister Kirsten to join in on the fun. We danced the night away like Psy would want us to in the Gangnam neighborhood to songs ranging from top 40 hits such as Adele, Bruno Mars, & T Swift to the timeless Lollipop (yes the 50s song) and an old goodie Lady Marmalade. I laughed more than I danced with the song choices and it was the best way to ring in a new year. Seoul was much more international than Busan and I was enjoying the fact that I’d started somewhere so exclusively Korean. I get enough of a melting pot, tossed salad, whatever in LA, bring on that asian persuasion.

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We roamed to Gyeongbokgung Palace on New Years Day and happened to stumble upon the changing of the guard was going on at the same time. We gathered in the center of the grounds and watched a ton of soldiers, in bright red, blue, and purple outfits carrying flags with intense mustaches and pointy black hats and slippers, march to the forceful drum. My 10-year-old heart leapt around as my brain flash-backed to the movie Mulan, when she defeats the Huns…wrong Asian culture I know, but I was stoked. Girls were dressed in Hanbok, traditional Korean formal wear, not as apart of the ceremony but just because of the holiday, and you could find locals wearing that on the subway and through the city. Next to the temple was the F-R-E-E National Folk Museum of Korea that we passed through to warm up and check out some cultural artifacts. The day ended with…you guessed it, Korean BBQ but this time in a traditional setting, sitting on our butts at a small table resting after a long day of walking.

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The next day we wandered to the Hangang River, that runs through the center of the city for a long walk along the bank. Since it’s now full on winter, it was mainly a lot of grey but as a perpetual summer Cali native, I was excited for the contrasting season. We eventually made our way to Itaewon, the International District of Seoul. Very cool, buzzing with people, bursting with any cuisine you could want. After a kimchi pancake & a churro, we mosey-ed through the hip streets checking out street art and laughing at incorrect signs in English. And now the moment we’d all been waiting for…”noraebang” time to sing our hearts out to some Korean Karaoke! We saved the best for last! Huddled in a tiny, individual room with incredibly gaudy lighting, two mics and two tamborines, we gathered around singing our favorite songs and laughing the night away.

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Seoul sounds like the name of our spirit for a reason. There is lots of #heart&seoul in that wonderful city and I am so grateful to have welcomed 2016 exploring it. After a week in Korea, my top three things I’ll be running back for (other than to squeeze my Bears) are Hotteok (popular Korean street food-it’s a delicious pancake!), Korean spa time, and Noraebang!

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@dopestad I LOVE YOU!

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Fiery FIRENZE!

We’ve arrived in the land of pizza, pasta and vino! We couldn’t be happier to be starting our vacation in the beautiful city of Florence (Firenze). I’ve been to Rome and Venice but a first time traveler to Florence and the first steps out of the cab were ones I will never forget. There is so much life and so much to be said for how unapologetic the Italian culture is. I can’t get enough of the body language heavy culture and lack of personal bubbles most locals have. They are who they are and if you don’t like it too bad for you!

We stayed right in the Piazza Della Repubblica at an unbelievable hotel in a historic building. It was in the classic Renaissance style with windows that opened out the street. From there you could hear scooters and honking, mobs of people walking by, teenagers sitting having a smoke or making out. It may be loud to some but it just felt so full of life! And after living in a purell world of small talk on the cruise ship for 4 months we were ready to experience being around people of all ages especially at night (it’s the little things!)

We decided day one to just EAT our way through Italy, since there really is no other way.
Bring on the anti pastas, and bring us another bottle of wine. I’ve fallen in love with caprese salad and prosciutto with cantaloupe. Mmmmm don’t get me started on the carbohydrate heavy meals…there isn’t enough space in the blog.

So over our three full days in Firenze with Rick Steve’s “Florence and Tuscany” guide book and me as the appointed tour guide, we had a lovely balance of wandering, sight seeing and lingering meals. We saw all the biggies- Uffizi Gallery with the greatest collection anywhere of Italian paintings, the Academia with Michelangelo’s 17 foot tall “David”, wandered to Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace with it’s beautiful gardens. Sunday ended up being the best day to go to the Pitti palace and Academia because both were free! Woo HOO! Maybe the first Sunday of the month has something to do with it.

We enjoyed two of the best meals with views at Golden View Open Bar in Oltrarno and Sesio on top of the Westin on Piazza Ognissanti. The first on the other side of the Arno river in Oltrarno was absolutely perfect for our first lunch spot in the city. We got to drink wine and look out to Ponte Vecchio and could not have been more spell bound by the terra cotta heaven all around. The second was at sunset with the PERFECT lighting and view of the major city sights.

On our last day in the city we adventured about an hour and a half away to the magical land of Cinque Terre as my birthday treat! The five small towns isolated in the Italian Rivera are pedestrian only zones so we took a boat ride from one to the next. Stopped to have local white Cinque Terre wine from the area, gawk at the colorful beauty around us and toast to the best year of my life. It couldn’t have started out any better!

I am mesmerized by how bright Florence shines. Our travels continue through Tuscany to Capri and finally back up to Rome. Bring on La Dolce Vita!!

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FAREWELL SILHOUETTE!

After 4 months, 20 cities and 13 countries our contract on board the Celebrity Silhouette has come to a close! We had the best last 12 days with my parents on board to enjoy our final swan song. It was so fun to feel like proper tour guides of these cities we’ve so enjoyed getting familiar with throughout the Baltic. Many other musicians joined us for different sets throughout our last week and the final night we had a full band of nine people! Videos to come soon! Onto our next adventure!!!

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Photo shoot in Russia

There is currently a contest for our ship for a new campaign they are launching “the Grass Is Greener” with Celebrity Silhouette! Honestly it makes no sense to me because the grass is greener means the other option is always better….BUT as a crew member if you send in a photo in the grass and win, you get a mac book air! So Mads and I went out and took some photos in St. Petersburg with the hope of winning! The bottom one is the photo i submitted. Here’s to winning! Will let you know if I do!

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Enchanted with Edinburgh

We are somehow on our 7th cruise (time flies when you’re traveling the world!) and this UK/British Isles cruise focuses on the British Open. For anyone that knows me my interests do not lie in sports, let alone GOLF, but 600+ specifically came on board this week to attend the British Open in St. Andrews. Unfortunate weather kept us trapped on the ship the first day we got here so we ended up extending our two day visit to three days! Woo hoo! A crew members dream!

The ship is too large to dock in a port so we have to tender or drop an anchor further away from the shore and take life boats “tender” boats to land. We started our Scottish adventure on the top, outdoor level of the tender boat on a beautiful and sunny Sunday. My California self cannot believe the words out of my mouth when 65 and sunny means “what a gorgeous day”, but that’s what summer in the Baltic and UK will get you! So we made it ashore, a local bus ride later, we were in now rainy Edinburgh. Supposedly Edinburgh experiences four seasons in one day, so you always have to prepare for anything with an umbrella and sunglasses in your bag at all time. I just kept saying it would’t be an authentic Edinburgh experience if we didn’t get a little wet, and nothing was raining on my parade! Perfect segue because as we got off the bus we found ourselves in a parade! It seemed to be some sort of African celebration, with bright costumes, colorful Lion King-esque head pieces and banners. We caught the tail end on Princes St. and then celebrated the cars being blocked on the closed streets as we rebelliously walked through them. Everything was so green and crisp, the architecture was very grey but beautiful and well maintained for how old I imagined it was. We wandered into West Princes Street Gardens after being lured in by drumming and all kinds of music. From the street, theres a ramp and staircase that leads you down into this park that is below the Edinburgh Castle up on this hill. It seemed the parade had ended and led everyone to the main open air auditorium within the gardens. The African celebration continued and we got there just in time to see the rain start and a dance of umbrellas start to pop open, almost as if it was a choreographed thing, as people scattered for shelter. We giggled and I had one of those magical, “I love traveling because this is only going to happen once” moments that the combination of the rain and a new city can often bring and we walked through the gardens. I was overwhelmed by the beautiful green in every direction and the looming castle just above us, it seemed like the whole world was in Edinburgh that day and I couldn’t have been happier. We definitely had landed there on a festive weekend day. We followed our nose out of the gardens and back on the street to a beautiful gothic statue, the Scott Monument.

We started moving in a direction towards the castle, walking down the famous “Royal Mile” street which was crowded with tourists and interesting street performers-mimes, musicians, bagpipes, costumes, statue-like people, there was everything. One fellow in all white (face paint included) patiently froze without even blinking on a bicycle while little kids poked him. One little Scottish boy looked to me and said “there’s no way he’s real, right?”. The only thing I love more than new accents in a foreign city are little adorable kids with those accents. We hustled through the rain and found ourselves in “The Elephant House”, aka the Birthplace of Harry Potter, as the sign on the window explained. Once we managed to wait in line to get an overpriced (but delicious) coffee, we found ourselves in the café that J.K. Rowling wrote the first and second Harry Potter books. (SQUEAL) Supposedly, she had spent her winters writing in there because it was cheaper to get a coffee then pay her electric bill for heat in her apartment. There weren’t any obnoxious signs saying “she sat here” with an arrow, like I had expected, and I thought that was nice. The windows in the main room looked out to the castle so it was easy to imagine her dreaming up Hogwarts and all the HP friends. I will say it had to have been WAY quieter and not so busy for her to get anything done in there.

It just so happened that the Edinburgh Jazz &Blues Festival was going on this month of July! Basti recognized one of the artists as someone he had seen at Berklee before so we made our way to the Festival Theatre to purchase tickets for that evening’s performance. YAY Edinburgh, fueling our musical souls! If we were gonna miss the Fringe festival (a world famous theatre festival all August long) then at least we were managing to soak up some awesome live music! And awesome it was, we saw a Scottish trio, Trio HSK, with Cory Henry a Brooklyn native who shredded on the keys. It reminded me a lot of Berklee jam sesh, about 2 ½ hours of guitar, piano and drums solos but overall very moving. Cory Henry was a solo pianist that had was gospel jazz, and Trio HSK was “academic” as Basti said, “non-intuitive &studied”, in a rock, jazz genre. There was more reading of sheet music and less soulfully felt, but I respect what great musicians they all were. Overall, it was money well spent, to be off the ship and experiencing the local scene. Once it was over it was about 10:30pm and we had four hours before our curfew so as we were planning on heading back to the ship, we bumped into the solo guitarist on the ship, our friend Gordon. So into a bar we went, and we found a goldmine: kilt wearing-rock and roll/ Scottish pub song-playing old men in a band that got the crowd moving and grooving, as we threw back some beers and celebrated feeling like free humans with the evening off! I thoroughly enjoyed Edinburgh with all it had to offer! It’s definitely on the top of my list of places I would like to go back to!

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Paris, Je t'aime!

We took a two hour bus into the city from La Harve, the port our ship was docked at and marveled at this wonderful city. Four hours was a painful amount of city since Basti and I wanted to stay four weeks but we made the most of it! We met up with his friends, Archie and Vita from Berklee that live in the city, had coffee and croissants at Archie’s beautiful apartment and were so happy to be in a home. Then we wandered in Montemarte, my favorite artsy area of the city and bought some paintings from local artists in the area that Van Gogh and Picasso lived many years ago. We then had a crazy experience getting back. Basti thankfully speaks French and asked a woman where we could get a cab in the area because our time was running out. She explained we couldn’t get one close but that she would give us a ride, my stranger danger mentality went off but she was a 40+ year old mom so we hopped in and thankfully she helped us get back to our bus station! Thank god for the kindness of strangers! It was very hard to leave but the race back helped distract us!

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ESCAPE GLASGOW!

Loved this Scottish city! We signed up with friends to do this Escape Glasgow adventure. We’d done it once before in New York City and you pay to escape a room that is boobytrapped with clues. This one was science themed so we were scientists looking for a cure and then the cure would lead our way out. Only 40% make they’re way out and we managed to get out with 10 minutes to spare! Woo HOO!

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BEATLE MANIA!

Liverpool was Beatle crazy! We went to Matthews Street with the famous Cavern Club, the venue that the Beatles played at 250+ times. They called it the home of the Beatles, and all the bars around claimed similar things. Really cool to be underground in a place where they were first nobodies! God bless the Beatles!

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A quiet day in the Hermitage’s east wing

The shock value of being in Russia has subsided, albeit only St. Petersburg we have visited. The absence of signs and tourist help in english is no longer a worry, thankfully the number system is the same which makes buying bus tickets and picking from restaurant menus somewhat less daunting.

From the cruise port we have learned to rely on the local bus system, as opposed to our sporadic crew shuttle, and the metro. In the subway stations and on the train is a museum in itself, quiet and severe glances from all directions. It is astounding how much the culture of the States has infiltrated this distant part of the world, NBA logos, Converse Chuck Taylor (8:10 white high tops), US university hoodies. As east and west intertwine more, the west has a loud voice which seems to drown out any differing opinions.

Anyhow, we arrive at the Hermitage with our internet-bought tickets (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! The ticket queue is at least 45 min) get a map and make a B-line for the East Wing: the relatively modern exhibits of the museum. To find the entrance is strangely confusing. Visitors enter thru glass sliding doors clearly reading “STAFF ENTRANCE”. Unintuitive much? The lack of advertising makes sense as the East Wing seems under-construction, stairways are closed off, most of the doors are shut, there are a good few baron rooms and many A4 printed at-home-styled signage.

The exhibits that are up and running, however, are oozing with cultural treasures. We start on the fourth floor; a Renoir masterpiece ‘Bal au Moulin de la Galette’ on loan from the Museé d'Orsay in its own room #dazzling (no photos allowed of traveling pieces), then we are hit by a room full of Matisse to make us love Crayola colours all over again, then a room of Derain, THEN the Picasso show starts, three rooms of it… The highlights of the collection are the works from his Blue Period (Two Sisters, Portrait of Soler) and when he ventured down Cubism alley. The pinnacle is reached at the Three Women, the visitor is lead thru the development of Picasso’s concept, from aggressive dismantling of the image, to mild distortion, to graceful pure expression.

Joni Mitchell said, “ 'Art’ is short for 'artificial’; Sometimes you have to lie to show the truth. When Van Gogh painted Starry Night the clouds weren’t nearly as swirling, the moon not nearly as bright.” Had ol Vincent done a Realism painting, I’d assume that to be much more limited and dull than his perception of the night. He just painted what he saw thru the lens of his emotion, just as Picasso did (and the many, many other masters). They were all liars showing their truth.

After that mouthful of delicious artworks we wander until we see a nondescript sign about some or other Sokolov Memorial something. “Okay, we may as well check it out”. We are lead thru corridors of what seem like empty offices, an opening and POW!! Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugain, Renoir, Boudin, Maurice Denis and more and more Impressionism than I can handle. The wonderful thing about the general absence of signage is the wonderful absence of crowds hustling you along. The hour and a half we we on the floor I noticed one tour group and no more than forty other visitors. As quiet as a library, no distractions, bliss. The view of the Hermitage Square rivaled some of the masterworks. All in all, a wonderfully peaceful day. And there was more to see.

The third floor has some of the local hero, Kandinsky, and the Classical and Renaissance art from France, Holland, England and Italy. Academically precise and powerful biblical/sovereign/military narrative. We got a little taste of royal, golden exuberance, some of the military garb (and I complain about my uniform, these dudes had to wear steel chest plates and funky hats everyday). Two and a half hours in a we are spent. And there is still another floor… We head shipward, well-rewarded.

Morale of the day: Follow signs even though at first glance they seem to lead to nothing special.

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?Channel Islands?

Honesty, the pictures tell more about this lovely island than I can. We were tendered in this port (not to be confused with TINDER the popular dating/sexytime app…I always say the wrong thing) meaning the ship is too large to dock on land therefore creating too much of a current at this harbor. So we have to take the lifeboats to and from the ship to the main land…and it’s a pain in the ass when you’re crew and on time restrictions. The entire UK itinerary consists of tender ports and that’s sort of inconvenient but it is what it is!

Not knowing what to expect, we hopped off and had a gorgeous day. I didn’t learn much about St. Peter’s Port (a second glance at the map, I realized that’s what it was called!) The ship’s information source said it was the Channel Islands, which I learned is multiple islands and this specific one was called Guernsey. It’s been apart of the British Isles from the 18th century, other than that all I know is that wealthy people used to be able to hide money here like Switzerland and Grand Caymen Islands. That’s just a fun fact from the 50+ year old Dave, that plays saxophone in the orchestra. Overall, we enjoyed the warm weather and wandering through the foreign cobblestone town.

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DOVER AND OVER AND OVER

We’ve arrived in the UK for a new itinerary! The first stop is Dover, England! Not the most beautiful city in all the land but my British friends told me they try to keep Dover sort of ugly to keep the French out because it’s only 23 miles away from France…typical French and British rivalry. The most striking sights are the famous White Cliffs of Dover and the Dover Castle, both of which you could see from the ship. (see the blue photo Basti took from our window! so cool!) Friends from the party band that were on the ship when we got are originally from Dover, so now on vacation, they showed a big group of us around. We wandered through the small town and the first order of business was getting fish and chips, DUH! We walked up to a simple, order behind the counter, take away (see how cultured I’m becoming…I don’t say the American “take out” anymore) place and were very satisfied. We then walked through streets with British flags and red doors found our way to one of their big vans, it’s honestly a small bus. They call it Phil’s creeper van, but since he is a sweetheart, I really don’t think it suites him. We piled in (with plenty of seatbelts mom!) and drove up a steep hill to Dover Castle.

Perched grandly on top of the White Cliffs of Dover, this beautiful medieval castle has stood guard for almost a thousand years. It’s protected England from invaders from Roman through modern times and has undeniable majesty. We moseyed through wartime tunnels from the 1790s when the threat of Napoleon was looming and the secret passageways were without a doubt haunted with gruesome war memories. Adventuring to the top of Henry II’s Great Tower, made for an awesome view. The walls were up to 20 feet thick, supposedly Henry II slept on the top floor, surrounded by his best protection to stay safe. Phil, our driver/tour guiding friend, mentioned how in tact Dover Castle really was. He said most castles in England, much like the Wall of China, were invaded by commoners for materials to build their houses, but this one was in great shape. We couldn’t start our trip in the UK without a pub visit, so we stopped for a beer and celebrated being with good friends.

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Strawberries Galore!

Warnemunde, Germany is a very pleasant former fishing town. Three hours on a train and you can be in Berlin but with work at night, we found ourselves wandering this quaint town. There’s a nice beach, it was just a wee bit too chilly for a swim but next time I am going in! And good news, bathing suits are optional! Just what I want to do, skinny dip with other cruisers around me….NOT. The highlight of Germany for me are Karl’s Strawberry stands, were five euro gets you a basket the size of your face of the most delicious, ripe, red berries. We soaked up some sun in a park, met our friends for a sausage and beer and had a lovely day!

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CABIN FEVER!!!

I’ve mainly been speaking about our travels so for those of you interested in how it is as a crew member on board the Celebrity Silhouette, here it goes! Below are pictures of our cozy cabin, that we’ve made homey with photos, collectables from our travels thus far, Christmas lights, a wall of maps and smuggled in succulents (shh don’t tell!) It is good, not glamorous, not exceptional but we have a nice room with a window and as musicians on board, we cannot complain.

I like to describe working on a cruise ship as a social experiment. There are 1,200 crew members amongst the 3,000 guests every week, coming from 66 different countries, it’s a microcosm of the world. Coming from my privileged American bubble, it’s been an eye-opening experience. Celebrity takes care of it’s crew, don’t get me wrong, we are all housed in warm places and are overly fed but there is a lot of inequality, that I’ve never had so obviously in my face. Coming from a first world country accustomed to Western lifestyle, freedom is something I expect. This rule heavy environment, where you are constantly at work and therefore on surveillance, has been an interesting transition. That’s why not many Americans work on this ship, we like our freedom and are more entitled than people I’ve met from other countries. I’m grateful for the life I have raised with by my hardworking parents but even more grateful for this humbling experience that has given me friends from all walks of life. Khatibu from Tanzania, Fa from Indonesia, Mohen from Mauritius, people who come from vastly different backgrounds. Whether they support families back at home, or have gone to university like myself, everyone has a dream, and that is the point in which we all connect. We are all the same and I’ve never felt so isolated and similar at the same time. Uniforms, positions, rank and privileges can often separate people but more often than not this experience has made me realize we are all floating in the same boat. Literally. We bleed the same blood, we feel the same joy and pain and no difference in skin color, social status or position of power makes anyone better or worse than anyone else. Life naturally keeps us secluded in our own bubbles but having this multi-cultural experience has only furthered my travel bug. The more you walk in someone else’s shoes, or in this case alongside, the more appreciation you have for your own. Someone will always have it better but more often than not someone has it much worse. It’s not so in your face on land, the awareness is there but the cultural differences and experiences some see that I will never understand in this lifetime are so blatantly obvious, you can’t ignore it if you tried. As much as I’m traveling out in the world, the real cultural experience is underneath on Deck 2 where the crew highway is. This perspective is invaluable and worth a lifetime of traveling. It’s brought a new gratitude and mindfulness of how lucky I’ve been to grow up with choice and not obligation.