Climbing Crough Patrick, in Co. Mayo: 2,500 Feet Above Ireland

Having grown up in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, I felt the pull to finally hike the mammoth. Join me as I crests the 2,500-foot peak to gain a new perspective on this quaint Irish community.

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Dirty snow and chunks of mud nipped the skin under my fingernails as I scrambled up Croagh Patrick, a coastal mountain in western Ireland. Claw. Step. Claw. Step. All the while, the ocean wind whipped beads of sweat down my temples as I struggled.

I couldn't be more than 100 feet from the summit when I slipped and faltered. Terrified, I fell forward into a low crouch, shredding my palms on the scree. One misstep to either side, and I'd tumble over the icy drop-offs, perishing long before I hit bottom.

I cursed myself.

A young Irish woman gingerly scooted past me on her butt and offered her right hand. "You're not too far from the top there now," she said. She pulled me upward until I found my balance, and then continued her awkward descent.

How did I get here?

For some, County Mayo's Croagh Patrick is a must-hike for its stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and western Irish countryside. But to pilgrims and history buffs, it's much more. According to Catholic tradition, St. Patrick scaled the 2,507-foot mountain in 441 A.D. to banish all snakes from the Emerald Isle. Before that, the Celts worshiped a deity, Crom Dubh, they believed lived in the mountain.

Those stories help to draw more than 100,000 people annually to hike the spiny ridge, traverse the saddle, and spring for the summit. And though I was neither an avid climber nor a history enthusiast, in 2011 I began to feel the mountain's pull.

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In many ways, a summit of Croagh Patrick would be a homecoming for me. The daughter of American academics teaching abroad, I spent years living in the shadow of the mountain—more specifically, in the hamlet of Louisburgh, a village of 207 and home to the College of St. Scholastica. And though I'd immersed myself in the local culture, I'd never ascended the famous peak. So when a globe trot brought me within a stone's throw of that familiar edifice, it seemed wrong not to attempt it.

Of course, nostalgia is all well and good at sea level. Clinging to the side of Croagh Patrick, 2,400 up, I resumed my crawl. Claw. Step. Fifty feet to go. But the scree gave way and I slipped back ten feet and swore out loud.

Forty feet. I thought of the granola I ate that morning and prayed I wouldn't vomit.

Thirty. The sunlight made diamonds out of the snow.Did I overestimate myself? Should I have brought crampons?Sweat fogged up my sunglasses so I pushed them back through my blond braided hair.

The sunlight made diamonds out of the snow. Did I overestimate myself? Should I have brought crampons?"


Twenty. My contact lenses had dried out and stuck to my eyeballs.

Ten. The brain does funny things when fatigued. I began to drift, fantasizing about sledding down the mountain, when the icy path suddenly leveled out. I crested the mountain into knee-deep snow. The pink stopwatch on my wrist read 2:23:17.

I'd made it. Heart rate: 171. Total elevation: 2,507 feet. Blisters: too many to count. But I made it.

CRESTING CROAGH PATRICK

Two men in their 50's stood eating apples and digging circles in the snow with their walking sticks, not too far away. "Good girl," said one. “That'll get the heart racing now, won't it?" He jabbed at the west edge of the summit with his staff, and I followed his gaze off the coast. An army of islands (365, I found out later) dotted the waters of Clew Bay.

Nestled between the mountain and the bay, the green countryside was dotted with white and yellow cottages, ribbons of cobblestone walls separating one farmer's land from another. I nodded to the men and waded through snow to the summit's small church, a shrine to the mountain's namesake.

Munching a granola bar, I returned to those legends in which the peak was shrouded. Serpents and gods certainly lend an air of the mystical to Croagh Patrick, but they weren't what drew me to the summit. Rather it was the community the mountain had built, at its base and on its slopes—the strangers it drew together on the trail, the passing hellos, the strong grasp of a helping hand. It was my community, one I missed dearly, but had been lucky enough to find again.

With an aching back, but a renewed spirit, I waded back through the snow, put my toe to the edge of the mountain and looked down at the tiny people steadily climbing toward me. I smiled to myself and began my descent, a pilgrim coming home.

Scuba Diving for Beginners: 7 Tips to Learn Scuba Diving

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Scuba diving for beginners can be scary. Think about it: you’re basically tricking your body out of all its natural survival instincts that make you swim and float, to sink and breathe underwater. Once you overcome any vertigo or underwater claustrophobia, scuba diving can be a peaceful experience. But getting to that stage takes being mentally and physically comfortable in the water. So when I had my first scuba lesson last week, my P.A.D.I. certified instructor (professional association of diving instructors) showed me these techniques to relax in the water. The best part? I discovered that the world of water beneath the surface is a quiet place, teeming with wildlife waiting for exploration.

1. Know What You’re Getting Into

Scuba is actually an old acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”. It is the entire system of an oxygen tank and a single hose with two regulators strapped to your back that allow you to breathe underwater. There are several types of diving: recreational, technical, industrial, deep diving, cave diving, military diving, wreck diving, to name a few. If you’re not sure whether scuba is for you or not, and you don’t want to fork over the big bucks for your certification, try a P.A.D.I. Discover Scuba Diving course that introduces you to the equipment and breathing underwater in a safe, controlled environment.

If you’re not even sure whether you like breathing in the water, snorkel first. Grab a mask and a tube from your local Walmart for less than $30 and try putting your face in the water. If you can get used to breathing through a snorkel tube, you’re halfway there to scuba diving.

2. Don’t Hold Your Breath

This is very important to be aware of, because humans don’t have gills like fish, so we have a natural tendency to want to hold our breath underwater. Holding your breath underwater can lead to lung injuries and panicked breathing, which then might throw your rhythm off and send you (by instinct) shooting to the surface. Rising too quickly can send nitrogen bubbles into your blood stream and cause all kinds of painful aneurysms, and even death. Instead, breathe in a slow, relaxed manner and exhale fully. Try not to change your breathing too much, unless you are used to regulating your breathing to control your buoyancy in the water, something your dive instructor will show you how to do.

3. Never Dive Alone

This is probably the backbone of all scuba rules. Never, ever, under any circumstances, dive alone. You aren’t supposed to stray more than ten feet from your partner. Always check in with each other and frequently give each other the “okay” hand signal (forming a circle with your index finger and thumb). Diving with a partner can mean the difference between life and death. It is also a good idea to do a pre-dive equipment check with each other to make sure all systems go.

4. Conservative Diving = Safer Diving

My dive instructor gave me great advice when I was worried at the beginning of our session. He told me the more conservative of a diver I am, the safer I will be. If I follow the rules, I won’t get hurt. It’s as simple as that. Think about it like driving in winter time. If you approach the roads cautiously and don’t accelerate too fast, chances are, when you hit an ice patch, you’ll keep control of your vehicle. Same goes for diving. If you dive conservatively, you will be safe.

5. Fix Foggy Goggles With Saliva

Foggy goggles freak me out. Not only can I not see anything around me in the water but having something covering my face underwater gives me an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. I told this to my dive instructor and he said goggles get foggy because they are not the same temperature as our bodies. The heat from our bodies against the glass creates a steam/vapor. To fix this, simply rub a finger-full of saliva on the inside of the lens to equalize the temperature. It sounds gross but it really works.

6. Equalize Your Sinuses Every Three Feet

If you were to hold a balloon underwater, and push it deeper underwater, the oxygen in the balloon would compress. The same balloon that’s the size of a watermelon on the surface of the water will be half as big when pushed a few feet under water. The same thing happens to your air-holding cavities in your body when you’re in water, namely your sinuses and lungs. If you descend too quickly, you’ll feel a sharp pinching feeling in your sinuses as they contract too quickly. Descend slowly enough to allow yourself time to equalize the pressure on your sinuses by pinching your nose (over the outside of your goggle mask) and blowing semi-hard through your nose. You should feel a slight pop and the pressure will be relieved.

7. Ascend Slower than Your Bubbles

For the same reasons that you equalize sinus pressure on the descent, you must ascend slow enough to give your body’s air pockets time to adjust to the expanding oxygen in your system. If you ascend too quickly, the oxygen in your lungs and sinuses (and blood vessels for that matter) will expand at an alarming rate, pushing nitrogen bubbles into your blood stream that can cause serious injury and death. A good rule of thumb to avoid this is to swim upward slower than the stream of bubbles issued from your exhale. If you scuba by the rules, get certified by an instructor and study dive charts that give you safe ascent/depth ratios, you’ll be fine.

For more information on getting a P.A.D.I. scuba certification visit here.

6 Best Places to Scuba Dive in North and Central America

Skip Oz for Dive Spots Closer to Home

Great Barrier Reef, Australia is known as the top place to dive, but the influx of divers over the years has damaged the coral reefs. But for divers on the western side of the globe, Australia is much more expensive to reach. “The best places to go scuba diving are most often the ones with the least tourists,” says Marc Turenne, a National Aquatic Service scuba instructor in central New York. “The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places where so many divers visit that areas are drastically damaged.” You don’t have to go to Oz for cool underwater views. In fact, there are many dive locations much closer to home for divers (and beginning divers) in the Americas.

1. Swim with Sharks in Shark Ray Alley

Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize, is a stretch of eight-foot deep water where you can dive and swim with nurse sharks and rays. Local fishermen used to gut their day’s catch over this area of water. Consequently, the sharks and rays built a habit of feeding on the small fish, and now stay here. “You’ll also see fluorescent-colored fish, four-foot long black groupers, and delicate sea fans,” says Holly Corbett, travel author, expert, and certified scuba enthusiast. “It’s one of the best places for marine life, and one of my favorite places to dive in Belize.”

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2. Deep-Water Dive in The Blue Hole

The Blue Hole, also located in Belize, was created after an ancient underwater cave collapsed to form a sink hole that can be seen from outer space. It’s more than 400 feet deep and 1,000 feet across. There isn’t as much marine life, apart from a few sharks, but you can dive 130 feet down the Blue Hole to the lip of cave and then “go underneath the ledge. But you have to be careful because the depth is outside the recreational diving standard of 100 feet,” says Tia Hastings, a National Aquatic Service scuba instructor in central New York.

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3. Diverse Underwater Life in Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador has some of the most diverse marine life in a concentrated area. When diving the Galapagos, you’ll see everything from penguins to four-eyed fish, and iguanas to dolphins and sea lions. “We just saw it all,” says Turenne. “It was hard to believe that this whole world existed under water, and then I was there and it was incredible. Being that close to an eight foot shark or a tiny sea horse is awesome.”

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4. Freshwater Wreck Dive in Thousand Islands

Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence river in New York is a famous U.S. dive spot and some consider it the best freshwater diving in the world. With shipwrecks at dive-able depths, the water is an attractive place to vacation for the weekend. “Thousand Islands is my favorite place to dive because the water is relatively clear, it’s affordable for those on a dive-budget, and the ship wrecks are all very different from each other,” says Turenne.

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5. Great White Cage Dive in California

Thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands are one of the best places to view Great White Sharks in the world. You can cage dive here, and you don’t have to be a certified scuba diver to do it—although you will have to undergo a crash course in safety equipment. The sharks range from 15 to 20 feet long and some of the world’s largest. Dive experts specializing in cage diving will set you up for $875.

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6. World’s Second Largest Barrier Reef

Just a flight away from America, the Caribbean offers less known dive sites. Holly Corbett was dive-certified in Thailand three and a half years ago, and has been traveling the world on dive trips ever since. One of her favorite spots is exploring off the coast of Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile long Caribbean island in Belize. At San Pedro, the island’s only town, you fill up your oxygen tanks and have prime-dive access to the world’s second largest barrier reef.

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Snow Storms in Europe: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (I think)

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Three hours. Standing. Sweating. Thirsty. Exhausted. Frustrated.

I’ve waited for three hours in line just to get inside the double doors for the international departure ticket booth. My number, #709, sits far down the list on the numbers of Frankfort’s computer screens. Frustrated, I wait for the 200+ people in front of me to re-route their tickets so I can make it home for Christmas. We’re all trying to get somewhere for the holidays but flights look  bleak. And our current situation is even bleaker. We’re all here, in this dark lounge, for the same reason: snowstorms sweeping most of Northern, Western and parts of Southern Europe, cause cancellations or delays on most flights. Thousands of us missed connecting flights in Frankfort today, and for a Frankfort-based hub like airline Lufthansa, that means thousands of people who need re-routed tickets, free hotel rooms, meal stubs, and water.

The little girl next to me can’t be more than five years old. She’s stretched out on the blue plastic seats, her mousy brown hair piled under her head for a pillow. Her purple socks dangle off her feet and her eyelids flutter in a half-sleep interrupted by constant intercom announcements.

An American man, probably in his low 30’s, asked to share my outlet. He scratches his shaved head, and twirls his white gold wedding ring aimlessly as he stares into space waiting for his computer to charge. His wife just had a baby—he hasn’t met his son yet because he has been out of the country for two weeks on business. He’s eager to get home.

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A smiling woman in a yellow vest offers water and granola bars to everyone. “Sweets! Treats! Food!” she shouts over the loudspeakers. She’s eager to get people drinking and eating. It’s easy to become dehydrated during long hours in the airport and the last thing Lufthansa wants is to send someone to Frankfort’s hospital. But her smile is infectious, and soon more and more people are smiling too.

A young couple, just married, sit across the aisle. The bride wears a white sweatshirt screaming BRIDE in pink, curly letters. She rests her head on her new husbands shoulder and by the looks of their colorful sandals they’re en route to somewhere warm on their honeymoon. Hopefully.

An older man in a trench coat has gray hairs protruding from his inner ears around his hearing aids. He scans the rows of plastic chairs for an empty seat before a strapping teenage boy stands up to offer the old man his.

A loud American woman with a thick Long Island accent chats to her sister on her blackberry. She complains about how tired she is, how frustrated she is, and how she just wants to jump the line to get home. Part of me agrees with her, but part of me resents her for voicing everyone’s thoughts so obnoxiously.

Numbers crawl slowly up the screen.  Four stations of exhausted Lufthansa employees help the several hundred of us packed into this lounge. And we’re the lucky ones. We’ve waited outside for three hours just to get in here to wait more. But at least we have a chair. And at least it’s not Christmas yet. There’s still three days to make it home. But for now, I’ve resigned myself to sleeping in yet another airport tonight. The frustrated ambiance in this ticketing lounge gives a whole new meaning to the Frank Sinatra song playing in my earbuds: I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Here’s hoping, Frank.

4 Amazing Things to Do in London for Study Abroad Students

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Prague, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Dublin, Barcelona, Athens, Vienna.

As a young American studying abroad, the marketing of must-visit tourist destinations screams for a weekend get-away with your best friends. Travel agents thrust brochures into your hands with pictures of lavish museums, palaces, castles, night clubs, brewery tours, war monuments and cultural markets. You visit Ryan Air and Easy Jet on a daily basis. You have flight price status email alerts sent to your email…

When you settle down for several months abroad it’s easy to grab a calendar, circle your free weekends in red marker, whip out your credit card and start booking trips—especially when your home-base is a major world metropolis like London, with frequent and (relatively) reasonably priced planes, trains, buses, and ferries abroad.

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Once you figure out maps, tube stops, good restaurants, favorite museums, where to party and where to buy show tickets, you create a comfort zone. Now that I’m in the third week of my trip, this is definitely the case for me. I’m in a rhythm of London life. But, this past weekend, I learned that just by staying in London, I am traveling. I capitalized on the SU Love London weekend opportunities and checked out the city for myself. Love London is a series of events Syracuse University puts together showcasing London’s finer aspects–show tickets, bike tours, dog racing, walking tours, Broadway, historical tours, and market visits, just to name a few.

Sure, I love travel and I think adventure is a necessary staple of life. But this past weekend, to my delight, I rediscovered that travel doesn’t always mean strapping on a backpack and blowing doors… Here are four London-stand-outs that get an A+ and that I’d recommend to any college students visiting.

1. Attend the Romeo and Juliet Ballet at the Royal Opera House

We saw the Romeo and Juliet ballet performance at the Royal Opera House located a two minute walk from the Covent Garden Tube stop. I’ve seen the play several times before, and like most ninth graders in America, I read and analyzed Shakespeare’s text thinking I was all intelligent…and stuff. I had never seen a ballet before so when the thick gold tassels pulled back the large maroon velvet curtains, I really didn’t know what to expect. The costumes were intricate and lavish—a swirling array of dancers told the story of two doomed lovers without speaking a single word. The musical notes soared from the Orchestra pit to my seat on the top level, kissing the white and blue decorated ceiling and plummeting back down through the five tiers of viewers. In the final scene where Juliet and Romeo die, the audience was stone-silent. I don’t think anyone breathed in that moment. The dancers came out for the curtain call to thunderous applause. As a writer who uses words to communicate, the fact that dancers could use their bodies and facial expressions to physically show an entire story brought my respect for the art of communication to a whole new level. If you ever visit London, see a ballet.

TRAVEL TIP: Dress up! We all wore dresses just for fun thinking it’d be a great night out, but when we arrived to the Royal Opera House, everyone else was decked out too. I cringe to think about the looks we’d get if we showed up in jeans…

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2. Don’t Miss the Billy Elliot Musical on Broadway

We saw the Billy Elliot Musical on Broadway at the Victoria Palace Theater across the street from the Victoria Tube stop. The show was entirely different than a ballet, and I highly recommend all London visitors to see at least one Broadway while they’re in town. The young boy who played Billy was no older than 12 or 13 but his dancing and singing was singularly the best. There was one point where he jumped on top of a piano and front-flipped to the ground. Each number was a combination of ballet, tap, jazz, and show dance and each song was delightfully choreographed with energy. Even if you don’t like theater or musical theater, it’s worth going to get an inside glance of the theater itself.

TRAVEL TIP: You can take pictures of the theater before the show starts so bring your camera. It’s beautiful inside.

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3. Check Out London By Bike

Syracuse set up a guided bike tour around London, and even though we went on streets with regular traffic and crossed the main bridges, there were no casualties or accidents. I was terrified of riding in crazy London and there was one point when a huge double-decker bus glided past us on the bridge, but it showed me how easy city riding actually is. If I lived here permanently, I’d definitely purchase a bike. We met down at a wharf across the river early Saturday morning and visited much of the city: Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, St. James Park, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, and several memorials. Along the way, our guide would stop and talk about each place, putting everything into historical context. When we rolled into the bike rental shop three hours later, we were all sad to say goodbye to our bikes. We left with a much better visual map of London in our heads and a new confidence to explore London. I mean, hey, if we can survive London on bikes, we can do anything. 

TRAVEL TIP: Bring gloves — if it’s not summer, your hands freeze.

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4. Tour the Tower of London

I’ve been here a few times before, but Syracuse set up its own privately guided tour with a professor who knows absolutely everything. He gave us an architecture-historical tour of the tower, (much different from the Beefeaters–Queen’s guard–who tell you who killed who and who slept with whom). We saw the crown jewels (a London-must) and we learned about both the exterior and interior of the tower. It’s worth a visit when you’re in London and definitely get a guided tour so you know what you are looking at. 

TRAVEL TIP: Dress warmly–most Tower buildings aren’t heated.

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3 Strangers in an Airport Bar: A Story of Frankfurt Christmas Travel Delays

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The German departures board flashed “CANCELED” in bright yellow next to my Detroit-bound Lufthansa flight. My shoulders dropped. A night in the Frankfort airport seemed inevitable. Great. Making it home for Christmas was my top priority, but weather had other plans so I threw my hands up in exasperation and adjusted to the adventure.

A lanky tall German airport official ushered me to the back of a re-ticketing line that stretched around the airport terminal, through a set of doorways and down a long flight of stairs. It moved at a sluggish pace.

“Where are you going tonight?” he asked, in a thick German accent.

“Are flights going out tonight? I’ll go anywhere in America,” I said. “Seriously, send me to San Francisco, Texas, D.C. New York, just get me stateside and I can figure it out from there.” I heard my voice, pleading to get home.

He and several others around us chuckled. “I think, my dear,” as he patted his wretched clipboard on my shoulder, “flights to America are all gone. Perhaps tomorrow you can fly, but for now, how about a bottle of water?” He motioned to a food cart lady. She circled the line every half hour or so, handing out water and snacks. An hour later I had moved only 20 feet and collected a small pile of granola bar wrappers.

Three hours later, the line slugged its way into the re-ticketing lounge. I shot straight to the back and  waited for my number #790 to be called. Seven hours later it was my turn to approach the counter. The airline lady smiled wearily and finagled a seat for me on a D.C. flight the next morning. She reprinted my boarding card and assured me the weather would clear in time to fly.

She then gave me a hotel and meal voucher at the Holiday Inn in Frankfort. She squelched my reluctance to take it, convincing me that even though it was already almost midnight, a warm bed, hot shower and a German meal were worth the hassle. She pressed the voucher into my hand. I couldn’t refuse a warm bed, 22 hours sans sleep.

I trudged down to the hotel shuttle area, dragging my bags. The Holiday Inn shuttle driver hurtled down the icy highway, whipping by German back roads saturated in snow drifts. Perhaps I was the last run of the night. He seemed eager to get off work, annoyed at shuttling stranded passengers to and from the airport. He jerked the van to a halt and barked, “Here!”

A wide wooden reception counter top stretched the side of the front lobby. Low-lit lamps artfully placed on wooden coffee tables centered in circles of red couches and lazy-boy chairs gave a homey glow to the lobby. It all felt like a dream.

“Can I help you, miss?” said a dashingly handsome German hotel clerk. This definitely was a dream. I handed him my vouchers. He nodded knowingly, “another stranded guest. Unfortunately our restaurant is closed right now but perhaps I can point you in the direction of the hotel bar? You can use this voucher for a couple of beers, if you like?”

Yes. Please.

I didn’t even waste time bringing my bags to my room. The nearly empty, dimly lit bar, only held four middle aged men on stools at the bar, an older couple in the corner and the bartender. Apparently the rest of the stranded travelers were in bed. I pulled up a stool and ordered a Paulsner, my American accent gave me away.

Suddenly the large man next to me with a salt and pepper bushy beard tucked around the collar of his white, unbuttoned shirt swiveled around in his stool. He watched me for a minute, and after a long gaze he prodded my bag. “Where are ya from?”

“From Minnesota, but I live in New York,” I answered generically,  uninterested in a conversation.

“My name is Denis,” he stuck his hand out right over my beer, “nice to meet you. This is Ryan, from Ireland, and Walter from Brazil.” He pointed at two men next to him, looking at me apologetically, as if to say we’re not with him per se, we’re just with him right now.

“Hey guys, I’m Patty.” I took the bait. “Are you all stranded, too?” Ryan and Walter opened their mouths to respond but Denis jumped in.

“Yep! We all just met at this bar tonight, isn’t that crazy? I love traveling. You always meet so many people, I wish my wife was here right now, she’s love your bag. So where ya headed tomorrow, are you trying to get back to New York?”

He wiped a hand across his forehead dragging sweat beads out of his receding hairline.

Walter’s dark eyes darted to my face and he raked a hand through his jet black hair before pounding the bar for another shot. Ryan grinned, a thin, sandy haired man wearing a dark green zip up sweatshirt.”Denis, give the girl a second to catch up with you,” he motioned to my beer and winked. Gratefully, I took a gulp as they started chatting about their day.

Apparently Ryan, a Dublin native, and Walter, a Brazilian-born man living in Argetina with his English mother (who named him Walter as her last ditch effort to instill some European in him) met on a flight to Dublin. Their flight took off from Frankfort earlier that morning, made it 30 miles from Dublin, and turned back to Frankfort because Dublin airport shut down. I felt better about my situation. Denis, a Canadian, had been in Munich on business for two weeks and was eager to get back to his wife, who he met on Match.com five years ago. He ran through a long list of Christmas gifts he bought her in Munich nudging me each time he came across a present he was exceptionally excited about.

We all took turns buying rounds with our hotel food vouchers and talking about our careers, what our homes were like, where we had traveled before and where we most wanted to go next.

“What is the first thing you’ll do when you finally make it home,” I asked the three men.

“I’m going to meet some mates at the pub ’round the corner from my nan’s house,” Ryan said. “Then we’re going to cook a Christmas ham and head to church when the rest of the family comes in from Kilkenny.”

Without hesitation, Walter, who had been relatively quiet during Denis and Ryan’s banter, said, “I’m going to ask my girlfriend to marry me.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small diamond ring, encased in a tiny velvet box. “I’ve carried this around for six months.”

Ryan laughed at my dumbstruck face. “Easy Yank,” (they’d all nicknamed me Yank, short for Yankee).”He’s been dating the girl for three years, it’s about time he put a ring on it. Isn’t that a Beyonce song or something?”

Denis chortled, “Yes! All the Single Ladies, I love that song.”

Our laughter faded and we sipped in silence, each of us lost in anxieties about getting home for Christmas. Then Denis cleared his throat and said, “I suppose the first thing I’ll do is hug my wife, pretty damn tightly.”

We all smiled at our beers and eventually when the bar closed at 3am, we headed to our beds. I never saw any of them the next morning at breakfast, or in the airport. But I was glad to have met them, and a day later when I finally made it out of Frankfort to D.C., through Minneapolis to Duluth, I deboarded the airplane into the waiting arms of my family. And those tight hugs in the airport terminal never felt so good. I made it home the day before Christmas Eve.

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Athens Travel: My night in a Greek Jail

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Tara and I sat perched on a mustard, moth-eaten couch. On the facing wall, a yellowish stain—vomit or urine, I couldn’t tell—congealed in drip-dry formation down the peeling white paint. It was almost midnight. Two dirty, sweaty men leered at us, thick forearms hanging through steel bars crisscrossed on a large wooden cell door. It reminded me of the dungeon scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, except this was a Greek jail.

A tattooed “police officer” sporting a black leather jacket sauntered around us. He was massive.  His greasy, bleach blond hair slicked back in a bun nearly brushed the caving ceiling. His thin lips expunged heavy breaths, agitating the smoldering cigarette wedged between the gap where a tooth should’ve been. He eyeballed us. My instincts flared, I didn’t trust him at all.

We were in jail because of a thief. We met at the Athens airport two hours before—Tara flew in from Madrid, I flew in from London. The promise of spring break, six days filled with gyros, beaches and the Parthenon, absorbed our attention. It happened in a second. The thief vanished into the March night, on the metro platform with my friend’s $600 camera—an elusive shadow.

Our immediate—and admittedly panicked—reaction was to find the police station. Surely Greece had police reports.

Wrong.

At the directions of a sympathetic stranger, we headed to the nearest police station a half-mile away. Outside, five men with M16 guns strapped across navy blue and white uniforms stood in a circle, smoking and spitting on the concrete.

We desperately explained the stolen camera situation and that we’d please like to file a police report. They laughed. Their amused dark eyes saw only three things. Young. American. Women.

Nonetheless, they took us into the station motioned us into an elevator. Were they serious? Their fingers on the trigger told me yes. My mind took off. I wrote my own disappearance headline as I stepped inside: Two American college girls missing in Athens, whereabouts unknown. The missing shaft wall exposed the pulley system. I watched the floors pass, counting as we jerked upward — one, two, three, four, five.

Thirty minutes later, Mr. Leather Jacket handed us a document—supposedly a police report, although I’m certain they later filed it in the garbage. Tara hastily filled it out. Mr. Leather Jacket lurked around, smoking his cigarette, cursing in Greek at the criminals behind bars. My instincts raged. The whole situation felt wrong. Very wrong.

Another officer looked at Tara’s police report, and tore it in half. He angrily told her to redo it, stating that she “lost” the camera.

But it was stolen! she declared, frustrated. STOLEN, NOT LOST.

Everything escalated at once. The officer Tara argued with turned an unusual purple color.  The criminals behind bars taunted filthy broken English, come here babies, good vacation? Mr. Leather Jacket strode around the corner to yell at the criminals. She snatched a blank report and scribbled that she lost the camera.

I grabbed her hand. She tossed the police report on his desk, and we lunged toward the elevator. I pushed the call button a hundred times. An eternity later, we tripped out on the ground floor pushing past a bloody, bruised man in handcuffs escorted by two machine guns.

The next day, in a Greek heritage parade, I saw that same betraying white and navy uniform. And I gripped my bag a little tighter.

Stung by a Jellyfish: Mykonos Beach, Greece

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I didn’t know I had been stung–at first. And then it hit me. My legs burned, screaming for relief from the salty water. I vividly remember three things: the Mediterranean breeze drifting across my brown nose, the whoosh of escaping air from my lungs, and Emilio’s hand in the small of my back pushing me toward the shore.

***

I met Danny when he plopped down next to me on the bus at Mykonos port. He turned his big blue eyes to me and we talked about the solo-backpacking trip I was smack in the middle of. He traveled to Greece with a group of guys—three of his American cousins from Miami, and one Canadian. Within minutes, I tucked in as their sixth roommate. Less than an hour later, the six of us ran into the ocean.

Emilio and I were the only ones brave enough, daring enough, or maybe stupid enough, to swim across the 40-foot man-made shelf on Paradise Beach. It seemed like a brilliant idea to swim from the 15-foot shallow water to deeper 100-foot water in the Aegean Sea. The other five remained on shore in favor of cold beer over our deep-water escapade. But we went anyways.

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We floated in the open water, two specks lost in Greece’s turquoise ocean.  Layers of tropical fish darted around several feet below us in the crystal clear water. We dove deep enough to set our sinuses on fire, somersaulting through the cool salt water.

I didn’t even see the jellyfish behind me.

But after it brushed, ever so softly against my legs, I sure as hell felt it.

It itched at first. And the itch turned into a sharp, annoying pain. And then it felt like someone stabbed my leg with a knife and twisted it around and around. Something was wrong. I had to get out. I called to Emilio and swam toward the shelf. Within seconds he was there. He grabbed my hand. We  slipped our way across the shell shelf. I collapsed off the other side into shallower water and he pushed me toward shore. From afar, I’m sure we looked like two idiots goofing around, but as we got closer Danny knew something wasn’t right.

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He waded in to help Emilio support me as I stumbled through the shallows. He took one look at the Frisbee-size white and red welts on my legs and said, “jellyfish.”

Oh Jesus, they’re going to pee on me, I thought…the infamous jellyfish cure. But in that moment, I could care less. Anything to take the pain away.

But, travel karma was on my side again. Since the boys were from Miami, they had their share of jellyfish experiences. And a few cure-all tricks, too. One hustled to buy two oversized cans of beer. The other packed wet sand around my legs. After several rounds of drizzling beer on my welts and compressing wet sand around my legs, the throbbing subdued.  A few hours later my legs were okay–albeit red.

I still have scars around my right knee that turn purple when I get cold. Travel isn’t always glamorous and I learned solo travel is much easier  when you make friends along the way. But it could’ve been worse, and that night we danced for hours at the disco.