Reykjavik’s Ubiquitous Street Art

Street art. While some people see it as defacing public property, I beg to differ. Street art is a massive statement of the city’s people, not only claiming the city as their own, but adding their own personal or social experience to the place’s visual appearance.

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When I was studying Latin American Art History in graduate school, I unexpectedly fell in love with street art. I learned about the struggles of the people and how muralism spread throughout the region in the 1920s as artists, such as Diego Rivera, portrayed the everyday difficulties people in his community endured. At this time, the way that I traveled morphed. Not only was I more interested in the politics and history behind each country, each city, and each municipality I visited, I actively sought out street art while exploring. During this time, I found the beauty of graffiti, street art, and everything in between in the streets of Sao Paulo, Managua, Panama City, and many other places. This practice has stuck with me through the years as I’ve entered different continents and gotten to know a variety of cultures.

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Upon first arriving in Reykjavik this winter, jet lagged, blurry eyed, and bundled up, I was taken aback with the amount of street art the city boasted. It seemed that everywhere I turned, my eyes were met with bright colors and funky designs. There were unnameable monsters, surreal elephants, whimsical birds, words I didn’t quite understand, people in strange suits, and so much more for my eyes to absorb. Art was everywhere. It didn’t matter if the medium was a person’s house, a public building, a construction site, a café, or a store- it was covered.

Bird house

Polar BearsCafe Babalu

But for the world’s most peaceful country- and a city where I undoubtedly felt safer than I had ever been- I couldn’t understand what propelled the ubiquitous street art. People here have it so good, I thought. Unemployment is crazy low. People leave their babies to nap in their strollers outside of coffee shops while they leisurely sip on a cup of joe. From what I saw, there wasn’t really any amount of oppression or exploitation going on. So, why all of the street art?

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Dracula

PArking lot art

My personal opinion, after staying five weeks in the northern-most capital of the world, is that Icelanders are just very expressive people. They might not have the crime that other countries experience, but that is not to say that they don’t deal with their own hardships. While the landscape throughout the country is otherworldly, it is this way because nature is so harsh. For practically half of the year, the sun doesn’t come out but a mere few hours a day, rain, snow, hail, and face-numbing cold make outdoor work nearly unbearable- and aside from tourism, most people make a living fishing or farming. But even for those who stay indoors, having to deal with constant darkness as well as a society that is changing all too quickly due to unprecedented amounts of tourism, life isn’t always easy living on a distant island.

Mushrooms- Houses

Zapatista house

I decided that I would stop trying to pin a sociopolitical program onto Reykjavik’s vast, intricate street art and simply enjoy it for what it was. After all, Icelanders are crafty beings who are constantly expressing themselves through various mediums of art. Perhaps street art is just a widely accepted practice, another beautiful hobby, and that’s it. As long as it exists, that’s reason enough for me.

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If you’re heading to Reykjavik soon, I’d highly recommend staying at The Loft, a centrally-located boutique hostel with all of the amenities. It even has an upstairs bar, where they regularly host live music.

Big Berry, Slovenia: My First-Ever Glamping Experience (And it Rocked!)

By the time I had arrived, it was almost one in the morning and I was exhausted from the journey. I had traveled through five countries that day by car, which, in Europe, is completely possible without even realizing how far you’ve gone. We arrived at someone’s house, and stepping out of the van, I noticed that complete silence and darkness enveloped me. Frankly, at that point I would have preferred to have gone to bed, but everyone was awaiting the first blogger to arrive in Primostek: me.

Shuffling my feet down the stairs, I followed Peter, the guy who had picked me up from the random van ride I’d gotten from the mall in Zagreb, Croatia, who showed me into the basement. I wasn’t quite sure whose basement it was, or who I was about to meet, but when you travel as often as I do, you come to embrace the unknown and just figure out life as you go.

“They’re crazy,” Peter warned me, with a shy smirk emerging on his bearded face. “But, in good way. Fun crazy.”

“I can do crazy,” I told him. He obviously hadn’t read me right. Maybe it was my droopy lids or the polite soft-spoken questions I’d asked through my sloth-like delirium. “I dig crazy.

 

 

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I entered into the warm, cave-like room, where about seven people sat around a long wooden table. Empty wine bottles littered the table, as did empty glasses and a bottle or two of whiskey. Loud music blasted on the speakers as Peter introduced me to everyone and I struggled to hear their names, some of which I’d never heard of before. I was in former Yugoslav territory, after all.

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There was Ana, the thin, red-headed Croatian who was in charge of Big Berry’s marketing, and Alberto, a tall Spaniard with thick brown, curly hair. Then there was Istok, a silver-haired, crystal blue-eyed man in a blazer, and Bostjan, whose name took me a solid three days to master. Instinctively, I understood that the latter was the craziest of them all. (It would later come to my attention that he was the owner of the whole operation.) They had a couple of friends there as well, including Jan and his wife. It was their home.

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Everyone but Ana, Alberto and I were Slovenian. To be frank, I’d never even heard of Slovenia before the previous year, when I met my good friend Andreja from Adventurous Journeys at TBEX in Costa Brava, Spain. Yes, I was one of those who was completely ignorant of the country’s existence, but at least I had the wit about me not to ask if she’d meant to say Slovakia. She and I immediately connected, like we were meant to be friends, or perhaps already had been in a previous life. Andreja liked to party, as did I- only one of the reasons why we clicked- but I began to sense a common thread in Slovenian culture. I dug it.

Before I knew it, we were all taking shots of whiskey together (alas, the red wine had finally run out, even in a region known for its vineyards), singing along to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ songs, and getting to know each other in the fragmented interim of quiet. There was a strong vibe of fierce kindness and anticipation for what time would bring. I instantly knew that I was in the right place. This was where I was supposed to be at that moment in life, and the long journey (and even Whizz air canceling my flight on me) was worth every second.

 

 

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Over the two weeks I spent at Big Berry, I witnessed something very special come to fruition. When I first arrived, I saw the vision through their eyes of what was yet to manifest: a place of serenity where one can go to get away from the drudgery of life. At the beginning of my stay, there was only open land, the Kolpa River, a dream larger-than-life, and several people eager to work their butts off to make it happen. And it did. Like the soft, opaque mist that sets above the river in the mornings, magic was appearing everywhere in Big Berry. And how could it not?

Big Berry is a luxury glamping resort tucked away high in the Slovenian mountains, east of the alps, edging on the border of Croatia. It’s a peaceful haven surrounded by seemingly endless greenery; a place where you can get away from the humdrum of life, yet close enough to everything a city could offer. When you decide to stay here, you know that the meals you’ll be eating will be locally sourced, as will the wine and even the beer. If you are committed to eating and drinking local, fresh, and organic, this is your place. And if you love to have a good time, you’ve found your calling. I know I did. The only reason why I left was because my three-month Schengen visa was running out. Seriously.

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At Big Berry, it wasn’t just about being spoiled, though that you’ll surely find as well. It was about the small, yet infinitesimally significant details, such as the soft mist that set in over the Kolpa every morning like a fairytale. It was the comradery, the local cuisine, the care and pride with which everyone crafted their bread, cultivated their grains and poured their wine. There was a communal pride in Slovenian culture, as well as a genuine curiosity for what surrounded them. It was the cows that were grazing freely. The kindness and openness with which everyone received me. The open-air music festivals, the handmade souvenirs, the meticulously crafted bread, the language that I fervently attempted to pronounce (who needs vowels, anyway?), the mountainscapes, the fresh air, the joie de vivre.

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During my stay, I made friends so organically that it seemed that we were all one big, crazy family- and it wasn’t just because of the beer and wine tastings, though there were plenty of those. Everyone was so open and accepting of one another. At times, living in close quarters with others can get to me, for I am used to my solitude, but here I was completely comfortable and wonted for nothing. I slept in until late morning, leisurely eating fresh fruit, bread, and black coffee for breakfast. I read (if you haven’t checked out Clara Bensen’s No Baggage, I highly recommend it) and worked on my laptop in the afternoon. When it wasn’t raining, I would stroll around the grounds, inhaling the sweet air, watching the cows graze on the verdant grass, and ponder how lucky I was to be having this experience.

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We normally went out to restaurants twice a day- and even though it was a bit difficult for them to catch on to the concept of veganism at first, everyone was very accommodating. We learned how to make pogaca bread, visited Pivovarna Vizir, the first brewery in town, went to local parties, hung out at a beekeeper’s farm (I don’t eat honey and am terrified of bees, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless!), and went to the highest viewpoint of the town, and went dancing in Bela Krajina, where I told a man I was from California and it looked like he’d won the lottery. We even ventured out to Lake Bled to hike up to the castle and go canoeing, and delved into the massive labyrinth of the Postonja caves, where I saw a 140-year-old human fish.

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I ended up staying at Big Berry for about two weeks, and even though the days flew by, I felt that I had been there much, much longer. The bonds I’d formed were fierce, and the love I felt for Slovenia buried itself permanently within me. The last night, we had a huge party, drinking home-grown Slovenian moonshine, wine (of course), and feasting on a meal that brought many cultures together. As I tend to do when I am buzzed and happy, I ended up doing headstands and other yoga poses I can still manage to do, falling over and laughing with my friends.

 

Leaving was very bittersweet. Like I said, I would have stayed longer, but my visa was about to expire, and I still wanted to explore a few more places in the EU- like Ljubljana, Budapest, and Stockholm. I think back on my time at Big Berry and can’t help but smile, thinking of all the laughter, beauty, love, and new experiences I enjoyed.

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I know I’ll be back, but this time in the summer, when I can kayak down the Kolpa River and I have a fresh three-month-long visa. As I said the day I left Big Berry, this isn’t a goodbye, it’s a see you later. Until then, na zdravje, my muci mucis! ❤

My Time in Reykjavik: Staying at The Loft

After about six hours on the WOW Air flight from Boston, I grabbed my bags, made some essential purchases at Keflavik airport’s duty free shop, and descended into the bitter cold night. My hiking boots crunched soft snow as I zipped my new omni-heat Columbia coat all the way up and walked toward the bus that read, “Reykjavik.”

The bus wound through the dark night, and I wondered if I would be lucky enough to spot the northern lights during my first few hours in the country. While this trip was a bit spontaneous, going to Iceland was also something that I had waited for my whole life, it seemed. Sitting on the bus, staring into the darkness, grasping every shape with anticipation, I knew that this was a trip that was going to change me.

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Check-in/bar/cafe at The Loft- always with super friendly service.

When I arrived at The Loft, it was about 3 or 4am, way before check-in. I trekked up the four flights of stairs and arrived in the lounge area. The lights were dim, the couches called to me with their comfort, and I was all but delirious. Here I was, finally, in Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the entire world. After notifying the girl at check-in that I’d arrived, I grabbed my laptop, tossed my two bags aside, and melted into the euphoria of a long-awaited journey while I closed my eyes and sunk further into the sofa.

After deciding that I would travel to Iceland no matter what a month or so beforehand, I realized that, despite WOW’s seriously discounted airfare, life wouldn’t be so cheap after I landed on the island. A decent, no-frills meal runs about $14 USD (unless you go to Subway for about $10 USD), the cheapest cocktails will run you $17 USD each, and accommodation can be very high depending on the season and the demand. Even though I arrived in February, thinking no one would be crazy enough to visit during winter, there was no lack of tourism in Reykjavik.

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Early morning upstairs at The Loft- always a great place to hang out, read, eat breakfast, and make new friends!

As a budget traveler, I have learned how to explore the world- especially Europe- with very little money, and I intended to do so in Iceland as well. After doing much research, I was inspired by other bloggers, such as Trisha of P.S. I’m on My Way, to combine Couchsurfing with volunteering at hostels.

I had never volunteered at a hostel before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found myself loving life during my five weeks in Reykjavik. Not only is The Loft one of the most luxurious hostels I’ve stayed at, it is also a great place to meet like-minded travelers and Icelanders alike. With their upstairs bar, weekly events open to the public (think live music, poetry, meet-ups, and so on), as well as their huge balcony (a great place to drink beer, chat, and wait for the northern lights), it was hands-down one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at.

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My super comfy bed at The Loft!

In exchange for about 25-30 hours of work per week, I snuggled up in a comfy bed each night with a reading light and plenty of storage room for my valuables. In the mornings, I took advantage of their breakfast spread, which included vegan options such as fresh fruit and vegetables, toast, bagels, tea, orange juice, and even soy milk for my much-needed coffee. Most days, I would work on freelance writing and helping HI Iceland, during the morning, and go off exploring in the afternoon. Come nighttime, the same living/workspace I’d used would be a lively place to mingle, sip on local craft beer, and make new friends.

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The Loft couldn’t be located in a better location (see the HI logo).

Reykjavik is really an amazing place. It’s fresh, unique, progressive, very vegan-friendly, and simply has the most bad-ass street art that I’ve witnessed in Europe. While it’s a small city, it has more to offer than most large cities in terms of musical/artistic/economic/culinary aspects, and is ridiculously safe as well. The more time you spend in Reykjavik, the more you’ll discover you have yet to explore, and the more you’ll fall in love with its locals and its vibe.

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The lovely kitchen at The Loft- I spent many hours here cooking, working, and mingling.

The Loft is one of HI Iceland’s 30-something hostels. Each hostel is unique, and most are locally run (I had the opportunity to visit a several throughout the country), but I must say that The Loft was my favorite. Not only is it centrally located on one of the main streets: Bankastræti (just a few minutes’ walk to the main bus station, Harpa, as well as the Hallgrímskirkja church), it just had that je ne se quoi– a perfect collaboration of music, art, libations, and streamlined architecture that made me fall in love. The showers were hot, the kitchen was very backpacker-oriented (think refrigerators, stoves, and even “free” boxes of leftover food and drink), the staff was super friendly, and you could even organize tours from the front desk- and then be picked up at the front door. More than anything, I always felt completely welcomed and- most importantly- safe during my stay.

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Added bonus: I saw the northern lights not once, but twice from the terrace at The Loft. No tour needed. This experience of green lights dancing across the sky was truly a gift, as was my time doing a work exchange for HI Iceland. It is an experience for which I will always be grateful. They helped me realize one of my greatest dreams in life- experiencing Iceland not merely as a stop-over or week-long vacation, but as a traveler digging deeper into their history, their culture, and their status of one of the most popular destinations in Europe.

To HI Iceland and to The Loft, I will forever cherish my time in Reykjavik. Thank you.

Have you stayed at the Loft, or another hostel in Reykjavik? If so, what did you think? What do you look for when choosing a place to stay?

Hemingway and the Unexpected

The entire day, I’d walked the lengths of Barcelona on tired, blistering feet. I was still getting over a hellacious cold, so I decided to take the bus back to my hostel. While I thought a mere week in the city was enough to acquaint myself,  I stood corrected. I’d missed the bus stop and was too cheap to pay for a taxi. So I continued putting one foot in front of the other, hoping I’d run into a metro stop. Instead, I came across a bar called La Bruja, with bright red lights and an offer of cheap gin and tonics. It was an invitation I’d no desire to refuse.

I didn’t stay for long after my drink, but after talking to the bar keep, I found out that a bar I’d been wanting to visit was just a 20-minute walk from that joint. All I had to do, he told me, was pass through a drug addled part of town, hold my belongings tight, and descend some stairs, and it would be to my right. Sounded fair enough to me.

After dragging my feet for about 30 minutes, I finally reached Bar Marsella, pushing the creaky door open into the old, rickety bar. The smell of decaying wood, history, and ages-old shame rushed upon me as I entered. Within minutes, I was leaning back in an ancient wooden chair, staring at the crumbling ceiling, pondering my existence. I was tripping out that I was actually, finally, in Spain after dreaming of it for over half my life. My notebook was open, and my drink was in hand. But this wasn’t just any drink, and it wasn’t just any place. This was where Ernest Hemingway used to come and get lit on absinthe, back when it still had hallucinogenic properties. I waited for his ghost to descend upon me.

With the taste of liquor and sweetly masked black licorice lingering on my tongue, Hemingway’s presence failed me. So I walked back up to the one-manned bar and ordered another drink. I set it on the old table, contemplating the sugar cube resting on a tiny fork, ablaze, dripping down into the absinthe lurking below. It was kind of like me. Why did I always identify with the drunks, the misfits, the queers, the bums, the crazies of literature who turned their madness into raging, heartbreakingly beautiful poetry? My heroes have always been the fallen, the desolate, forlorn angels who take their pain and turn it into literary fucking magic. Hemingway was no exception. Spain came to embrace and honor him, but maybe this country is so beautiful in part because it is mad.

I sat alone at an older-than-my-dead-grandfather wooden table, still watching the blue flames hover above my drink, expecting nothing from the night. I didn’t care for interaction, I just wanted to get tipsy and have Hemingway’s vibes strike me with inspiration.

“Why don’t you sit with her?” I looked up and saw the bartender. He was pointing behind me to a blonde haired, dread-locked female sitting alone. Although I wasn’t much in the mood for conversation, I said hello. She was friendly enough, so I put my journal away and got up to sit with her.

Conversation was going well. Her name was Natasha or Katrina, or possibly something entirely different from what I remember. Katrina was from St. Petersburg, and as I am easily seduced by the unknown, her Russian accent left me relishing every word she spoke.

Without pretense or premonition, she put her hand on my leg and looked me in the eye. “I’m not usually attracted to girls, but there’s just something about you that draws me in,” she said. “It’s your energy- I, I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s there.” I began seeing her in a different light; I was flattered. Katrina went on to make a variety of observations about me that I frequently hear while on the road, but almost never when I am stagnant. When I travel, I know I am a different person; I’m a better version of myself. She saw me as happy, energetic, magnetizing. “I want to spend more time with you, get to know you on a deeper level, enjoy the night with you…” Her eyes got smaller, zoning in on me, trying to determine if I’d understood just what she wanted to say. Never once did she look away. I began to think that my plans for that Barcelona night had just become far more exciting than I’d anticipated.

Suddenly, urgently, immediately, she got up from her chair and apologized. She darted to the women’s bathroom, and through the aged, cracked, less-than-opaque window on the door, I could see her dreads duck down out of sight, followed the unmistakable, wretched sound of someone puking their life into a toilet.

She came back to the table and was about to sit down, when she stood up again and rushed to the bathroom. Katrina did this a few times, not managing to say anything in between time. The last time she went to the restroom, she didn’t bother to come back to the table. She darted out of the bar, and I only saw a shadow of her hair flash by. I’d given her my card, but I never heard from her again. I didn’t expect to, but then again I hadn’t expected to meet her. I’d just hoped for a more audacious ending to this story.

Five Apps for Happier Trips

I’ve been hitting the road now for over a decade, and navigating unknown lands has changed immensely. Gone are the days of walkmans and small CD cases packed to the brim, of hand-held journals, paper maps, and books you can actually hold in your hands and rip the pages from. And while some of us travelers have clung to the old ways of navigating new frontiers, many have opted- some reluctantly- to embrace the facility of the smart phone.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I got my first iPhone, and not until 2013 that I bought a Kindle. I never even used to carry a phone while I traveled, and I miraculously was able to figure out where to eat and meet friends at designated places. When I got these new gadgets, I partially hated myself for selling out, but on the other hand, it sure as hell was nice to have all that extra room in my (significantly smaller) backpack for luxurious items like extra pairs of clean underwear and a decent jacket.

Nowadays, many of us are flashpackers- whether in the travel blogging realm or not- and we never leave for a trip without our laptops or cell phones. Admittedly, I would feel quite naked without either while I traverse the globe- 99% of the time, solo. I’ve grown very fond of apps and how easy it is to find a particular landmark or restaurant with the help of my smart devices. And so, I’ve narrowed down a long list of apps that I use to share my favorites with you. Not all of them are travel-specific, but they all surely help while I’m exploring a new city or country.

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  1. Hipmunk

In order to prepare for a trip you need to, well, get there. I’d recommend the Hipmunk app for any budget traveler. It not only has the cutest mascot ever, it is also user-friendly and offers super deals on flights and hotels. Not sure where to go? Choose what kind of trip you want- culture, beach destinations, family travel, etc., and it will give you personalized recommendations. Its Fare Finder shows you a monthly calendar highlighting the cheapest days to fly, and the visual flight search shows not only the prices of the flights, but the times and lengths of each flight (plus stopovers). In my opinion, this is genius, because you get to see the comparisons rather than having to calculate the differences based on the (barely legible) number of hours most sites provide. This is a company that takes pride not only in its service, but also in helping you having fun throughout the process of your trip.

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2. HeyLets
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, it’s time to explore. If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to bring a huge guidebook around with you, waving it around as a sure sign that you’re a tourist while your nose is stuck in the map, trying to get to a reputably not-to-miss bar. HeyLets solves that problem. Think of Yelp and Instagram in a happy marriage, then take out all of the fights. HeyLets is a purely positive app, where locals and off-the-beaten-path travelers review only the places they like. Want to try somewhere new? Put it on your wish list, and HeyLets will send you a notice when you are near (very helpful if you get lost as often as I do and don’t realize how close you are to that one café you wanted to hang out at.) It’s brilliant, and very addicting. You could seriously plan a whole trip’s destinations with this app- from parks to restaurants to opera houses to gyms. Bonus- HeyLets will automatically show you a map of how long it will take if you to arrive via your nearest Uber ride.
Want to follow my adventures and positive reviews? Find me at Cristina Luisa!
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3. HappyCow-
HappyCow has made me a truly happy eater while on the road. While the app costs $3.99 USD, it’s worth every penny and more for all the hassle it saves you from combing the streets for vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I relied on this app 99% of the time I was traveling throughout Spain and Portugal, and not only did I find a slew of bad-ass culinary spots, I also met some really awesome people who I ended up hanging out with. A huge part of getting to know a culture is through its food, and it’s an absolute farce that you can’t have that experience on a plant-based diet. If it weren’t for Happy Cow, I probably would’ve ended up roaming the streets three times as long for meals I enjoyed five times less. That, or I would’ve spent most of my nights cooking for myself in the hostels. This is great for your budget, but not so much for having good food and meeting locals. This app also lets you select whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, veggie-friendly, gluten-free, and whether you want to find a store or restaurant.
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4. Spotify-
I used to rely purely on my iPod for music on the road, but after downsizing, I mainly used my iPhone for tunes. If you come from the US, you’re probably very familiar with Pandora- which is free, and totally awesome (except when they suggest songs that have nothing to do with the artist you want to listen to). Nonetheless, Pandora (just like Netflix) doesn’t work in many countries. So far, it hasn’t worked for me in Asia, Europe, or Africa, which makes for a slew of music-less trips. Not fun. I stumbled upon Spotify while in Europe, and have continued to use it since. All you need is internet connection, and you can hear a shuffle marathon of your favorite artists’ albums for free. If you pay $1.99 USD per month, you’ll have access to all of the songs you’ve liked while offline (great for long bus or train rides without wifi), and you can play specific songs as many times as you want. Not bad, eh? Imagine yourself in Pamplona, Spain, listening to Lady Gaga while you suds up in the shower. Yep, that’s the life.
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5. Omvana-
Whenever you travel, you are exposed to so many new customs, traditions, languages, colors, and sites at one time that the sensory overload often becomes intense. I believe that, no matter where you go- or even if you’re living a hectic life in one place- it is very important to stay in touch with your inner self. Something needs to remain stable in a life filled with constant change and emotional roller coasters, and I have found that meditation and journaling have helped me achieve this sense of peace. However, not everyone is a yogi or can shut their eyes for a half hour to relax while so much is going on outside and inside one’s brain. I discovered Omvana a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love. This free app offers a slew of different guided meditations, inspiration talks, hypnoses, and other wise words, which you can set to relaxing music. Some of the talks cost a few dollars, but you can play them as much as you want once you buy them. I still use this app while I am on the road to keep myself centered, appreciative, positive, and living in the present moment. And while you’re traveling, there’s no other place that you’d want to be other than the now, right?

 

There are many more apps that I could add to this list, but I find these five the most helpful.

Are there any apps that you couldn’t travel without? Please share in the comments below!

BONUS: If you’re traveling with kids, you might understand the value of a little diversion. While it’s not necessarily an app, you can use your phone or tablet to download a multitude of fun, educational games on the Poki Playground. Also, with the much-anticipated spin-off of “Finding Nemo” coming to theaters mid-June of 2016, the Finding Dory games on Poki are sure to be a huge hit. These games are a great way for you to make your kids happy- even on an hours-long road trip.

 

*I am a partner/brand ambassador with both Hipmunk and HeyLets. Every time you sign up for their free app or make a purchase through the link I’ve provided, I get a small commission. This modest amount helps me to continue traveling and providing you with stories and advice for your time on the road. Any support is greatly appreciated!

 

My Last Day in Portugal

The last day I spent traveling in Europe, I woke up around 10am, ate a measly breakfast of bread, jam, peanut butter, and lots of coffee. I had gone out the night before on a pub crawl, but only made it to one bar: The Three Monkeys. In good ol’ fashioned Spring Break-style, I partied the night away, chatting with the half-naked (ok, only their shirts were off) bartenders who were probably still playing with Tonka trucks when I graduated college. Anyhow, after a few vodka tonics, I was wearing my sunglasses at night and having conversations I knew I wouldn’t remember.

Yep. I watched his beer bong action totally happened in Lagos, and I'm not even 19.

Yep. I watched his beer bong action totally happened in Lagos, and I’m not even 19.

So it made perfect sense that, after my “hearty” pequeno almoço, I’d shut the blinds in my hostel room and crawl back into my top-bunk bed, under the black-white-and-red kitty Ikea sheet and away from the cringe-worthy sunlight. (One girl at the hostel in Porto had said that I was a vampire with a magical laugh. I took it as a compliment. Hey, who doesn’t want to be magical and immortal?) As fate would have it, the universe came knocking on the door in the form of Orianna, the sweet journalist-turned-hostel lady, telling me that a girl was arriving that day and had specifically requested a female-only dorm. What kind of backpacker comes to a hostel and is afraid of boys? I asked myself silently, and told Orianna in Portuguese that I’d gather my things.

At this point, I’d been traveling for over 60 days and had seen 10 cities in Spain and Portugal, and two in Morocco. It was my first time in Europe and in Africa. I’d loved every bit of it, finally able to use my Spanish again, and polishing off the thick layers of rust seven years without speaking Portuguese will give you. I fell in love instantly with Barcelona and Porto, Tangier spun my mind around with its labyrinthine infrastructure, and Madrid and Lisbon grew slowly, but strongly, on me like a luxurious moss. I learned so many things about myself that perhaps I already had known, and maybe this is why these Iberian countries had been tugging at me for so long.

Lagos surprisingly had some pretty damn sweet street art

Lagos surprisingly had some pretty damn sweet street art

I had 30 euros left to my name and hadn’t even paid for the coming night’s stay. I went into this expedition broke, and I would leave broke, but it was all completely worth it. And so, as I descended the stairs with blue backpack to the rear and brown backpack to the front (carrying my by-then useless laptop), I planned on stowing my things away for the day, using the hostel laptop, and taking the bus to Faro to get a good night’s rest. The next day, I’d be flying back to Barcelona.

But, as all good travel plans were intended, things changed. I ran into some people from the hostel who I’d chatted with before, and they were going to the beach. The best beach in Lagos, said the Canadian dude (with a random, sporadic English accent) who led the previous night’s pub crawl. I don’t have my swimsuit, I said. I need to go to the ATM, I said. I don’t feel like walking those horrendous stairs you described, I said. And then- possibly the most poignant thing I’d uttered in quite some time- It sounds like I’m just making excuses.

Not 10 minutes later, my swimsuit in my Travelon purse, I was walking with the Canadian dude, a French dude, my one-night-female-roommie from Australia, and a chick from Montana. We passed concrete walls filled with graffiti, and suddenly, a gorgeous view of the city’s 4 kilometers of white sand appeared, with cityscape and brilliant blue Atlantic water on either side. Automatically, I knew I had made the right decision.

Praia do Camilo

Only four words for the beaches in Lagos: Drop. Dead. Fucking. Gorgeous.

After about 45 minutes of walking, I found myself on Praia do Camilo, or The Holy Child’s Beach, sipping on a shared plastic bottle of cheap, mass-manufactured sangria, passing around a big bag of salted peanuts I’d acquired. After seeing several, distinct-looking women (they could’ve been in a Dove commercial) sunbathing topless, I felt more than comfortable to go into a “corner” by one of the rock formations and change into my bathing suit. No one gave a shit; why should I? See, in Europe, people don’t have to be perfect; they’re just people.

I swam in the rough ocean for awhile, my stubbed toe instantly discovering the many rocks the ocean bed had blockaded us with. It wasn’t long before I turned back, unsuccessfully trying to get my footing, leaving behind the cold ocean water for another day and another time.

At Praia do Camilo, watching my friends swim. I hadn't felt this peaceful since I was in Phuket, Thailand.

At Praia do Camilo, watching my friends swim. I hadn’t felt this peaceful since I was in Phuket, Thailand.

As fate would have it, this is how I left Portugal: Suddenly and painfully, yet knowing it had to be done.

The German guy in the room above us was violently puking up all the guts his mother had so devoutly created for him, and I knew exactly who it was. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 5am. I’d intended on sleeping in until 5:30, but I had a bus to catch. Damn that Jameson anyway.

Cafe Iruña Musings

I sip on a six euro coffee and whiskey, feeling the sun gently warming my skin. The foreign, sticky layer of sunblock shines upon my face; I’m no longer in Portland. An aroma mixed of coffee, cigarettes, and wine hangs in the air despite the slight breeze, and dozens of people chatter in Babylonian tongues. To my right, a woman and her daughter converse in German; to my left, two blonde men in their mid-twenties hunch over in their chairs, speaking in a language unknown to me. And behind me, and group of elderly friends gossip about their families’ lives in Spanish, emphasizing the heavy pronunciation of their Js, lisping their Cs and Zs quite adamantly. I don’t know if they’re from Pamplona, but there’s no doubt that they are Spaniards.

On the terrace of Cafe Iruna

On the terrace of Cafe Iruna

On the terrace at Café Iruña I sit, looking out at the Plaza del Castillo, taking in the adjoining buildings with their colorful facades, balconettes, intricate iron fences, and antiquated windows. Women much younger than I walk past with their strollers, small children hanging on their arms. Teens hang out at the blue-domed pergola, and a balding, dark-haired man blows elephantine bubbles that random, jumping kids, try to pop.

Walking into Cafe Iruna was an ineffable experience... I have no words for this kind of beauty and nostalgia

Walking into Cafe Iruna was an ineffable experience… I have no words for this kind of beauty and nostalgia

This is the same exact café where Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was based. He would come here before or after the bullfights that he avidly attended, drinking cognac, or wine, or whatever his preference was for the day. I can’t believe that I’m actually here. That book introduced me both to the allure of Spain and to the deeply poignant simplicity of his words. In a world of writers both to-the-point and verbose as hell, I tend to fall in the latter category. Not to the extent of Herman Melville or Charles Dickens, but still, it’s been a struggle. For this reason, as well as many others, Hemingway has been an inspiration to me. He was able to drink himself silly and still manage to write some of the most powerful, canonized prose in the 20th century. Not merely a functioning alcoholic, but a brilliant one at that. And I wholly admit my jealousy.

By no means am I an expert on Hemingway. I’ve only read about four of his novels. For Whom the Bell Tolls still looms, dusty and yellowing, on an old bookshelf of mine in my parents’ house. Nonetheless, I can’t say that he hasn’t influenced my life as a writer, and as a person. I still aim to make each and every word count, to get straight to the point, but sometimes I don’t know what the point is until I’m done writing. “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” That which cuts deepest. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I won’t ever be able to see everything I want to, to read all the books, write down all the words, meet all of the eccentric, authentic people, or even realize just a shard of the potential within me, that hurts the most. Or that I can’t change all of the injustices I witness, and those I’ve only heard of.

“El Encierro”: A statue dedicated to the violent San Fermin Festival, known also as the running of the bulls

What Hemingway taught me was that even the most disgusting parts of life can be fascinating. As a hunter, a bull-fighting aficionado, a misogynist, an alcoholic, a traveler, and a writer, he was one prolific beast of a man. If I’d had the chance to meet him, I’m not sure if I would’ve appreciated his character. But the impact he’s left on my life is interminable. Who knows? Maybe I would’ve been a more “normal” human being had he not intrigued me with the lure of distant lands, endless booze, and the danger of living a life worth writing about. And if he had been more “normal,” more adapted to the expected ways of life, perhaps he wouldn’t have ended his life by blowing his brains out. But, then again, what would the literary world have been like without his ghastly perversions, his stoically romantic musings, and his lust for this enigmatic grey zone of existence?

Eternal reverence of Ernest Hemingway in front of the Plaza de Toros

Eternal reverence of Ernest Hemingway in front of the Plaza de Toros

Gracia City Hostel: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Even as a solo traveler, there is something quite true about the saying, “It’s not where you travel, it’s with whom you travel.” Ambience, environment, and the people who surround me have a vast impact on how I feel. If something is amiss, I won’t hesitate to leave. If everything is in sync, I’m apt to stay.

Such was my experience at Gracia City Hostel. I was supposed to have stayed for two nights upon arriving in Barcelona for the first time, after which I would proceed with my arrangements on couchsurfing. But… The dude gave me creepy vibes. And I loved staying at the hostel. It wasn’t just talking to my new friends from Germany, India, Mexico, Ireland, Belgium- and, of course- Spain that made me settle in. It was so much more.

Hanging out at the Cat Bar with friends I made at Gracia City Hostel

Hanging out at the Cat Bar with friends I made at Gracia City Hostel

Now, this may be my first time in Europe, but I had previously stayed in too many hostels to count over 11 years, three continents, 23 countries, and a myriad of cities. You could say that I get around (the world, of course…), and I know what’s what in terms of where I stay.

I was sick as a dog when I got into Barcelona (thanks, guy to my left on Norwegian airlines from Stockholm to Barcelona), but still, everyone treated me warmly at Gracia City Hostel. They offered to get me tea, medicine, etc. instead of avoiding me, my cough, and runny nose like the plague. After a few days of hibernating in my little corner of the dorm, I was feeling a bit better, and was able to socialize more.

Paella night at my favorite hostel in Spain!

Paella night at my favorite hostel in Spain!

What I realized was that, here, everyone was part of an international family. Gracia City Hostel provided a sense of community, offering free walking tours, flamenco shows, reggae concerts, weekly paella and sangria nights, and a common area just to hang out, have a beer, write, or watch a movie.

So here are the main reasons why I would (and will, come the end of May) stay at the Gracia City Hostel again:

  • Cleanliness: This place looked like they had Mr. Clean hiding out in one of the rooms. From the kitchen to the entryway to the bathrooms, it was never dirty. Spotless. No need for fear of germs or possible infestations of unwanted critters, unless you bring them along.
  • Location: Gracia City Hostel is in the heart of Gracia’s artistic neighborhood, within walking distance of Casa Fuster, La Sagrada Familia, restaurants (even vegan ones!), bars, cafes, markets, and so on. If I needed to use the Metro, I walked for less than five minutes and then had access to all of Barcelona.
La Sagrada Familia is just a 20 minute walk from Gracia City Hostel.

La Sagrada Familia is just a 20 minute walk from Gracia City Hostel.

  • Eco-friendliness: The lights are motion-detected, the showers and toilets are designed to conserve water, and there are not only garbage bins, but recycling and compost as well. You can tell that these guys care about the earth, and I love it.
  • Small details: We all know the importance of the major stuff, like having a kitchen to cook in, access to the internet, and not having bugs in your bed. Nonetheless, sometimes the small details are what complete a place and give it charm. From the records on display to the positive messages strewn about, the artwork on the walls, the vintage typewriter, and the constantly updated calendar of activities, Gracia City Hostel had the alluring sense of minimalistic collectiveness.
Vintage Hispano-Olivetti typewriter: Details like these make me smile.

Vintage Hispano-Olivetti typewriter: Details like these make me smile.

  • No weird, strict rules: If you’ve stayed at a hostel, you might have run into one of those places with strange signs posted everywhere, like “Don’t wash your feet in the sink” (duh) or “All lights must be off after 9pm.” Not here. Obviously, you should be courteous and considerate of other travelers, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be in bed before the clock strikes 12. There’s no curfew- not here where many people stay out until 5am. Overall, there’s a very relaxed feel here, and the objective is to make you feel as comfortable as you would at home.
  • Friendly staff: There’s nothing more important to me than feeling comfortable with the people who work at a hostel. They were all very open, inviting, and eager to make my stay as enjoyable as possible. I knew that, if I ever needed anything, they would be there to help me. These were people who, even if I’d met them elsewhere, I’d want to be friends with.
Wonderful staff and volunteers at a wonderful hostel.

Wonderful staff and volunteers at a super chill hostel.

  • Safety: Not just anyone can walk in the front door- you need a card to get in. Nonetheless, there is staff on call at all hours in case you need help or happen to have forgotten that card. Each person has a large locker to stash away his or her stuff (I was able to easily fit both of my backpacks in the locker). Bring a lock or buy one at the reception. As someone who travels with plenty of valuable gear, security is very important to me, and I always felt comfortable leaving my belongings behind as I explored Barcelona.
Even Mona loved staying at Gracia City Hostel

Even Mona loved staying at Gracia City Hostel

If you are going to Barcelona and want to stay in one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods, and you’d like to stay in a place where you don’t want to leave, then you’ve found your hostel. You can either book through Yonderbound, or just go directly to Gracia City Hostel’s reservation page. Have a great time, and let me know what you think!

Map of Gracia City Hostel

Map of Gracia City Hostel

Gracia City Hostel can be contacted at:

(0034) 936-674-115 or booking@graciacityhostel.com.

Address:

Gracia City Hostel

Carrer Sant Pere Martir, 18, 08012

Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain

Losing My Innocence in Spain

An Innocent Abroad

It’s about time I lose my innocence. Again. This fantasy of mine has been swelling up, transforming, and growing beyond the limits of my imagination for 17 years now.

Many people think that innocence is something that is lost once we hit adulthood. Once we have sex, fall in love, become heartbroken, try a drug, commit a crime, lose a loved one, get a “real job.” We are then experienced, and the wonder and naivete we once carried is forever gone. This, in fact, is not the case.

I met Don George this past January at Diesel, A Bookstore in Oakland, California, US. He edited a recently published Lonely Planet anthology entitled, An Innocent Abroad. I had the honor of meeting and listening to Jenna Scatena and Jeff Greenwald, both well-established travel writers, read their stories of purity lost on the road. While Jenna told of her experience following a caveman through the Thai forest, Jeff read an account of his first time attending Burning Man. As I sat there, soaking in their carefully chosen words that wove tales of extreme adventure and wild bacchanalia, a deep longing burst within me. First off, these two are top notch writers. No words are wasted. No triteness. No boring chronology. Just an expansive vocabulary used to tell a story as it should be told- to take you on their journey with them. I was inspired to be a better writer, which I hadn’t felt in awhile.

The second emotion aroused that night was one of hypnotic wanderlust. I fell in love with travel again. To be sure, I’ve never fallen out of love with travel. It has never betrayed, disappointed, trapped, or bored me. Travel is the best lover I have ever had. But that night, and each consequent day I’ve read the anthology’s pages, my fervor has overwhelmed me. So much so, that I have made a decision.

It is time to end my innocence. This yearning has gone on far too long. At the age of 16, I sat on my parents’ balcony, overlooking the foothills, while reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The way he described the lush verdure of rolling hills as he drove into Pamplona seized me as Jack Kerouac’s cross-country American Dream road trips had. I wanted to be there; I needed to be there. I imagined myself as part of the Lost Generation, sitting at a cafe, sipping wine, smoking a cigarette while intellectualizing with my well-educated, well-traveled friends. (Very cliche, but I was a young teenager who had never been on an airplane, let alone in another country.) I was hooked. The idea of tapas, siestas, colonial architecture, the Spanish language- even the brutal sport of bullfighting- would cloud my mind as I attempted to study Chemistry and U.S. History. I would take Spanish lessons to fulfill my language requirement (which delighted my mother due to our Mexican heritage), and then I would take a year off before college to move to Spain (which did not at all delight my mother) to become fluent in castellano.

Nonetheless, life happens, new interests spark, and paths diverge. I never took a year off before college, and I never went to Spain. Instead, I’ve had a crazy roller coaster of a life, visited 23 countries, become fluent in Spanish and (quasi-fluent in) Brazilian Portuguese, traveled through lands alone where I spoke not one word of the language. I’ve had days when I’ve felt invincibly, boldly happy, and days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Days when I wore a ring on my wedding finger and days when I swore I’d never love again. I’ve peered into the monstrous eyes of dehumanized violence and beheld the gaze of enlightened kindness. You’d think I’d no more innocence to lose, but I do.

My ticket is purchased and I leave to Barcelona in less than two weeks. I recently had a full-time job that I thought would be my dream career, and that was a massive deception that quickly dissipated. My bank account is as good as empty, but safety nets are illusory anyway. This will be the first time I travel without any savings. It will also be the first time I will attempt to secure lodging through house sitting and couch surfing. Maybe I’m insanely foolish, or possibly just tenaciously determined. I’m not quite sure what the self-labeling should be right now, but I am going to Spain.


If you’d like to help out with my journey by offering me advice or a place to stay, purchasing some of the jewelry I’ve collected in Latin America,  or donating to my Trevolta fundraiser, I would be ever grateful! You would be an integral part of this journey that is truly a mystery to me. I don’t know what to expect, but I am infinitely excited and ready for all of the adventure to be had, and all of the innocence to be lost.

Do you have a similar story of losing your innocence? Have you traveled without money before? What do you think of An Innocent Abroad? Please share your experiences in the comments; I’d love to hear your feedback!

Nero and Me: A Man and a Dog, Cycling through Wanderlust

I’m very excited to present to you Travel Addict Ruminations, in which I interview various passionate, brave people who dare to travel in eccentric ways. My first guest is Joshua, who has traveled throughout five countries with his dog, Nero- on one bicycle. He is originally from the UK, and has plans to take his site, Nero and Me, as well as their travels, to the next level.
Let’s get to know the travel addict:
Joshua:
Firstly, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of Chronicles of a Travel Addict. Being a relatively new addict to the joys of travelling, I’m still learning a lot from my experiences on the road. As with any addiction, it’s always there, always calling. It’s been that tiny voice at the back of my head, whispering to me for the past thirty years, ever since my mother read The Hobbit to me as a child. In July of this year, that voice finally managed to overcome my excuses.
Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
So what was your motivation? What made you get on the road and leave your life, as you knew it, behind? 
Joshua:
There are negative and positive reasons why I gave up my previous life. I was bored with paying bills, fixing the car, being owned by possessions and living for those few hours at the weekend where I could try to find my happiness at the bottom of a bottle of rum. Have you ever felt like you’re treading water?  Well, I wanted to swim, I wanted to run, to take a jump, to dive into adventure. I wanted wonder back in my life. I wasn’t happy and I felt like I was committing spiritual suicide every day that I didn’t become who I felt like I was at the core of my soul. But all that starts with the hardest step. The scariest step. The first step.
Nero and Joshua on a Journey

Nero and Joshua on a journey

Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
Why did you decide to travel the UK, instead of somewhere farther away from home?
Joshua:
Because it was on my doorstep. J.K.Rowling, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien found adventure here. Why couldn’t I? This kingdom is magical. I’ve traveled the lonely roads, stopped at the oak taverns, met monsters and angels and battled with a few of my own demons.  I’ve climbed mountains, crossed mist covered lakes, built fires under the stars and fished for my supper. What more could you ask for?
Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
Of all modes of transportation, why did you decide on cycling?
Joshua:
When you first set off on the road, you make the assumption that every adventurer is out for the same reason. Your reason. In my case, that was to grow as an individual. To meet new characters. To broadened my horizons geographically and spiritually. This, however, wasn’t the case. Some travellers are running away, some are lost, some drift, others want to get somewhere, and others are raising money or awareness for a cause.
Well, cycling can also be chosen for a number of reasons. To stay fit- now that’s not a bad reason at all, ey! How about the fact I can eat as many doughnuts as I like and not get fat, that’s a bloody amazing reason. That right there should get a few of you itching to get in the saddle…..no? Ok, try this on for size. Could I carry a dog, a tent, a stove and everything else I need to survive on my back? I like to think I’m Superman (I even have his symbol on the back of my bike right next to Brian from family guy), but the truth is this would cripple me. You see, my bike is my steed, my mule, my pack-horse. She’s done the best part of three thousand miles carrying close to one hundred and fifty kilos and she doesn’t complain. She travels fast enough for the landscape to change, but also slow enough for me to be able to enjoy it.
Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
Ok, let’s back up and talk about your dog- the dog. Is Nero happy? Does he enjoy his adventures? Or does he simply put up with your traveling shenanigans?
Joshua:
Nero and I talk ALOT. Is he happy? Not permanently… That’s impossible, but he is content. He spends every day outside riding the wilds in our wolf pack of two. As dog goals go, he’s achieved many. He’s probably sniffed more poo than a dog twice his age. He’s urinated in every capital city of our great nation. On top of all this, he has honed his “my human doesn’t ever feed me” face to the point where he eats better than I do. He’s also ridden steam trains, appeared on a Canadian dog calendar, and been featured on the lad bible (he was a dog lad).
Nero, patiently awaiting the next adventure on his bicycle.

Nero, patiently awaiting the next adventure on his bicycle

Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
When you were planning your travels, how did you decide taking Nero would be a good idea?
Joshua:
That’s easy. I never considered it in the first place; he was coming. If you want something enough, you simply make it work. The idea of it not working never entered my head. It wasn’t about it being a good idea. It was just what was going to happen. He’s my best friend, my family. However, just like family or any loved one, you have to consider what’s best for them above your own agenda. For instance, there are many countries I would jump at visiting, but I have to ask myself: Are there strays that would attack him? Will he be able to cross borders freely? How does that local culture value dogs? Will they want to beat him, eat him or feed him? So, our world is a little smaller because of these situations, but it’s still far bigger than most dogs’, and most humans’.
Chronicles of a Travel Addict:
Where will you and Nero next be found cycling?
Well, as Nero and I enter our mid thirties, Europe beckons. After that, well, that’s a long way ahead, but keep an eye out for us. We’re going places, Cristina!
About the “Me” behind “Nero and Me”: 
Joshua behind "Nero and Me"

Joshua behind “Nero and Me”

Joshua grew up on the outskirts of Cambridge, England. Half English and half Indian, with a sprinkle of Portuguese and a dash of Irish, he’s a true mongrel like his best friend, Nero. His passions include photography, cycling, and wildlife.

Having spent most of his adult life running the rat race, he decided in July of 2014 to strip away the trappings of modern life and get on his bicycle. He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going; he just wanted an adventure. The rest, as they say, is history.
Find out what inspired him, where he’s been, and where he’s going:
Twitter: @neroandme
Instagram: NeroandMe