A Rainy Afternoon at Villa d’Este

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As a fan of the Italian Renaissance era, it only seemed appropriate to visit something exclusively renaissance. Before I actually set foot in Rome, I had no clue what that might be. Unsurprisingly, Rome has so much history layered within it, it’s easy to get a dose of what you’re looking for in just a leisurely walk through the cobbled streets. Everything feels historic, and many things are. What I didn’t expect was to venture out of my limited plans to find what I truly sought. But alas, the beauty of travel is that it pushes you to go out of your own way. And that’s how I came to be at Villa d’Este.

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Set not in the actual city of Rome, but in Tivoli (a small town less than an hour away) Villa d’Este was the point in my trip that I could realistically envision Renaissance life (as silly as that may sound).

I took a group tour to Tivoli on what began as a pretty mild, sunny day. Quickly, as we got closer to the town, the clouds clumped, then got low and heavy. It made me nervous. Would I be able to enjoy the lush gardens in the rain? The few pictures I’d seen of Villa d’Este all included sunshine. But still she did not disappoint. After I got a hold of myself on the slippery, rain-covered grounds and figured out a way to take picture while holding an umbrella, I was free to really absorb my surroundings. It’s easy to imagine cardinals strolling through, taking important meetings in dimly lit corners. Or to imagine ladies of the house walking arm in arm, stopping for a moment to admire one of the many fountains. It all makes you feel as though you’re peeking into a different time.

The accessible parts of the inside were surprisingly small, in the sense that the individual rooms weren’t very large. This gave a sense of coziness to otherwise empty, cold spaces. The decor, the painted ceilings, large windows, somehow brought in light and warmed everything up. In my opinion, however, the best part of this visit was the gardens. It’s what everyone looks forward to (if you take the time to look at the reviews). We were lucky that the rain wasn’t too heavy so we got to view everything at our leisure. Everything was so green and so clearly built for ultimate extravagance. There appear to be fountains and terraces at every level and in every corner. If i ever build my own home, I’m mirroring my grounds to this place!

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What I’ve learned from this small moment of my trip, aside from an easier way to work my camera’s shutter speed and aperture settings, was how rewarding it can be to just go with the flow. I know that sounds so cheesy, but it’s true! Like many moments in my travels, I hadn’t planned on going until the day before. I hadn’t even researched the place past a quick google images search. Having an itinerary can be beneficial in that it orients you. It provides you with security, knowing where you are and where you can go. But sometimes, you just have to go and experience things off the beaten path. Now to be fair, Villa d’Este is not something I would consider too off the path (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre), but going there was not on my list. So, I’ll count it as being that for me.

Anyway, this was my little adventure on a whim. I hope this adventure inspires you to find your road less travelled, whatever that may look like!

And as always,

Happy traveling!

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A Simple Way Travel Humbles You

You never forget your firsts.

The first time I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower I was almost two weeks into living in Paris. I’d spent those two weeks getting settled into my neighbourhood (14eme arrondissement), figuring out the metro, getting terribly lost on the metro (several times), trying to get ahead on upcoming classes, and moving into my apartment. A lot was happening, and with all of it came stress. The final hump to settling into my home of four months was getting a French bank account. I walked into a nearby Societe Generale, nervously clutching my proof of residence form and passport, hoping that I knew enough French banking vocabulary to get through this step. My final step. To my own surprise, I did and as I headed towards my bus home, full of pride, I saw another bus stop sign with the words Tour Eiffel printed on it. In that moment it occurred to me that in all my stress and worry, I’d failed to stop and take a look around. I was in Paris. So, I waited the five minutes it took for the bus to reach me, and, if I’m honest, prepared to be underwhelmed. As the bus approached her, and she grew so high that her apex seemed to almost reach up into the heavens, I instantly felt anchored. It was the most peculiar feeling. For a moment, after the confused, anxious haze those first two weeks had been, I knew where I was and felt the true weight of what that meant. But this post isn’t so much about Paris, but instead, about Rome.

My arrival to Rome was bumpy. In an attempt to save money, I’d booked a ticket with a 18 hour layover in Lisbon, which after a five hour flight (which I did not sleep on) and jet lag,  left me exhausted. The following day, I boarded a 6am flight to Rome from Lisbon, sensing the achy beginnings of the flu spreading throughout my body. Getting into the city from the airport and to my hotel seemed like another feat, marked by the inconvenience of a closed metro station (due to a worker’s strike), and two men following me as I frantically searched for a cheaper way to get to my hotel without needing to speak any Italian (which I speak zilch of). As I settled into my queen-sized bed, I immediately felt my body clinging to the clean sheets, begging for rest. And this time, my body won. I spent the first day, of a four-day trip, sleeping.

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Planning out how to get around on foot.

The following day, determined to keep the cold creeping up in my throat at bay, I walked out onto Roman streets with my camera and cough drops in reach. Now I’ve trekked through my fair share of cities, but never have I explored any city like I did Rome. I walked everywhere. I walked past everything, to everything and encountered beauty on several turns. But you never forget your real firsts.

The first time I saw the Colosseum was by accident. I was trying to find it, looking for signs, with only a weak cellphone signal, a vague idea where it might be and how I might get to it. In all my confusion (and hunger—I’d skipped lunch) I’d almost missed it. I was stopped at a red light of a random intersection and looked to my left and there it was.

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Caught by surprise.

The moment felt all too familiar. Suddenly, after the drama that it was to get to Rome, to my hotel, and all, I finally felt like I was there, in Rome. My frustration quickly turned into excitement. I walked to him, and well, it’s hard to put into words. Many people go to  popular cities and look for the “insider” experience, trying to find where the locals are and trying to do what the locals do. They steer clear of what’s touristy and too commercialized. I get it. I’m mostly the same way. But there’s something about seeing for yourself the iconic symbols you’ve only seen in magazines or in film. Famous images of tall buildings with all that history you’ve only read and wondered about. No matter how riddled with tourists those places are, when you finally reach them, they pull you in.

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It’s like for so long the most you could do was touch the waxy coating of the image, and then suddenly there you are. Not only are you the one taking the picture, you’re inside of it, interacting with it and then it’s not image at all. It’s real and so are you. It grounds you. That’s what it felt like seeing the Colosseum, like my feet were on the ground after a day of feeling like I was still stuck in the air. I love so many things about cities like Paris and Rome, things that are less well known, the people, the art, but, the things I appreciate most are those big, famed buildings. They are a sign that you’ve arrived to your destination. They’re a sign that you’re not alone in this world. People, hundreds or thousands of years ago, built those places. Those buildings have been pillaged and broken and worn with time, yet still they stand as they stood before you were ever anything and they’ll continue to exist when you are once again nothing. It’s truly the most humbling experience. A unique experience I can say I’ve only gotten from going out and seeing the world.

So, here’s to firsts! And to Rome. And I suppose to Paris. And to all that grounds you.

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Happy traveling!

-Afia

Copenhagen: In Search of Hygge

Denmark is cold in October. And by cold, I mean freezing. I know this for a fact, because a year ago I was in its capital, Copenhagen. As someone who finds my own personal hygge (the Danish word for a feeling of extraordinary comfort) in 80°F weather, the idea of a cold vacation seemed laughable. Who goes from a cold place during winter to an even colder place for vacation? Well apparently, as I’ve come to learn, plenty of people do…now, including me.

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I arrived at night, taking the train from the airport into the city using my Copenhagen Card, and trekked to my roomate’s friend’s apartment, where I was staying. I had ignorantly left my coat at home in Paris, so that walk goes down as the longest and coldest one of my life. Delirious and exhausted (from what, I’m not sure), I crashed instantly, but not before making a pact with my roommate, who I was travelling with, that we’d wake up early to take advantage of the meagre four days we had.

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Spoiler: we slept in much later than we ought have.

Architecture:

 

I have a few friends who’d been to the city and rave about Danish architecture. From the royal family’s palace, Amelianborg, to the greenhouse in the botanical gardens, to the classic row houses found on its river’s banks, Copenhagen’s buildings are breathtaking. If you’re an architecture buff, you’ll find a lot to fawn over. I’m not sure how they built the roof over the aquarium, but woah, am I right?

Food:

I travel to eat. There, I said it. It’s my favorite part of visiting a new city. I like trying traditional foods. I like trying foods from immigrants, because they tend to blend the local cultures with their own in interesting ways. This is especially true at Papirøen, or Paper Island, a warehouse filled with international street vendors. There, I ate the best Turkish falafel, best Brazilian barbecue, and best apple fritters I’ve ever tasted. If I weren’t vegan now, I would fly back to Copenhagen just for the Brazilian chicken and sausage at Paper Island.

 

 

Aside from Paper Island, you can find cool eateries easily all around the city. Many of the restaurants we loved we found on the fly, desperate for substance and a place to sit. So just walk around and you’re guaranteed to find something yummy to eat. I will say, the deserts at Tivoli blew my mind.

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There’s a lot more I could say about Copenhagen and, I admit, I’ve been having a hard time summarizing what it is that stuck out to me about it. In some ways, I think that’s the point. The city has a slow burning effect on you. One minute all you can think about is how cold your hands are and the next you’re staring at some of the most beautiful architecture you’ve ever seen or eating the best Brazilian food you’ve ever tasted, and all the little things that bring you down fade away. I didn’t really get to appreciate how much I enjoyed my time there until I looked back on some of the photos. Reliving this city in my mind, through the few moments I captured, solidifies Copenhagen as one of my favorite cities to date.

Don’t be afraid to book a ticket and get traveling!

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Cartagena Conmigo!

 

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Ah, Cartagena!

I’ve had this historically-rich city on my “to-go” list for a very long time. I wanted to visit Colombia since I was in grade school. It wasn’t until I read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez my freshman year in college, however, that my love affair with Cartagena itself began. Love in the Time of Cholera is a literary masterpiece and one of my favourite books. I dreamt of walking through the city which inspired its streets as Fermina Daza did. I longed to be transported into a place and time so different from my own. It is amazing how much the old city (also known as the tourist centre) allows for such fantasies to materialise. Minus a lovesick Florentino Ariza, it’s a wonder how much this area brings the book to life.

Like many coastal cities, with a history of Spanish colonialism, the old city is colourful and vibrant. Even with only a cracked iPhone camera at my disposal, it was hard not to capture how wonderfully bright it is. The old city is marked, in contrast to its surrounding areas, by a wall enclosure and cobblestone streets. It is also heavily touristic.

Vendors (often with sweet words) fill up the streets all day and throughout the night. They vie for your attention, encouraging you to spend your money on their lemonade or small trinkets. Men and women alike, selling foods and souvenirs, trying to make a living. I wondered what it’s like to live in their shoes. To have to walk and work in an area where people of such means stroll by with little care for their basic needs, while you sell your very essence for a dollar. And I don’t mean that figuratively. As my friend and I walked through the streets, snapping pictures of practically everything, a woman, whose picture I took mindlessly, insisted that I give her money for the picture. She was stunning: deep, dark skin enveloped in colourful layers made of wraps, scarves, and shawls. She sold fruit on a corner, and apparently her image, too. I don’t judge it. People make money in all kinds of ways. And surely, she sees value in her image and what it offers. I’m not sure what to conclude from that experience, but it was an odd and recurring reality during my time there. So many people, with so much to sell, wanting to sell it to you. I suppose it reminded me of Kinshasa, where I grew up. Like Kinshasa, I felt my socio-economic privilege and it was, as it always is, very humbling.

In all, the old city isn’t hard to navigate and there’s enough for you to do during the day. We spent most of our time just walking, stopping, at times, for something to drink or to visit a shop or museum. I will say, it is unbelievably hot, so you take breaks whether you want to or not. You have to. The heat is unlike anything I have ever experienced. You could breath in the hot air and it would fill your lungs like clear smoke. And the night gives no relief. Most of the time, it is just as hot as it is during the day. I consider myself a tropical girl. I grew up by the equator, but Cartagena made me question my authenticity as a lover of the sun.

Before I arrived, everyone (friends and strangers alike) told me that I would love Cartagena, and they were right. I guess, I was just surprised by how much. I loved how hot it was. I loved how bright it was. I, honestly, did not want to leave and I truly cannot wait to go back!

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Ps: Yes, it’s been a while since I last posted, I know. A lot has been happening lately. Luckily it’s given me the chance to think about where I want to take this blog. I’m currently working on improving the design and layout. So, expect an upgrade soon! Also, I’m planning on a few more political pieces that I’m really excited to share. All in all, hang in there with me. We’re taking this blogging adventure together, one step at a time.

 

Falling in Love with Cali

Before joining a friend of mine on her solo trip to Colombia, I had never heard of Cali. My embarrassing ignorance of Colombia’s third largest city, led me to a light Google search, which only made me even more reluctant to pay sixty dollars for the two hour flight from Medellin (the first leg of my trip). Cali seems somewhat unimpressive on paper.  It was, however, only a three-day stop and the weather was meant to be pleasant. If nothing else, I had found a great Airbnb and was assured a good time with my friend. When I told a few people in Medellin that I was making a quick stop in Cali, they all reacted with the same word: salsa (the dance, not the sauce). This made me a bit more relieved; simply because I am tempted to think, where there are people dancing salsa, there is always a good time.

 

In truth, there isn’t much to see in Cali. In comparison to Medellin, Cali is small and mostly uneventful. Its museums and major tourist sites can all be explored in three or four days with proper planning. It has beautiful churches, and though we arrived on the weekend when museums were closed, we were supplemented culturally by a festival celebrating music and art from the region. From what I gathered talking to a few travellers, most people visit Cali for the excursions offered outside of the city (mostly parasailing and hiking). What there is to see, however, is quite beautiful.

 

During the day, many people stay indoors, because of the intense heat. If you do choose to walk around before 3pm (bless you), you’re bound to hear the faint sound of salsa music coming from a dance studio. Or maybe, you’ll encounter the sweet smell of ripe fruit from outdoor merchants, fanning themselves on a street corner. The thick humidity is such that it makes you feel as if you could graze your fingers upon the air and touch something solid. So understandably, the streets are quiet, which allows you to admire the beauty of its oldest neighbourhood, San Antonio’s architecture and the city’s overall tropical verdure in peace. I was particularly fond of the murals. They are abundant and colourful. I also enjoyed La Ermita church, although it too was closed. Right by La Ermita is a small park, Parque de las Poetas. There you’ll find sitting statues of different Colombian poets, inscribed with their personal views of the city . It was nice to sit with Ricardo Nieto and Antonio Llanos and piece together (with my one-semester-freshman-year-of-college Spanish) what they too admired about the city. Cali is very much a city with all the dusty paved roads and boisterous traffic jams to be expected from one. Yet, it has a small town charm one can easily fold into.

 

At night is when the city comes to life. For one, more people are out and about. Only then can you truly get a sense of the culture for which the city is known. Though unexplored in its entirety, my travel partner and I ventured to Zaperoco, a prominent salsa club. The high ratings and abundant positive recommendations found online made us fearful that it would be filled with people like us, tourists wanting to watch people dance and not actual salsa dancers. Thankfully, we were wrong, and instead were entranced by the natural sway of the couples, who danced as if it were in their DNA to move to the sounds of Celia Cruz and Joe Arroyo.

 

The second night was all for Bad Bunny! The Puertorican musician was the closing artist for the Remote de ICFES, an end of the school year festival. Most of the concertgoers were young teenagers, making me, at 20 years old, feel old. But the repetitive beats and  “charisma” of the dancers on stage make you forget that you’re standing on your feet for three hours and surrounded by people who could not have been born before the year 2000. Afterwards, back in the comfort of my room, I could hear to friends, lovers covening in the park near my Airbnb, packed outside of restaurants, comparing motorbikes and enjoying an array of fried meats.

Which reminds me, I mustn’t forget to write about the food–or maybe more so the drinks. It would be a sin.

The best meal I had, a bowl of pasta, was from Museo La Tertulia‘s restaurant. The best coffee I have ever had was from my Airbnb hostess. According to her, the man she buys it from grinds and distributes his coffee from a van, that he drives around town making deliveries. Whenever she needs a refill, she phones him up and he’s at her doorstep the following day. It’s such a personal transaction, one most likely filled with brief pleasantries– an hola, a como esta, a quick ciao at the end. It added such a nice touch to the already small-town feel the city can give you.

 

Between the coffee, the lulada, a drink made from the lulo (fruit baby of an orange and kiwi), and the bread (there’s always breald), I was always loaded with enough carbs for afternoon naps and reading under the sun. Other than eating and walking, sitting and snapping pictures, hydrating on limonadas de coco and the Celia Cruz Mojitos (hands down the best mojito I’ve EVER had) was all I did. Filling up on french toast and walking in the hot sun just makes you thirsty.

 

All in all, Cali is an acquired taste. My travel partner’s fondest memory of the city is of her counting the seconds until she could board the plane away from it. I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Perhaps it was because it was smaller and San Antonio is much quainter, and in some ways livelier, than where I stayed in Medellin. Whatever it is that made me fall in love with Cali, I am grateful for it. I am grateful for the cool breeze grazing my neck, after a long night being mesmerised by seasoned salsa dancers in Zaperoco. I am grateful for lulada. I am grateful for the afro and indigenous faces plastered on nearly every mural, celebrating the city’s racial diversity. I am grateful for my Airbnb hostess, Yelitza, who embodied the overarching ease and friendliness I often encountered often from the people I met there.  If I never opened my mouth to reveal my gringa accent, I would blend in.  If nothing else, that made Cali, even if just for three days, feel like home.

I look forward to a time when I can explore more of what the region has to offer.

Until then,

Cali es Cali, y lo demás es loma.