Southern Gentlemen in Southern California

The ink was still wet on my University of Georgia diploma as I drove out of Athens on the way to California.  It felt like a scene out the of The Beverly Hillbillies (see video below).  We loaded up a Toyota 4Runner and the biggest trailer U-haul makes to the brim with all our worldly possessions.  My new roommate and road dawg Blake and I were in for a long 5 day trek across this beautiful country.  The trip might not have lasted 5 full days if the trailer didn’t shake violently when we drove faster than 55 mph.

Being broke, jobless college grads we picked our route to the west coast based on friends and family along the way with free places to sleep and hot meals.  The first road block we faced on the way to the our first night in Baton Rouge was a late start.  4 hours, 2 trailers and 1 insane Tetris-like loading job later we were off.  Unfortunately the late start and the slow trailer driving had us arrive a little after 4am in Louisiana completely exhausted.  The next day we headed out  with our stomach’s full of gumbo and the gas tank on F.

Next we breezed through Dallas, Albuquerque and Phoenix seeing the way more of this country than I ever expected.  Since the award season in LA is in full force and I’m already for the 2013 Oscars I’ll give out a few awards for the trip:

Best Scenery Award – New Mexico/North Arizona. – The snow on the ground was a perfect accent to the scenic mountains and pristine forests.

Worst Scenery Award – In case you’re wondering there is NOTHING scenic about the drive between Dallas and New Mexico.  That drive had some of the worst sights and smells (there are some pretty foul smelling cattle farms) I’ve encountered in this country.

Best Meal: Homemade Gumbo from the Karam family. Uh-Maze-Ing.

Worst Meal: Half of a bag of sunflower seeds I found under the seat somewhere in Texas.

2,468 miles later we pulled up to the new place in SoCal ready for some great adventures!

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Cuba Libre

Cuba - By Preston Shurley

Cuba is authentic.  It’s authentically beautiful, sad, amazing, inspiring, historic and powerful all at once.   That is the best way to describe this incredible country.  I’ve never been to another country that holds on to it’s tradition and culture so brilliantly.  The most incredible part is that Havana is only a 45 minute flight from Miami, but it seems like you travel back in time 50 years.  I think Lonely Planet described Havana better than I ever could have:

“Habana is a one-off. Sitting pretty as the Caribbean’s largest and most vivacious city, its romantic atmosphere and infectious energy are the stuff of legend. Where else do you find vintage American cars running off Russian Lada engines, ration shops juxtaposed against gleaming colonial palaces, and revolutionary sloganeering drowned out by all-night parties?”

Outside the UN

Cuba is a place that has been on my bucket list for quite some time.  I was only able to go because of some very pioneering UGA grads and friends that founded a non-profit that does leadership trips across the globe.  They arranged for special visas from the US State Department.  As one of the inaugural ADDO Ambassadors to Cuba we laid the foundation for programs working with local Cuban children who are fighting the battle against cancer, down syndrome and HIV/AIDS.  As ambassadors we also had the opportunity to meet with the United Nations Development Programme.  Our group collaborated with officials from the UN about Cuban development in the future and sustainability for the Caribbean’s largest island.

After all the diplomatic meetings and programs we spent most of our time crisscrossing the island touring famous sites and checking out some of the world’s most pristine beaches.  One of Cuba’s biggest supporters over the years was Ernest Hemingway.  He wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea at his estate outside of Havana.  The house has a tropical charm that is hard to find anywhere else.  It’s easy to see how it could inspire great works of art.

Buena Vista Social Club

My single favorite night of the trip had to be a concert from the world renowned Buena Vista Social Club at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.  The walls of the hotel are lined with pictures of famous guests from years past ranging from Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Winston Churchill to the likes of Robert de Niro, Arnold Swarchenegger, and Mohamed Ali.  The rum was flowing, cigars burning and the big band blasted the night away as professional dancers kept the crowd in awe with their island moves.

Cuba is an absolutely incredible place that remains untouched from American consumerism.  It will be interesting to see how the potential lift of the embargo in future affects its economy, people, and culture.  Regardless I am definitely glad that I got the opportunity to check it out before any radical changes takes place.  The authentic Cuba will live in my heart and mind for years to come.

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Ballin’ on a Budget: Lisboa!

Lisbon (CC - Aguas Livres)

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Lisbon is an unexpected surprise.  The only reason I even ventured to Portugal was to cross another country off my 30-before-30 list and because a friend said they have cheap(er) flights back to the States.  It was an afterthought on my European excursion, but I’m definitely glad I made the pit stop.  I was only actually in Portugal for one full day.  I flew in one evening, had a day to sight see and jetted off back to California early the next morning.

The one best parts of this leg of my journey was definitely the amazing people at my hostel.  The eclectic guests I stayed with included a school teacher from Middle Tennessee, an Austrian student/soldier, a rugby player from New Zealand, and some European study abroad students.  I decided to randomly tag along with some of them while they toured the city.  I thought we’d only be gone for a couple of hours of sightseeing, but I thought wrong.  We ended up getting home as the sun rose the next morning with just enough time for me to throw my things in a bag and catch a cab to the airport.

View from my hostel window

The day started innocently enough with a tour of the local monastery around the corner.  From there we explored the nearby port and then hopped on a trolley to the city center.  By lunch time we’d hiked up what had to be the longest street in the city and we found a great little cafe in a park to rest in.  We explored some more of the city and then continued the hiking theme by trekking up to Castle of São Jorge.  The views of the city were phenomenal and the couple of beers we picked up on the way tasted even sweeter with the great scenery.  Our hodge-podge group watched the sunset over the city from one of it’s highest points then decided to grab some dinner.  A friend of a friend suggested we grab shots of Ginja, a traditional Portuguese pre-dinner liqueur then eat at a local family owned restaurant.  The shot tasted like cherry flavored rubbing alcohol, but the meal was the best thing I’d eaten since I left Greece.  I strongly believe there’s a direct correlation between the amount of English people speak and the taste of the food.  The less English they know the better the food tends to be!

After dinner it was suggested to us to check out a concert a few block away.  From the outside the place looked like an auto shop but inside was a cool multi-level mix of a bar, lounge, restaurant, and concert venue.  We spent the next few hours here swapping travel stories and learning more about each others cultures and beliefs.

Lisbon Night (CC by Frostis)

As the night started to slip away from us my European friends wanted to show me a good time for my last night on the continent.  They convinced me to go to some “erasmus” bars.  After a lot of confusion I learned that the ERASMUS Programme is the network of studying abroad for European students.  We made some twists and turns down some sketchy alleys then turned onto a street that instantly reminded me of home.  We hit the main Erasmus strip and thousands of European students swarmed out of seemingly nowhere.  I felt like I was walking down Broad Street in Athens, Georgia.  The more time I spent in Europe the more I realized that there isn’t much difference between students in the US and the EU.  I spent my last night on the continent dancing the night away with some great new friends!

HIGH: Had a whirlwind Eurotrip and Portugal was the perfect place to end it!

LOW: Not a thing.

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Ballin’ on a Budget: Barcelona!

Barcelona busted my budget.  After experiencing how cheap Europe could be in Prague I got a nice reality check in Spain.  But I loved every minute of it.  The restaurants, beaches, bars, clubs, and historical sites were all great.  Everything in Barcelona is uniquely Catalonian.  The culture of the people is unlike anywhere else in Spain.  Catalan pride is almost palpable.

Barca is the type of international city people dream of living in.  It has all the touristy attractions you want in a big city, mixed with local pride and flair.  Not to mention it’s just a short (and cheap!) flight away from Madrid, Paris, Rome and London, just name a few cities.  I’d absolutely love to live here someday.  I’ve just got to brush up on my Spanish and try to figure out Catalan.

Gaudi Architectue: Antoni Gaudi eis easily the patron saint of Barcelona (besides Picasso!).  You find his works and influence all over the city.  His world famous architecture is known for its unique and distinctive flair.  The distinguishing color and design of his work left an impression on the city that remains unrivaled.

La Sagrada Familia is Gaudi’s crown jewel (even though he left it unfinished).  You can’t go to Barcelona and not stop by to check it out.

Park Guell – Probably one of the most interesting (and hardest places to find from the metro…) parks I’ve ever been to.  The design is distinctly Gaudi and one of a kind.

Casas – You’ll undoubtedly see several of the houses he was commissioned to build around the city in your EuroTrip.  They make for an interesting mix with the modern European architecture of the rest of the city.

Arc de Triomf

Cheap Dates: 

Museo Picasso – The Picasso Museum offers free admission on the first sunday of every month.  The line looks deceptively long but it’s completely worth the wait to check out some of his best work.  You’ll also see some familiar sites from around Barcelona in his paintings.

La Rambla – This main street in town is Tourist Central but nevertheless it’s still a pretty interesting spot to people watch and grab some souvenirs.

Barceloneta Beach – It’s always good to take of break from the hustle and bustle of busy city life by relaxing at the beach.  While this beach in the heart of the city isn’t the prettiest, the beautiful coeds from all over the world make up for it and then some.

It’s hard to find reasons not to love Barcelona.  It is a world class city in an amazing location with so much culture and passion.  I’ll definitely be back one day soon…

LOW:  That I could only spend a few days in such an amazing place.

HIGH: Meeting up with friends and doing the Bike Tour of Barcelona! Great way to see the sites!

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Ballin’ on a Budget: PRAHA!

Prague is the definition of Ballin’ on a Budget.  Prices in Prague offer a welcome break to your bank account after being dominated by the Euro exchange rate.  The costs in the Czech Republic are so low you seem to get so much more bang for your buck.  Praha is the perfect mesh of the old world and new adventures!  The city has a whole different vibe from the rest of the big cities in Europe.  The people seem nicer, the air seems fresher, the beer flows easier.  I loved Prague!

Free Sites:

Unlike many of other European cities most of the main attractions in Prague are free99!  The Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, and the Astronomical Clock don’t cost anything to Czech out (pun intended).  Prague is a great city to ditch your map and just wander around in.  There are some great neighborhoods to get lost in along the way.

Parks:

I stumbled upon several great parks while in Prague.  One in particular was host to one of my favorite nights on my EuroTrip.  The hostel staff recommended a Beer Garden in a few blocks away and I joined a few new friends on a trip there.  To say the view from the park was amazing would be a gross understatement.  The park sat on a hill with a magnificent view of the entire city.  We realized the park was a popular hangout for locals in the evening for good reason.  We grabbed a few beers and some wine and watched the sun melt away behind the scenic Prague castle and historic skyline.

Prague Castle:

The Prague Castle is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest castle in the world.  It is definitely a must see item on a trip to Prague.  The castle complex sits at the top of the city and gives you a great glimpse into the city’s past.  Part of the castle (the St. Vitus Cathedral) is free to the public, but to visit most of it you need to pay admission.  Luckily you get a significant discount with your student ID.

Prague is one of those cities that I feel like I could come back to year after year and never get bored.  I feel like I just scratched the surface in my few days there and I would love to go back and explore more one day.

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Ballin’ on a Budget: ROMA!

Roman Colosseum

“There is no point having a lot of money if it’s just going to sit there and not be good for anything.” -Amerika C.

Great advice from a friend about spending money on what you love.  I love to travel, but nobody wants to spend ALL of their money traveling.  The theme for my EuroTrip 2011 adventure is “Ballin’ on a Budget.”  I want to get First Class treatment with Buddy Pass prices.  First stop, the eternal city, Rome!

Rome is a non-stop adventure! It’s one of those places that you could just wander around for days in amazement of it’s beauty.  The key to getting the most out of a city inundated with museums/monuments is to consult an expert.  You could buy a guide book or even better get a travel agent that will charge you a pretty penny.  Or you could hop online for free city guides and talk to friends that have spent time in the city.  The good thing about being in college is that you probably have friends studying abroad all over the world.  Utilize them!

Me and Reba (aka Best Tour Guide Ever!) @ Spanish Steps

Free Tour Guide – My impromptu tour guide for my 4 days in Rome was my roommates’ girlfriends’ roommate (and she was awesome!)  If you’re traveling to Europe in the summer you will most likely have friends that would love to re-live their crazy Eurotrip by showing/telling you their favorite spots.  I got really lucky to have an amazing guide who was actually studying for her final exam on all of big sites in Rome.  So she was able to practice by walking me around the city and I was able to get a world class tour for free99!

Roma Pass– The best 25 bucks I spent in Italy was for the Roma Pass.  It lets you ride all  city transportation (bus, train, tram) for free and grants you free admission to two museums in the city.  The best part of the pass is that you don’t have to buy a ticket to the museums you visit, you just walk right up to the front of the line and walk in the door.  I bypassed a line wrapping around the Colosseum and walked in like I was a celebrity.  (Definitely spotted some European tourist snapping pics of me as I walked up the VIP entrance – the Will Smith doppelganger still lives on haha!)

Free audio tours – A way to save money on official tours/tour guides in big cities like Rome is to download a free audio tour right on your iPod.  Rick Steves does great, free audio tours of the popular tourist spots around the world.  You get all the info you want/need about the sites and you keep your money in your pocket where it belongs.  Be warned Rick Steves thinks he’s a comedian, so be prepared for some corny tour guide jokes.  Even the best of us tour guides have some lame jokes every now and then.

Vatican Free Day – Worst Kept Secret in Rome: The Vatican Museums are open to the public for free on the last Sunday of every month.  The line to get in for Free99 starts wrapping around the walls of the holy city hours before the museums open.  Best Kept Secret in Rome:  If you wait 2 hours after the museum opens there is absolutely NO LINE AT ALL to get in.  So save yourself several miserable hours of your life, skip the line and enjoy the Vatican for free.  Tell the Pope that Jhaff sent you.

Meet the Pope – Well kind of… On Sunday’s at 12 noon the Pope comes out and blesses the crowd at St. Peters Square (Free99!).  It’s pretty incredible to hear good ole Benedict XVI give shout-outs to people from all over the world in Italian, French, English, Spanish, German and Polish.

Jhaff’s Favorite (FREE) Spots in the Eternal City:

The Pantheon – SOOO COOL! Go in the afternoon and marvel at the sunlight beaming onto the floor of the enormous temple.  (Not to be confused with the Parthanon in Athens)

The Trevi Fountain – Legend has it that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain it will ensure your return back to Rome one day.  (Hopefully I’ll make it back sooner rather than later or I wasted a whole Euro!)

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – There is just something about the Tomb of the Unknown soldier that fascinates me in every country.  Rome’s is especially interesting because it sits at the Monument to Victor Emmanuel.  The massive monument can be seen from most of the city and serves as a great landmark if (most likely WHEN) you get lost in the Eternal City.

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Santorini: Round 2!

When you watch a movie set in Greece and you see the amazing views, blue domed buildings, and stunning sunsets you are taking a glimpse at Santorini!  It’s hard to find a more beautiful place in the world.  Walking down the streets of the Town of Oia which boasts the “most beautiful sunset in the world” you have to pinch yourself and realize that you truly are in paradise.

There’s no doubt why it’s one of the most visited places in Greece.  The gorgeous red and black sand beaches, powerful volcano, and picturesque towns scattered atop magnificent cliffs make it a truly remarkable place.  Santorini inspired Jules Verne’s “20,000

Leagues Under the Sea” and has ties to the fabled city of Atlantis.

Since one of the themes of my trip is “Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone” I decided to take advantage of some of the unique opportunities that Santorini had to offer.  Like cliff jumping into the Mediterranean (see pics below), hiking an active volcano, and riding a donkey up from the old port to watch the world famous sunset, just to name a few.

HIGH: This is an incredible place to end on for my epic adventure through Greece.  It’s one of those places you will never forget.

LOW:  This blog post is a bit rushed because I still need to pack and get ready to fly to Rome in the morning.  But nevertheless Santorini has to be one of my favorite places in the entire world!  (Hopefully these pictures are worth 1,000 words.  *Courtesy of BA’s BA camera)

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