CodeXJourneys

Resigned from my job and gave away my stuff. Traveling the world, becoming a better coder, and learning where I can most add value. Experiencing life and totally grateful for it.

Recent Journeys and Things Learned

São Paulo City Rocks. Or Sambas. Or Why Not Both?

I visited São Paulo last week, my first time to South America. I loved the city, beautiful and troubled and a place to stretch out and relax part of my brain.

I have few if any photos, because I couldn’t whip out my iPhone 6 on the street to snap them. Behavior standards are different: Don’t take out valuables or wear expensive jewelry, know where you’re going, keep cash in a few places.

With no photos, I’m left with words as my paintbrush. I’ll do my best to share what I saw.

Sao Paulo is ugly on first impression. Concrete block buildings, sprawl like L.A., smog and no beach.

Inside the urban jungle is a jewel.

Street art explodes all over flat surfaces. Faces and suns, dreamscapes and owls and vines, flags and flowers and animals, turning concrete into canvas. In the artists’ alley in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood of bars, houses and galleries, my guide and I met a mural painter. He comes every year to refresh his work, starting from scratch. He was tracing outlines on a red background, two men next to each other, the background uncertain bright crimson, with a note to leave the space clear and respect the work in progress.

Elsewhere, street art shares space with gang symbols that climb up buildings like spiders. In some cases, where 20 stories of a luxury building show markings like hieroglyphics, one per floor, I wonder if the painters started at the top and climbed down. It would be easier. Just break into the building and then rappel down like Batman.

Few people speak English. Portuguese is the language of everything. With my guide, I went places I never could have gone alone. I fit in until I opened my mouth.

Samba is the music of Brazil. At a bar Saturday afternoon, we had fried mandioca (cassava), polenta and coxinhas (chicken dumplings), caipirinhas and then started dancing. It was early, so families and friends danced together at tables. Aunts and daughters, husbands and brothers and boyfriends. A grandmother I didn’t know kissed me on the cheek.

My guide said people who like rock don’t like samba. And people who like samba don’t like rock. I don’t know why. I think they could marry each other and have crazy layered sex, one expression on top of the other, threaded through and inseparable.

Before that we wandered through a flea market at Praça Benedito Calixto, through odds and ends from all times and places washed up on the tables. I bought sunglasses because I didn’t have any.

At the end of every day, I felt dirty. Red clay soil, the afternoon thunderstorm that always came, high humidity and sunlight the rest of the day, grime from outdoor markets and bars and downtown buildings.

The city was founded more than 500 years ago and is far older than North American cities, but grew fantastically in the twentieth century, from 200,000 people in 1900 to more than 13 million today. New and old collide in unplanned chaos. In one trip downtown to the Sé district, my guide and I visited the Bovespa stock exchange (quiet because computers now trade contracts that pit workers used to scream about), the famous Martinelli building with a huge outdoor balcony for cityscape views, a free Mondrian art exhibit, a local cafe and a Benedictine monastery.

Afterward, I retreated to my hotel, showered and ordered room service, remembered I was a stranger, isolated in this oasis. I felt strange and calm and excited.

A futebol game was the highlight of my experience. I’d visited the futebol museum earlier. Now my guide and I climbed the path outside Pacaembu Stadium, entered with our tickets and found seats on the concrete bleachers. I’d always wanted to attend a soccer match, and to do it in Brazil was the best way I could think to fulfill this dream. We sat on the seats and cheered with the crowd for São Paulo. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, the stadium only one-fifth full so not chaotic but absolutely fun. We yelled, cheered and enjoyed the match, with the win coming 10 minutes before the daily thunderstorm soaked everything.

I was ready to leave and not ready. I’m back and I’m not back. Is it possible to live in 50 places at once and give a piece of yourself to each place, and take a piece of each place in return?

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The Northern Lights – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 4

I saw the Northern Lights. It was my fifth try when they really danced.

The first three tries were duds:

  1. I sat on a freezing bus for two hours with no bathroom. Received a free coupon to try again but obviously didn’t use it.
  2. I took a boat tour from Reykjavik Harbor dressed in a black-and-yellow thermal suit. No lights, but this was a great trip, and the boat had bathrooms. When we didn’t see the lights, a crewman named Sven started reading Northern Lights poetry over the loudspeaker. Highly recommended. Received a free voucher to try again.
  3. I took a SuperJeep into a not-really-so-impassable-after-all part of Thingvellir National Park, searching for a gap in the clouds. We found a gap with the moon and stars shining down on snow and silence. No lights and no bathrooms, but the tour guides served hot chocolate with vodka. Received a free voucher to try again.

Preliminary Success

On the fourth try, I used my SuperJeep voucher. This time the lights forecast was great, and before we’d even left Reykjavik city limits, our guide was talking with other guides on the phone about where to find the lights. We drove a short distance to a forest and got out with the Northern Lights stretching green across the sky. I’d heard they would look smoky-white to the naked eye, but they were whitish-green and beautiful, like a cloud or smoke but a little different.

We watched for a while and then drove farther out, to a snow-covered open area where the lights stretched up across the sky and then shrunk back. It was beautiful. Mission accomplished, I thought.

A couple of weeks later I was wandering around the old harbor in Reykjavik when I saw a booth for the boat tour company and decided I should use their voucher before I left Iceland. I stopped by to ask the man there which night would be best.

He insisted that I needed to go that night. I had no plans so agreed to board the ship.

A Light Show for a Lifetime

For the first hour we saw nothing, just drifting on the water in the cold. Then I saw a small white cloud on the northern horizon.

Shortly afterward, the cloud stretched across the sky. It was a Northern Light. A long period of nothing — maybe an hour — and then a bigger streak of light arced up to the top of the sky, shimmered, and split sideways into dancing lines.

The lines broke into three huge green swirls that spun around, with red shimmering through their cores. Then other lines streaked up, shimmering and marching like souls into heaven, and a huge green cloud drifted like a green smoke dragon across the sky.

The tour operator was yelling and could not contain herself. I was laughing and looking up and sharing the moment with 200 other people on this boat in the middle of winter, imagining what people used to think of the Northern Lights before we understood them, back when they were just a mysterious phenomenon.

We came back to Reykjavik Harbor with the lights as our companion, shimmering and dancing, covering almost half the sky.

I have no photos because iPhones take terrible night photos. The photos I have can’t do it justice, and I won’t post them. The memories I have will never leave my mind. It was an incredible gift from nature, and I feel so lucky.

I am so going back.

A Storm in Iceland, Solo Travel Starlog – Part 3

I have a huge review to write about my tour around Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland and the wonderful clearing of a blizzard to make way for a gorgeous extended sunset. On that day, I realized checking the weather forecast was pointless. The only good strategy is to take Iceland on its own terms.

I’m glad I learned that, because my story about the Snaefellsnes tour can wait. Right now, I’m in the middle of the worst storm to hit Iceland in 25 years.

I’m huddled in my beautiful apartment in Reykjavik, made of sturdy wood, which I’m thankful for because the building has shaken a few times.

Hang Tight

Once, earlier in the afternoon, I went out to see the source of a loud crash on the side of the house. I noticed that one of the three-foot dagger icicles hanging off the roof had shattered all over the steps. Two more remained, so I hustled up those steps with amazing speed to get back inside. (Update: The icicles are gone!)

Logging on to the Iceland weather forecast, I noticed the storm seemed to cover most of the country with high wind speeds. I wondered how high, so I typed in “76 km/h to mph,” because that is the sustained wind speed in downtown Reykjavik right now.

About 50mph. Fast, for sustained wind. I checked the news.

The Hurricane and the Hot Dog Stand

Apparently there is a hurricane hitting Iceland, for all intents and purposes. The whole country. Boats in the harbor are rocking and rolling, and one hot dog stand remained open tonight, the great Bæjerins Beztu Pylsur that I mentioned in my last post. Otherwise, the city is closed and the storm is on.

This is the second gale-force storm in three days. On Friday, my planned trip to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon was cancelled due to a similarly terrible storm in that area.

Prior to that, Reykjavik broke its December snowfall record in the first three days of December. Photo evidence here:

Snow in Reykjavik Dec 3

Why, Iceland?

Most of the snow in that beautiful park is now gone. I’ll edit this post with gale-storm aftermath photos tomorrow. For now, I’m too afraid to go outside. Hundreds of pounds of snow just slid off the roof onto the street, barely missing a car. Snow really does groan when it slides off a roof en glacial masse, in case you were wondering.

What is up with all this weird weather?

Iceland, if you have a message for me, I am hearing you. Speak up! 

Wonderful, magical, beautiful, fierce. Winter is here.

One Month in Iceland – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 2

The Iceland weather forecast is like a Bible that changes from minute to minute. If you read something yesterday, or half an hour ago, that thing is gone now. A storm has replaced it, or a gale wind, or a shining sunny moment where once a squall lived.

In other words: Don’t trust it. And don’t make plans more than a day ahead, if you can avoid it.

The country is also beautiful. Yesterday, while walking around the city of Reykjavik in a snow shower when there was 0% chance of precipitation, I was captivated by its charm. I mean this not sarcastically at all: The city was gorgeous, lit softly by sun behind clouds and providing perfect photo opportunities for murals, churches and buildings.

Mural in Reykjavik Garden

Afterward, the best hot dog I ever ate was a terrific lunch. It’s called a pylsur and includes lamb as well as pork and beef — plus onions, fried onions, mustard, ketchup and remoulade. For pronunciation aficionados, the stand is named Bæjerins Beztu Pylsur.

I don’t eat hot dogs at home (because U.S. food is generally awful), but I’m glad I ate this one!

Walking in Reykjavik

I’ve now taken two walking tours in Reykjavik accompanied by snow. The first tour brought just a shower, but the second, the Icelandic Financial Miracle tour, took place during a full-blown snowfall; we finished the tour in a quiet garden behind the Parliament building, standing in four inches of fresh-fallen snow. It was beautiful, not to mention super-educational.

In fact, this tour was one of the highlights of my trip so far. At only 25 euros, it’s a fantastic deal. (Two other people no-showed, bringing our tour below the minimum number of participants, so I broke the Icelandic no-tip rule and gave our wonderful guide a giant tip.)

The guide, Magnus, is an economist and university professor who tells a captivating tale of the people, places and events behind Iceland’s financial crisis. I learned so much about the history of this country, including its rapid rise in the 20th and early 21st centuries from subsistence farming to finance and tourism center, its “corporate Viking” pride and ambitions, and the adjustment to post-crisis reality and recovery (including imprisonment of several high-level bankers). In fact, I liked it so much, I’ll write a more complete review of the tour later. It was like the best college class ever — in the snow! Plus, we walked past beautiful places like this cemetery:

Snow-covered cemetery in Reykjavik

Afterward, I was freezing because I wore cotton socks instead of wool socks (Iceland newbie mistake!), so I retreated to a cafe with another person from the tour and we shared our own stories of life and travel.

Hunting the Northern Lights

On the way home I stocked up on more beet juice (seriously, it’s everywhere!) and then went out to see the Northern Lights. This time I abandoned the large bus tour concept and went straight for the goods: a SuperJeep tour. My thought process was that SuperJeeps could chase the gaps in the clouds and find the Northern Lights.

Disappointment: We were locked out of the SuperJeep at the first stop. This was sort of funny and sort of not, since we were in the middle of nowhere at Thingvellir National Park. Fortunately, there was a fleet of SuperJeeps on the tour, and several drivers together jumped on the vehicle and removed the window so we could continue our tour. I was impressed and astonished that a SuperJeep window was so detachable and our guides were so awesome. I don’t have a photo of this moment, but I wish I did.

We went into an “impassable” area beyond the national park and finally found a break in the clouds. The moon was full and it was absolutely beautiful, so despite the absence of Northern Lights, I enjoyed the trip.

After a couple of hours of waiting and watching the moon and stars through the hole in the clouds, our guides gave up and served us hot chocolate and vodka. Definitely better than the bus tour.

Iceland’s Lottery Tickets

At last, we returned to Reykjavik and I finally got to pee after five hours. (The biggest downside of these trips is not actually the unpredictability of the Northern Lights. It’s the complete absence of toilet facilities on the buses and SuperJeeps. I saw one lady wandering into the wilds of Thingvellir, telling her husband that they had to find a place where no one could watch her go. To their credit, the boat tour operators use a boat that has restrooms.)

The nice thing about all of the Northern Lights tours — bus, boat and SuperJeep — is that if they don’t cancel the tour and you still don’t see the lights, you get a voucher for another free trip. This is an awesome policy that makes the tour price worthwhile. I’ve now collected three vouchers. Hopefully one will be the Golden Ticket.

I went to bed at 3am, internal body clock spinning and totally in love with this weird place called Iceland.

One Month in Iceland – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 1

I have no idea what time it is. I arrived in Iceland in early morning pitch blackness Thursday, then fell asleep at 10 as the sun was coming up. I wore clean jeans and a shirt to bed, since they were the first clean clothes I found in my bag.

Woke up at 2 p.m. as the sun was descending and headed out into the coldest day of the year to shop for food. Armed with bread, cheese, muesli and beet juice, I returned to the apartment to warm up before my Northern Lights tour.

Later that night, after a long and pointless hunt for the Northern Lights on a freezing tour bus, I stayed up till nearly 3 a.m., wired and on East Coast time.

Blur and Sunlight

Passed out and woke up at 9:30 a.m. with dawn on the horizon. Spent a cloudy day amid snow showers relaxing and wandering around downtown Reykjavik, with a stop in a warm and welcoming cafe. My worst fears have not come to pass. I imagined Icelandic winter days as a tableau of faint sun streaming through dark night-clouds, like in those old medieval illustrations of the world ending during eclipses.

The reality is more like extended sunrises and sunsets with a few hours of normal daylight in between. Less apocalypse and more soft, warm light. After a pleasant meal at the cafe, I head back to the apartment in early dusk. Another wired evening, in bed this time by 1:45 a.m. It’s hard to tell one day from another.

Hibernation and the Loss of Time

Mountains near ReykjavikToday I wake up at 7:30 with the alarm and instantly decide, no way. I feel like a hibernating bear. It’s dark and cold, and the bed is warm and soft and surrounded by wood ceiling and walls. I feel like I’m on a ship at sea, tossing softly on waves. The lights on the trees outside my window glimmer in the darkness.

Back to sleep. 9:30 a.m. I get up with the light and amble downstairs to make breakfast, which I decide will be a chocolate bar. Then I sit around watching the sky get light for three hours, clouds over distant mountains visible from the kitchen window.

When I finally take a shower, the hot water smells like sulfur. It’s clean and pure and everyone smells like this so it’s fine, I embrace it.

Liquorice Butter vs. Hakarl

Dressed and showered, I meander to the concert hall downtown and attend an artisan food exhibition. I buy food I never imagined like butter with liquorice and sea salt, jam made of berries heretofore unknown, and concentrated blueberry essence.

At one stall, I am offered hakarl, Iceland’s signature rotted shark delicacy, but I decline. I’m not ready yet.

At home I scarf down bread with the liquorice butter, which is surprisingly delicious. I feel like drinking, which is strange because I almost never drink at home. I imagine getting drunk on wine and watching the Northern lights while I eat the entire jar of liquorice butter.

The Hunt Continues

Pink sky near sunsetTonight I will go out hunting the Northern Lights again. The sky has been clear all day, but fog is descending and the sunset has a pink glow that’s gorgeous in its own right. The aurora forecast is low, and I don’t expect to see lights, but I’m here for a month so I’m not worried.

I settle into the beautiful apartment in this strange and wonderful country at the edge of the world, waiting for nightfall.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to the BC Ferries Inside Passage

After Nanaimo, I decided to go north. My initial idea was to go west to Tofino and Ucluelet, but when I looked at the map and saw isolated towns and wilderness stretching all the way to Alaska, my travel instincts kicked in and I wondered: How far north could I get?

The answer is: Pretty far. I discovered I could take a Greyhound bus to isolated Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island. From there, I could board a BC Ferries voyage through the Inside Passage along the Canadian west coast to Prince Rupert, a small city near Alaska. And then I could visit a grizzly bear sanctuary even farther north.

I wasn’t sure how these puzzle pieces would fit together, so I called BC Ferries Vacations, and they helped me book hotels that were otherwise sold out on my travel dates (there aren’t many Airbnbs in Port Hardy) and coordinate my stays with the ferry departures and arrivals. The cost was reasonable: probably about the same as if I’d booked on my own, but with greater hotel availability.

Port Hardy

So, after a six-hour bus ride from Nanaimo to Port Hardy through coastal towns and pine forests flanked by mountains, I caught a quick sleep at the Airport Inn (no-frills but clean hotel, with a surprisingly good sushi restaurant) and then headed to the ferry at 4 a.m.

Aurora Lounge on BC Ferries Northern Expedition(Traveler’s tip: There’s only one taxi company in Port Hardy, and it has two taxi cabs running at any given time. So if you don’t book ahead, you could end up with an ungodly early departure time like 4 a.m. Book ahead by calling Town Taxi!)

Around 5:30 or 6 a.m., I boarded the ferry along with the other passengers and settled into the Aurora Lounge at the front of the ship, which has a panoramic 180-degree view. I bought some organic snacks from the gift shop (better than the cafe food) and settled in.

Ship Delay

Shortly afterward, the captain announced that one of the ship’s main engines had malfunctioned and we would be delayed while a replacement part was airlifted from Vancouver. I was relieved that we were going at all, though I understood their caution: A previous ship, the Queen of the North, sank in 2006. Waiting for the part seemed like a better idea than sailing on only one engine.

So, whereas our previous schedule was to depart at 7:30 a.m. and arrive by 11:30 p.m. in Prince Rupert, we now would try to leave by 3 p.m. and arrive around 7 a.m.

My first action after the revised schedule announcement was to rush to the Purser’s Office and book myself one of the remaining cabins on-board. It was the second-best decision I made on the trip.

The best decision was booking with BC Ferries Vacations in the first place, because I gave them a quick call and they rearranged my itinerary, refunding my first night at the hotel in Prince Rupert and calling the grizzly bear tour operator to see if they would wait for my arrival. I couldn’t have gotten the hotel refund myself on such short notice, so they saved me about $150 USD right out of the gate.

Inside Passage Voyage

Sun on water in the BC Inside Passage We left around 2 p.m., a little earlier than expected, and the journey itself was amazing. There’s something about being on open water that echoes in my soul. I can’t explain it, but I feel like I could go to sleep with the rocking of the water and be entirely at peace. Much of the Inside Passage is a sheltered trip between mostly uninhabited islands, but my favorite part was the unsheltered part, open to the Pacific and rocking with the small waves.

The views on the voyage are beautiful and all nature: sea, sky, clouds, islands and trees. Sometimes travelers see whales and orcas, but nature offers no guarantee.

If you take the voyage, here are my recommendations:

Sun through doors on the BC Ferries Northern Expedition1.) Cabin – It’s so nice to have a place to stow bags, change into pj’s for a little while, and take a nap or shower (each cabin has a private bathroom with shower). Inside cabins are $90 CDN and outside cabins are $120 CDN.

2.) Salmon barbecue lunch – The lunch is on the back deck on Level 6, open to the air, and it’s delicious and affordable at only $12 CDN. Bratwurst is something like $4 CDN, I think. Nice atmosphere.

3.) Buffet dinner – Somewhat pricey ($29 CDN) but I did it because there are few other eating options in the middle of nowhere. The dinner was good and they had a lot of choices. Especially on the out-bound voyage, which was delayed, this meal kept me from being hungry all night. Much better than the cafe food. Worth the difference in cost.

Other On-Ship Tips

There are a few things to keep in mind:

Sunset on the BC Coast in the Inside Passage1.) There’s no Wi-Fi on-board, and cell service is mostly nonexistent. You’re alone with the ship, your fellow travelers, and the wilderness surrounding you. It’s awesome, but don’t plan to catch up on email.

2.) Cafe food is not that great, but the gift shop has organic snack bars and organic dark chocolate.

3.) There are many lounges scattered throughout the ship. You can come and go from all of them except the Aurora Lounge (which requires a separate key).

4.) Going outside is the best way to take photos. It can get a little chilly, even in summer, so bring a jacket. (It can also be hot out, so bring a T-shirt! The weather is quite variable.)

5.) The ship’s notification of arrival gives you 30 minutes to prepare to disembark. This is fine if you’re already dressed and in a lounge; not so great if you’re asleep in your pj’s and still need to re-pack. We arrived an hour earlier than expected, so this was a bit of a scramble.

Prince Rupert and Grizzly Bears

Once in Prince Rupert, I dropped my bags at the hotel and caught another cab to the grizzly bear tour. The taxi company, Skeena Taxi, has lots of cabs. I arrived right on time (and fairly well-rested, since I slept for about six hours in my cabin).

Eagle near the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear SanctuaryThe Prince Rupert Adventures boat tour to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary was amazing and worthwhile. We saw four grizzly bears near the inlet, eating sedge grass (apparently, they are omnivores: It’s sedge grass early in the year and salmon later). They are surprisingly adorable for creatures that I know would kill me with zero consideration.

We also saw eagles relaxing on a rock in the middle of the water, and some orcas. The tour operator feeds the eagles a couple of times a week, which I don’t love even though they’re not a main food source for the eagles. It is, however, a great photo opportunity.

We arrived back in Prince Rupert in the afternoon. The next day was Canada Day, so most things in town were closed, replaced by celebrations at the waterfront and fireworks at night.

Return to Port Hardy

Wilderness and water on the BC coastThe next morning, I hopped back on the ferry around 6 a.m., booked another cabin and enjoyed the feeling of being on the water all the way back to Port Hardy.

There’s something about being away from civilization, away from cellphone service and Wi-Fi and constant interruptions, closer to nature and good food and slow time, that’s good for the soul. As we cruised through the Inside Passage, watching orcas and whales, I looked at pine-covered hillsides overlooking the ocean and realized, “No one lives here.” Just the sea, the sky, the trees and the animals.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Nanaimo: Say What?

Nanaimo, British Columbia, isn’t a typical destination for solo travelers. It’s a small city on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. So you might ask why I’d write a guide for it. The answer is that I spent three days in Vancouver before taking a ferry to Nanaimo, and Vancouver and I just didn’t click. I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, despite reading travel tips, so I don’t have much of a guide to write. In short: I wandered all over downtown, went to Stanley Park (beautiful), the aquarium (cool but pricey at $34 for adult admission) and Granville Island (a large market with food stalls and shops). I also explored West Vancouver and the delicious Savary Island Pie Company at 15th and Marina — if you go, try the lemon-buttermilk pie!

Then I caught the ferry to Nanaimo. I wondered if I should have gone directly to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island instead, because everyone I met raved about Tofino.

But I loved Nanaimo. I’d read lackluster reviews of the city online before arriving and thought I’d probably spend most of the time inside, reading and writing and waiting to go north. Instead, I spent time with the hotel window thrown wide open, letting the sea air in, and wandering the harbor side, feeling wavelets lift the docks.

On the Water

On the first day, I took a ferry to Protection Island for lunch at a floating pub, but decided to take a walk around the island first. I found a residential enclave of houses and roads, feeling entirely safe despite its utter isolation with no help available on short notice. I wandered down to the beach on a trail that turned out to be someone’s private property, despite the markings on my map, and had a near run-in with a small fierce dog before its owner came out and invited me on to the porch. We shared stories, looked for eagles, and then she walked me to the wooded trail that led to another beach. I felt half like I was in a children’s book, half like I was in a fairy tale, and a little lost and found.

When I got to the Dinghy Dock Pub I was thirsty and downed a cider and two large glasses of water while enjoying yam fries and clam chowder, then took the ferry back to Vancouver Island.

Wind and Music in the Air

The next day was windy and warm; in fact, wind howled around my hotel room almost constantly. I was unable to figure out exactly where the sound came from, though I heard it through a vent above the foyer and saw the curtains blowing in the air when it was loudest.

At first I relaxed in the morning, listening to the wind and the sound of bagpipes that went on for hours. When I finally went downstairs to ask where the musician was, the doorman pointed me to a dockside plaza with two cannons on it. He said they play every day and then fire the cannon at noon. I walked to the plaza and watched for a few more minutes until the cannon fired, then explored the old Bastion and walked along the dock, enjoying the unusually warm weather and the sea birds that were everywhere, soaring and swooping and landing on piers and posts. A crow followed me from a dock all the way down a path toward the Newcastle Island Ferry, which I found I’d missed by one minute, so I returned to the main street and then had lunch.

Food and Gratitude

In my wanderings, I found a chocolate shop called Cherub Chocolate that surpassed anything I found in Vancouver. I enjoyed the rosemary caramel, spiced ginger and passion fruit chocolates most. I also found a good breakfast cafe, Mon Petit Choux, and an organic juice bar called Power House Living Foods.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend time here, and the unexpected surprise of a town with an interesting history and a little bit of magic near the edge of Canada. My biggest tip would be: If you go, stay downtown.

Next up: I go north.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Seattle: Neighborhood Edition

A week in Seattle is nowhere near enough. But I could distill my Seattle tips for solo travelers into a single recommendation: Get outside of downtown. Preferably, stay outside of downtown too.

Downtown Seattle is not terrible: There are gorgeous views of the harbor, and Pike Place Market is worth a visit with its food stalls and fishmongers. The Piroshky Piroshky bakery was a delicious stop for lunch, which I enjoyed in a secluded courtyard behind the shop. The 20-minute wait to enter the shop wasn’t terrible even in direct sun, and the potato-and-mushroom pastry was quite good (I also ordered a cabbage-and-onion pastry and a whole baked apple with frosting).

But the highlights of Seattle are in its neighborhoods, not the chain stores and high-end restaurants that dot the streets downtown.

I stayed in Greenwood in a beautiful house with a welcoming host, just down the block from a coffeeshop and within walking distance of many more. A bus line stopped at the corner and took me just about anywhere I needed to go.

Neighborhood Journeys

Throughout the week, I visited several Seattle neighborhoods. Here are my recommendations:

Wallingford is possibly my favorite Seattle neighborhood, with shops, restaurants, and the great Fainting Goat gelato made with organic milk. The goat milk flavor is delicious and simple, and the biscotti was amazing with a giant chocolate cookie in the middle of my scoop.

Ballard is the it-neighborhood right now in Seattle, and while I liked it, I’m not sure why it’s got such an outstanding reputation versus other neighborhoods. It’s totally worth a visit, and the breakfast I had at Portage Bay Cafe was wonderful, but while wandering the streets I didn’t notice anything that truly set it apart.

Greenwood Avenue was a great little street with a surprising amount of cafes, bookstores (yes!) and restaurants. I enjoyed strolling here, mainly because I was staying nearby.

Greenlake was a fantastic place for a brisk walk that doubled as a light workout. I stopped at Fix Coffeehouse after circling half of the lake, and enjoyed a yam-and-kale wrap followed by a brownie and tea. Delicious food, welcoming staff, ample table space and outlets, fast Wi-Fi, one side open to the air — Fix is a digital nomad’s dream.

I also visited the university area (though not the UW campus) and downtown Redmond.

Seattle Sum-Up

I don’t feel I’ve more than scratched the surface of Seattle, and I’d love to go back.

The people in Seattle, without exception, were welcoming and friendly, and the city’s focus on outdoors life really came through in the low-key dress code (mainly casual sportswear or just-plain casual wear). I felt at home in my traveling clothes and never once pulled my dress out of my bag.

In Nature: Olympic National Park

The highlight of my trip to Seattle wasn’t in Seattle at all: It was a day tour with Evergreen Escapes to Olympic National Park west of Seattle. The park is on a peninsula, and when you go there, your cell phone thinks you’re in Canada. But you aren’t. You’re in the U.S., in one of the most beautiful national parks.

Inside the park, there are two places that really deserve your time:

Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill

Sub-alpine meadow near Hurricane RidgeDrive up 5000 feet from the shore road to Hurricane Ridge. Get out and snap a few shots of the breathtaking views, then get back in the car and drive a short way past the visitor center to the Hurricane Hill parking lot.

The Hurricane Hill trail is surprisingly wide (I’m not a fan of precipitous drops next to narrow trails, and I was fine on this trail) and offers gorgeous vistas on all sides. The hills beside the trail are steep but not cliffs, so it’s easier to enjoy the landscape around you and pause to take pictures. On our hike, we saw mountains wreathed in clouds, snow-capped peaks against bright blue skies, and evergreen trees on meadows carved out by avalanches. This trail is usually open only from June through September, but this year it opened in May, thanks to unseasonably warm weather. In the winter it’s covered by tens of feet of snow, a dangerous but appealing paradise for backcountry skiers.

A mountain in clouds from the Hurricane Hill trailThe weather is chancy — you never know what you’re going to get. We got lucky, since the ridge was not socked in by clouds. Instead, they were drifting in the valleys below us. When we drove up the mountain, I felt disheartened by the mist until I saw it thinning, and we kept climbing out and out into the sunshine.

There’s also a small picnic area between Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill, which is a perfect spot for lunch in an alpine meadow. While eating here, my group was approached by a herd of small deer that seemed almost entirely unafraid. We also were approached by a cloud that drifted over the mountains, chilling the air and providing a rare experience.

Lake Crescent and the Hoh Rainforest

Tree in the Hoh RainforestAfter the rush of heights and clouds, we returned to sea level and drove to Lake Crescent at the border of the Hoh Rainforest. Olympic National Park is home to two of the only temperate rain forests in the world. We hiked a wide, broad trail into the Hoh Rainforest, one of the world’s quietest places. With deciduous and evergreen trees coated in moss and hanging plants, it’s prehistoric, ethereal and strangely welcoming. We hiked to a small waterfall — a steep climb up stairs carved into a hill. Railings help a lot with the descent, so give it a try if you’re wearing good shoes.

Lake CrescentAt the end of the trip, we watched waves break on the shore at Crescent Lake, a blue-purple paradise with few boats or people in sight. The Lake Crescent Lodge is one of the only inns on the shore, and I’d love to return to canoe or kayak amid the silence and the sun.

Back in Seattle, I packed my bags and got ready to travel to Vancouver. I’m excited for the trip but sad to leave Seattle. I could spend a month here just wandering the neighborhoods, exploring the countryside and never getting bored. I hope I’ll be back to see more of this northwestern city.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to San Francisco: Quiet Edition

I visited San Francisco a few weeks ago for AltConf 2015, a free conference across the street from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Since WWDC moved to a lottery system last year in the face of overwhelming demand, AltConf began offering networking and conference presentations for free to anyone.

Always before, when I’ve stayed in San Francisco, I’ve focused on the stretch from Pacific Heights and the Marina down to the Financial District and SoMa. I’ve rarely ventured out of this small semicircle at the northeast of the city. This time, I decided to explore some different areas, so I rented an Airbnb in Twin Peaks, a quiet residential neighborhood overlooking the Castro and Noe Valley.

When I arrived, I was stunned by the beauty of Twin Peaks. It was a clear day, and I could see from my street (and from my host’s living-room window) cleanly across eastern San Francisco to the bay. In the evening, fog drifted across the hilltop and blanketed the peaks in clouds.

Before attending AltConf, I spent a few days exploring the nearby neighborhoods, rather than returning to the usual tourist spots I’d seen before. If you’re looking for something a little different in your visit to San Francisco — a trip through quiet streets and local spots — this guide is for you.

The Castro

The Castro is renowned as a gay neighborhood and is scattered with great shops and restaurants. Here are a few I tried:

Chow on Church: Breakfast and brunch are unbelievably delicious — much better than lunch or dinner, in my opinion. I ordered a quinoa ragout with mushroom, spinach and poached eggs. I actively dislike quinoa, so I’m not sure why I took the gamble, but it paid off: This single dish changed my mind about quinoa forever. I also tried a cottage cake — a pancake with cottage cheese in the batter. With organic raspberry sauce on top, it reminded me of the jelly donuts I ate as a child from a local bakery. Advice: Don’t miss the weekend brunch — it ends at 2 p.m. Weekday breakfast is 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Eureka! Cafe: They serve organic ice cream from Straus Creamery. I ordered the brown sugar banana flavor and it was delicious. A nice end to my wanderings for the day.

Buffalo Whole Food & Grain Co.: A small but well-stocked grocer in the heart of the Castro. Tiny organic raspberries that were much tastier to me than those big Driscoll ones.

Noe Valley

Noe Valley lies just south of the Castro over a large hill (hint: don’t walk, take the bus!). It’s a family-friendly neighborhood with a strip of low-key shops and restaurants on 24th Street. A couple of highlights:

Bernie’s Coffee: A great cafe with free WiFi in Noe Valley. The food was good, but the highlight was the atmosphere: low-key and productive, with plenty of space. I never felt rushed or crowded out.

Saru Sushi: Delicious sushi and a great choice for lunch. Surprisingly, the salmon roe was the best thing I ordered, and I also enjoyed the Taramiso (marinated black cod) nigiri.

SoMa Again

When I finally ventured downtown for the conference, I wasn’t particularly happy to return to SoMA with its loud noise and heavy traffic. But I found some worthwhile places amid the hustle:

Samovar Tea Lounge in Yerba Buena Gardens above the waterfall. There’s a delicious new toast menu for breakfast (in addition to the regular menu). I had the poached eggs-with-butter toast and the Greek yogurt toast with honey and basil. It was affordable and awesome, until I ordered tea without checking the menu price. Seriously, who charges $17 for tea? Oops.

Creperie St. Germain – Not what I expected, because it’s a food truck and not a full restaurant. But the crepes were delicious and organic, and I found a nice place to eat in the shade near the Children’s Carousel Museum.

Workshop Cafe (not in SoMa but close by) – 180 Montgomery Street. This coffeeshop/coworking space has great healthy food, plus a huge amount of space. To enter the coworking space, it’s $2/hour, or you can sit in the front of the cafe for free. For first-timers, the coworking space is also free for up to 10 hours. Wonderful staff and service made this experience great, and the hot cereal with granola, steamed almond milk and organic fruit was awesome.

The Elephant in the Room

My trip to San Francisco was wonderful. The weather was shockingly warm for June, reaching into the 70s and making my black fleece jacket unnecessary on some days. Almost every day, sun streamed over Twin Peaks and lit up the valley below. I enjoyed the absolute quiet of the Airbnb where I stayed, my hosts were welcoming and wonderful, and I loved the opportunity to re-visit one of my favorite cities.

That said, San Francisco has downsides as well as highlights, and it would be dishonest to ignore them. The biggest downside is probably this: For a city awash in so much money, the size of the homeless population is staggering. One of New York’s best organizations for combating homelessness has been Pathways to Housing, which uses a “housing first” model: Just place people in housing and then deal with their other problems later. It works, and it’s expanding to other cities. Before San Francisco cycles from boom to bust yet again, the city and its residents would do well to channel some of that boom money toward housing the homeless.

This may not be the brightest note to end this trip log on, but it’s an honest one.

Moving Ahead

I dealt with my fears from last week by taking action. I did what I needed to do and got back to work. I hope never to repeat the dream I had last Friday night, though I accept my subconscious may feel differently.

I also allowed myself to be vulnerable on the blog. In the past, I’ve shied away from that. But if this is really going to be a record of my time, it shouldn’t be “all good, all the time.” It should reflect what I’m feeling and thinking, as much as possible, within the scope of things I write about here. It was scary to write those posts, but the story wouldn’t be complete without them.

On the lighter side, I started booking spring travel (several conferences lined up, both presenting and attending) and also booked a place in Iceland during winter, so I can see the Northern Lights. I’ve wanted to do this for decades, so I’m thrilled to have it on the calendar.