Lonely London

I’ve recently had to redefine what it means to be on my own in this world, and in doing so decided to take the opportunity to redefine myself in the process. I thought to myself, if I was happy to travel around the world for two years on my own before, what’s to keep me from being happy living in and exploring London independently? I decided it was time to rediscover the true me who was happy to be anywhere in the world even if it was just me, myself, and I.  I realized that in order to be truly happy with myself, I needed to focus on things that were important to me and doing things that made me happy, even if it meant doing these things on my own. It is these reflections which led to my desire to rediscover London while rediscovering myself. 

So I did what I rarely ever do–I got lost in a book.

In a mad Amazon hunt to find the perfect book that would give me a stronger appreciation for the city I love most, I discovered “London’s Hidden Walks” by Stephen Millar. He now has three volumes and I decided go out of order and start with Volume 2 since reviews indicated that the 12 walks featured in this book were located in and around my London neighborhood, Clerkenwell.

I started out with walk #4: the Strand, Embankment and Fleet Street Walk. As this is a rather big time commitment, I decided to split the walks within this walk up and tackle one area at a time. I’ve just finished the walk from Fleet Street to St. Paul’s Cathedral and what most consider a bustling area for investment banking and law, I now appreciate as a history-heavy filled street which served as the hub for press and publishing in London from the 16th century.

I’m not going to take you through the whole walk, but here are some highlights:

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Standing in the middle of Fleet Street with the Royal Courts of Justice seen as the pointy white building to the back right and the dragon statue in the center marking the original sight of Temple Bar (see below for photo and info on this gate’s history) and start of Fleet Street.

Royal Courts of Justice: The Gothic-styled court building was opened in the late 19th century by Queen Victoria and continues to operate today housing both the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The building is open to the public at certain hours to explore the courts and corridors as well as a hallway lined with displays featuring the history of court attire on the second floor of the Main Hall. If you’re lucky, you may just have the chance to sneak your head into a court in session and see the lawyers dressed in the traditional garbs still worn today.

Dragon Statue and Temple Bar: 

The dragon statue stands at the original site of Temple Bar which served as a gate into the City of London. The gate was originally wooden but was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 then rebuilt as a stone gate by Sir Christopher Wren. Due to traffic congestion Temple Bar was taken down in 1878 and relocated to a wealthy man’s estate in Hertfordshire, but due to vandalism was once again taken down. In 2004, 125 years later, the gate returned to London and can now be found next to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The dragon, which serves as the City of London’s Coat of Arms, marks the start of Fleet Street.

Gruesome Fact: The spikes atop of Temple Bar were originally used to to display the heads of executed prisoners. It was common for street vendors to sell viewing glasses for a penny to those who were looking from further away could get a better view.

Twinings Tea Shop: The first Twinings Tea Shop to open in 1706. The figures of Chinese tea merchants adorning the top of the tea shop are representative of China’s role as the main supplier of tea to England at that time.

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St. Dunstan-in-the-West: This medeival church was saved from the Great Fire by the Dean and scholars of Westminster School using buckets of water. The church’s clock is the first to feature a minute-hand. The two figures above the clock, known as Gog and Magog, are traditionally known as the guardians of the city and would strike the bells every hour and quarter hour.

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The Red-Brick Building: The only traditional publisher left on Fleet Street.

Dundee courier building, the former Sweeney Todd's shop on 186 Fleet Street, London (UK)

Hen and Chicken Court: The creepy and narrow alleyway leading to the fictitious location of the barber shop belonging to the character, Sweeney Todd.

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Fleet River: Believe it or not, water used to flow through here. Imagine those two people who today cross the street having to cross over Fleet Bridge to reach the other side. What remains of Fleet River is now covered by New Bridge Street and Farringdon Street and the hidden river flows into the Thames just down the road below Blackfriars Bridge.

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Ye Olde Chesire Cheese: One of the most famous taverns in London dating back to the 17th century. The tavern was frequented by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and US president Theodore Roosevelt among other intellectuals and writers.

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So there ya have it folks, my first of many lonely walks around London. This is not meant to be thought of as a depressing reality, but rather enlightening. I am OK with being alone. Because it is when I am alone that I get to feel a part of history that is so often left undiscovered. In that instance, I am surrounded by a reality unknown to others walking past me. And I am happy being with me in a world filled with endless possibilities. 

 

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Columbia Road Christmas Wednesdays

Columbia Road Christmas Wednesdays are back! For three special Wednesdays during the month of December only, the shops in the hidden gem of East London are opening their doors from 5-9pm for late night Christmas shopping, mulled wine, and caroling.

Though famous for its Sunday Flower Market, Coumbia Road is home to some of the most unique shops in London! The shops feature an array of items from vintage jewellery and clothing, home & garden essentials, art, and even old-school candies. There are many delicious restaurants offering a variety of foods sure to satisfy your palate as well. Shops are typically only open on Sunday during the hours of the flower market from 8-3pm, hence making Christmas Wednesdays an event not to be missed!

The first Christmas Wednesday took place on December 3rd. The last two events are on December 10th & 17th so be sure to save the date!

Visit Colombia Road’s web site to learn more about happenings in the area, including the famous Sunday Flower Market—another must-go event!

Location: The road can be tricky to find which adds to its allure. Easiest to reach by bus but can walk from Bethnal Green tube or other nearby train stations.

Cost: FREE (and the Sunday Flower Market is too!)

‘Tis the season to be shopping!

Kristmas Cheer

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Trafalgar Square Oslo Tree Lighting

The 68th Oslo Tree lighting took place in Trafalgar Square on 4th December 2014. This event marks the official start of the Christmas season and the Oslo tree symbolizes the friendship and peace between England and Norway. In 1947, the City of Oslo gave the Norweigian Spruce as a gift to London as a thank you for British support during WWII. The tradition has continued ever since and will continue for years to come if, as said by a speaker of the evening, ‘they keep taking them, we will keep sending them’.

Known as the Queen of the Forest, the Oslo tree stands at 20-25 metres tall (this year the tree was 21 metres) and is between 50-60 years old. The tree is selected from forests around Oslo and cared for for months, sometimes even years prior to the big event! In November, the tree is taken down at a ceremony which the Lord Mayor of Westminster, British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo attend.

The tree then travels by sea to England and is secured by a well-trained rigging tree in the coveted spot of Trafalgar Square. The Oslo tree is then decorated in traditional Norweigian fashion with vertical strands of 900 LED lights draping the tree and a bright star is placed on top.

The event was hosted by the Lord Mayor of Westminster and the Mayor of Oslo did the honors of the switching on of the lights. St Martin in the Field choir filled the Square with traditional hymns and carols throughout the evening.

The tree will continue to light the heart of London until 6th January 2015, otherwise known as the 12th Day of Christmas.

Nearest Tube: Charing Cross

Cost: FREE

Also in the area: National Portrait Gallery, Covent Garden piazza and Christmas lights, Southbank Christmas Market, Somerset House ice skating

‘Tis the season to be blogging!

❤ Kristmas Cheer

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Regent Street Christmas

The Regent Street lighting on 16th November 2014 was quite a spectacular! With family friendly activities, live dance performances, and photo ops in the Night at the Museum inspired photo booth kicking off the event from noon, there was something fun for everyone.

Surprise guest stars included a performance from the cast of Jersey Boys, Jessie Ware, The Jack Pack (Britain’s Got Talent winners), and the British boy band, Union J. These celebrity guest stars entertained the crowd for hours and Union J joined Emma Bunton, formerly known as Baby Spice, and Heart Radio co-host Jamie Theakston on stage in the countdown to the turning on of the lights!

Not only did the lights brighten up the whole of Regent Street, but a special fireworks show illuminated the sky with radiant colors abound. Check out Regent Street’s lights by 6th January 2015…and while you are at it, check out the hanging arrangement of lights set-up along the whole of the ever so popular Oxford Street just around the corner!

Nearest Tube: Oxford Street

Price: FREE

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Carnaby Christmas Shopping Party

Just a short walk down the alley ways behind Oxford Circus station lies the hidden gem of Central London–Carnaby Street! This year Carnaby kicked off Christmas in style with their Christmas Shopping Party on Thursday, 13th November.

A 20% discount was offered at over 100 shops, restaurants, and bars in the area, and event goers enjoyed free goodie bag giveaways, photo shoots, and make-overs! At 6:30pm, Carnaby Street was lit up with the help of the upbeat DJ group, the Fox Problem Girls, who kept the party going for the rest of the evening. Music and snow foam made for the perfect Christmassy atmosphere!

Other freebies included free drink (which I am assuming was a refreshing mojito), wine, hot dogs, and mac ‘n’ cheese!

Make sure to check out Carnaby Street’s beatboxing Christmas theme before it’s gone on 6th January 2015! And for more on how to celebrate your Christmas in style, visit Carnaby Street’s site.

Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus

Price: FREE!!!

Merry December 2nd!

❤ Kristmas Cheer

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Covent Garden Christmas Lighting

Covent Garden got Christmas off to a festively early start with the big tree lighting on November 4th! Some may say this is too early to start celebrating, but let’s be real–when do we ever get to appreciate the holidays anymore with our hectic and busy schedules? What a change of pace it is to be encouraged to slow down and take in the Christmas spirit early as a little reminder that the holidays are right around the corner and if we don’t appreciate it now, it will be over before we know it.

And besides, with London turning from day to night at the early hour of 3pm in the winter time, it is nice to have some Christmas lights brightening up the cold, dark city for a full 2 months!

The lighting event was complete with a childrens choir singing carols, snow to accompany the turning on of the lights, mulled wine, and FREE donuts from Crosstown Doughnuts!

Visit the Covent Garden Piazza through January 6, 2015 and enjoy the beautiful lights surrounding the market while splurging a bit at the shops! BONUS!– Every Saturday from noon-4pm, there will be a LIVE reindeer to take pictures with and feed a few nibbles!

Want even more fun?? On Saturday, December 6th, Covent Garden will host the 34th Great Pudding Race! Proceeds go towards Cancer Research UK so round up that team of yours, suit up with matching costumes, and let the games begin!

Merry December 1st!

–Kristmas Cheer

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Culture of the Algarve

An urge to satisfy the travel cravings and a need for sunshine led Charlotte, my #1 travel bud, and me to spontaneously book a flight to the beaches of the Algarve region in Portugal despite our lack of knowledge on the destination. Our ignorance led us to believe that Faro, Portugal was a random Ryanair drop-off location, but with a few quick Google searches, the Algarve revealed itself to be one of the most overwhelmingly popular tourist destinations known to the EU.

There are two sides to the Algarve. To the right of Faro, one can find the tourist hotspots like Lagos and Albufeira where crystal clear water, sandy beaches, and natural caves are bustling with vacationers. To the left of Faro are the waters less traveled with beautiful beaches, nature reserves, authentic food, and most importantly–culture!

Our adventure began in Albufeira where a 5 pound shuttle conveniently took us direct from the airport to our hotel. We loved the blue view of the Atlantic from our 3-day tanning post on the sandy shores. However, we couldn’t help but feel like we were trapped inside a snow globe spotlighting a perfect holiday town sprinkling tourists from the sky.

It is when we traveled to Olhão, Portugal that the real adventure began and the beauty of the Algarve was discovered. An easy and cheap 40 minute train ride took us to the largest fisherman’s town of the Algarve– Olhão. Just our stay at Pension Bicuar Residential was enough to make everything about Olhão a home away from home. Owned and operated by a lovely Malaysian couple with an inspiring globetrotter couple from New Zealand temporarily working at the B&B for 3 months now, they made us feel very welcomed giving us a tour of the place and filling us in on the life of Olhão.

On the first night in Olhão, I awoke at the early hour of 4am unable to fall back to sleep. Not wanting to waste my time with tossing and turning in bed, I went up to the rooftop of the B&B to watch the sunrise over the Moorish-style homes in this coastal town. I wasn’t the only one awake though. Just a short walk from our B&B, fishermen were hard at work at the port bringing in their fresh catches of the early morning to fill an entire market featuring a variety of fish big and small.

As explained by the lovely New Zealand couple, you can’t go to the fish market with a list because what you see is what they caught that morning! They also explained that the bell heard at 10 am that same morning was to alert the town that a huge fish (like shark status) was caught! I didn’t find the big guy, but here are a few shots from the market…

After exploring the fresh fish and fruit markets, both of which close at 1pm, we hopped on a ferry to the local islands. With 3 islands to choose from–Ilha da Armona which is reachable by one ferry and Ilha da Cultara and Farol reachable by another and connected by their sandy beaches–we ventured to Ilha da Farol. The ferry took us along the Ria Formosa nature reserve to the island well-known for it’s operating lighthouse (aka farol in Portuguese) along the white sands and crystal clear waters. As we made our way from the ferry dock to the beach, we passed through the simple and well-decorated homes of the island taking in the lifestyle of the locals and imagining their day-to-day commute into the city of Olhão for work, shopping, and what not.

We enjoyed a lovely day on the beach tanning our paled UK bodies under the burning sun of Portugal. And best of all, we enjoyed being surrounded by locals and embracing the culture of the Algarve.

 

Our Portugal Trip in a nutshell:

Overall– An affordable trip with an average total of £300 spent for a 5 night stay.

Airfare– Approx. £110 with the budget airline, Ryanair

Accommodation–

  • Albufeira: Hotel da Galé– approx. £20/night for a standard room with two twins. Simple 2 star hotel, basic accommodation. Perks: Rooftop pool, sick view, close to beaches. Negatives: Friendly staff but not very helpful or informing, bathroom is not the cleanest, bar never opened, WiFi but in lobby only.
    • My rating: 2.5/5 stars
  • Olhão: Pension Bicuar– approx. £20/night for a standard room with two twins. Well-decorated and comfortable B&B. Perks: Rooftop tables and chairs with a great view of the town, next to the ferry and markets, amazingly friendly staff. Negatives: None! WiFi could have been better but who needs that anyways when on vacation!
    • My rating: 5/5 stars

Food–

  • Albufeira: Approx. 8-15 per meal. Drinks approx. 4 for beer, 12 for a jug of Sangria
    • Food was pretty touristy and not very authentic. Lots of fish and chips haha
  • Olhão: Appox. 4-12 per meal depending. Can get seafood for a very good price.
    • Amazing seafood everywhere!!! 8 seafood lunch buffets.
    • Best tapas place which is a must try and loved by locals–7 Imeio Wine Bar

Ferry from Olhão to the islands: Approx. 4 roundtrip!!

Shuttle to and from airport: 10 total

 

My biggest travel tip for you—Explore the waters and roads less traveled and stick to the left side of Faro, Portugal if you want to experience the true Algarve!

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Real Life London

Hello long lost friends!

My it’s been awhile since my last post in JUNE! But post-Colombia, my summer faced a whirlwind of change. Between moving from Florida to NYC—switching from one job to the next in NYC—then deciding to attend grad school in London with just 3 weeks to get my visa and uproot my life all over again—and now full-force into my Master’s program for Speech and Language Therapy/Pathology—things have been busy to say the least.

But now here I am, 5 months into my 2.5 year program and new life in London. And on this cold and rainy winter day in London, I’ve decided to take a much needed brain break and revisit my abandoned baby with some new material. Despite my busy school and work schedule, I’ve continued to adhere to my mantra– ‘Maintain a balanced life’. After all, what would be the point of moving ALL the way to London and not even taking the time to enjoy it a bit?? So here today, I bring you my top experiences in London since arriving in September! The best part (as always)— IT’S ALL FREE (or affordable)!!!!

September: The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Named after the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, the Serpentine Galleries feature contemporary art year-round. Since 2000, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion has been designed as a temporary summer structure by renown architects worldwide.  2013’s pavilion was designed by Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto. Fujimoto’s pavilion captivated tourists and locals alike as they explored this interactive 3D masterpiece. Make sure to visit London between June-October to experience this cultural phenomenon unique to London!

October: Sir John Soane

The Sir John Soane museum is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. Though usually free and open to the public, the time to visit is on the first Tuesday evening of the month where a crowd of people will queue starting at 5:30pm hoping to be one of the 200 lucky people to explore the wondrous house by candlelight. Inside you will find treasures from Soane’s travels and his house transformed into a museum with relics, sculptures, and secret passageways leading to art from around the world. More of Soane’s architectural works can be found throughout London.

November: Abbey Road

Beatles fan or not, Abbey Road is an exciting find! Hidden at the ‘junction’ of Abbey Road and Grove End Road in NW London, it wasn’t hard to spot with visitors dodging cars to recreate the famous photo. Scared you may get hit or have your camera stolen by a stranger? Don’t be. If you have the same luck as we did, there will be a friendly man with dreadlocks sporting a reflective jacket personally labeled ‘Free Help’ to assist and direct you during your 10 second photo shoot. Your 10 seconds of fame doesn’t have to end there–add your photo to this Web site for the world to see!

December: Kensington Hotel High Tea

Every girl (and guy!) wants an excuse to get dressed-up! But on a student budget, fancy outings can often feel out of reach. But there is always a way! Afternoon tea became an English Tradition in the 19th century and has become a scrumptious identity of the the British culture. So I thought, what better way to ring in my 25th birthday than with a classy high tea in Kensington!  The best part, thanks to afternoontea, my friends and I were able to enjoy a tea with champagne for £18! For Kensington and afternoon tea, that’s a steal!

January: Ceremony of the Keys

The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London has taken place every night for the past 700 years!…despite the rain or WWII! From 9:30-10:05pm, 40-50 guests have the privilege of watching this gate-closing ritual in which the guards, known as Beefeaters, escort the Chief Yeoman Warder with the keys during the ceremony. Admission is free, but sign-up months in advance or spots may be gone! (By post in London, my tickets arrived within a week. Give more time if posting from elsewhere and be sure to read the rules of submission online carefully or else you will be asked to post again….like I had to (oops)).

The Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

The Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

February: Chinese New Year, Frost Fair, and Poetry Slam

Wow so much has happened in February already!

Chinese New Year 2014, Year of the Horse
Known to be the largest CNY outside of Asia, London’s China Town extends into Trafalgar Square and other areas of Central London on the Sunday following CNY. Complete with a parade, traditional lion and dragon dances, and delicious eats, this event is also not one to be missed. Though a word of caution, hundreds and thousands of people attend the celebrations and human barricades are unavoidable…trust me. But I still think it is worth it!

Frost Fair
Forget hiding away by the fireplace on a frigid winter day, have a party! The first known Frost Fair took place in the early 17th century after the ‘Old Father Thames’ froze over. The frozen river was turned into a once and a lifetime event for some where Londoners partook in trade, enjoyed a carnival, market stalls, and bars for just a few days before the ice melted away. Due to climate changes, the last Frost Fair was held in 1814 where an elephant was seen trekking across the ice! This year, the very first Frost Fair in over 200 years took place in Shoreditch at Broadgate Ice Rink with live entertainment, life-sized board games, free ice-skating, and market stalls selling goods and delicious eats!

Poetry Slam
Looking to experience the artsy side of London? Check out poetry slam and spoken word events happening in London. My friend and I attended a poetry slam at Genesis Cinema, a free event that takes place every first Thursday of the month. We even got to be 1 of 5 sets of judges!…little did they know it was our first poetry slam and my first attempt to embrace my artsy side. We got the hang of it though (aka, stuck with a score range of 7-10).

Angel Comedy Club

Located around the corner from Angel station at the Camden Head is a free nightly comedy club featuring new and established comedians in London. And it is quite a good show for some free laughs! Just a heads up, no cameras or filming allowed…I learned the hard way!

Check out my Free London page and the Londonist for more free and cheap London! That’s where I find all my goodies : )

Categories: All Blog Postings, Free Things to Do Abroad, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Viva Colombia

My recent two-week trip to Colombia was more than just a vacation. It was a reunion with a best friend and a beautiful person who is an inspiration to everyone in her life. Samantha Merkle has dedicated the past 22 months to a cause greater than herself. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, she has positively impacted the under-served areas of Santa Marta, Colombia as an English Teacher Trainer to Colombian educators and as a mentor to young girls.

And her last 5 months of service will bring new exciting challenges. Now fluent in Spanish and dedicated to making a difference, she has just been awarded a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)–a proposal which she was required to present to the organization in Spanish (impressive right!). She will begin to develop and implement a series of workshops focused on educating the importance of healthy relationships, sex education, AIDS/HIV prevention and so much more! Additionally, she will improve community service programs and organize visits to universities and technical schools to promote further education. By creating so many opportunities, this grant will benefit her precious group of Samigas, a girls leadership and empowerment group Sammy started at the beginning of her service.

But prior to taking on this noble endeavor, she took a little vacay with me! Though two weeks was certainly not enough time to see all of the beauty and culture that Colombia has to offer, we certainly experienced the different lifestyles of Colombians.

First stop–Bogota! So we didn’t actually get to explore Bogota due to time restraints, but we did enjoy the luxury of the Marriott (thanks Sammy’s dad for the points!) and Sammy was finally reunited with her long lost love, sushi!

From Bogota, we took a bumpy bus ride through the mountains to the tiny pueblo, Villa de Leyva. This small colonial town features white buildings with dark green trim and cobblestoned roads that lead to the largest main plaza in Colombia, Plaza Mayor. The town is surrounded by a wealth of interesting history which we explored by bike.

Next on our travelventures– Spicy Cali. Known for their salsa nightlife, we didn’t sleep much trying to keep up with their quick feet. Whereas Cuban salsa focuses more on turns and style, Cali’s salsa is all about the footwork. Luckily, the newly opened hostel we stayed at, El Viajero, offered free salsa classes to get us prepped and ready for the endless nights of salsa.

Since Cali is such a nocturnal city, we spent most of the day resting to revamp for the night ahead, but we managed to squeeze in some sightseeing.

Last stop on our travelventures, Sammy’s home–Santa Marta, also known as the heat wave of Colombia. You would never guess it was winter time in Colombia with the excessive calor (heat) of the blistering city. Whereas Bogota and Cali offer cooler temperatures during the winter months, even Santa Marta’s breeze can cause a heat stroke. Fortunately, there are many ways to cool down.

The beautiful thing about Santa Marta is the well-rounded image it gives of Colombia overall. From the bustling streets of chaos and blaring music that goes all night long, to the tranquility offered high in the mountains. The poverty and hardship of everyday life that becomes increasingly evident in the outlying hills, to the splendor and beauty of the Caribbean sea. Santa Marta is a beautiful city that shows every color of Colombia. And I have Sammy Merkle to thank for exposing me to such a magnificent and underrated country.

Prior to this trip, many thought I was crazy for traveling to Colombia. Everyone expressed their concerns regarding the ‘dangers’ of Colombia. Yes, there are many issues currently hurting Colombia, but what is not realized is that this is only in certain areas. In actuality, Colombia is a multifaceted country full of culture and the warmest people. Colombians take the time to get to know you regardless of your Spanish level. They let you take your time sampling ice cream flavors or inquiring about the menu for 30 minutes. They go out of their way to help you no matter what the circumstance. And best of all, they take great pride in their country and they make a great effort to give you the best taste of their culture.

Samantha Merkle, you Latino at heart you, thank you for being such a brave, powerful, and inspirational woman! I commend you for living in uncomfortable conditions, working through hard times and cultural extremes, and most of all being so true to yourself and serving as a role model to the world! Your good work and spirit go beyond the borders of Colombia. You are truly one-of-a-kind and I am so blessed to have you in my life! What a wonderful experience to share with you mi amor!

sammy

Want to go to Colombia?! Here are some helpful links to get your planning started! Of course, you can always write to me too!

Travel Tips-

Lonely Planet-Colombia

Accomodation-

Cali- El Viajero

Minca- Casa Loma

Low-Cost Airlines

Avianca (Preferred choice-more legroom and more comfortable travel)

Viva Colombia

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Sliding down the Great Wall

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Did you know you can SLIDE down the GREAT WALL of CHINA?!? I didn’t either…And it was AWESOME!

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Categories: All Blog Postings, Asia, China | Leave a comment

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