Posts about Travel

A Weekend Away

Posted by: Gretchen A. Brown Updated: October 13, 2014 - 6:53 AM
Basilica of San Francesco d Assisi

Basilica of San Francesco d Assisi

I’m a self-proclaimed city person, though I’ve never actually lived in one until Rome. Since living here, I’ve realized both that I was right - I love the city feel - and that at the same time, I really miss little things, like fresh air and grass.

While I am absolutely in love with Rome, I really appreciate our weekend excursions as a group to other places (especially those in the countryside). This weekend, our study abroad group visited Assisi, about a 3 hour bus ride north of Rome.

The first thing I noticed about Assisi was the quiet. Seriously. It’s such a tranquil place compared to the hustle and bustle of Rome. It was so nice to not constantly hear car horns blaring, dogs barking, or even just crowds of people talking. And when we walked the streets- gasp- there were no crowds to weave through most of the time. It was refreshing, to say the least.

Assisi is known for being the birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare, so the visit was for my theology class. It is a beautiful place, beautiful in a different way than that of Rome. Less ruins, more rolling hills­ ‑ although I was still able to visit ruins, those of a castle, while in Assisi (called Rocca Maggiore).

The highlight of the trip was visiting one of the most beautiful basilicas I have ever been to, Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (and I’ve visited more basilicas than I can count while here, so this is a compliment). This is the place of which St. Francis is buried underneath, so pilgrims from all over the world make the trek here just to see his grave. The basilica was built in the early 1200’s, and onto the side of a hill. Beautiful medieval frescos line the walls and ceilings inside.

I would be lying if I said that Assisi didn’t have a touristy feel- it was definitely there, but only on the main street that led to the Basilica of San Francesco. When I say touristy, I mean English-language menus, little stands selling Italian flags and T-shirts on the side of the street. When you live in Rome for a while, you begin to recognize tourist traps, and know how they can be avoided.

But our experience in Assisi- being shown around by a local, eating authentic Italian carbonara on the rooftop of a restaurant only reached by weaving through uphill alleyways in the old part of the town? That didn’t feel touristy one bit.

I probably could’ve stayed in Assisi all week. But, I have Rome (and several final exams) to welcome me back to reality. I have one last week in Rome - and two months left in Europe - and I intend to soak in the rest of the time I have left in this beautiful city.

Beaches and Rain and Layers, Oh My!

Posted by: Maddie Salas Updated: October 11, 2014 - 9:51 AM
What an adventure it is to live abroad! I came to Scotland three weeks ago, and I am already in love! In the morning I run on the BEACH! Beach like a real salt-water, seashore beach! Not the man-made Elm Creek swimming pond that I had cross country practice on! I can even see the ocean from my window. MY window! It is absolutely gorgeous. Despite the beauty in Scotland, I do miss Minnesota fall! A few leaves turned yellow over the past couple weeks, but I miss the vivid crimson and orange leaves of the trees on my street. I hope the leaves change more once the weather cools down. On the topic of weather, I expected a ton more rain than we receive! The rain mostly held off until this week, with some showers here and there, and only one terrential downpour. The air is usually damp, but the temperature is fairly nice. A lot of days are sunny one moment, drizzling the next, windy and cold afterwards, then back to sunny. It's a little like Minnesota in that way, but the cycle is a bit more compact . The key is dress in layers (lots of layers). The people here are in general very nice! I'm so use to Minnesota nice (dontcha know) that it seems pretty average, but a few of my friends from other parts of the states, or other countries, comment on how friendly people are. We often ask shop workers or people walking by for directions or a good place to eat, and the strangers are conversational and helpful! It is wonderful for people who can't use their smartphone to Google nearby restaurants because data cost about 9,000 dollars/18,000 pounds overseas (but those see rants will be in another post). I am off to weekend adventures (dressed in layers), so this is all I have time for! If you leave this page with only one thing in mind, it needs to be that there are real beaches out there. They are magnificent!  Love & joy, Maddie

When the Best Laid Plans Become the Worst

Posted by: Katelin Harned Updated: June 15, 2014 - 2:33 PM

As embarrassed as I am to admit this, before studying abroad I was anxious about almost everything that traveling involves. On the trip to Paris I took with my mom my junior year of high school I think I spent half the time we were there worrying. I was one of those people that focused on the who, what, where, when, why, and how's of travel, and wanted everything planned out. Now, 3 years later, I am here to say to anyone who is like I was, stop. Our lives are full of routines as it is, what time you go to work, when your favorite TV shows are on, homework deadlines, the list goes on. Travel should never be looked at as another thing you need to schedule, as it turns what should be an adventure into "What's next on our list?" So get rid of those guide books with the "Perfect itinerary for blank number of days in blank European City", and learn to let cities take you where they want you to go. While this line of thinking is true when it comes to most (if not all) European cities, my trip to Paris with my brother two weeks ago is the perfect example.

 When my parents told me my brother was officially coming to visit, I could not have been more excited, and choosing between him flying into Amsterdam and Paris was an easy choice. I had been to Paris six times already but was still desperate to go back, so it was a given that I would choose my favorite city to show my brother. Other than booking our train tickets and where we would stay, I hadn't really thought of what we would actually do for 4 days in Paris. It wasn't until our last day there, when it was rainy and grey that I realized how bad plans can actually be.

When it comes to Paris and weather you never know what you're going to get. Rain could come unexpectedly, or the days you expected it to rain it could be a perfectly sunny day. On our last day in Paris, as the rain came down and my brother and I crouched under my umbrella, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and thought of all those poor people who had planned to visit it that day. I think the worst advice any guide book can ever give is "book tickets in advance to avoid lines." Once you book tickets for something your day now revolves around that, rain or shine. You can't just wander the city, because you may actually get lost and miss the time on your ticket. You can't spend extra time at the museum you thought you'd only need a few hours for, because that would just ruin the whole day. I'm not saying you should go into a trip not having a few ideas of what you want to see, but to remember that most often times it's the things that surprise you that create the best memories. 

You may be asking, how does one get the best of the planned and unplanned? It's quite simple, don't plan around the "tourist attractions", and fit them in when they work. The evening my brother and I went to the Eiffel tower we went because it was a clear day and I knew we would be able to actually see the city, and so we went.  Going up the Eiffel tower on a nice day without advance tickets can seem impossible, but the stairs hardly ever have a line, and as my brother said, "Even on vacations, you shouldn't skip leg day." So while everyone waited in line for the elevators at the Eiffel Tower, my brother and I were already at the top sipping delicious, granted overly priced, champagne. When it comes to the Louvre, look at the forecast before bed and if it says rain the next morning, get there before it opens. Not only will you be one of the first in lines, but then you have a perfectly good reason to relax, enjoy a macaroon and espresso at Ladurée along the Champs Élysées later in the day. Get off at a metro or bus stop and walk. European cities are full of history; the chances of you running into something you wanted to see anyway are around 99%. On the off chance you don’t, your chances of finding a delicious, not overpriced tourist restaurant have now gone up exponentially. 

All the trips I've taken this past semester have slowly helped me come to this one conclusion: people need to stop having checklists of all the monuments they need to see, and all the museums they feel the need to visit. I hope that travel can eventually stop being about how many things one got to see, and start becoming about the things one actually stopped and experienced. 

Plum Blossoms in Nanjing

Posted by: Emily Walz Updated: May 1, 2014 - 4:04 AM


How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden

When everything has faded they alone shine forth
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse
I don't need a sounding board or wine cup

林逋 Lín Bū (967-1028)

(Poems of the Masters; translated by Red Pine/Bill Porter, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)

梅花 méihuā. Song dynasty poets were enamored with them. Prunus mume, Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, ume from the Japanese, mei from the Chinese, winter plum – the flowering tree goes by many names.

The annual International Plum Blossom Festival begins in late February. By March, the Zhongshan national park on the edge of Nanjing is bursting with five-petal blossoms.

A few months ago, when a friend asked “what is Nanjing famous for?” I answered, “the massacre.” True, but a nicer answer would have been the plum blossoms. The festival officially launched in 1996, and while it still seems to be a well-kept secret, its organizers are aiming high, an event to rival Japan’s cherry blossoms. The “international” month-and-a-half festival is one the city government’s website boasts attracts millions.

I visited on a Wednesday, when only a sprinkling of people milled about. Sometimes I walked for full minutes without seeing anyone at all, a beautiful rarity in urban China. Many of the people there were workers pruning trees, or elderly people who seem to congregate in parks.

The smaller numbers might also have been because I entered the part of the park that required a ticket, leading to Plum Blossom Hill and the gardens staged after famous scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized on my way out there was a back gate standing wide open.

That was toward the tail end of the festival, a beautiful late March afternoon. There were still quite a few blossoms, even if the lady selling tickets next to the big PLUM BLOSSOM FESTIVAL sign said when I asked where to find them, “oh, plum blossoms? Those are all gone.”

I would lose money on a bet to differentiate between plum and peach and pear blossoms, or cherry, but trees all over the mountain were still in bloom. There might have been some jasmine blossoms thrown in there, too, possibly osmanthus. Without a field guide it was hard to say.

As early as the blossoms come, the trees bear fruit in June and July, coinciding with the rainy season of East Asia. The downpours are called 梅雨 méiyǔ, the plum rains. The fruit is used to make sour plum juice, 酸梅湯 suān méi tāng, and of course 梅酒 méijiǔ, plum wine.

The Asian plum trees originated in southern China around the Yangtze river, later spreading to the other parts of Asia. There are rumors of a tree in Hubei province dating from the Jin dynasty, some 1600 years ago.

Plum blossoms are important in traditional painting, invested with a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning, named in a long series of numbered lists: one of the four season flowers, one of the four nobles, the five petals symbolizing five fortunes.

While unequivocally proclaimed the city flower of Nanjing, there’s a bit of a contest over national flower status. The plum blossom since 1964 has been the national flower of the Republic of China, which is to say, Taiwan.

The Qing Dynasty declared the national flower of China the peony. The People’s Republic has gone through several nomination phases, but no single flower has been ratified as the final choice. Several factions were pushing for a dual-flower recognition of both the plum blossom and peony.

On the way out, I went past part of the Nanjing branch of the UNESCO-recognized world heritage Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

It’s a large park. I was wandering in the palace part, apparently still a hike from the actual tombs. The layout is similar to that of other famous imperial locales, the Forbidden City among them: thick-walled gates, wide outdoor corridors leading ever inward to taller guard towers and inner buildings.

Toward the back I ended up in a landscape that looked a bit like the Secret Garden. I kept wandering, not sure where it would lead, but eventually it looped back around to the palace complex where I could stand by the parapets and look down at the walkers and steamed-bun sellers below.

Carnival in Rio De Janeiro: What is normal?

Posted by: Andrew Morrison Updated: March 12, 2014 - 4:54 PM


Andrew Morrison | March 12th 2014 17:49 BT

Two weeks ago, I woke up in Rio De Janeiro to a cacophony of samba music and streets flooded with elaborately costumed belligerent tourists while the residents of Rio went about selling fruit and stocking their shops. It was 7:30 in the morning and my week long Carnival experience was merely beginning. A strike among the waste management staff in Rio had left the streets covered in garbage but people continued to celebrate no matter what they were stepping on. Carnival is like the marriage of Halloween and ancient African traditions to an average tourist but I wondered how actual Cariocas, people from Rio De Janeiro, actually feel about the festivities. To understand the customs of the holiday, I will take you into my experience and offer resources for you to learn more about this remarkable and cultural celebration.

[Traditional dances at Ipanema Beach were just one of the many cultural performances open to the public to participate it - Credit: Andrew Morrison]


Carnival was derived from ancient Roman Catholic traditions and was transplanted to Rio De Janeiro during the 19th century. The mixture of cultures making up the population of Rio and the extravagant samba school parades are what makes Rio one of the most unique Carnival experiences in the world. Last year, Carnival attracted over 2 billion tourists and generated approximately 2.5 billion in revenue. In Rio, Carnival is big business. The celebration differs regionally however, with the greatest popularity occurring in the northeastern and southeastern regions of the country. The large cities in these regions basically shut-down during the week of Carnival which takes place Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

[With waste management workers on strike and thousands of tourists flooding the city, garbage began to pile up rapidly during Carnival - Credit: Andrew Morrison]


The extravagant parades are made up of 12 different samba groups competing to be the best school of Rio De Janeiro. Each group represents a different neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro and they must develop a completely original choreographed song with an allotted 80 minutes to perform. These performances are practiced for seven months in a giant warehouse in complete secrecy and when Carnival finally takes place, each group of 5,000 plus performers takes public transportation to the famed Sambadrome and begins their show. The floats are enormous and highly elaborate like moving art galleries pushed by people for the entire 80 minutes. No machines are allowed in the performances. The best six of the 12 samba schools go on to the champion’s parade but only one is the true champion.

[Perhaps the most iconic figure of Carnival is the Queen of the Drums - The woman that leads the entire samba school and must impress judges with her samba choreography - Credit: Ndecam via Flickr CC]


This year the group Unidos Da Tijuca won the competition with their “agility” themed performance. Every performer represented something related to speed like a pack of cheetahs or a swarm of racecars. Another group represented pirates of the Caribbean, complete with twirling sword fights and scallywags being shot out of cannons hundreds of feet above the crowd. The bit that consistently entranced me was the duo flag bearers that lead each group like a prom king and queen. They have the honor of presenting their school’s signature flag and the mission of charming the crowd, judges and cameras. Often, but not surprisingly, a member of the duo is a Brazilian celebrity. The entire Sambadrome experience costs a minimum of $200 for basic admission. Tourists can also pay to participate in the famed parade, even wear the costumes and learn the choreography. 

[The Sambadrome is the epicenter of Carnival in Brazil seating over 72,000 patrons - Credit: Chupacabras via Flickr CC]

The Reality

Some attend the Sambadrome annually and are loyal fans to specific groups but what I learned from my experience in Rio De Janeiro was that most Cariocas would rather participate in one of the hundreds of Blocos de Rua, or block parties. The block parties are where you can learn the dances, meet the samba band members, and actually participate in the new and old Carnival traditions. These Blocos occur across the city, are completely free, and each with a totally different vibe. Some are strictly samba while others might be alternative rock. The event begins with a band, followed by dancing, and finally a parade where everyone participates including children and elderly people in wheelchairs. It is a beautiful sight to see an entire community celebrating together.

[A young boy costumed as Captain America sprays silly string into the air as his mother holds his shield. These are the kind of parades in Rio that I truly appreciated - Credit: Andrew Morrison] 

My 11 days in Rio De Janeiro proved that the city had all of the exotic charms I wanted to discover for myself. Carnival proved to be the most elaborate and extravagant party I have ever attended and not to mention the record-smashing number of men wearing bras. Ultimately, I fell in love with the freedom of the celebration and the inclusiveness for all people no matter where they rank socioeconomically, what age group they are in or what gender pronoun they choose. The workers strike finally ended with the group earning the increased rights and wages they had demanded and the streets of Rio De Janeiro returned to normal. The celebrations of the workers melted into the block parties almost as if there had never been a problem. Despite the major dispute, Carnival remains the week in every year where Brazil opens up their streets to the world and pushes you to ask, “so what is normal?”

My name is Andrew Morrison and I am an environmental science senior from the University of Minnesota completing soil science research in southern Brazil for an entire year. If you have suggestions or ideas please contact me via my site

To learn more about Brazil use these resources:

- The entire Sambadrome parade of 2013

- A free online course about the history of Brazil

Curiouser and Curiouser: Eating Produce in China

Posted by: Emily Walz Updated: February 2, 2014 - 10:53 PM

Unlike “banana,” “apple,” and the inexplicable “apple with a banana flavor” my first Chinese textbook insisted was real (as best as I can tell, it’s not), none of these fruits were a part of my beginning language classes. If I’d ever heard of them before, their names were nothing but bright abstractions conjuring islands, unfamiliar trees, hot suns. I learned to parrot the Chinese words for a series of fruits never real to me outside of Asia, in some cases later matching them with English names like “pommelo” or “red bayberry” or some other unfamiliar label (unrecognized by my version of Microsoft Word) that didn’t help explain to my father what it was I was waving in the corner of his computer screen.

These fruits are an interesting study of the connection between object and language. Often, the language in which something is first known becomes the default, as though that thing is more firmly entwined with its name in that language, that Chinese is its true name and English a paltry shadow, or English tied to its essence and Chinese a clumsy affixation. Sometimes it’s a matter of ease. Pommelo in Chinese has two syllables, 柚子youzi, and that becomes the name everyone around me calls it by, even in the midst of all-English conversations.

Having learned to categorize Clementines and Mandarins and Navels as “oranges” in the broad sense, I struggle in Chinese to make distinctions between fruits that all look like they belong to that family but are apparently strictly separated based on some invisible logic - small greenish globes with orange-like interiors; larger yellow-orange fruits also sectioned into slices sealed in semi-transparent white; palm-sized spheres slightly flat at the ends and easy to peel. They might be 橙子chengzi, 柑子 ganzi, 柑橘 ganju, or 橘子 juzi. No broader category of “orange” to sweep them all into. I’m still not wholly confident I have that one sorted out. Vendors are puzzled if I approach asking how much the chengzi cost while pointing at something that clearly belongs in the juzi category.

Names are the beginning. Learning to properly label a fruit is part one of the challenge that continues with finding out how to know when it is ripe and how to eat it, tasks that seem deceptively easy. It should be basic: peel, and eat, or don’t peel and just eat, but even choosing which of those two methods to follow can be a decision fraught with uncertainty.


With its fuchsia rind, this sweltering tropical fruit is the only one to ever rival my love for the wild raspberry.

Those tiny orbs were long banned from the U.S., and once imports began to trickle through in 2007, they would sell for fortunes a pound in upscale East Coast groceries.

The woman who would become one of the best friends China ever brought me introduced me to the mangosteen in the warmer months of 2012. Mountains of those dark magenta spheres were tumbling out the front of fruit stands lining the streets we walked toward our favorite coffee-shop haunts. She had spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka and knew far more about how to choose and eat the fruits stacked in piles in Beijing’s bustling produce markets than I had learned growing up in Minnesota. It was summer in northern China. There were almost no blueberries, few strawberries, and not a raspberry for miles.

I wasn’t precisely sure what a mangosteen was, or how it differed from a mango. She taught me to choose the ones that give a little when pressed, that the hard ones are no good. She showed me how to dig my thumbnail into the rind, to crack open the woody red-purple shell, to peel it away in chunks and pull out the tender white heart, divvied into wedges like a Clementine, soft and sweet and drippy, melting into a single oblong brown seed. We bought bags of them. My fingernails gained a semi-permanent magenta cast, my palms became sticky.

This was the first summer I spent in Beijing.

For a long time, the U.S. banned import of a lot of Thai fruits, including the mangosteen (ostensibly to protect against the Asian fruit fly), and given the fruit’s fussy nature and short ripening window, few are imported from Asia even after irradiation has allowed for a reasonable level of security against invasive pests. A small number of persistent cultivators have started growing them in tropical Western hemisphere locales like Puerto Rico and Hawai’i. The New York Times reported $45-per-pound sales on 2007 Puerto Rican mangosteens in New York’s ritzy health food shops. In China they are an everyman fruit, where a handful of yuan will get you a bagful in the right season, instead of a $10-per-tiny-globe deal. Even with prices dropping some, the logistics seem to be against bringing the mangosteen into widespread popularity in North America.

The mystery fruit

I stumbled upon this fruit up in the mountains of 广西/Guangxi, one of China’s southern provinces. I have not seen it before or since. The sign read 猴头果 houtouguo. Google translate renders this as “hedgehog fruit.” It looked like a giant berry, its drupelets grown large and unyielding.

I asked the vendor how to eat it. She said “like a grape.”

When I was out of the mountains and back in Guilin, I showed the fruit to the woman working at my hostel and asked what it was. She told me she had no idea, and had never seen it before.

I carefully rinsed it and patted it dry, but as I plucked off sections and began to chew, (the outside fibrous and sort of mild ginger-fresh tasting), it occurred to me that “like a grape” might mean the way many Chinese people eat grapes, spitting out the skins, and not the way I was accustomed to eating grapes, skin and all.

At that point I decided to wait to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to me for swallowing sections whole before I continued my experimental fruit-eating.


The passionfruit with its firm-burst seeds was a fruit I’d seen only in beverages, most often chopped up into a beautiful mojito in one of Beijing’s back-alley artisan cocktail bars, and not something I’d encountered whole. I didn’t know it came in small bright-purple spheres, harder than a pear, smaller than an apple. Again, I had no idea how to eat it.

Visiting Guilin was the first time I saw people eating them as they walked, vendors sitting at the side of the road with buckets of them. Apparently one eats passionfruit with a spoon, cutting it open and scraping out the interior, butterscotch yellow tangles with black seeds to crunch through.

She sliced off the top and handed me a tiny plastic spoon. 1 yuan, 1 fruit.


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