Mama Mia!

By Jeanne Reynolds

Abba fans, sit back down — this isn’t about their song or the movie (and now a sequel) by the same name. But it does sum up my recent trip to Italy.

You know what it’s like when you look forward to something so much for so long, it can’t possibly live up to your expectations?

This trip was nothing like that. It. Was. Amazing.Tuscan countryside

What did I like best: the scenery, the art and architecture, the mind-warping antiquity, the food, the wine?

Yes.

A quick overview of our itinerary: Direct flight from Charlotte to Rome, 3 nights there including a private day-long tour with a guide, drive to Tuscany for 4 nights in Siena, drive to Sorrento for 2 nights there, and finally back to Rome for our flight back the next day.

We didn’t come close to seeing it all, but we saw a lot: the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, catacombs. And that was just in Rome. In and around Siena we climbed winding staircases up towers (400 steps in one case), marveled at museums full of priceless treasures, visited towering cathedrals and walked ancient medieval streets. Near Sorrento, we traveled up and down an impossibly narrow cliffside road with hair-raising turns, and then in a chairlift to the top of the Isle of Capri (yes, while wearing capri pants!). On the way back to Rome we visited Pompeii near the foot of Mt. Vesuvius and were overcome with wonder and sadness at a lost civilization.

Ignoring well-meaning advice from family members, we didn’t even consider a prepackaged, city-a-day group bus tour. That kind of trip has some advantages, but it wasn’t the experience I craved for my Italian adventure. Instead we stayed in very small bed-and-breakfasts I found online (I highly recommend Booking.com) and found our own way around using maps, GPS, phone apps and helpful locals. A couple of our accommodations were wonderful, one was mostly convenient, but all were clean, affordable and safe.

When we wanted to eat — and did we ever! — we asked our B&B hosts for First pizzarecommendations or just walked until something looked good. The results ranged from good to extraordinary, usually accompanied by the local house wine (or vino della casa, as we like to say). We tried wood-fired pizza with a thin, crisp crust, fried artichokes, Tuscan-style steak with rosemary and olive oil, grilled squid, crusty bread and of course, pasta. It’s hard to describe what was so wonderful about it, but fresh, local ingredients using old family recipes and al fresco dining are hard to beat. And the gelato … one of us had it every day (sometimes twice). It’s that good. And no, sadly no, nothing in the grocery store freezer case can possibly replicate it.

And guess what? Neither of us gained an ounce. Because first, the meals impress with flavor rather than size, and second, we walked an average of 5 miles a day, up and down hills and stairs. (Remember that tower? 400 steps up means 400 down, too.)

Of course, wonderful doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Trying to figure out when we could park where in Siena without a ticket or a tow was challenging, and let’s just say Americans have a different standard when it comes to public bathroom facilities. And despite the GPS, maps and road signs, we frequently got turned around trying to find our destinations.

So, now that I’m a wily veteran of la dolce vita (that’s a joke, of course — we could go to Italy every year for the next decade and not experience all its wonders), here’s some advice:

Go.

Yep, that’s it. I was going to include a 7-point list of tips about protecting your passport and cash from pickpockets, how to tell if the gelato is homemade and which shop in Anacapri is best for handmade Italian leather shoes (surprisingly affordable, by the way). But there are dozens of guidebooks that can tell you that and a whole lot more.

And really, this isn’t about Italy. It’s about finding a way to visit the places and do the things you dream of. Life is too short not to.

That’s the advice I hope I remember myself.

 

 

The storm before the calm: getting ready for vacay

By Jeanne Reynolds

“Why do I have to do everything myself?”

I’ve been silently screaming those words in my head for several days as we – or more to the point, I – get ready for our upcoming vacation.

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I’ve been planning this dream trip for at least 8 months, and thinking about it long before that. Plane tickets, B&B reservations, car rental, passport renewal, international driving permit, shopping for necessities, obtaining local currency, coordinating with the cat sitter and what feels like a million other details are being checked off my to-do list.

My husband bought electric adapters.

Now, you should understand we’re both planners and list-makers. When he gets excited about a project, he’s a one-man army: researching options, talking to experts, calling and visiting vendors, scheduling work and following up like crazy. He recently fell in love with the idea of planting a palmetto tree to fill a hurricane-decimated spot in our yard. That sucker was in the ground before you could say Bob’s your uncle.

But for our upcoming adventure, he’s been content to let me make nearly all the arrangements. One the one hand, this has meant I’ve been able to plan the trip exactly the way I want. On the other hand, it’s meant I’ve done all the work.

I’m a little stressed about that. For one thing, if there’s a screw-up, it’s my fault. What if the accommodations that look so charming and conveniently located on the booking website are on the icky side? Can we really navigate the roads in a foreign country without bodily injury? What if I’ve forgotten something really important?

And for another, I’m worried he’s not really looking forward to this trip, although he readily agreed to go when I first broached the topic. If he’s as excited as I am, he’d be more involved, right?

Then it suddenly occurred to me I’ve been judging his feelings through my own filter, based on what it would mean if I acted that way. But that’s me, not him. I enjoy the anticipation of an event almost as much as the reality. Truth be told, all this planning has been fun, filled with what-ifs and ooh-how-about-thats. He’s given me free reign to create my dream trip. And if past experience is anything to go by, he’ll be an enthusiastic and unflappable traveling companion no matter what happens.

Oh, and that car rental agreement? It has only one named driver: him. I’m going to sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

 

A Toe-Sucking Experience in Cozumel

By Chaunte McClure

When I go on vacation, I’ve vowed to try something I’ve never done before, be it an adventurous excursion or some other out-of-the-box activity. This time, while in Cozumel I got my toes sucked.

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My entire feet, actually, and around my ankles, as my husband sat beside me, watched and enjoyed the same treatment. It was a brief escape from the sun after swimming in the turquoise Caribbean ocean at Mr. Sancho’s Beach Club where we could enjoy everything from kayaking to horseback riding to massages and fish pedicures. I opted for a fish pedicure after my cousins raved about their experience. (They snuck away while my body finally got used to the ocean’s cool temperature.)

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To the Islander Fish Spa I headed to get a feel for what it was all about. After getting my feet cleaned of the beach sand, it was time to simultaneously and slowly put my feet in the spa tank. Then the tickling began! A school of fish nibbled away at the bottom, top and sides of my feet. The bottom was the most ticklish but after a few minutes, I got used to the nibbling and kissing which lasted for about 15 minutes. It’s like a micro massage but from Garra Ruffa fish to help remove dead skin cells. Once the treatment was over, a technician (I guess that’s what they’re called) rubbed our feet with a cream that started out smooth and creamy then slightly dried before he wiped it off with a towel. The result: soft, smooth feet and a story to tell.

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In hindsight, I should have taken sanitation into consideration, but had I done so, you wouldn’t be reading this post because the germaphobe in me would’ve forgone the opportunity. No regrets, though, and three days later my feet are just fine. Kissable, indeed.

Have you had a fish pedicure? How did you like it? If you haven’t, would you try it?

 

From the mountain to the Valley

By Stacy Thompson

So how to follow up climbing to the Rooftop of Africa? Head to the lowest dry point in North America!  When my mom first suggested a hiking and camping trip to Death Valley, I of course had to wisecrack “the one in Clemson or Baton Rouge?” (for my non-sports-obsessed readers, the football stadiums at LSU and Clemson are nicknamed ‘Death Valley’)  She responded with a well-deserved eye-roll, and then said she was serious…she wanted to hike in Death Valley.  With very little knowledge of the region, but, as ever, trusting my mom’s keen sense of adventure, I repeated the words I respond with whenever she suggests a hike…”I’ll never say no!”

So last month we hit the trail again, but this time in the confines of a 3.4 million-acre US National Park that is the largest in the contiguous US.  Not only is Death Valley the driest (about 2 inches of rain…annually!) and the hottest (record high of 134 degrees) place in North America, it also has the lowest dry elevation of -282 feet in Badwater Basin.  Legend has it that the Valley was named by gold-rushers who spent several miserable months trying to get through to California –after suffering dehydration and near starvation, when they finally reached the edge of the desert, one turned and looked back to exclaim “Goodbye Death Valley.”

I’ve visited deserts in my travels, and have spent numerous weeks inside of and around the Grand Canyon.  My past experiences in no way prepared me for the diversity of Death Valley.

From mudstone hills and canyons…

To serene, magnificent sand dunes…

To the salt pan surrounded by distant peaks…

Every day, and even several times in a day, we were experiencing inspiring vistas and dramatically varied terrains.  As always, Mom kept on hikin’…

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And although we didn’t get to see much wildlife (did you read the part above about the lack of rain and extreme heat…don’t blame them!), we did manage to spy on this little guy on one of our treks…

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In all, it was another amazing adventure to one of the more unusually beautiful places in our country – I’d highly recommend it, but may want to avoid the summer months!!!

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Gluten Free Adventures, Close to Home

By Rachel Sircy

I’ve mentioned before that if you’re a celiac and you’d like to get away for a weekend that there are cities close by that offer a haven for the gluten intolerant. Food meccas like Charleston have all sorts of restaurants that will cater to any and all of the latest trends. Since gluten free eating is still an important trend, trendy restaurants will strive to meet your needs. My favorite gluten free destination that is close to Columbia, however, is Asheville, NC. I’ve probably mentioned my love of Asheville before – maybe I’ve mentioned it a lot – but I’ll go ahead and mention it again, since I was there this past weekend.

There are, as everyone reading this probably already knows, plenty of things to do in Asheville. I keep thinking that one day we’ll go see the Biltmore or Carl Sandburg’s farm or go horseback riding. So far, though, my husband and I have never felt a need to go outside of the city center for fun. Actually, one of the biggest reasons that I like going to Asheville is that it’s one of those quintessential Appalachian towns that’s a little bit hippie and a little bit hillbilly. Athens, Ohio, where I grew up, is quite a bit like Asheville – a little bit country and a little rock and roll. So, taking a trip to this funky mountain town helps to alleviate my homesickness whenever it springs up. Also, there’s a musician on almost every corner playing pretty good music and walking around Asheville’s downtown area has the effect of making me feel that my life suddenly has a soundtrack.

Besides the effects that Asheville has on my homesickness for the Appalachian foothills and hippies, my husband and I go there for two primary reasons: first, to eat and second, to hang out in bookstores. Hanging out in bookstores is pretty much what it sounds like. We enjoy just walking around and reading the spines and back covers of books and usually we buy at least one book. We then sit in the corners of the bookstores and read. It may not sound like a lot of fun to the rest of the world, but to us it’s worth the 2.5-hour drive just to do that. Columbia, if you’re listening, we need a great independent bookstore!

Much as I’d love to go on about the bookstores, I need to talk about the first reason that I go to Asheville – to eat. Asheville is one of the cities that comes up again and again in articles and discussions of gluten free travel destinations. Every single restaurant that I’ve been to there is aware of plight of the gluten-sensitive and is more than willing to accommodate them. I know for certain that I’ve mentioned a restaurant called Posana (pictured below) in previous posts.

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This restaurant is not only notable for sourcing most, if not all, of it’s ingredients locally, but EVERYTHING on their menu is gluten free. I don’t even know if the majority of their customers are aware of that, because the restaurant is almost always full. I mean, you can certainly get reservations and you may be able to wait for a table, but this is a pretty popular place. I point that out because usually if you say that something is gluten-free, nobody except the gluten sensitive will touch it with a 10-foot pole. I know that all you gluten-free bakers out there know what I’m talking about. But, Posana is 100% gluten free and the food is so good that people fill the place up night after night. This was my dinner there Friday night:

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Yeah, it was as good as it looks. Who doesn’t love chicken with the skin on over top of cheese grits? You’d have to be crazy to pass that up. And these little potatoes were tossed with truffle oil and cheese and served with aioli:

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Yeah, I’d never tasted aioli and I’m not sure what is in it other than mayonnaise, but it was awesome. The best part of any meal, of course, is the dessert. And this was my cheesecake:

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It had a shortbread cookie crust and the little dollops on the side were tiny meringue cookies floating on some kind of red wine and honey jam. It was the best cheesecake I’ve had in a long time. Really, though, the best part of eating at this restaurant is knowing that the entire menu is open to me. There are a lot of restaurants these days that have gluten free menus, but if you’re gluten sensitive or a celiac, you always have to explain your situation to your server and have them watch out for cross contamination. Then, you get to pick from the limited number of items that can be made in a way that won’t make you sick and pray that no one accidentally touches your salad with the wrong tongs.

Posana is a bit fancier and more expensive than my husband and I usually eat. We’re pretty laid-back people and not entirely comfortable in any restaurant with an atmosphere more elegant than Outback. If I can’t wear my Bob Ross t-shirt in an eatery without looking out of place, then you know I’m uncomfortable. But the elegant atmosphere and the price at Posana (which is expensive for us because we’re English majors trying to make a living, which is to say, we’re broke) are worth braving every now and again because you can’t really put a price on peace of mind. There is no cross contamination in Posana’s kitchen because everything in that kitchen is gluten free. There is also no set of things that you have to choose from on the menu, no explaining to your server that you mean it this time about the croutons on your salad – because you can eat everything on the menu, croutons included. So, I highly recommend that you give this place a try if you get a chance. It’s amazing feeling to be able to eat what everyone else is eating and not be a bit worried about it.

Other places that we frequent in Asheville are the Over Easy Café and French Broad Chocolates. Of course, everyone frequents these places (and for good reason), so be prepared to wait a while. The Over Easy Café only serves breakfast, but it’s probably the best breakfast ever. They get locally grown fruits, vegetables and eggs and bacon. Also, I have yet to hear back from them about where they get the gluten free bread that they serve, but it’s the best gf bread I’ve ever had. And best of all, the waitress complimented me on my Bob Ross t-shirt.

French Broad Chocolates serves, yep, you guessed it – chocolates. They prepare chocolate in about every way I can conceive of. And the service is always good even when the place is crowded. Once, my husband and I were sitting eating our chocolates and reading the books that we got that day in one of the bookstores when a waiter interrupted us to give us 6 complimentary truffles. Apparently, the staff noticed that we were the only people in the place who weren’t on our phones and they wanted to say “thank you.” We’ve been loyal customers ever since. My husband loves their Quintessential Chocolate Cake (sadly, not gluten free) whilst I really enjoy both the concept and the actual experience of ordering and then consuming small cups of melted chocolate called Liquid Truffles. I don’t think that it gets better than that. Except for maybe this:

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That was a flourless chocolate torte. Are you jealous? You should be, because that’s a little piece of heaven right there. I’ve asked the people at French Broad to let me live there. They haven’t gotten back to me yet, but we’ll see…

So, the next time that you feel like getting out of town and you want to make sure you’ll have something to eat when you get there, just remember that you have a celiac-friendly destination just a short car-ride away!

 

No Worries…Tanzania-style

By Stacy Thompson

“Hakuna Mata…what a wonderful phrase…Hakuna Mata…ain’t no passing phase…”

Believe it or not, this was a phrase I heard many times during my trip to Tanzania and Kilimanjaro – very well-used, and very appropriate for a people who live life with “No Worries” – the beauty of the people, landscape and animals in the wild is reason enough not to worry, but to simply enjoy!

If you haven’t read my last post, take the time to go back  to it (https://everywomanblog.com/category/stacy-thompson/) and realize why the excursion the week after my big climb up Kilimanjaro was well-deserved – what better way to celebrate such a milestone than to soak in Tanzanian wildlife and all the best the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater has to offer!

Prior to our arrival we were warned that although we would see a multitude of wildlife, we may or may not see some particularly shy creatures, such as leopards – and so, as our first stop in the safari jeep brought us to the following, we were more than excited about the days ahead…

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Yep, I’m a leopard in a tree – maybe a little like a magic-eye-picture, but squint and you’ll see me.

A brief glimpse at a leopard in a tree was quickly followed by nearly an hour of watching a young lion cub trying to venture up a tree – poor thing couldn’t decide whether to move up or down from the pride below, but was cute nonetheless…

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Heck yeah, I’m finally in this tree…looking down on you but not really sure I want to go higher

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OK, so I really don’t want to go higher…how do I get lower???

Soon after we would be treated to herds of zebras, a muddy lone (and very pregnant) hyena, curious wildebeests and a yawning hippo…

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Yeah I’m a horse with stripes…pretty cool, ain’t I?!?

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I’m looking at you with my best Whoopi Goldberg voice

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We’re so ugly, we’re cute

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OMG, I need a nap

As our safari continued on, the view got more amazing — little did I know that giraffes could be so graceful or impalas so serene – but both were a treat to view in their natural habitat…

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Please don’t ask me if I play basketball…

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…and yes, I DO eat this thorny mess you call the Acacia tree

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I like big horns and I cannot lie…

But the beauty and grace were no match for the King of the Jungle – without a doubt, the mighty lions, sleeping or not, were the most regal of creatures…

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Just hear me roar…or just watch me sit here…either way, I’m bad, and I know it

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I’ll just doze while you bask in my majesty…

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A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh

Meanwhile, the cheetas, the fastest creature on earth, also proved to be utterly captivating…

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Which of those Jeeps should we attack?? Probably none of them, as all they have is granola bars and oolang tea

 

 

Our next venture into Ngorogoro Crater brought us to the Hippo pond – fun fact:  did you know that the hippo spends 90% of its day in water (which is why a group of hippos are called a “pod” – much like whales) but is considered the most aggressive animal in the wild – who knew?? But not surprising considering the jaws on those beasts!!

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I bless the rains down in Africa…gonna take some time to do the things we never had…

After the Serengeti, we headed on to Ngorogoro crater which also brought us within very close contact to the water buffalo (no, I did not pull a Crocodile Dundee and attempt to put the massive animal in a slumber), more gorgeous zebra and a family of warthog (OK, you can go ahead and sing “when I was a young warthog…”)

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ohm…ohm…I don’t even care that there is a bird on my head…ohm…ohm…

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I am so much cooler than a regular horse…yep, I am

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Pumba…”I get downhearted…every time I….

After so many animals, amazing vistas, the highlight of the day was coming across a rather large family of rather large elephants…and one really cute baby elephant (who could have taken flight with those ears, but thankfully, only crossed in front of our Jeep to enter a new area to graze) – awesome, gentle, plodding creatures were a sight to behold…

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You’ve seen me in a zoo, but watching me cross about 15 feet in front of you is like 1,000,000 times cooler, isn’t it?!?!?

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I don’t need a feather…I’m capable of ANYTHING!!

And then we finished the safari week touring Manyara Lake – managed to see more elephant and our fair share of baboons – maybe only a face a mother could love, but the mothers and babies were the cutest of all!!

So this adventure after our ultimate adventure did not disappoint – as an animal lover, I could not get enough of these amazing creatures interacting in their own habitat – I could have spent five weeks instead of five days and would never have been bored – No Worries…What a Wonderful Day!!!

 

Well Done…

By Stacy Thompson

I apologize profusely to the administrators of this blog for my late submission, but those that read my last post will understand…a few days ago I realized a dream and made it to the Rooftop of Africa – and I will forever be changed for the better because of it.

After an exploratory day in Moshi, followed by a tour of a coffee and tea plantation, our group was hesitantly getting to know one another while already beginning the process of mentally preparing ourselves for the challenge ahead…which wasn’t too far from our minds or our sight (the view from our lodge made the challenge inescapable…)

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The following day we took to the trail and began the greatest adventure with three days of hiking, covering nearly six thousand feet and thirteen miles among a background that transitioned from bamboo rainforest to moorland.  An acclimatization hike to Zebra Rock took us from Horombo Hut and 12,340 feet to over 14, 000 feet and a taste of the heights we would soon soar to…

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Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards – Kierkegaard

Our hike continued forward and onward to Kibo Hut – 15, 520 feet – and a ride through “the Saddle” a wide, flat plateau with our destination peaks looming ahead and a light meal awaiting us in the final hours before the final ascent.  Our pace deliberately slow, we could see up ahead the challenge of the mountain ahead while our minds repeated the Swahili phrase “Pole, Pole” (“Slowly, Slowly”) to ensure we met our goal.

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We dined on soup and some bread around 5 pm before retiring (all 12 of us men and women together in the ultimate bonding experience!) to a room of bunkbeds and our sleeping bags to catch a few hours of rest – knowing that we were to be awakened at 11:00 pm to start the arduous climb.  Yes, we were told that the purpose of the late-night start was to reach our goal at daybreak, but in truth the journey through the scree slope is best taken without seeing the angle of the climb (pretty much straight up!) and the distance to be traveled (over 3,000 feet) – exhaustion and freezing temperatures tell the body to sleep, but the overwhelming drive to reach the top combined with the constant vigilance of the Tanzanian guides keep one foot in front of the other until the most glorious sight of an African sunrise is seen on the horizon – as said sun begins to rise, our goal becomes a reality; as the scree ends and the boulders are overcome, Gilman’s Point is reached…

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In the end it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years. –Abraham Lincoln

So Gilman’s Point (18,652 feet) is a legitimate summit, as is Stella’s Point (18,885 feet), however, just a few short feet (OK, about 500 feet, and with severely decreased oxygen levels) away is Uhuru Peak – the real, true Rooftop of Africa and the ultimate goal – I’m not going to lie, the last hour wasn’t easy, but was made infinitely better by the glacier view.  Looking out over the clouds is surreal and being surrounded by volcanic cones nearly overwhelming, but the focus to attain our goal remained (despite the oxygen-deprivation, sleep-deprivation and overall exhaustion!!).  After over eight hours of hiking, straight up, in mostly dark, we reached the highest peak…

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Yes, that’s me, celebrating the only way I know how – by displaying the garnet & black!!

 

Life is either a daring adventure…or nothing at all – Helen Keller

So six years ago my mother decided (after getting her Medicare card in the mail) that life was too short to just sit back and make a bucket list – it was time each and every day to live that bucket list.  So she climbed a mountain, with no experience, with no expectations, but simply because she needed to try and do it.  After she climbed Kilimanjaro, I admit that although I was unbelievably impressed, I didn’t really understand what drove her to do it.  Later that year I joined her in climbing a mountain (Machu Picchu)…and have done so every year since then.  Climbing the physical mountain is an accomplishment and our ultimate goal, but overcoming the physical challenge is so much more than that – even though I love our trips together and the days we spend on the trail, I enjoy even more the hours spent in the stairwells and trails (modest inclines that they may be) preparing for each trip.  The challenge my mother undertook to conquer the World’s Highest Free Standing Mountain was not just a jump-start to a bucket list, but a new progression of a mother/daughter bond that will only continue to grow in the years to come.

Well Done…

As I was descending and had reached the forest once again, I passed a Tanzanian guide with two very well-groomed (recently showered) hikers – as he passed, we greeted each other with the traditional Swahili “Jambo” (hello) – he then asked “So you climbed the mountain?” to which I replied “Yes, yes I did.”  He then asked “did you make it to the top?” and I replied “yes, yes I did” – there was a pause, and I heard him quietly say “Well done” – those two words filled me with so much pride and a sense of accomplishment I will never forget.  Well done – yes, yes indeed.