Nicaragua: My First Love

After five years of globe-trotting, I finally made it back to visit my first love; the country which started me on my journey: Nicaragua. Life in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes had really changed in some ways, but in most it was exactly as I remembered. I was quite pleased to find there were still mango slices on every corner, the majestic volcanoes still give you a slight sense of impending doom, the sand on the beach still gives 2nd degree burns on your feet, and the rum is still magnificent. Ahh Nica – how I’ve missed you. Despite your mosquitoes, your poorly mannered young men, and your lack of cuisine, you still hold the spot at the top of my list. It was good to be back.

When I found myself with three weeks to fill before returning to a snow-filled Alaska, it wasn’t a hard decision to pop down for a visit. My friend Rachel, who also was confronted with snow-filled Alaska (and rain-filled Oregon) decided to join. Some traveling buddies from Mexico were still on the road and were keen to tag along as well – so off we went.

We spent the first week Doris’s house. Doris and her family live in Tepeyac, a little, rural suburb of Granada. Doris and I became friends when I first moved to Nicaragua, and have stayed in touch over the years. It was great to visit and catch up. The kids were certainly a handful (where does all of that energy come from??) but they did make it interesting and kick-started Rachel’s Spanish.

Around Tepeyac

Escuela Juan Diego

Rachel made a friend (kind of)

Picking avocados was a family event

Taking a walk

After stops in Laguna de Apoyo and Ometepe, we were off to Leon. Other than everyone accepting US Dollars (weird, right?) and some of my favorite places having closed down (Chameleon, Siesta Perdida) it was pretty much the same. Veronie and Stijn, the delightful Dutchies who own Via Via were right where I left them, though Veronie does now have a one-year-old on her hip. When she first told me Sebastian was napping, I asked her if she had a new puppy (which was thankfully met with laughter). And Harrie, tour operator extraordinaire, was never far off and frequently popped in. It was great to visit.

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We took a self-guided tour of Volcano Telica while in Leon – I used to guide treks and was pretty confident I still knew the way. Turns out the trail has greatly changed due to eruptions since I’ve visited (locals confirmed!), so we did get slightly lost in cornfields. Oops. But it was an adventure! Even though Telica was too smokey to see lava, it was just as amazing as I remembered. And – we saw tons of wildlife on the way down after dark, including two tarantulas and a scorpion.

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After Leon followed an obligatory trip to Las Penitas (the beach!!), then Matagalpa before beginning our trip south to Rio San Juan. We spent almost a week in the jungle along the border of Costa Rica which was absolutely stunning. We spent a few nights in a very remote (like, a two-hour boat ride from the closest town) eco lodge in the middle of the jungle where macaws flew overhead, sloths clung to trees and poisonous frogs were underfoot. It was magical.

The jungle

How to make chocolate

Favorite shots

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It was over as quickly as it started, and I suddenly found myself back in freezing Pennsylvania. And after two feet of snow, canceled flights, sprinting through airports, a little mechanical trouble at 5,000 feet, and two more feet of snow, I’m currently settling into a slowly-thawing Alaska (though it is doing more snowing as I sit here typing this). And once the snow melts just a little bit more (or my friends come back to town, whichever happens first) I’ll report back with more adventures. Stay tuned!

Adios Mexico!

Santa’s coming! Santa! I know him! And that means my time in Mexico is up – time to go home. The timing is appropriate, because it will take a Christmas miracle to squeeze all of my things into my backpack…but I’m channeling my inner elf and using my Tetris skills in the present-packing process. So far so good, as I did manage to curl a giant sombrero I bought as a gift into my backpack, which I consider a major win…otherwise I would have had to wear it throughout the airport. Now, fingers crossed that all of the tequila, dried chilis, and borderline-ridiculous amounts of pottery make it with me through customs. Brushing up on my charming skills in Spanish 🙂

In other news – I hit a major milestone in my Mexican stay (and in life) last week – in my group salsa class on Thursday, not only was I invited to cross the invisible line dividing the room to join the advanced side…but the teacher asked me to teach my partner the move that we were doing – TWICE. I almost squealed. Me – the square-hipped gringa – dancing salsa. Teaching salsa. HA.

The next day in my private class, the teacher decided it was time for me to experience new types of dance. We’ve been working on regular Salsa (Salsa en Linea), Cuban Salsa, Cumbia, and Bachata. But now we’ve started the Cha Cha Cha and Zouk – which basically seems to be the smoother, Brazilian version of Bachata. It has lots of gliding cross-bodies and hair-swinging twirls. And it is really pretty, but involves a level of grace and suave which I don’t really possess – meaning each move generally involves me miserably failing and laughing with the teacher about how not to do it. But it’s fun all the same.

**Note: anyone in San Miguel and interested in Salsa (or any type of Latin dance) should check out Fernando’s classes at Sabor y Ritmo – he is amazing!**

I’m sad to finish my classes – tomorrow is my last day! But I’m very excited to go home. Get ready guys – only two more sleeps!!! And to everyone else – Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah! The next post will be coming to you from snowy Pennsylvania.

Here are some photos from the past week. Enjoy!

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I loved watching these ladies and their babies – they were simply adorable.

Downtown San Miguel

Practicing my nighttime photography 🙂

Updates from San Miguel

Time just seems to slip by in the Mexican hills of Guanajuato. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now the holiday season is here. In San Miguel, a massive “tree” is being set up and decorated, pop-up poinsettia markets fill empty courtyards, and the central markets are filled with flashing strings of lights, nativity scenes, and small electronic toys which play a single Christmas classic on repeat all day, every day. ‘Tis the season. Here’s what I’ve been up to as the seasons change.

Tequila and Guadalajara

When Jennifer, a friend from Oaxaca, came up to visit, one of the top items on our list was to visit the town of Tequila in the neighboring state of Jalisco. All “official” tequila throughout the world comes from this small town, and we were looking forward to touring a tequila factory and, obviously, the taste test. The tour did not disappoint. And while we tasted some delicious tequilas, my favorite still remains the one given to me by a Frenchie in Tulum, which his neighbor brewed in a bathtub in his basement. 🙂

Tequila was about a two-hour drive outside of Guadalajara, a bustling city complete with a metro. We enjoyed strolling through the streets, tasting the local food, and hanging out in Oasis, the historic salsa bar which provided us with hours of entertaining people watching.

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Exploring the City

One of my favorite past times in San Miguel is to stroll through the narrow, cobblestone streets and take in the beautiful scenery and do some excellent people watching. The colors of the buildings, the abundant greenery, and the antique VW Beetles are stunning. The hills are totally worth the views.

Thanksgiving

I spent Thanksgiving at a ranch just outside of San Miguel with a group of American expats, who have retired to San Miguel mostly to pursue art. We had all of the key elements – good food, good wine, good friends. The weather was perfect and we ate outside, enjoying the sunset and the sound of howling coyotes after dinner. I even made it home in time to watch the Steelers win their game!

Salsa Classes

I’ve been taking daily group salsa classes which have quickly become one of my favorite parts of San Miguel. Last week, I also started taking a few private classes which I will continue throughout my time here. The teacher is phenomenal – he’s even managed to teach this white girl how to move her hips! Well…sort of. I have no hope of ever advancing beyond my “basic” level in class…but I can dance salsa, bachata, and cumbia without embarrassing myself…which I consider a win. And it is so fun! I love it.

Post-Mexico Planning

As usual, I need a plan to stay sane. I’ve decided to return to Alaska this summer, which means I needed to fill my time until mid-March. After going home for for the holidays (Yay!) I will be making stops in Lancaster, Cleveland, Memphis, and Nicaragua to visit friends and soak up some sun before returning to rainy Cordova. I’ve spent the past week working out logistics and buying plane tickets while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat – man…it is SO GOOD. I guess you could say I’ve become obsessed. Lin-Manuel Miranda – you’re a genius.

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Enjoy this photo of me with my new friend – he’s kind of an ass, but he has cool glasses!

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San Miguel de Allende

A quaint, little colonial town nestled in the mountains north of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is where I’ve decided to hang out for the next six weeks. The colorful and historic buildings which line the cobblestone streets are some of the most photogenic I’ve seen anywhere, the food is tasty, and the people are friendly.

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Despite warnings from other travelers, it is still much colder than I expected. To those of you – feel free to say “I told you so.” Starting all the way back with my road trip in Arizona, if there is one takeaway from this trip, it is the effects of altitude. San Miguel de Allende sits around 6,500 feet, making me wish I had brought more than a thin, zip-up hoodie. But what it lacks in heat, it certainly makes up for in charm.

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I spend my days strolling through the many markets, painting, and practicing my photography. Slowly but surely, I am learning how to use my fancy, new camera. I have also started taking dance classes which focus mainly on salsa and bachata, where I am not the worst person in the class – so I have deemed them a success. I know I won’t ever cross the invisible line down the middle of the room from the basic side to join the advanced, but that’s ok. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s something that’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

I spent a day exploring the nearby botanical gardens – simply stunning. Filled predominantly with rare types of cacti and succulents, it is home to many desert plants and animals – though I only saw insects (and spiders!)

My favorite plant was the round cactus colloquially referred to as silla de la suegra aka Mother-in-law’s Chair.

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The butterflies were pretty amazing. They are also tricky to photograph, so when one is actually in focus, it’s pretty exciting!

And finally, there’s this plant which looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. It took me back to the 1990’s when I loved to play with koosh balls 🙂

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I’ll be in San Miguel until returning home for Christmas, so there’s lots of time for more adventures in this city. Stay tuned!

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Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

As I sit on the couch in my hotel waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport, I am a bit of a hot mess. There are faint smudges of white face paint near my ear which I cannot seem to get off, tiny pieces of glitter dusting virtually everything I own (including myself), and my liver is silently waging a protest inside my body – and rightly so. I’ve got my sunglasses on and am clutching my water bottle, relying on it to turn me back into a human being. Despite this, I can’t seem to stop smiling as as I peruse my photos and videos from the past few days. The festivals of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca fit easily into a list of the top five things I’ve ever done in my life. Simply phenomenal.

What is Day of the Dead?

Called Dia de los Muertos in Spanish, it is believed that during this time of the year the barrier that separates the living from the dead is the most permeable, meaning many spirits come back to visit their families. Every house and every business creates an alter to welcome back their loved ones. Alters contain a picture of the person, lots of food, mezcal, and anything else the person loved (like a special candy, cigarettes, etc.). They also contain both incense and candles which elevates prayers of the living. It is very important to build an alter for a specific person instead of a general alter to the dead, otherwise you could invite back a bad or lost soul. Below are some various alters seen around the city.

Though the actual Days of the Dead are on November 1 and 2, a lot of the festivities begin at least a week in advance. The streets and town center fill with constant parades, street performers and face painters. During the beginning of the week, I filled lots of time simply wandering around – Day of the Dead leads to some top-notch people watching.

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October 31st – Halloween

This is the day that the celebrations really kicked it into high gear. I got my face painted in the market and bought a skeleton costume to match, and went out with some friends to Panteon General – the large, downtown cemetery which was the epicenter for that night’s festivities. Everyone was dressed up – most people with a skull painted on their face. Some people really went all out with stunning dresses and and beautifully drawn faces modeled after Catrina, the famous skeleton symbol of the holiday. Some people wandered around the candle-lit cemetery, admiring both the tombs and the costumes of others. Other people sat in groups around their loved one’s grave while eating, drinking, and celebrating life.

Outside of the cemetery was a carnival, complete with rides and games. Having lost the rest of our group, Jennifer and I decided to try out the teacups. We asked the ride attendant to take our photo as we spun around at high speed, shrieking with delight. Afterwards, we discovered she accidentally took a video, capturing the slow-moving cup spinning around at a pace appropriate for a five year-old. This certainly contradicted our memories of the adrenaline-filled, fast-paced ride, but it did provide us with lots of laughs as we watched it over and over in the taxi home.

November 1st – All Saint’s Day

Day two. Today there was less activity during the day as people stayed home with their families and cooked delicious meals. We spent the day wandering around the city and checking out the craft expos that were set up outside of the cathedral. We had lost track of time, and suddenly the sun began to set and the streets came to life with boys walking on stilts and dancing to the beats of the two parades going on one block apart. After watching them for a bit, we raced home to paint our faces and grab a snack before heading back out to the city center to see what was happening. A few people were going on a tour to a different cemetery about a 30-minute drive outside of the city, but we had opted to stay downtown since there seemed to be so much happening in the streets.

As we walked through the central park with our plastic cups of Corona, we noticed a large parade coming towards us – the brass band blasting the tune and the traditionally dressed girls spinning and dancing. We watched for a little, but soon we were dancing in the parade, too, marching through the streets and twirling to the music. People hung from balconies and lined the sidewalks to cheer and take pictures as we danced along. Dancing in the parade was the highlight of the festivities for me. The parade eventually ended and we made our way back downtown to watch the fantastic street performers – everything from flaming hula hoops to breakdancing.

November 2nd – All Soul’s Day

Day three. After a slow start to the day, we made our way back to the cathedral to see what we could see. The sun was brutal, so we found a rooftop to grab a drink and watch the town from a shady deck with a nice breeze. After a relaxing afternoon, we went back home to get ready. We decided not to paint our faces, but one girl appeared with tubes of glitter and we couldn’t resist decorating ourselves just a little bit.

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After we were all sparkly, we stumbled across a clown doing stand-up comedy in the park, so we joined in the crowd. As the only foreigners in the group, we got noticed. And as the person closest to the front, I got pulled on stage. With his rapid-fire, slang-filled Spanish, I understood maybe 30% of what the clown was saying…but I got the parts that mattered and looked like I understood more. (Success!) I was concentrating so hard on being able to follow along and make sassy comebacks in Spanish before he could make fun of me, that when he asked me my age I said twenty-nine instead of thirty. Oops. I realized it as the word “twenty” was leaving my mouth but it was too late to correct myself. My friends died of laughter. After a few more jokes with a phallic balloon…he released me from the stage and we were off in search of our next adventure. We spent the remainder of the evening dancing in local pubs where I showed off my lack of salsa skills to all.

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Oaxaca – you sure know how to throw a festival. But it’s a good thing it only happens once a year; ready to spend some quality time in a hammock.

The Magical City of Oaxaca

I was really excited for Oaxaca. What better place to to spend Day of the Dead – Halloween done Mexican style, than Oaxaca. Stay tuned for a Day of the Dead post later this week! Plus, as much as I loved the beach, it didn’t have much culture. There wasn’t even a market nearby – everyone I asked told me that they bought their fruits and veggies in the supermarket. But not in Oaxaca.

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One of the 32 states in Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is known for its mountains, cooler climate, traditional crafts, and of course, its mezcal. There are many indigenous cultures which still remain in Oaxaca, the largest of which is the Zapotecs – the Zapotec Empire was conquered by the Spanish many years ago, but their traditions still live on today. Just outside of the capital of Oaxaca City is Mitla – a key site of the Zapotec Empire. Fun fact about the Zapotecs – they built all of their buildings out of stone blocks without any type of mortar in between because of the high frequency of earthquakes in the area. Should an earthquake hit their town, the buildings would fall but could easily be rebuilt…like Legos!

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I spent the majority of my 8 day trip in Oaxaca City – though small, the city is filled with delicious food and is brimming with Oaxacan culture. Known as the Land of Seven Moles, Oaxacan cuisine is famous around the world for good reason. Though the mole sauces contain only a few ingredients, the labor it takes to prepare one is quite intensive and time-consuming…but they’re delicious. My favorite is the black sauce, called Mole Negro. Oaxaca is also known for their cheese (similar to mozzarella) and for their chocolate, typically used to make a hot chocolate drink.

In large part due to the large indigenous population, Oaxaca is brimming with artisanal crafts – everything from clothing to pottery to jewelry. Particularly in the rural areas, many make their living by crafting products to sell in the market. To see more about some of the locally made goods, check out this post from my friend Shannon who spent six months working with an organization empowering women in their small business endeavors.

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In addition to handicrafts, one of the most popular artisanal products is mezcal – a tequila-like alcohol with a sweet and smokey aftertaste which is a local favorite. Oaxacans have a saying: Para todo mal, mezcal, para todo bien, también! Translation: For everything bad, mezcal, for everything good, too!

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Both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant – a plant which resembles aloe vera. Tequila, however, is strictly made using a variety called blue agave, and it is generally made using machinery. Mezcal is made from any of the other 30 types of agave which have a high enough sugar content to make alcohol (there’s over 200 types of agave in total) and is only made artisanally. Take a drive through the countryside and you’ll quickly see the hills are dotted with little agave farms, usually accompanied by a roadside shack selling their local brews. I visited a mezcal distillery to learn how the mezcal is traditionally made – it was extremely fascinating to see the process!

The Agave. Plants generally need to grow anywhere between 7 and 12 years before they’re ready to be harvested

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Step 1: The agave leaves are placed in this pit of  hot rocks to cook for a few days._mg_6390

Step 2: After the leaves are cooked, they are crushed in this pit, using a horse.

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Step 3: The juice and pulp are separated and left to ferment for few days

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Step 4: The mezcal gets distilled and poured in a basin where it can age.

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According to Oaxacans, it is traditionally mezcal which contains a worm – not tequila. Worms are added to change the flavor of the mezcal – they are also eaten as a bar snack dipped in a special type of seasoned salt. The types mezcal are virtually endless depending on which species of agave is used, the type of barrel which is used to age the mezcal (typically clay or copper) and the length of time for which it ages. And – don’t forget about flavors!

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Next stop: San Miguel de Allende – my home until Christmas.

A Week in Tulum

Tulum was everything I wanted it to be and more. In addition to having zero travel issues for the first time in a long time, Tulum had the pristine beaches with crystal clear water – like something straight out of a dream. The week that I spent here, the majority of my time was spent either laying on the beach or frolicking in the waves.

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I did explore a little bit – only when the beach was too windy. Connected to the public beach is Tulum National Park, which contains ancient Mayan ruins and stories of the once great empire. It was fun to explore and had pretty views…and tons of iguanas!

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One of the highlights of my time in Tulum was a day trip to Sian Ka’an Natural Reserve. Only about 8km outside of Tulum, Sian Ka’an is seeping with wildlife, and is home to the second-largest coral reef in the world. We saw alligators, sea turtles, iguanas, and manatees, in addition to the thousands and thousands of birds. Osprey, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, great blue heron, ibis, and so many others. I began to see why people get into birding – that was really cool! After checking out the birds in the lagoon, we had lunch and headed out to the Caribbean for some top-notch snorkeling. Fun fact of the day: coconut trees aren’t native to the Caribbean – they’re actually an invasive species! Who knew!?!

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The excursions were cool, but I mostly enjoyed hanging around town. My comfortable routine of eating breakfast at the hotel, taking 20 minutes to apply sunscreen to my own back (Do you know how hard this is?) and biking to the beach was the epitome of relaxation. When I got hungry, I would bike into town. My goal was to try a new place each day…but I ended up finding a little French bistro that I adored. The owners are delightful Belgian couple that kept me supplied in delicious food and the smoothest tequila I’ve ever tasted. The tequila comes from their friend’s basement across the street, though, so unfortunately there won’t be any coming home. You guys will just have to take my word for it.

After lunch I’d typically head back to the beach until I was hungry for dinner, when I’d bike back into town. I did manage to try a new dinner place every night – no repeats. The first night, I almost ended up in tears after dousing my taco with a salsa that was wayyyy hotter than expected. But I got it together just in time and only ended up with some hiccups. On the next night, I learned that Tulum loves happy hour – for the first (but not the last) time, I ordered a margarita only to find out that they were on special: two for one! Gotta love vacation!

It was on the bike rides home after dinner that I discovered the truly horrifying part of the city: how many spiders were lying, waiting, all around me. My headlamp was reflected off of each set of eyes, like a small piece of glitter lying in the grass. It looked like someone had just cracked open a piñata over top of the bike path – glitter everywhere. I stayed safely on my bike until reaching the hotel.

Spiders and all, I made it out and onto the airplane. Next up – Oaxaca. Bring on the skulls, parades, and festivities. And – Happy Halloween! 🙂

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Adios, Alaska

Summer is over. Alaska seems to skip what I define as fall – this morning when I got up, it was 27 degrees (F) outside. So, as much as I’ve loved living here, it’s time to migrate south to sunshine and warmer weather.

The past two months were pretty awesome. Here are a few of the things that kept me busy while I was slacking on updating my blog:

Camping

A few nights in McKinley Lake cabin were a great way to spend a vacation…even though it did rain about 10 inches while we were there. That kind of rain really separates gear which claims to be waterproof from gear which is actually waterproof. Meaning that I was pretty wet. It was still a great adventure. We explored an abandoned mine scattered throughout the forest, went over Million Dollar Bridge to the very end of the road, picked lots and lots of blueberries and tried to find some bears.

Glaciers

Sheridan Glacier remains one of my favorite spots around town. Its accessibility and beauty rank it pretty high up on my list. Child’s Glacier was also pretty cool (no pun intended). We took a tour to visit the massive glacier which calves directly into the river, and it was well-worth it!

Exploration

I always start out on the trail, but when something catches my eye, I’m quick to blaze my own trail to go explore. Sometimes makes getting back a little tricky, but it’s always an adventure.

Half Marathon

Training for this has taken up a significant chunk of time outside of work. I successfully ran my trial run last week…so I’m now on the downhill slide until race day. I’m eager to get back to warmer weather so I can run outside instead of on a treadmill – it’s not quite the same as running in the sunshine. D-Day: October 15th. Alaska has really spoiled me with beautiful, scenic runs and fresh air. I can’t wait to see what Arizona has in store.

Northern Lights

They’ve put on an excellent show so far this fall. Generally green but sometimes with hints of purple and pink, they don’t disappoint. One night, the northern lights danced across the sky while otters splashed in bioluminescent water below. That was pretty amazing.

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Salmon, Salmon, Salmon

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat salmon from a restaurant or buy it in a grocery store again. Smoked, baked, fried, or raw. Silver, red or king. It. Is. So. Good. And then you have the various products, like homemade lox and freshly salted fish eggs. Oh man. Not once have I gotten tired of it. And I’m pretty sure I’ll go through withdrawal once I leave. I see it now: Liz and I…searching the menu in a cafe in Arizona…wondering how people eat boring chicken.

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What’s Next?

Though I’m sad to say goodbye to Cordova, I’m ready for new adventures. After a short trip home, Liz and I will meet up in Phoenix for some road tripping, sky diving, and half marathon running through Arizona and Utah. Then: Mexico! The plan is to relax on the beaches of Tulum, celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, then spend a few months in San Miguel de Allende. Stay tuned for new adventures – I promise to be better about updating!