A Bike Ride around Lucca, Italy

After our morning in Pisa, we headed to the walled city of Lucca for lunch and to explore. Located between Pisa and Montecatini, Lucca was a perfect stop to break up the hour drive. We easily found paid parking just outside the walled city. We first stopped for lunch and wine at a restaurant we found wandering the town called Bar Lippi.

After lunch, we wandered the interior of the city for a little until we found on the 12th century Roman Catholic Church the San Michele de Foro. The marble exterior made it one of the prettiest churches of our trip! Still on the piazza San Michele we  stumbled upon extra-virgin olive oil tastings. We tried various olive oils from around the region and realized we have no clue how to judge olive oils!

Next we went to a bike shop to rent bikes for a few hours. We passed multiple shops on our explorations and they all had the same cost (2.50 euros/hour) so we chose the one closest to our car. From there we rode through the city towards the wall, then up the least steep ramp we could find until we were on top of the wall.

Walls were built around the city three times before the Renaissance walls we see today, with the first wall built in Roman times when Lucca was a Roman Colony in 180 BC.  The Renaissance walls were under construction from 1545-1650, taking over a century to complete. The Republic of Lucca wanted to create a better defense, fearing the expansion of the powerful Medici family in Florence.

Along the circumference of the wall there is a wide path for bikers, walkers and pedicabs alike! Luckily we brought water bottles to stay hydrated and there were water spouts to get refreshing refills. The distance around the walls is only 2.6 miles (or 4.2km), with all our meandering and photo breaks we returned the bikes after a little more than an hour. With our limited time it was a great way to see as much of Lucca as possible.

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Traveling Misadventures: Racing Through the Airport

We absolutely love traveling but sometimes things just don’t go as planned. One of our traveling misadventures happened when flying to Hartford, Connecticut for our cousin’s wedding. Kim left from Columbus and I left from Indianapolis to get on the same connecting flight in Charlotte, North Carolina. We both made it through security just fine but that’s where our luck stopped…

We didn’t have a very long layovers to make our connections in Charlotte and my initial flight was continually getting delayed! When I finally boarded in Cincinnati, they gate checked everyone’s  large carryon bags since there wasn’t much overhead space. By the time we landed in Charlotte my second flight was already boarding! Naturally I was in the back of the plane and one of the last ones off, studying a map of Charlotte Airport while I waited. Next I had to wait even longer to get my gate checked bag!

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Once I finally got my bag I did the only thing I could, I ran! The plane didn’t even land at a gate; we deplaned outside of the airport so first I had to run inside! Once inside it was a full on sprint (with multiple slowdowns questioning if it was worth it) to the opposite end of the airport. While sprinting I unknowingly dropped my sunglasses out of my bag. I had heard a sound when they dropped but didn’t see anything when I turned to see what the sound was. As I continue sprinting along a young guy comes running up to me with my sunglasses, my hero! He must have run pretty far before catching up to me. With no time to stop, since I heard the final boarding call for my flight over the PA, it was essentially a baton hand off!

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The texts I sent to Kim after I made my connection!

I finally made it to the gate, completely out of breath, huffing and puffing asking if I made it. The flight attendant definitely looked at me like I was crazy just like “Yeah, go on aboard”… This was a very large airplane and practically every seat was occupied when I got on, all eyes staring at me since it seems they had held the plane for me. My seat was naturally in the very back of the plane so I walked through all of those people flushed and gasping to catch my breath. I realized then that Kim wasn’t there… from a text on my phone I learned that she had been sitting on her plane not taking off for about an hour before deciding to catch a plane the next morning since she would surely miss this connecting flight. I sent her a few quick text message updates before all phones needed to be turned off. So after all that I made it to Hartford!

There are a lot of fun and exciting aspects of travelling. We only take pictures of the gorgeous views and other worldly experiences but every now and then the journey can have a few bumps in the road!

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A Morning in Pisa, Italy

Driving from Montecatini, we arrived in Pisa around 8 am, parking near the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Square of Miracles, in a fairly empty paid parking lot. We ordered tickets to all the attractions we wanted to see ahead of time and had an 8:45am time slot to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After taking the essential holding up the tower photos, we learned we had to put our bags in a free locker storage before queuing up at the tower.


Climbing the winding staircase up the Leaning Tower of Pisa was definitely an experience! The tower is slanted 5 degrees and the marble staircase is slippery and worn down. My arms got sore bracing myself in case I fell! While my reaction to the tilt may have been a little melodramatic, be sure to wear shoes with some traction to ease your climb. The view from the top was definitely worth the stressful ascent. There are two different levels you can walk around, the top one has bells that chime very loudly in your ear throughout the day!

After our descent, we grabbed our stowed belongings and headed to McDonald’s for a coffee and bathroom break. Keep your receipts to use the restroom for free or else it costs 0.50 € to relieve yourself before the next leg of your day.

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Visiting the Baptistery was next on our list. Dedicated to John the Baptist, the Baptistery was enormous with two levels to explore. After a while a worker went to the baptismal font and everyone went quiet. The man sang various notes letting us hear the fantastic acoustics the Baptistery had to offer.

Our next stop on the Piazza dei Miracoli was the Cathedral of Pisa. Construction on the Cathedral began around 1063, originally a simple cathedral, it evolved through time to the enormous masterpiece it is today. While admission to the Cathedral is free, unlike most of the other attractions on the Square of Miracles, you still need a ticket to enter. Also note that your shoulders have to be covered to enter the Cathedral or else you get to wear a very attractive covering similar to the ones we wore in Milan!

The last two places we visited on the square go hand in hand, the Camposanto Monumentale and the Sinopie Museum. The Camposanto is said to have been built on top of a shipload of holy soil brought from Golgotha (where Christ was crucified) during the Crusades. The Camposanto is a cemetary which served as the final resting place of Pisa’s elite beginning in the 12th century. The walls were lined with elaborate frescos that were almost nearly destroyed by a bombing raid in World War II. Today restoration is underway with the underlying prep layers of the frescoes, called sinopia, displayed in the Sinopie Museum.

With our early start and buying all our tickets ahead of time, it took us just over half the day to see all these historical attractions. When we arrived in the morning we had the Square almost to ourselves, however as we were leaving the Square was packed with people and lines out the doors to buy tickets! If you want some time to enjoy the Square of Miracles without the crowd be sure to go early! While there were other things we could do on the Square of Miracles, we headed back to the car to spend the rest of our afternoon in Lucca!

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An Evening Visit to Montecatini Alto

Throughout our week in Tuscany, the city of Montecatini served as our home base. After our drive from Milan, we dropped off our bags at our hotel in Montecatini Terme located in the valley of Montecatini and headed out to explore. Just down the street we found the Funicolare to take us up to the hilltop medieval city of Montecatini Alto. Once at the top we paused for a photo op of Montecatini Terme below.

After taking in the view, we began to wander the cobblestone streets until we found the Tower of the Carmine, one of the six standing towers that remain of the original twenty-five towers that existed during medieval times. It is unknown when exactly this tower was built but it predates the seige of Montecatini Alto by the Florentine troops under Grand Duke Cosimo dei Medici in 1554.

After a little more exploring we found two churches very close together: Chiesa dei Santi Jacopo e Filippo and Chiesa di San Pietro. Chiesa dei Santi Jacopo e Filippo was originally built in 1296, however it was almost completely rebuilt in the baroque style in 1764. Chiesa di San Pietro dates back to the 11th century and underwent multiple renovations to become what you can see today.

We headed to the main square for some souvenir shopping and a dinner break. Not surprisingly, we had another round of pizza and pasta accompanying it with our new Italian drink of choice, Aperol Spritz! Spritz is a mixture of Aperol, an Italian apéritif, Prosecco white wine and soda water. Rounding out our meal we headed to the gelateria on the opposite end of the square.

After dinner we headed back towards the Funicolare, stopping for one last view of the lit up city below. For two different views of the city we went up when the sun was still shining then headed back down the mountain after the sun set and I definitely recommend timing your visit this way too! Overall a visit to Montecatini Alto was a leisurely way to unwind to start off our Tuscan adventure. We headed back to our hotel to rest up before heading to Pisa in the morning!

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One day in Milan, Italy

IMG_4469After our overnight flight, we arrived not particularly well rested at the Milan Malpensa Airport around 9 am. Running on solely adrenaline, we caught the first train into Milan!

Our first stop of the day was at the medieval Sforzesco Castle. Built in 1360s, the castle changed hands many times throughout its long history being occupied both by the French as well as the Spanish. Currently the castle houses multiple art museums but as we were pressed for time we only explored the grounds. My personal favorites were the tall beautiful windows we found to take pictures in!

After we explored the interior of the fortress we meandered through the extensive gardens known as Sempione Park behind it. On the opposite end of the park we found the Arc della Pace or Arch of Peace. Construction for the Arc della Pace began in 1807 under Napoleon’s rule to be named the Arc de Triomphe. After the fall of Napoleon the project was abandoned until it was later renamed the Arc della Pace and completed in 1838.

On our walk towards the Duomo di Milano, we stopped for lunch and some window shopping on the pedestrian street Via Dante. For our first meal in Italy (as with most all our meals in Italy) we opted for pizza and pasta!

The rest of our day we spent in and around the Duomo di Milano. In Italian, duomo means cathedral so most cities we visited had a duomo. There were so many places related to the Duomo that we bought a pass which gave us access to many different areas on the Piazza del Duomo. Our first stop was at the Duomo Museum to see relics from the building of the Duomo including clay models of the statues on the exterior and a large wooden model of the Duomo itself!

After checking into our AirBnb and a quick refresh, we headed back out to see the interior of the Duomo. Shoulders and knees have to be covered or else you get to wear very attractive kimonos as seen below. There was a mass underway as we walked around to see the beautiful interior. Our pass also got us underneath the cathedral to an archelogical site. The cathedral was built over top many older buildings including a baptistry, burial grounds and an older church called Santa Tecla. You could see what was left from the pattern on the floor of the ruins plus artifacts found in those areas.

My absolute favorite part of our day in Milan was climbing to the rooftop of the Duomo di Milano. In hindsight, after climbing the 170 steps to the top, it may have been worth the additional 2 euros to take the lift but the views might not have been quite as sweet!  There were two levels to explore and the floor was all marble so shoes with traction would have been much better than the flip flops I had on! We were on the rooftops right before closing so the crowds were not as thick as they looked during the day.

As a reward for our exercise we had what would be the first of many gelato treats on our trip through Italy. We devoured our snack on the Piazza del Duomo before heading to our AirBnb to rest up before the next leg of our journey to Montecatini!

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Trying our Hand at Tejo, Colombia’s National Sport

On our first morning in Colombia, we did a walking tour of Bogota’s Candelaria district seeing the Plaza de Bolivar, the Botero Museum and the Gold Museum. After a busy morning exploring the streets of Bogota, we took a much-needed break at a local bar. We relaxed, drank some local beer and played a traditional Colombian sport called Tejo.

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Tejo reminded us of cornhole, a game we play at home in the in the midwest except with more of a bang! The object of the game is to throw a 1.5lb metal weight at a muddy inclined target with a metal ring in the center. Players take turns trying to hit the center of the target. What makes the game exciting is the small packets of gunpowder lining the metal ring. The gunpowder ignites on impact creating a loud explosion!

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Scoring is easy. The person who’s disc lands closest to the center gets one point, if you explode gunpowder you get 3 points and if your disc lands within the gunpowder ring you get 6 points. If you miraculously do all three of the above, you get 9 points!

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The game dates back over 450 years ago, when indigenous warriors would compete to marry a woman from the opposing tribe! We didn’t have quite the same stakes on our game, simply bragging rights. By the time we finished playing our hands were covered in mud. The game was fun, full of excitement and gave us a taste of traditional Colombia.

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Visiting the World of Chocolate Museum and Café

Situated in a tiny strip in Orlando, Florida, the World of Chocolate Museum and Café is much bigger than it appears from the outside. Walking through the door you immediately spot a display filled with delicious looking chocolates and candies! While you could just hang out in the café, we decided to tour the chocolate museum as well. The regular price for the tour is $17 a person, but we found a groupon that made it $10 a person!

The tour began with a brief history of chocolate starting from when it was first used by the ancient Aztecs as currency. Through the decades, chocolate uses evolved from a spiced drink for the natives to the sweet chocolate we know today. The tour takes you through the history and even lets you try samples of what the Aztecs drinks were probably like. Spoiler alert, not sweet at all! Don’t try to drink your sample in one swig, try a small sip first!

Our tour guide led us through a temperature controlled room with solid chocolate sculptures of monuments around the world. Two men in Austria made all of the sculptures, each of them taking about four months! Monuments included the Taj Mahal (made of all white chocolate), the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and 22 more. The heaviest sculpture is the Great Wall of China, weighing in at over 400lbs!

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The last part of the museum tour was a chocolate tasting where we got to try chocolates from around the world. The chocolate ranged from sweet to bitter with a bacon flavored mixed in the middle!

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After our tour we also did a wine and chocolate pairing. We got 3 different wines with three chocolate truffles. We learned to take a sip of wine first to get the taste in our mouths, take a bite of the truffle then immediately sip some wine to mix the flavors. They were delicious!

While we didn’t know about the World of Chocolate Museum and Cafe before heading to Orlando, the unique experience is one we’re glad we didn’t miss!

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Model School & Site Announcement 

After a few weeks of lessons at the training center about teaching strategies and classroom management, we had our first chance to try them out in the classroom! For 3 weeks, we taught in the Peace Corps Model School, where middle and high schoolers from around the community voluntarily come to take extra classes, held at a local high school.

I was in the 12th grade cluster, along with 3 other trainees. Our classes were focused around math and science; I taught geometry. Though we could use the national curriculum as a guide, coming up with a unit plan was a challenge because we heard that the ability levels of our students would vary. I decided to cover finding the perimeters and areas of several different polygons and found that I had a wide range of ability – some of my students did very well in my class; for many, the lessons were appropriate; but some struggled with the content. I could tell that they had been exposed to it before because they remembered many of the formulas though not always for the correct shape.

 

 

In addition to our math and science classes, we also had a few days for special topics. The first was Youth Sexual Reproductive Health Day, where we discussed anatomy, sex & pregnancy, menstruation and family planning – topics that are not covered in the Liberian curriculum so many of the students had never been exposed to them. We also had a day devoted to Malaria, which is a big issue in Liberia. We taught about the biology of malaria and how it is transmitted (a parasite that enters the blood via mosquito bites) and how it is spread (by mosquitos biting someone who has malaria and then biting someone else and passing it on). We also talked about prevention methods, the higher risk that pregnant women face and the economics of malaria (it’s much more cost effective to sleep under a mosquito net at night than have to pay for treatment when you get malaria!).

We ended model school with a big closing ceremony, including grades 7 through 12. Students from all different grades spoke during the program and the top students from each class were recognized, as well as the top students for all of model school. And then all of the students that participated received certificates and lunch.

Model school was my first time teaching in a high school classroom and it was not without its challenges! A couple that I never even thought of were having overcrowded classrooms (which was not as significant in 12th grade as some of the other classes) and the glare from the sun on the chalkboard (no electricity so all the light is from sunlight coming in through the window). Another challenge was communicating clearly – though the students speak English, they are not used to my accent and speak Liberian English which is very very different from American English! Plus there were others that I know would happen anywhere – cheating on assignments (they call it “spying” here) and dealing with disruptive students.

Despite the challenges, model school was rewarding too – it was great to get to know my students and see them learning new concepts and succeeding in my class, especially the top students being recognized at the closing ceremony. I also got to help prepare the students who were speaking at the ceremony, including one of my 12th graders!

With the end of model school, came our site announcements! I will be headed to Montserrado County, to a community not far from Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia. We are wrapping up PST now and all of us trainees will be headed off to our new homes this Saturday!

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Step Right Up to the Ringling Museum

A week before the Ringling Bros Circus performed their last show, we made a visit to the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida! The Ringling estate is made up of three main sections, the Circus Museum, Ca d’Zan and the Museum of Art. The last living Ringling brother, John Ringling and his wife Mable owned the entire 66-acre estate and bequeathed it to the state of Florida upon his death. The five Ringling brothers created the circus empire comprised of a 100 rail-car caravan, which crossed the country each season.

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Admission to the estate is $25 for adults but $5 for students so be sure to bring your student id if you have one! The first building you will come to is the Tibbals Learning Center. The center is home to a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus combined shows. Howard Tibbals created all the miniatures starting in his Tennessee basement in 1963. The 3,800 square foot display showcases all aspects of the circus, from unloading the trains to the kitchen tents to the main event in the Big Top! Here we learned the three main sections of the circus that the public sees: the sideshow tent featuring acts like the bearded lady and conjoined twins, the menagerie filled with exotic animals, and the Big Top where the top performers and acts could be viewed!


Next to the expansive model was an interactive room. We tried our hand at tightrope walking to press a button for applause on the other side. I attempted to balance on a very still horse’s back, and fit my 6 ft frame into a tiny clown car! Along with the interactive areas there was also a small theater with circus acts through the ages playing.


Next door to the Tibbals Learning Center is the original Circus Museum, where we arrived just in time to take a guided tour. The museum houses the railroad car fit for the “King of the Circus” aka John Ringling. The railroad car, known as the Wisconsin, has various compartments solely for John and Mable Ringling, including a small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and large sitting area. Also in this area, volunteer wood carvers restore beautifully carved parade wagons and large handcrafted animals. The volunteers only work one morning a week, so the camel we saw in progress has been under construction for the past seven years!


After seeing the thrills of the circus, we wandered the estate to see more of John and Mable’s home, the Ca d’Zan. Ca d’Zan translates as “House of John” in the old Venetian language. Situated on the edge of Sarasota Bay, the mansion is designed in the Venetian Gothic style, it looks very similar to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy! At an extra cost, tours are offered of the interior of the Ca d’Zan, but we were satisfied exploring the exterior, including Mable’s Ringling Rose Garden, the oldest rose garden in Florida!


The last area on the estate that we visited was the Museum of Art. In 1925, John and Mable hired an architect to build a museum on the property to house their ever-expanding collection of art. The museum offers docent tours throughout the day included in the price of admission. Far from being art connoisseurs ourselves, we tagged along on a docent tour to learn the history behind a few of the paintings before exploring on our own.

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Until we realized how much the Ringling had to offer, we never imagined we would spend so much time there – we were there most of the day and we didn’t even see everything!

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Weekend Trip to Monrovia, Liberia

A few weeks ago, our training group took our first trip to Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia! Here our some highlights from our three days there…

The Ducor Hotel – on our first day in Monrovia, we visited the Ducor Hotel. Once one of West Africa’s finest luxury hotels, it had been abandoned during Liberia’s civil war. We had the opportunity to explore it and climb to the top. Wandering around the hotel was eerie and dark (no electricity). And we had to make sure to watch our step – there were many holes in the floors and unstable spots, none of which were marked. We also saw plenty of graffiti in the rooms.

At the top, we climbed out of a small window right near the edge of the building (no railing!) to get to the roof. From there we could see the whole city and a view of the Atlantic Ocean!

 

Waterside Market – since arriving in Liberia, we’ve asked many many questions about if we are able to get this or that here, and the most common answer is “you could probably find it in Monrovia.” We finally got to see the market that we’d been hearing about! Unfortunately, it was raining the second day so we didn’t end up exploring as much as we would have liked, but I did buy some lappa (colorful African fabric) and we got to check out the supermarket where we’ll have the best chance of finding things from home.

Lappa store at Waterside

So many lappa to choose from!

The American Food – one of the highlights on the trip was all of the food we could get in Monrovia! I had pizza (twice!), a cheeseburger, chicken fingers, pad thai, donuts and fancy coffee drinks to name a few – all things that I hadn’t had in the 5 weeks since arriving in Liberia! While it was definitely nice to have some comfort foods from home, it’s something that will be hard to do often because it was pretty expensive compared to the Liberian foods we’ve been eating in Kakata.

Dipping my toes in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – Monrovia is on the coast, the ocean was just a few blocks from the Peace Corps office! We also went to a bar on the beach one of the nights we were in town.

View from the Peace Corps office

Navigating the taxi system – one of the most important parts of the trip was learning about the local taxi system. We learned the difference between chartering a car (calling a driver and paying for the whole car) and flagging a car down on the street (where you will likely pile in with 5 other strangers). We also learned the many different hand signals to use when flagging a car, as it will vary depending on where you are going.

And finally, we had to find our way around Red Light parking in order to get home to Kakata. Red Light is one of a few “parkings” on the outskirts of town, where you are able to get a taxi to travel to another city (the parking you want depends on where you are trying to go – for the site visit a few weeks ago, we left from a different parking). Four of us traveled together, chartering our own car to get to Red Light (which is much more expensive than flagging down a car, but we didn’t want to get separated!) and then finding a taxi once we got there. The traffic was crazy – what was maybe a 10 mile drive took more than an hour! But our driver had sent someone ahead (he could walk faster than we could drive) to get a car to Kakata for us. But we had to be clear that we did not want to charter the car, so the 4 of us piled in the back and a Liberian man sat in the front passenger seat. The car is not full until there are 4 passengers in the back and 2 in the front. So throughout the drive home, whenever we’d pass a town our driver would slow down, honk his horn and hold 1 finger out the window, signaling that there was one seat available and eventually we picked up another passenger. We made it back to Kakata safe and sound!

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