Destiny Part Two; Holidays and Trip Delays!

The problem with running away from home is that…. the problems follow.

Destiny Part Two: Holidays and Trip Delays!

Finally it was Christmas Eve and after a short but busy day at work I was finally ready to leave for Greece. My brother John drove me to the airport, during the drive he he got one last last chance to warn me about the recent protests in Athens. Over the last few weeks he had become obsessed with the riots, and spent a considerable amount of time on putting together a complete timeline of the events. I reminded him that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States, so I think I can survive a few protesters.

Ignoring my comment, he started, “you know why the riots and protests started right?”

Yes, John…I know.

“Well just a few weeks ago on December 6th, a student Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two cops. His death started an immediate rash of demonstrations that rapidly erupted into rioting and violence.  Have you been watching it on the news? Students walked out of classes, buildings in central Athens were burned down, and Molotov cocktails were launched.”
Wow! That’s a nice little Christmas story but you already… Cutting me off he excitedly went on; “and less than two weeks ago the violence escalated when about 4,000 angry students threw firebombs at the riot police. The next day when the students attacked the police again, the riot police fired back tear gas in response.

A couple days later, a large group of demonstrators gathered in peace outside the Parliament building and the police again used tear gas on the crowd. At the same time on the other side of town in a neighborhood called Exarchia, a smaller mob of about a 100 firebombed the police station near where the student was killed. Maybe the two events were staged as the police weren’t prepared for this second attack”, he said shaking his head.


“Then…he went on dramatically, last week the Christmas tree in the main square was ripped down by an angry mob of 150 protestors and at least three reporters were injured by the police. Just yesterday, thousands of protestors marched through the city when…” Seeing the look of utter horror on my face he trailed off and then added,  “oh I’m sure you will be fine.”

“Are you totally insane?” I asked, staring at him. You were just dying to tell that that little story weren’t you?
He switched to a more friendly tone; “Sorry, anyway what time are you getting into Athens?” I promised myself that I wouldn’t let his story get to me, and focused on the trip. Once at O’Hare airport, I hugged him goodbye, hopped out of the car and added. “Oh, I will text you when I get to Athens and let you know if I survived the protests!”
Security and check-in was quite smooth but unfortunately the flight was delayed due to the weather. Not a complete surprise during winter in Chicago,  I checked in with the desk about the delay and they assured me I would get rerouted to Athens if I missed my second flight. However, not sure I would make the third flight to Santorini but I prayed for the best, there was a slim chance I could still make it. After a three hour delay, we finally boarded the Alitalia flight to Milan.  The Christmas Eve flight was uneventful and I wondered what how my family was celebrating at home.

Athens street Art

Eight hours later in Milan’s Malpensa airport , representatives from Alitalia split us up into groups to figure out who was delayed and to where. It was incredibly disorganized, but we were all eventually reissued tickets. While waiting, I called Aegean Airlines to see when the next flight was but they didn’t quite understand what I was asking. I decided to wait until I got to Greece to work through the flight details. It turned out to be a very long wait for the next flight to Athens. Once I got to Athens it didn’t even make sense to set out into an unfamiliar city that late at night; as it was about 11:45pm. I would have to spend Christmas in the airport alone.

After some duty-free shopping and a bite to eat, I decided to camp out on some benches I found in a remote area of the airport until my 6am flight to Santorini. Sitting at the airport alone and tired, the excitement of the past few weeks was replaced with a creeping feeling of depression.  The problem with running away from home or your life is…. the problems follow you. Changing the context of my life, my environment, didn’t..couldn’t change my feelings and thoughts.  I was definitely not over Mark yet, the break up was really bad to say the least, and it dragged on for months. Maybe even a year, before it fell apart completely. I was carrying around these bad feelings like over-stuffed luggage.  I felt like things we had closure but the feelings were still there.  Not sure how to lighten the load or if it was just a matter of time. I fell asleep on my make shift airport bed wondering if Tony or a trip to Greece would really change anything in the long run. 

Next… The Greek Islands; Blue Skies and Wind Swept Beaches

Destiny Part One: Escaping Athens

“Detached, distant, and depressed… holding my breath waiting for something to happen. I think my story is similar to many; you get divorced or out of a bad relationship and it takes some time to get the bad taste out of your mouth and get back on track with your life. I was so bored and unhappy! That’s it I am running away from home. Well, not really but did pack my Swiss army luggage, grabbed my camera and booked a ticket to Greece.”

Escaping Athens:
It was about 6 years ago over the Christmas season that my friends and family decided I was having a  breakdown of sorts. I can understand why, it was shortly after I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years that I announced to my co-workers, friends and family, that on Christmas Eve (which was in three weeks) I was going to Greece with my new boyfriend Antonio! I tried not to let their concerns wear away at my excitement. Who is Antonio and where did you meet him? Over Christmas-who goes on vacation on Christmas? Is he crazy? Are you crazy? As I assured them of my sanity and his, I realized it was crazy but also exciting and scary- at the same time.
“Antonio is an amazing travel photographer; he is totally normal and really nice!” I assured them. The reality was we were barely even dating, after a few dates he had impulsively invited me to tag along on his trip. I hesitated-I didn’t even know if I liked him. I had not even mentioned him to anyone except my best friend Tracy.

The plan was to meet in Santorini; the most romantic island in the world for a week and then spend the second week and New Year’s Eve in Athens. It sounded too amazing to pass up. So I did it-I booked the ticket! It seemed so romantic- spending the holidays with a handsome Italian photographer!

A trip to the Emergency Room:

The weeks went by as the holidays approached. Although it was busy at work, it was so hard to focus! There was so much to do for the trip. I was counting down the days; In just two days on Christmas Eve, I was leaving. Sure there was a nagging thought that things could go horribly wrong- spending two entire weeks with a total stranger, but I managed to block out these negative thoughts and focus on travel plans. Anyway, I was fascinated by Antonio, he had been to over 30 countries and he had a lot of great deal of exciting stories about travels to exotic locations. His photos were amazing and just getting into photography made that especially appealing.

I had not actually seen him since we booked the trip but we texted daily to discuss logistics and details; how to get to into the city by bus, changing money, what to pack, what to do! It was so exciting. He was leaving one day earlier than me on the 23rd because to get the same flight, booked three weeks out was too expensive.  I tried not to worry about traveling alone to an island to meet him. But then during work on the 22nd,  I received a series of strange text messages that sent me reeling into a panicked state.

“I am in the emergency room”; “I am having a heart attack”. Followed by photos…one with his arm hooked up to an IV and the second a partial shot of him in a hospital bed.

I ran into my friend Nicole’s office. I’m going  to Greece alone! Tony’s in the hospital! I think he had a heart attack. It seemed so unbelievable as I said it out loud!

“Isn’t he like 37”,  Nicole asked in disbelief?

The random messages from him continued throughout the day without any real explanation of what was going on. I followed Nicole around all day projecting worst case scenarios. A nagging suspicion kept popping up –was he really was in the hospital or did he make all this up? It was all too much to deal with. After work I spend the evening on the phone with first my Mother and then Tracy. Panic finally drove me to confess the truth of how I actually met him; I don’t even know him that well! He emailed me from an online RSVP for a photography event. I have only gone out with him a few times; maybe he’s  a crazy artist. What if he isn’t even going and I am going to Greece by myself?

Finally late in the evening, Tony texted me to say he was on the “L” headed home. That’s it, no explanation, everything was fine. What about the heart attack I asked? Why didn’t you call me?

Still worried, I told him I’d drive him to the airport in the morning but he said he was fine. I imagined me sitting on a beach in Santorini alone and abandoned. But the next morning he texted me and reported he was getting on the plane and to text when I landed in Greece. Everything’s fine I announced to everyone, false alarm-he’s ok…  I ignored the concerned looks of my friends and family and told myself over and over -this would be an adventure…one way or another.

Next: My romantic night in Santorini turns into a lonely night in the Athens airport.

“Destiny; a Pre-Ordained Course of Events Holding Irresistible Power”

“What is it called when a chance encounter with a total stranger changes your life forever? What does it mean when you have a strong affinity with another? I am still trying to understand the underlying meaning of this story but for now I will assume it’s destiny.”

Meet Me in Santorini

Meet Me in Santorini

It is rare but occasionally a random occurrence turns into such a life altering event that you feel compelled to explain it or write about it.  Years ago I met a someone that changed my life, one of my best friends; Antonio. I don’t mean he was interesting or fun, although he was, I mean meeting Tony opened up a whole new life for me, altered my perception to such a degree that I have been changed forever.  I usually write travel tips and give advice on budget travel; I’m not comfortable writing memoirs but in telling this story I hope to better understand the events that happened, or at least remember them and hopefully remember him.

Next: Escaping Athens

Red Line…Blue Line…What? Chicago’s Public Transportation System

Red Line… Blue line…what? Ask a Chicagoan for directions and your bound to get a number of cryptic responses. Get on the “L” and take the Blue line to the Red line and get off at the “Loop” and just walk over to the “Bean”.



Warm weather, beaches and fun festivals; Summer is the best time to visit Chicago!  Must see for visitors are Millennium Park, Navy Pier, the Jazz Fest and of course the Taste of Chicago. Currently hotels in Chicago are offering a number of discounts and specials to draw visitors to this great city. When deciding on where to stay in Chicago, transportation options and what you want to do while on vacation are important factors to consider. For example, staying out by O’Hare Airport might save some money, but be prepared to take a 30-40 minute train ride into  downtown. But don’t worry with some careful planning and a basic understanding of the transportation system visitors will be able to pick the right location for their visit and check out all of Chicago’s main sights-no stress involved.

The Chicago Transit Authority Bus and “L” System for Tourists

Ask a Chicagoan for directions and you can get a number of cryptic responses. Get on the “L” and take the Blue line to the Red line and get off at the “Loop” or walk over to the “Bean”.  Once you learn the lingo-the system is actually quite easy to follow. The “L” is Chicago slang for the Elevated trains that run North and South to various points in the city. The colors correspond to the lines and its destinations. There are actually 8 different “L” lines, but most tourists will probably only use the Blue Line, the Red Line and the Brown Line trains. The Blue Line starts out on the far North side at O’Hare airport, heads South through the downtown area and ends at Forest Park. The Red Line, which runs from North Chicago starting at Howard through the downtown area and ends in South Chicago at 95th. This line hits both major ball parks: Wrigley Field (Addison exit) and US Cellular Field (Sox-35th exit). The other frequently used line is the Brown Line which runs between Kimball on the North end to the Loop Downtown.

The "L"

The “L”

How to Get to Chicago from Midway or O’Hare Airports

The “L” train is also the cheapest and often fastest option for travel to and from both airports into Chicago. Taking a cab is the most expensive option. Expect to pay $30.00 to $50.00 for a taxi depending on which airport and your final destination. The “L” is the best deal at $2.25 a fare!

From O’Hare, visitors can easily take the Blue line into the city. If you arrive at terminals 1, 2 or 3, look for the signs that say “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” These will take you straight to the “L” station. From airport terminal 5 you will have to take the Airport Transit System (ATS) to Terminal 2, and then simply follow the signs to “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” Travel from O’Hare to Downtown takes about 45 minutes.

For tourists flying into Midway, the Orange Line offers a direct route from Midway into the downtown area of Chicago. Once off the plane or out of baggage claim area, look for the signs labeled to “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” There is also an orange line painted on the ground that will take you directly to the train station by enclosed walkway. The train travels Northbound around the Loop (downtown area) and then heads back South to Midway, passengers will need to transfer depending on their final destination. The trip into the Loop takes about 20-25 minutes. The Orange Line does operate daily and holidays but does not offer overnight service so it is important to check the schedules.

Chicago Bus and ‘L” Passes and Rates

Cost per ride either Bus or “L” is reasonable at $2.25 per single use, if you pay in cash each ride is 2.25.   Transit Card Vending Machines are located in all “L” stations and at the airports and accept both cash and credit. You cannot purchase Fare cards on the actual bus; cash is only accepted.

There are a number of day passes ranging from 1-3o days, that might be a better value if you are using public transit during your whole stay. CTA Pass Machines are located at both Midway and O’Hare airports, the Chicago Cultural Center, and CTA’s Lake, Roosevelt and Adams/Wabash rail stations downtown, they accept cash or credit cards and dispense a variety of passes including 3-Day, 7-Day, and 7-Day CTA pass. These types of passes allow unlimited rides for one person starting at the first usage. Most stations also have an attendant to offer assistance.

Train service on the Blue and the Red lines runs around the clock; including holidays. The Brown Line has limited hours and stops running around Midnight or 1:00am. Visitors should check the hours on the CTA website.

Chicago Bus Tracker for Tourists

To supplement the “L” trains, the Chicago Transit Authority has an extensive network of bus lines available too. Buses are easy to use in Chicago as they typically follow a straight path along one designated street as opposed to some other countries where the bus follows a route. This makes the buses in Chicago easy to use and bus stops are located on almost every main corner in the city. Keep in mind the suburbs have totally different system called “Pace.”

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has a great program accessible to any traveler called the CTA Bus Tracker by logging on to this site online or via mobile phone passengers can view exactly where their bus is and when it is coming. A great tool for those who have to endure waiting for the bus during the grueling Chicago winters.

Another great tool is the CTA Bus Tracker by Text. Users can receive texts with the estimated arrival times for their specific bus. Instructions are now appearing on all posted CTA bus stops. Basically locate the site ID located on the bottom of the CTA sign you are at, then text ctabus [stopID] to 41411 to receive the bus arrival time. Some buses do have limited hours so check the schedules posted on the CTA website. Both bus and “L” line maps can be printed or accessed online making sightseeing in Chicago easy and fun. Check out the CTA website for how to guides and schedule/route information.

Chicago is a world-class city filled with an endless variety of options for fun and entertainment. So whether you are heading over to Navy Pier, Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo or Oak Street Beach, don’t stress-hop on an “L” or a bus for a fun day in a great city.

A Guide to Navigating Dia de los Muertos; Oaxaca, Mexico

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls

Every year Oaxaca Mexico comes alive for the colorful Dia de los Muertos festival, also called the Day of the Dead. Strongly rooted in Mexico’s indigenous traditions, this festival honors and celebrates the relatives and ancestors that have passed on. During the period from October 31st to Nov 2nd, elaborate altars are constructed for the dead, parades and live music fill the streets, traditional moles are prepared, and late night vigils are conducted in the cemetery.

Aside from the festival, Oaxaca’s center is filled with colonial-style churches, a car-free main square, trendy mezcal bars, and many traditional restaurants.

What is the Day of the Dead?

Although the Day of the Dead festival occurs at the same time as Halloween, the two holidays differ significantly. Halloween tends to focus on ghosts and trick or treating, whereas Dia de los Muertos is a celebration and remembrance of relatives who have passed on, inviting them back into the lives of the living for one short week before they have to depart again into the afterlife. Although the Spanish linked the holiday to the Catholic All Souls Day in an effort to colonize Mexico, it’s no secret that Dia de los Muertos is strongly rooted in the local indigenous traditions of pre-colonial Mexico.

Even with its strong emphasis on honoring the dead, this is not a sad event; don’t expect tearful vigils by gravesites, or people in mourning, this is a fun celebration marked with feasting, parades and live music!

Shopping and Markets in Oaxaca

A fun way to get involved first hand in the Dia de los Muertos is with a visit to a local markets: check out Benito Juarez market, 20 de Noviembre market, or further afield is the massive Abastos market. During the festival week these markets become increasingly crowded with shoppers purchasing colorful decorations, costumes and ingredients for traditional dishes.

The excitement is contagious at the 20 de Noviembre market, children pour through booths filled with devil masks and skeleton costumes, laughing and picking out their attire for the kids parade. Stalls and tables are overflowing with grave site offerings (ofrendas) and altar decorations such as fragrant copal incense, bright orange marigold flowers called cempasuchitl coined flor de muerto (flower of the dead), candles, and religious statues.

Kids Parade

Kids Parade

The market is also a great place to buy purchase inexpensive souvenirs and decorations to take home. Many vendors sell wooden Day of the Dead boxes; these colorful scenes depict skeletons poking fun at everyday life and human existence. Typical scenes may include a skeleton mariachi band, a skeleton riding a bicycle, or two skeletons getting married. Other fun items to purchase are the hanging ornamental metallic cut-outs of male and female skeletons and devils in festive clothing. Sugar Skulls are an iconic image as well; many stands and carts are filled with dozens of chocolate or sugar skull candies in all shapes and sizes, some with names written across their foreheads.

Creating the Altar

Creating the Altar

Benito Juárez is the main food market located just a couple blocks south of the main Zócalo. This is a great place to sample and purchase traditional food items that are central to Oaxaca. Mole is a popular holiday sauce or paste that comes in many varieties like Roja (red) or Verde (green). But the main staple for the holidays in Oaxaca is Mole Negro, a dark paste made with chilis, freshly ground chocolate, garlic, tomato, herbs, cloves, and many other seasonings usually served over chicken, turkey, pork or enchiladas. Another popular holiday item is Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead); visitors will see dozens of large displays of these big round loaves or some formed in the shape of bodies with skulls baked into them.

Snacks at the Market

Snacks at the Market

Adventurous eaters can try some chapulines; this crunchy salty snack is made from grasshoppers and insects seasoned with chili and salt. Visitors will see many chapulines vendors with overflowing baskets and carts filled with these crunchy snacks.

Chocolate lovers will be in heaven in Oaxaca. The chocolate sold is locally produced, freshly ground and minimally processed. For a delicious treat at the market try a creamy hot chocolate made with milk or water served with a side of mini pan de muerto. Afterwards head over to Mina Street, coined chocolate street, to visit one of the local purveyors of chocolate. Visitors can watch as the cocoa beans are ground in large grinders into a rich creamy chocolate paste to later be made into bars or mole. This is a great place to purchase fresh chocolate bars for souvenirs or to eat.

Shopping at Abastos Market in Oaxaca

The bustling Abastos market is another major market on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Navigating this humongous market can be tricky, especially on the days during the festival. But it is worth it. The market is packed with food vendors selling fruits, vegetables, chocolate, cheese, meat, and fish. In addition, there are huge sections selling furniture, religious goods, clothes, shoes, rugs, birdcages and pet products. The handicraft section is overflowing with hand-made baskets and clay and glazed pottery.

The streets leading in and out of this daily market can get extremely crowded, especially during the holidays. Because parking is an issue, it is not advised to rent a car to get there. The most convenient and affordable way to get to Abastos is by public transportation or private taxi.

Constructing a Day of the Dead Altar

Many shops, businesses and homes will have a large altar set up for Dia de los Muertos. The tradition of setting up an altar has a dual purpose: to pay respect and honor the dead and also to invite the deceased back to visit. Most altars contain pictures of loved ones, Cempasuchitl flowers (marigolds), candles, offerings of fruit, chocolate, incense, sugar skulls and candies. Usually people place favorite items their loved ones enjoyed while alive on the altars. If the deceased drank or smoked, one will place a shot of Mezcal or a cigarette on the altar.

A trail of marigold flowers, candles and sand leading from the door to the altar will help show souls the way back home. Copal incense has a heavy flagrant scent and is burned as an offering to the deceased and to help purify the souls of the dead so they can safely make it back to the afterlife.

The Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca

The Xoxocotlan cemetery comes alive (pardon the pun) with an almost carnival-like atmosphere on October 31st with live music, clusters of food vendors serving delicious traditional foods and partying crowds that spill out of the cemetery onto the streets. The atmosphere is contagious – order a giant foot-long stuffed flour tortilla filled with ground meat, cheese, beans and hot peppers, and wash it down a cervesa fria (cold beer).

Xoxo ( pronounced ho-ho) cemetery is divided into two sections: the pantheon Viejo (old) and pantheon Nuevo (new). Each area exudes its own atmosphere and experience for the all-night gravesite vigil. The old side offers a more traditional and quiet approach. Families quietly sit around the dimly lit decorated graves and share stories of their loved ones. In the center of the pantheon Viejo is the Capilla de San Sebastián; this old church structure is a sight to see. It was built in the early 1500s by missionaries and has been damaged by multiple earthquakes.

The new area of the cemetery is louder and filled with a younger partying crowd. Many children and adults wear costumes, and the graves are elaborately decorated with statues, candles and sand art displays. At the pantheon Nuevo the music, drinking and partying go on well into the morning hours. Although there is a fun, festival nature to this holiday, it has deep spiritual meaning to its participants. The cemetery is not a tourist attraction, so it is essential to be respectful when viewing and walking through the gravesites.

XOXO Cemetery

XOXO Cemetery

Dia de los Muertos Events

Many of the main events are centered around the Zócalo or city square. This tree-lined square is filled with restaurants, cafes, churches, and shops. Many of the comparsas, or traditional parades, originate and end at the Zócalo. These are not scheduled events so check with your hotel for more information.

During the course of the week, dozens of people are busy constructing large scale sand art displays in the center of the Zócalo. These intricate colorful works of art depict skeletons or scenes typical of Dia de los Muertos. Another fun sight are the dozens of giant decorative skulls that line the main streets surrounding the Zócalo. These colorful six-foot tall paper mache skulls are elaborately constructed with colorful themes and artwork by local artists.

Fun Events in Oaxaca!

Fun Events in Oaxaca!


Tours in Oaxaca Mexico

Many tour companies and taxi services are available in town to help visitors navigate and make sense of this event. Norma Hawthorne of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers small group size photography expeditions to the festival in both Oaxaca and Teotitlan del Valle. The most valuable part of her tour is her personal expertise on the culture of the area.

Another option is to visit Oaxaca on your own and use private taxis or guides, easily arranged upon arrival. Oaxaca is a safe city, sheltered from the violence prevalent in the border cities of Mexico. Once in Oaxaca, most of the sights and events are within walking distance from the main square and the historic center.

Dia de los Muertos is a colorful festival full of fun activities and events not to be missed. Visitors to Oaxaca are often captivated with its old-world charm, its gourmet restaurants, trendy bars, amazing markets and colonial churches.

Halloween in Salem-It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Salem is the ultimate destination for Halloween enthusiasts and party-goers. The city comes alive with a month long celebration culminating in a massive party in the streets on the 31st!

Happy Halloween Salem

Happy Halloween Salem

The best way to start your visit to Salem is with a glimpse into its tragic past with a visit to the Salem Witch Museum. Dramatic life-size displays re-enact the tragic and haunting events of the witch hysteria of 1692.

“In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. When they failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; seven others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.” Although it sounds morbid the museum presents an interesting and educational view of Salem’s disturbing past.

Salem Witch Memorial

Salem Witch Memorial

Afterwards pay your respects to the poor souls honored at the Salem Witch Trial Memorial located near the Old Burying Point cemetery; dedicated to the women and men accused, tried and executed for being witches in Salem in 1692. The Memorial consists of 20 granite benches lined along a stone wall on the other side of the old cemetery. The benches are inscribed with the name of the accused and the means and date of their execution. With the exception of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death by rocks, the following were hanged: Bridget Bishop, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, George Jacobs, Sr., Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Proctor, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell, Sarah Wildes and John Willard. A good reminder of why religious tolerance is important in not only Salem but everywhere.  The cemetery next to the memorial is worth a quick look  as it is one of the oldest in Salem.

Salem Witch Museum

Salem Witch Museum

Now that you have been fully educated on Salem’s witchcraft history-it’s time for some fun! I love shopping for Halloween goodies at the Salem Open Market located in Derby Square and Essex Street. The open market is lined with vendors selling witchcraft memorabilia, sweatshirts, t-shirts, jewelry and much more. The market is a good place to pick up a fun costume or a mask to wear at night. There are also many shops lining the streets and market as well. Need a voodoo doll or a candle for a love spell? Head over to Hex; an old world witchcraft shop located on Essex street, filled with items that will appeal to the average shopper and to the serious magical practitioner.

Witch Goodies!

Witch Goodies!

A  ghost or haunted history tour  is highlight of any visit regardless of the season. This is a fun way to learn about the history of Salem while visiting its supposed haunted hot spots. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts the tour offers many  entertaining tales about local history and lore. One of the more tragic tales is the account of poor Giles Corey, accused of witchcraft and pressed to death by boulders. According to the legend; where his ghost walks tragedy follows close behind.

At night the city comes alive with costumed party-goers and trick-or-treaters spilling out into the streets of Salem to enjoy the festivities. Its quite a site to see so many elaborate costumes, everything from creepy babies to ghost busters to vampires.  After a long day of shopping and tours, you might need a drink! Don’t miss the Shock Top Beer Garden, where you can enjoy seasonal beers and live music. Once that’s over around 10:30 the entire city stops to watch the highlight of the night-the Halloween fireworks over the North River. Unfortunately this signifies that the end of the Halloween fun and festivities is drawing to an end in Salem; but don’t worry there’s always next year!

Salem at Night

Salem at Night

Salem definitely does Halloween right! For a full schedule of events visit Salem’s Haunted Happenings website.

Creepy Baby in Love!

Fun Halloween Costume

Fun Halloween Costume

Girl’s Guide to Packing for your India Vacation!

“I just booked the trip of a lifetime,  a whirlwind tour of India; Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi. After finalizing the travel plans, I realized there were some really important details to work out-like what to wear.”

Shopping In India

Let’s go Sari Shopping!

My friend and I booked the trip of a lifetime a guided tour to Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, with an independent side trip to Varanasi. After finalizing all the travel plans, I realized there are some details we really needed to think about like what to wear and pack. I read through a variety of blogs and travel sites detailing different opinions on what women should wear, some advice more conservative than others. I decided to go more middle of the road and once in India found I had clearly made the right choices! Here are some tips on what to pack for your first trip to India.

Fun Day Sari Shopping!

Fun Day Sari Shopping!

The main question most women have is what is appropriate wear in India? India is a very conservative country, dressing provocatively or too revealing is frowned upon. Rural areas and smaller cities seemed to be more conservative than bigger cities like Delhi and Jaipur. For clothes, I highly suggest to err on the side of caution.

A good rule is to make sure your knees and shoulders are covered and don’t wear anything too tight. Especially if you are visiting rural areas or smaller cities- dress conservatively. I am embarrassed to admit I was surprised that almost all women were wearing a salwar kameez or a sari, and very few were wearing western-style clothes.

Colorful Saris in Varanasi

Colorful Saris in Varanasi

The salwar is a loose pajama type pants and the kameez is the tunic top, while the Sari is like an Indian dress that you have to wrap. Both styles of clothing are so beautiful and come in a variety of bright colors and styles. I wish I could wear these colorful outfits every day! Even though we were dressed conservatively it was still obvious that we were tourists. We even had a few different men politely ask if they could take photos with us.

Most likely a good part of your day will be spent visiting tourist spots so bring some casual pants or outfits. A lot of women tourists wear light-weight linen-type loose pants. It is not appropriate for women to wear yoga pants or leggings without a long top or tunic over it. Wearing just leggings would look like you are wearing underclothing and also they would be too tight. I love the new harem-style pants, currently out that are tight at the bottom and loose everywhere else. These are appropriate and comfortable to wear during the day. One of the most versatile items I packed was a lightweight pair of hiking pants from Columbia. They dried fast, were super comfortable and didn’t wrinkle in my luggage. One exception would be if you were staying at a yoga retreat you could get away with yoga outfits. I did not see any women wearing shorts either, I didn’t see any men wearing shorts either.

Another question is what to wear at the hotel pool. The pool was pretty empty where we were staying but I think a one piece bathing suit is a reasonable garment to wear. I do want to visit Goa and other beaches in India on my next trip so I will have to research this further.

Super Cute Girl at the Taj Majal!

Super Cute Girl at the Taj Majal!

Luckily long skirts and maxi dresses are in this year! I ended up wearing both for the majority of the tour. These can be dressed up for nighttime or down for casual touring during the day. Because it is suggested that you cover up your shoulders, I do not suggest maxi dresses that have skinny straps or that are strapless. A sweater or cover-up sounds like a practical solution except that it is very hot in India. The temperatures range anywhere from 90’s to 105 during the tourist season. For the most part I wore short sleeve tops but I did bring a couple of chunky strap tank tops, more like sleeveless tops and wore them only twice. You definitely do not need a sweater during the hotter months. It was 100 degrees and sunny every day we were there in September. Instead of a sweater, a better solution is a light weight gauzy cover-up.

Village Outside of Jaipur

Village Outside of Jaipur

One fashion mistake I made was bringing a black skirt that had two long slits up the side. By day 5 I was starting to wonder if anyone cares or even notices what I am wearing, so I wore my H & M skirt with the slits on a detour to a small village outside of Jaipur, a woman pointed out the slits and motioned with her hand that they should be sewn together. It was more in a teasing tone as opposed to judgmental but still, I made sure to dress appropriately for the rest of the trip after the public shaming.

Don’t forget to pack a light-weight but versatile scarf to cover your shoulders if you wearing a tank top or if you are visiting a temple or a mosque. You probably will not need to cover your head but the scarf will come in handy if you are taking a rickshaw or walking around a lot as it can get quite dusty and hot. Shoes –everyone wears flip flops or sandals. Even at night unless you are going to a club dressy sandals or even casual ones were appropriate with dresses.

A Visit to the Taj Majal

A Visit to the Taj Majal

A few key factors to consider are temperature, culture, length of vacation and itinerary when packing for your trip. My friends from India suggested buying clothing when we got there, but before you rely on shopping abroad, I would review your itinerary to make sure you have time to do this. We arrived in Delhi late afternoon and after checking into the hotel and eating dinner, it was pretty late to venture out alone to purchase clothes.
Overall, I was happy that I packed a mix or comfortable but stylish clothes; we didn’t have time to shop until about day 4, which is when we did get a chance to buy some scarves and even a Sari. With some careful planning and packing your trip to India should be as amazing as ours!

Packed and Ready to Go!

Packed and Ready to Go!

How to Swim in a Frozen Sea; a Step-by-Step Guide

Most tourists don’t think of cold Arctic destinations when planning a seaside vacation escape. But with some creative planning you could actually swim on your vacation to Finland! 

Step 1.  The sea in Arctic regions like Kemi, Finland is frozen for most of the winter, so you must locate an Arctic Icebreaker such as the Sampo Ice Breaker to break through the ice to go swimming.

 Kemi Finland

 Step 2. Boarding the ship may be an ordeal if there is not a nearby pier.  Luckily this icebreaker on the Gulf of Bothnia is equipped with a crane to pick up passengers if needed.


 Step 3. The ship may have to cut through miles of ice before locating an adequate swimming hole. This could take a while.


 Step 4. While the ship is cutting through meters of ice, look for the stash of Arctic-rated survival suits….probably located in the lower section of the ship.  These survival suits enable its wearer a greater chance of survival if they unfortunately ended up falling into the cold artic sea.  The suit provides insulation, floatation, and water protection in the event of an emergency. Don’t get me wrong- these do not provide much warmth but prevent hypothermia for up to 6 hours and in some cases longer. But they will do for a casual swim!


 Step 5:  Following the handy instruction chart posted on the wall, take off your outerwear, putting your suit on over your clothing. Now you are ready to go!


 Step 6. Head out onto the sea and jump in! Word of warning- these are not absolutely waterproof. You must float on your back. Do not submerge your face or float on your stomach. The water could flood into the seams and lining around your face.


 Step 7. Once in the water feel free to float around and enjoy swimming in the frozen sea!


 *Trips to the Sampo Icebreaker can be arranged directly through their website or can be added onto a longer package to Kemi, Finland through Nordic Visitor.


How to Survive a Night in an Ice Hotel!


The city of Kemi is located just south of the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland, because of its position near the Arctic Circle nights are longer than average during the winter months. In addition, temperatures plunge anywhere from 0 to 16 degrees in February. During the weeks leading up to my trip I was asked by friends and family if I was crazy. Finland is freezing! Yes it is but where else can you go to visit the LumiLinna SnowCastle, visit a reindeer farm, snowmobile on a frozen sea, and go Dogsledding?


The Kemi LumiLinna SnowCastle in Finland is a real hotel and castle made entirely from ice and snow. Each year weeks of preparation go into building the castle from the ground up using blocks of ice and snow made from the nearby Gulf of Bothnia. The Snow Castle grounds include a 21 room SnowHotel, a SnowRestaurant, a SnowChapel and an IceBar. The grounds of the castle sit on the icy coast of the Gulf of Bothnia.  IMG_1006

Construction of the SnowCastle begins yearly in December and continues for about a 6 week period culminating in its grand opening event that takes place in the end of January.  For the 2012 SnowCastle,  approximately 21000 m3 of snow was used in construction, which is roughly the amount of 2100 truck-loads. The SnowCastle area will be 5000 m2, which is the equivalent size of about one-and-a half football fields.  Building the castle is a huge feat for the some 60 builders of this working hotel and restaurant.

The walls and entire structure of the castle and the grounds are constructed with piped snow, blown into various types of molds with a high-powered snow blower. Once the snow has hardened the molds can be removed leaving a very sturdy structure made entirely of snow.  All of the snow, ice and water come from the nearby Gulf of Bothnia. When the season is over at April’s end, the structure is completely demolished and pushed back by tractors into the Gulf, from where it came from.


Each year the theme of the SnowCastle changes: some of the previous themes were Fire; 2007, the Sea; 2008, Travel, 2009 and on the 15th anniversary, the theme was National Romanticism. The Snowcastle’s theme for 2103 was Fantasy. Images of storybook tales were carefully engraved in the snowy walls and many rooms contained frozen characters sculpted entirely of ice. There was even an Angry Birds room. Spending the night in the castle is an unreal experience especially at nighttime when the lights are shining on the glistening ice ans snow.

Dinner at the Snow Restaurant

We checked in at the Snow Castle at around 5pm, this gave us plenty of time to explore the castle before our dinner, which was scheduled at 7:30 that night.  The hotel has a heated lounge with lockers where guests can store their luggage, purses and cameras. Aside from the lockers, the rustic-looking lounge is a fully-equipped and quite cozy with couches, tables, TVs, a little snack shop and a souvenir shop. The bathrooms are located outside the lounge in a heated facility.  After storing our stuff, we bundled up and excitedly ran out to check out the snow castle grounds. First stop was the SnowChapel, the room was dimly lit with green and white lighting casting a peaceful glow over the little chapel. People can actually get married here and then spend their honeymoon night in the honeymoon sweet equipped with a king size ice- bed.

IMG_1216After we took some photos of us praying in the chapel and checking out the castle we were notified that our dinner was ready early. We headed over to the Snow Restaurant, there are two separate seating areas both filled with tables made entirely of slabs of ice. The chairs are tree stumps covered in reindeer fur.

a4 At this point we were hungry and getting a little cold so we sat down at our reserved table. The meal consisted of  three-courses with a welcome drink served in a cup made from ice.  The food is served in tin foil on wooden plates so that the heat doesn’t melt the tables. We all chose the hot Lingonberry juice to start to warm us up rather than the cold Finlandia vodka and cranberry drink in an ice cup.

We each had different options that had to be ordered well in advance. I had the Castle´s Vegetarian Menu; which consisted of Cream of vegetable soup, a Vegetable bake made from broccoli, peppers and potatoes with a lemon sauce and for dessert a warm blueberry pie served with vanilla custard. My Friends had the Feast a’la Snowcastle; cold smoked salmon soup, fried fillet of chicken served with rice, onion and pepper with a smoked reindeer-cheese sauce. Then for dessert warm apple pie with vanilla custard. The food was delicious and hot but we actually ate quickly as the cold was starting to set in just sitting at the table. Luckily the service was good and the food came out fast!

What to do for the Night in an Ice Hotel

After dinner in the restaurant, there are a number of fun things to do to occupy your time. There is the Icebar where even the menus and cups are made from ice. Some of the drinks that are typical of Finland are Finlandia Vodka, or Cloudberry Liquor, but because it was so cold we opted for a Hot Chocolate. ???????????????????????????????

Even dressed in complete Arctic wear staying warm is an issue. The temperature in the castle is a steady 23 degrees regardless of the outside temperature. We could not sit in the bar area very long and drink.  We kept busy taking photos of each other and the bar. Afterwards we headed over to the room with the Ice Slide and took turns making silly videos of us going down it. This served the dual purpose of having fun while keeping warm.

After making a few silly videos we headed outside to slide down the sledding hill, by now it was dark outside. Sledding down the hill was fun but we decided to warm up in the lounge before turning in for the night. We found a comfy couch to sit on and we each got a hot chocolate spiked with Rum. The rum did actually help warm us up!  The cheerful hotel clerk informed us that a presentation on how to use the sleeping bags would be starting soon. Probably not a good idea to skip this informational piece!

How to Survive the Night in the LumiLinna SnowCastle

A couple of key pieces of information we made careful mental notes of; each bed in the castle is covered in animal fur that you sleep on top of. Each guest gets a survival grade sleeping bag with a warm insert both pieces need to be zipped up to keep the warmth in.


First put the inner sleeping bag inside the heavier one. Unzip both of them partially so you can get in but easily zip it up when you are inside. After getting the bags organized-here is the fun part! You need to take off your outerwear and clothing; basically stripping down to your baselayers. According to the presenter this is absolutely necessary and the sleeping bags will not work as well if you leave your outerwear or too many layers on.  Once you take everything off you need to put your clothing between the animal fur and the sleeping bag. The point of this is so your clothes do not freeze, or at least stay somewhat unfrozen for when you have to get dressed in the morning. The boots just stay out and there is no way of getting around sticking your feet into a frozen boot in the morning.

The demonstration looked easy enough and off we were to bed, by now it was about 11pm and we were tired from our dogsledding excursion earlier in the day. One word of warning! Go to the bathroom before turning in for the night! The bathroom is outside in an adjacent heated building but it is still very cold getting in and out of your clothes and bag. Also the lights are dimmed in the hotel at night, my friend had to go to the bathroom and none of us would go with her. So it was a little scary although totally safe walking around in the dark to go to the bathroom. I had to go early in the morning and decided to just wait till breakfast.

IMG_1354 Once inside the first bag we all felt pretty good about the process but zippering up both bags and having them lined up correctly proved a little difficult once the cold started setting in. Once we were all securely zipped up it was quite warm. I had to sleep with the bag over my face though as there is no other protection for your head and face.  A hat definitely is not enough to keep the cold at bay.

We actually slept until the hotel staff woke us up in the morning-we survived no frostbite or frozen body parts! The breakfast was laid out in the lounge by the time we woke up around 7:30am. Our night in the SnowCastle was an unforgettable experience. I don’t particularly like cold weather but with careful planning and the right clothing, the amazing experience certainly outweighed the cold.    IMG_1361

LumiLinna SnowCastle Hours of Operation and Rates

Visitors can visit just the castle during the hours of 10am-7pm daily. An entrance ticket just for the day is 8 Euro / adult, and children from 4 – 11 years 4 Eur. A hotel room can be booked from 27th of January to 6th of April. Price for a double room is 115-175 Euros per person depending on the day of the week. The price includes breakfast in the lounge and the room. I highly suggest using Nordic Visitor though, they arranged an amazing tour that was totally organized which included a dogsledding excursion, overnight in the SnowCastle, a trip on The Sampo Arctic Icebreaker, a visit to a Reindeer farm, snowmobiling for the entire trip including a night ride to the Finnish forest to see the Northern Lights, and various snacks.

How to Get to Kemi, Finland????????????????????????????????

Even booking this trip through Nordic Visitor or a similar company, you will be responsible for booking your own flights. The nearest and only airport is Kemi-Tornio, flights can be arranged through Flybe from Helsinki, Finland. Before booking your package to the SnowCastle check the flights from Helsinki as there are limited travel times.


Vacationing in the Nordic Countries!

“Recently on vacation I went to Finland, Estonia and Latvia. Friends and aquaintances always laugh that I visit the most interesting places. But what an amazing vacation! Dogsledding on the Sea of Bothnia, snowmobiling at night in the Finnish forest and drinking crazy shots and concoctions until  late morning in Tallin.” 


Crazy Concoctions at Labor Bar, Tallinn

Most tourists looking for exotic and interesting places to travel often overlook what the Nordic countries have to offer. This term Nordic Countries commonly refers to the northern countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland and their surrounding territories the Faroe Islands, Åland Islands, and Greenland. Several countries also closely align or identify with these countries due to their proximity including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
But overlooking these Nordic countries is a mistake! There are endless opportunities for adventure that are hard to find  anywhere else in the world; dogsledding with a team of huskies, snowmobiling under the Northern Lights, and visiting an Ice Hotel. I also love the sophisticated urban centers of Reykjavik and Helsinki  with trendy clubs, restaurants and lots of shopping.  Whatever or whenever you decide to go, one visit and you will be hooked.