Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Camper!

Dirty finger nails, starry nights, flickering camp fire, and S’mores… camping is a summer tradition and one I look forward to each year. Once the weather warms enough to venture into the high country for a bit of peace and quiet we pack up our tent, camp stove and sleeping bags for free and filthy fun.

The 4th of July weekend was our maiden voyage this year. We're staunch tent campers as it allows for the purest wilderness experience. The beauty of camping, for me, is connecting with nature. We set up camp at an impromptu spot in a national forest, beside a babbling brook, under quaking aspen trees and stately pines; away from the clamor of the city…it was blissful and restorative.   
Some of my favorite summer memories are from campsites- roughing it with nothing but a tent and a change of clothes…
1- Backpacking and camping in a tiny red tent throughout Europe.
My very favorite camping was while backpacking in Europe. My husband and I were there for three months with very little money. Rather than shortening our trip due to dwindling funds, we were frugal with our accommodation. We purchased a small red tent in Florence, Italy and stayed in our little casa throughout our continental travels. We scorched in Rome’s summer heat, froze amidst Amsterdam’s heavy rains and experienced everything in between.

While definitely not the most comfortable way to travel, we saw Europe and were able to stay for an entire summer. We met incredible people and had the freedom to roam without needing hotel reservations or plans of any kind.
Freezing in our tent in the Netherlands
No-frills accommodation
2- Camping Along the C&O Canal.
Several years ago we camped along the C&O Canal with a group of good friends. We hiked in a couple of miles, along a dusty trail and stayed along the banks of the canal in Maryland. We jumped in the cool waters and retreated from the muggy summer heat.  We floated carefree along with the currents for miles downriver. We hiked back to camp, made dinner together, shared stories late into the night, and made unforgettable memories.  
Camping is an activity best shared with good friends- especially hilarious, fun-loving, adventurer types. Thanks Chip and Jean!

Camp Site, C&O Canal
3- San Juan Whitewater River Rafting.
My most precious camping memory is with my husband and father-in-law while rafting the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River. We started the eighty-four mile trip in Bluff and ended in Mexican Hat, Utah. Each day we rafted the meandering whitewater and lively currents along the most breathtaking scenery of the American Southwest. We paddled past rainbow colored rock and floated over glass-like polished limestone pools. A stray dog, that we affectionately named Juanita, followed us for four days as if even she knew what fun we were having. As we floated in our little yellow kayak ducky, the sound of our laughter reverberated off those high canyon walls. We laughed so hard that if you listen very closely it echoes even still, imprinted on those chasms forever. There’s a sense of permanence, unity, and everlasting happiness that I took from the time we all spent together on the San Juan. The trip was ephemeral but the memories will last my lifetime.

Aerial view of the San Juan River

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

As American as Apple Pie?

Barbeque is as American as Apple Pie or is it? While North Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City throw down as to whom has the juiciest, most flavorful, tender meat…we’re not the only ones who embrace cooking over smoke and fire- caveman style.

Recently I had the pleasure of travelling to the legendary Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, considered by many to be the best barbeque in the United States. Founded in 1908, the unpretentious restaurant has, over the years, established the reputation for its full range of barbeque dishes and most specifically the burnt ends. These lovely, charred brisket tips are seasoned, sauced and served on a giant heaping sandwich.

Kansas City Burnt Ends
My experience at Arthur Bryant’s had me feeling pretty proud of us Americans. This was delicious, no-frills, real American cuisine. Every red blooded American is a BBQ aficionado- it’s in our genetic makeup. BBQ is synonymous with friends, summertime block parties, and beer.

True enough, BBQ is an important part of our national heritage and cuisine. However, Americans don’t have a monopoly on the concept.  People across the globe share a pride in their barbeque and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.

Barbeque is a much disputed term. While both methods are performed over fire or smoke- experts differentiate by length of cooking time and temperature of the heat. Generally barbeque is defined as low and slow and grilling as high and fast.  For the sake of multicultural harmony let’s define barbeque as the social convention that brings carnivores together over the love of meat!

Argentina/Uruguay: BBQ in Argentina is called asado and cooked on a parilla, a grate that sits above burning coals. The legendary cuisine of once wide-ranging gauchos is just as popular today with ordinary folk. The typical asado meats include chorizos, ribs, beef, chicken, lamb, goatling.

Brazil: Churrasco is similar to the technique used in Argentina and Uruguay. A Churrascaria is a restaurant that specializes in Churrasco and offers all you can eat portions of meats such as chicken heart, sausages, flank steak, and top sirloin. While the meat is center stage don't miss pao de qeijo- cheese buns that often accompany churrasco. 
South Africa: Barbeque in South Africa, Braai, was introduced by Dutch immigrants has become a tradition that has crossed racial lines in South Africa. Like most BBQ traditions, Braai is a social event that brings people together. The types of meats barbequed demonstrate the amalgamation of cultural influences- sausages, kebabs, and steak are standard fare.

Australia: Ever heard the term ‘Barbie’? Aussies have coined the nickname and are enthusiastic about barbeque. Burgers and prawns are popular items cooked over Oz’s many grills. Burger on Bondi Beach anyone?

Shrimp on the Barbie
Korean: Unlike many of its counterparts, Korean barbeque is served almost exclusively in a restaurant setting. Guests surround a small grill that is placed atop the table and served raw meet to grill that hisses in the middle of the table. Garlic-soy marinated beef, pork and chicken is typical fare.
Korean BBQ
India: Tandori is a barbeque-like cuisine served in southern, western and central Asia but most popularly in India. A Tandoor is a cylindrical-shaped clay oven that contains charcoal or wood fire. Meat on skewers and flatbread stuck to the side is exposed to radiant heat which cooks it.

Caribbean: Jerk is Jamaica’s take on barbeque. Dry-rubbed pork, goat, chicken, lamb, beef, fish and shellfish are cooked in a steel drum jerk pan. The dry rub is generally very flavorful and typically contains Scotch Bonnet peppers, pimento, cayenne, cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic and salt.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken

-“Beam me up Scotty. There is no good barbecue on this planet.” – James T. Kirk 

Surely Captain Kirk couldn’t have been talking about Earth because as the world turns- grills, pits, tandoors and steel drums sizzle with delectable meat.  Go forth and enjoy the international offerings of meaty goodness.

Globe Grill by Inhabitat
Have you had outstanding barbeque stateside or abroad? I’d love to hear from you! Where to go and what to eat?


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Astrid y Gaston

And the award for the best lunch I've ever eaten goes to....drum roll please...Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru!

In conjunction with Oscar season and the newly announced winners, I can't help but hypothetically hand out my own awards for outstanding performances. There are so many people that deserve recognition and Gaston Acurio, chef and owner of Astrid y Gaston, is one I'd like to acknowledge, praise, and thank for an unforgettable three-hour, mid-day feast and some of the best food I've experienced in the world.

My husband and I entered a taxi at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. The car took us along a series of congested streets, past dire poverty, a labyrinth of whirling cars and motorcycles, and then through a seemingly abandoned neighborhood of narrow corridors and ominous characters. Palm trees danced to the rhythmic honking of car horns and the howl of the gusty sea breeze.

We entered the barrio (neighborhood) of Miraflores, an upper crust district of Lima famous for shopping, gardens, flower-filled parks, beaches and restaurants. After a turbulent ride, I stepped out of the car at Astrid y Gaston, ranked the 42nd best restaurant in the world by 2011’s San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Guide, widely considered the ‘Oscars of the Restaurant World’.

It was an honor to step into Gaston Acurio’s flagship restaurant. We were seated at a table in a cozy room, reminiscent of a 1920s style French mansion. The menu is French-influenced Nuevo Andino. Acurio features seasonal Peruvian fare, with exceptional fusion specialties. We started out with Peru’s national cocktail, Pisco sour, and perused the comprehensive menu. The aperitif was potent, properly frothed, sour and sweet. After a couple refreshing swigs, we decided on the three-hour, 12 course tasting menu to try a sampling of the best on offer.

Pisco Sours

The 20-hour braised veal cheek and potato croquettes deserves an honorable mention but as the Pacific ocean is mere meters away, the seafood certainly stole the spotlight. Highlights from the 12 course meal included...

Love Ceviche- oyster, clam, sea urchin, squid, langoustine, scallop – all served raw together with tiger milk and three different aji (chili) purées. Ceviche is Peru's most famous dish and countless varieties are available throughout the coastal regions of the country. 
Love Ceviche
Peking Cuy- Crispy Guinea Pig with chifa pickles, rocoto hoisin chili sauce and purple corn crepes. Guinea pig (Cuy) is widely eaten all over Peru. I sampled it in other Andean restaurants but this preparation was hands down the most delectable.
Peking Cuy
Sea Urchins for the Soul- squid ink-colored black noodles with sea urchins, crab essence with seaweed and a sea urchin ceviche shot. This dish was truly soulful and embodied the sweet and briny taste of the sea.
Sea Urchins for the Soul
Octopus Cilindro Style- baby octopus marinated in Anticucha sauce with purple olive bubbles and yellow potato cream. Anticuchos are a common street food that date back to colonial times. This is an elevated version that was smokey, salty, creamy and delightful.
Octopus Cilindro Style
Lima is an immigration center, a vibrant melting pot of cultures and the gastronomical capital of South America. A trip to Astrid y Gaston displays the diversity of Peruvian produce, mix of culinary styles and is a not to be missed stop on the itinerary.

Acurio is a master of melange; he incorporates the old with the new, Peruvian ingredients with international flare, formality with playfulness. He creates unique, forward-thinking dishes that will turn any foodie into a fan. Acurio is a South American superstar, largely responsible for putting modern Peruvian cuisine on the map. He's a celebrity truly worthy of a 'Food Oscar'. Buen Provecho!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

There's No Place Like 'Ohhhmmm', Away From Home

Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Blogaversary to Faraway Pillow! The blog is 2 today and after nearly 50 posts- hard work, passion, challenges, and ultimate commitment, Mama’s going to the spa! 

Sit back, free your mind, meditate with a choral ‘ohhhmmm’… and allow me to massage your wanderlust with a rundown of rubdowns around the world.

Going to the spa is a special, ephemeral, and meditative experience that I like to indulge in especially on vacation. Sometimes travel from point A to point B; sitting on a cramped airplane in ‘fake air’ for hours on end, hoisting massive suitcases to and fro calls for a massage, facial, or other body treatment. Holiday is a time of presumed gratification, so go on...treat yourself!

I’ve been to all sorts of spas abroad and have had a mixed bag of experiences; from fabulous to frightful, ridiculous to just plain weird. The following experiences were particularly noteworthy…

The strangest and decidedly most uncomfortable massage treatment I ever received was at a Hungarian thermal bath, the last vestige of the Turkish occupation of Budapest.  Some of the city’s 1,300 baths have been used for over 2,000 years and draw tourists and locals alike. The baths are built around naturally occurring hot springs and most offer spa services.
Hungarian Thermal Bath- Budapest
I decided to take advantage of the ancient, and very cheap, services and opted for a massage. I was taken back to a private room by a chatty masseur who was very interested in America and me being an American. He began a full body massage and as his hands grazed my hiney, I started to wander was this the standard treatment for all clientele? As he continued and interjected comments like, ‘you work out, don’t you?’ and ‘are you a cheerleader?’ I began freaking out. As he attempted to untie my bathing suit top to, ‘better access my shoulders’ I was dashing for the door. Oh so Creepy.

A stark contrast to the sleazy Hungarian was my very proper, professional masseuse at the luxury Four Seasons resort in Carmelo, Uruguay. Aside from being highly qualified and trained in various methods of massage, my therapist was a woman… a definite preference due to the aforementioned experience.  I lay down on a terry cloth-covered massage table in a darkened room that smelled of warm citrus. Soft new-age music was in harmony with a gently trickling water fountain. The massage was so calming, it took every effort for me to not fall asleep. It was blissful.

Four Seasons Spa Lobby- Carmelo, Uruguay
South America has actually been the pinnacle of my spa experiences. I enjoyed another delightful massage at the luxury Tambo del Inka resort in Urubamba, Peru. While the massage was spot-on, the aqua circuit treatment was actually more notable. Valle Sagrado Spa serves up hydrotherapy with water used as the principal agent. Clients benefit from the various health benefits of moving from different water pressures and temperatures.

Pool area at Tambo del Inka where Aqua Circuit Therapy is Performed
A trained therapist guided us through each of the steps of the aqua circuit, which she endearingly pronounced ‘cir-kwit’. We started with fifteen minutes in the smoldering sauna followed an ice cold shower. We were then directed into a dark, sweltering steam shower and under the fiber optic stars my heart was racing and my muscles were relaxing all at the same time. Next, back into the cold shower for another icy drenching and then to the hot tub to warm up again. The next step was the pool where we were guided in and out of separate compartments; there was a chilly swirling pool, a warm fizzy pool, and one with jets and submerged chaise lounges, there was a freezing bath that felt like needles, and an array of spouting and spraying fountains. Then we were taken into three separate shower cabins and lastly walked across a bed of river rocks that misted water from beneath jagged massaging stones. The aqua ‘cir-kwit’ therapy was unquestionably exciting and invigorating, albeit bizarre.

Sometimes spa treatments get you clean and sometimes it’s all about getting dirty! Near Marmaris, Turkey I visited the Dalyan Mud Baths, which are thermal sulphuric pools of mud that like the nearby hot spring contains radioactive elements that are believed to cure a host of ailments. Visitors wade around in the earthy liquid, laughing at one another covered in sludge. I submerged myself in the muck and resurfaced as ‘Swamp Thing’. The sulphur was very smelly (think rotten eggs) but worth it. After a high pressure shower to clean the caked-on mud, I left with skin like a baby.

Dalyan Mud Baths
My skin can’t always be baby-perfect and that’s when a facial comes in handy. In Lagos, Portugal my face was the target of what I deemed the ‘Zit Zapper’. As I lay in the dental chair seat, the facialist used a gun shaped tool to shoot each of my blemishes, creating the exact same sound as a bug zapper. ‘Zap’! Perhaps my face was more radiant but this facial felt like a trip to the dermatologist's office and was anything but relaxing. 

While weird can be bad, weird can also be very good. In Koh Samui, Thailand I received a traditional Thai massage from a tiny Thai therapist who used her feet to massage my weary back and legs. She got right up and walked all over me and it was strangely wonderful. The massage was given outside on the veranda of our resort, enclosed in a shaded gazebo. The swaying palm fronds rustled in the salty sea air. The taste of the coconut water that we were welcomed with lingered on my tongue. My mind drifted away to the sweet scent of jasmine.

Amari Palm Reef Resort
On the massage table sometimes your mind drifts away out of pure relaxation and sometimes it’s out of necessity. At the Feel Good Spa at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, California I shielded my eyes from the fluorescent ceiling lights and dingy, old carpet of the HoJo convert from the 1960s. My masseuse, a he-man/she-man in cropped cutoff scrubs, gyrated around me, in sync with the blaring techno pool party outside. I was naked, under a thin sheet, trapped for sixty l…o…n…g minutes in a dumpy motel room and subjected to an hour of strange African bird call music, an obvious attempt to cover the noise of the 'Meathead Convention' happening just outside my door. I laid there quietly, trying to mentally escape. While the complete experience was comical, the hemp spa robes really took the cake. The hybrid prison uniform/potato sack garments were consistent with the absurdity of the Feel Good...rather, 'Doesn't Feel Good Spa.'

Product Image of Hemp Spa Robe at the Ace Hotel, Palm Springs- Yes, They're Actually for Sale
This is a story of the Notable. Despite occasional letdowns and eyebrow-raisers, most spas around the world maintain an excellent standard. Typically, I’ve found you get what you pay for. If a massage is advertised to be $10 US…expect an amusing story out of it. Generally, a sixty-minute treatment in a reputable resort or spa should cost anywhere from $100-$200+ US.

It’s not cheap, and it isn’t always perfect, but it sure does feel good and what better way to start a vacation than to pamper yourself…or an interesting story to regale your friends and family with?

In the spirit of regaling, I begin another year of travel and writing for Faraway Pillow. My mantra for this year is to....... R-E-L-A-X... Enjoy, more than I ever have before. Let the stress of daily life melt away; truly appreciate  and feel every experience, every adventure. Live. Love. Travel. ‘Ohhmmm.’


Friday, January 20, 2012

Markets Around the World... You Like, You Buy!

‘Hey, Lady… you like, you buy!’ shouts a zealous marketer in Bangkok’s busy Patpong night market. It’s 11pm and an endless sea of stalls offer an assortment of wares ranging from fresh produce to dodgy knock offs, souvenirs trinkets, traditional handicrafts, used batteries and individual tissues for sale. It’s a one stop shop; purchase a unique souvenir, oddity or toiletry while loading up with the most colorful, obscene, unbelievable stories to tell when you get home.

Patpong is an entertainment district, the Red Light District of Bangkok, that largely caters to tourists and expatriates.The market is only a portion of the four acres that are also home to one hundred back-to-back bars, mostly that cater to men. Love it or hate it…few will ever forget their time in Patpong, a.k.a the 'Den of Sleaze'.

‘How much is this?’ I ask. The vendor doesn’t understand English so I try the question in my repertoire of languages. French, ‘Combien ça coûte?’ gets a reaction and she replies by typing on a calculator, 300. After several drinks imbibed during dinner, I’m uninhibited and I immediately counteroffer 100 Baht.

Prices are inflated from the start and buyers are encouraged to haggle hard to get fair prices. In fact, buyers should generally pay 50% of the asking price. The vendor woman physically stops me from walking away and types 150 into her calculator, displaying the figure, in a brash and expectant flurry. I agree to the price which converts to around $5 USD.

Minutes later, my husband is still laughing at me. ‘What is so funny?’ I ask. I finally understand the irony of what had transpired. I am a tipsy American, in a very seedy night market in Bangkok, bargaining in French for a DVD copy of The Passion of the Christ, which I later came to discover was pirated. In the shadow of a flashing neon light, advertising Go-Go girls and ‘talent shows’, I decide I’ve had enough and hail a taxi back to the land of the righteous. It’s good to be back.

While Patpong Night Market is an exceptional example of a notoriously sordid, amusing, far-fetched fantasy of what is possible; most markets offer a much more traditional, G-rated experience.

Five of my many favorite markets around the world are; the Pisac Market in Peru, the San Telmo Antique Market in Buenos Aires, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the floating markets of Thailand, and the San Lorenzo Market in Florence.

Pisac Market- Pisac, Peru: This quiet town in the Sacred Valley of Peru hosts a famed artisan and antique market every Sunday from 9am to mid-afternoon. Hundreds of stalls crowd the central square marked by a small church- San Pedro el Apóstolo, and massive pisonay trees. Sellers come from many different villages, many of them from remote populations high in the Andes, and wear the dress typical of their village. Goods for sale include sweaters, ponchos, tapestries, rugs, carved gourds, musical instruments, etc.

Alpacas roam the ancient streets of this quiet town and on market days owners kindly offer photos for a tip. A little girl rushes to my side, wearing tattered traditional clothing, and exudes the pride of an Incan princess as she hands me her baby alpaca, a prized possession, and likely a friend. The tiny animal is white, warm, soft and adorable beyond words. The little girl’s eyes never leave her adored pet and as soon as the photo is snapped she collects and snuggles it in a pouch across her chest. It’s a tender sight and shows me how in many ways the Alpaca provides sustenance for the spirit of the Andean people.

Feria de San Telmo- Buenos Aires, Argentina: The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires is known for its funky Bohemian vibe, tango and timelessness. It’s a fun area to visit any day of the week but San Telmo truly shines on Sundays. Centered around the Antiques Fair in Plaza Dorrego and stretching down the cobbled Calle Defensa, the Sunday market leaves shoppers and people-watchers awestruck! Artists, musicians and vendors come from near and far to share their talents and trades with the world.

We shade ourselves under a giant tree over the Plaza Dorrego and snoop around a stall selling postcards from the 1920s, a colorful collection of old glass bottles, antique baubles, and lace lovelies. If only these items could talk and tell of the lives they’ve been a part of over the decades, maybe even centuries. Was this necklace worn to a lavish party perhaps in the late 19th or early 20th century, during the zenith of Argentinean Prosperity? Did this wine bottle contain a welcome reprise from the harsh economic crash in 1999? As I ponder the past, I look toward the plaza and see an impromptu tango dance between an old man in a pinstriped smoking jacket and glamorous woman in a slitted evening gown. I watch them dance the sultry, melancholic dance as people have done here for ages. History lives.

The Grand Bazaar- Istanbul, Turkey: The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Situated over 58 covered streets and 31,000 square meters, about 250,000 visitors come each day to buy everything from jewelry, Turkish carpets, leather, glazed pottery, spices, and much, much more! The Grand Bazaar is a small town in itself, with miles of passageways, restaurants, mosques, banks, police stations, and 4,000 shops.

We’re tired and lost. We’ve loitered the aisles and alleys of this giant market for hours browsing the conglomeration of wares but I can’t leave without sumac! I smell its aroma and let my nose guide me across the maze of this ancient trading center. Its astringent lemony flavor is like nothing I’ve tried before. It's very popular in the Middle East and is sprinkled liberally on salads, rice, meat, etc. Finally, I come to a stall selling every imaginable spice- paradise for those, like me, who believe, ‘spice is the spice of life’.

Floating Markets of Thailand: Several floating markets around Bangkok offer a glimpse at the traditional Thai way of life. Small wooden boats full of fruits and produce from nearby orchards and communities make a colorful and bustling scene at market time. The boats are usually paddled by Thai women and flat-topped conical hats, which are characteristic to all parts of Thailand. The floating markets are still important commercial centers for those living along the banks with no road access. Three floating markets are within reach of Bangkok: Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Tha Kha Floating Market, Bang Khu Wiang Floating Market.

A monk, dressed in an orange robe, passes in front of me. He waves over a small wooden boat and requests a sweet orange. He peels the fruit and eats it with a smile on his face. I can almost taste its sweetness by watching this peaceful man enjoy such a simple pleasure. As Buddhism teaches, by living a pure and simple life, one is able to gain extraordinary insight into the nature of things. The buzzing of Bangkok fades and I simply enjoy the charming scene.

San Lorenzo Market- Florence, Italy: There are many street markets in Florence but the liveliest is San Lorenzo that stretches over a labyrinth of medieval streets that encircle San Lorenzo Basilica. You'll find leather goods, clothes, and souvenirs. As part of this market, you'll find the fruit and vegetable market in the nearby Piazza del Mercato Centrale.

We wander the stalls of leather goods and I decide to try on a beautiful black calfskin jacket. It feels like butter. I rub my hands across it, coveting this gorgeous garment. My husband sees the look in my eyes and immediately makes it mine. To this day, whenever I wear my leather jacket I feel quite literally wrapped in the tenderness, warmth and affection of il mio vero amore!

While markets can be a vulgar exhibition of physical and material commodities like Patpong, or an endless maze of savory aromas like the Grand Bazaar, a spiritual revelation like in Thailand, a warming and heartwarming experience like in Florence, a blast from the past like in Buenos Aires, or a traditional and commercial gathering like in never know what you will find. Have an open mind, a fat wallet, an affirmative ‘No Thanks’, and a love of the bargain hunt!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 - Year of the Dragon

2011 was a terrific year! I was blessed with love, laughter, and lots of travel!

While trying to avoid a trite rundown of my travels, akin to those Christmas letters written in the third person, bragging about the year and all its splendors, I will say that I enjoyed many a'trip in 2011.

I surprised my husband with a trip to Montreal for his birthday, visited Machu Pichu and various other treasures of Peru, and finally made it back to the motherland- Scotland. Aside from my international galavanting, I ventured to Oklahoma to visit my parents, won a trip to California which I shared with my best friend, made an annual trek to Florida to visit family, and saw Kentucky for the first time for a dear friend's wedding. All and all, 2011 was journey-full!

On each and every trip I learned something about the world, about people, about myself. That's the best thing about travel- it opens your eyes and makes you realize, as much as you think you know, there's always more to learn. I love that about travel. Seeing new places opens you up, and like a sponge, you absorb the world; new experiences, new relationships, new knowledge.

In Montreal I learned it's better to give than to receive. In Peru I learned that the old adage 'don't drink the water' applies to ice as well. In Scotland I learned my heart beats with a Scottish brogue and that as long as I live, and as much as I see, Edinburgh will always be my most favorite city in the whole wide world. In Oklahoma I learned that even though I have never lived there, home is where my parents are. In California I learned that good company can mitigate even the doggiest 'hipster' hotel and, looking back, it's reconnecting over funny stories and camaraderie that breathe new life into a relationship. In Florida I learned, as I do every year, that family is the most important thing in life. In Kentucky, aside from learning to not fly United, I learned that a good friend is a treasure and I felt the joy of knowing how lucky I truly am.

With the passing of another year I have fulfilled one of my life goals, an item on my bucket fill up a passport with stamps and visas from around the world. There's not a single free space in my beautiful, blue travel document. Cover to cover- it's full and I couldn't feel more blessed or proud.

With a new year, and a new passport in 2012, I hope to have many more adventures. My blank passport is analogous to the beginning of a year. Unknown. Where will I go? Who will I meet? What will see? What tastes await me? What will I learn? How will I grow and change? It's exhilarating, not knowing. Every time you step out your front door, you never know where the wind will blow you.

Cheers to 2012, the year of the dragon. May this year's travel, yours and mine, be exciting, courageous and passionate. May the wind blow us across the four corners of this world and may we continue to experience the energy, vitality and enthusiasm of the travel bug!