In Memoriam: U.S. Space Shuttle Program

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. You too? I guess at some point, most of us children of the Space Shuttle generation (the first shuttle lifted off on April 12, 1981, one month and two days after I was born) wanted to be astronauts. But it wasn’t a passing fad for me. I wasn’t one of those kids who had an ever changing list of things I wanted to be. I never wanted to be a doctor, a nurse, a veterinarian, or a firefighter. I wanted to be two things and two things only: a writer, which I am on my way to being, and an astronaut, which I will never be.

I held on to that dream of being an astronaut long after most kids give up on childhood fantasies. As a Governor’s Scholar (yes, I was and still am a nerd), I studied astronomy. When Story Musgrave showed hours worth of slides of photos he’d taken on his shuttle trips, I sat starry-eyed while the kids around me dozed. When I interviewed at Rice University, I answered a question about what interested me about Rice with “its proximity to NASA.”

To me, there is nothing more fascinating than outer space. It is the last frontier, the ultimate travel destination. If I could go anywhere in the world, I’d go to space. Unfortunately, however, I’m not an astronaut. Turns out, if there’s one academic subject that doesn’t come easily to me, it’s physics. Turns out, I don’t have great eyesight. Turns out, I’m a good bit claustrophobic. Turns out that even though I went to college on an engineering scholarship, I came out with English and German degrees.

Despite all that, there’s always been a part of me that thought, maybe, perhaps, I could still do it. An ember of the dream still lived in me. “Next time,” I thought, thought I’m not Hindu and am not sure what I mean by “next time.” But turns out, even if I had been exceptional at physics, and had ace eyesight, and loved tiny spaces, and was one of those terribly lucky people chosen by NASA to train as an astronaut, I still might never had made it into space. Tomorrow, if all things go according to plan, the U.S. Space Shuttle program will hold its final launch. Tomorrow, at 11:26 a.m. EST, an era ends.

Sure, there will still be space flights (by the Russians or by private agencies and perhaps down the road again by NASA in other spacecraft), but there’s something terribly sad to me about the Space Shuttle Program ending. It’s as though we’re shutting down hope and magic and impossible dreams that maybe aren’t entirely impossible—at least the hopes and magic and dreams and “next times” of nerdy kids like me.

Tomorrow, though I am swimming in an ocean of work (see, lack of blog posting for months), I will stop and turn on the TV and watch the shuttle launch and pretend for a minute that I am there in person, that I am on that shuttle as it counts down for a final blastoff, for its final view of Earth from the magnificence of space.

Godspeed, Atlantis, Godspeed.

(Endeavor, the second to last shuttle to launch, lights up the night as it sits on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, as seen from across the water in Titusville. I’ll relay the story of how and why I was in photo-taking distance of the shuttle in the middle of the night in my next post [which, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise {and the edits don’t bury me}, won’t be months from now.])

Photo Friday: Hawaii’s Waterfalls

What’s more tropical than a waterfall? Sure there are plenty of waterfalls in nontropical locations—take Niagara Falls, for instance—but when I think waterfall, I think of a tropical climate, complete with orchids, colorful birds, and palm trees. That just seems the appropriate place for waterfalls in my opinion. Hawaii appears to support this theory of mine, as it is home to a plethora of beautiful waterfalls that come in all sizes and shapes (and occasionally varying colors too, thank you rainy season mud).

Being waterfall fans (come on, who doesn’t like to see gushing water jump off of a cliff?), we searched out a selection of waterfalls on our visit.

On Kauai, we first visited Opaeka’a Falls and Wailua Falls, both of which you can drive up to. Much better roadside attractions in my mind than a giant ball of twine.

We then saw more of Kauai’s water wonders on a visit to Waimea Canyon. We viewed many of the falls from a distance, but we earned the right to get up close and personal with Waipo’o Falls on a challenging hike through the canyon. Honestly, the view of the falls is better from afar, but it was a scenic hike. And from a distance, my parents could not have practiced their American Gothic pose while standing over a waterfall. Worth it.

The Hilo side of the Big Island is well known for being wet, which might be a downer for some, but on the plus side, it means you’ll find lots of waterfalls. Just a bit north of Hilo, Rainbow Falls is a well-established tourist spot, but even when a tour bus full of cruise ship passengers pulls up at the same time you do, you can still get some uninterrupted views. It’s quite powerful in the rainy season months, but it’s also quite brown thanks to all the run-off.

Well worth the $15 admission fee, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden overflows with beauty. Nestled amidst all the flowers and trees and ferns and other tropical plants is this lazy little waterfall.

Battling for the tile of most noteworthy waterfall in Hawaii is Akaka Falls,which plunges 420 feet into a pool.

It’s practically impossible to go to Hawaii and not see a waterfall unless you plant yourself in Waikiki and never leave. With many waterfalls either right on the road or just a short walk from it, plan to pull over for the view.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah: Zip Lining on Kauai

I like to think that I’ve done a fair amount of adventurous things in my life. I’ve jumped into a glacial river and gone hydrospeeding down it with nothing but a little piece of foam to guide me through the rapids. I’ve stepped into crampons and climbed a wall of ice. I learned to scuba dive. I’ve soared over Victoria Falls in a microlight. I’ve rappelled down a waterfall. I’ve rafted (and in part, swam) down the Nile.

In short, I like to do things that fall a little bit on the adventurous side. Until our trip to Hawaii, I had not, however, gone zip lining. I was way behind the curve.

But thanks to my mom (yep that’s right, my mom), I’m all caught up.

Now my mom likes to have fun and try new things, but she’s not the queen with a capital Q of adventure. Yet when I was making our Hawaii itinerary and asking for suggestions, she kept throwing out zip lining. At first, I thought she was kidding. Then I thought it was weird that she just kept bringing it up. So finally, I asked her if she was serious. Turns out, she was. My mom really wanted to go zip lining. So I did a little research, made a few phone calls, and the next thing I knew, zip lining was on the itinerary.


We woke up to gray skies and rain on the morning we were to go zip lining. Not exactly what I had in mind as I pictured myself soaring over the valleys of Kauai. But we were on the Garden Island, after all, and unfortunately none of us are sweet enough to melt in the rain. So we forged ahead.

Weighed and then outfitted with harnesses and helmets, we jumped in an old Army-style vehicle to bump our way up to the top of the valley we were going to zip line down (and which was the same valley where Tropic Thunder was filmed). The rain came and then went, teasing us but never clearing entirely. We were meant to get wet it seems. And boy did we ever.

But honestly, the rain didn’t affect our fun one bit. Though clouds surrounded the valley, we still had beautiful views down the valley, lush with trees and rivers. And zipping over it all turned out to be a great rush and not the least bit scary. As someone who isn’t super fond of heights, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like zip lining, but even on the tallest, longest runs, I didn’t feel a bit of fear. It was really just plain fun, and I’m glad I can now add zip lining to the list of adventures I’ve been lucky enough to have.

As for my mom, well, I think she’s been looking for her next chance to clip on, leap off, and zip away. We might have an addict on our hands.

*Sorry for any blurry pictures. Taking photos of moving objects in pouring rain is tricky.

*We went zip lining with Kauai Backcountry Adventures, who we would highly recommend.  The staff was fantastic—both very knowledgeable and very fun—and the course was great fun.

Photo Friday: Tasty Hawaii

Right near the top of my list of reasons I love to travel is the opportunity to eat local specialties. This is true of whether I’m going to New York or New Delhi. Everywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, has its own special cuisine—something they do better than anywhere else. Hawaii, of course, is no exception. Here, in words and pictures, are my favorite Hawaii eats.

(Please note, I am not much of a food photographer. This is primarily because I am a top-notch food eater, and I either get so excited about my food that I forget to photograph it at all or I get so anxious to eat my food that I fail to take a good photo. I’m sorry.)

No trip to Oahu is complete without a trip (or was it three? or four?) to Leonard’s, home of the island’s most famous malasadas. For all of you sad souls have never had one, malasadas are Portuguese donuts. Best eaten straight from the grease and piping hot, traditional malasadas are served covered in sugar, though at Leonard’s, you can also opt for malasadas stuffed with chocolate, custard, haupia (coconut milk custard), or the flavor of the month (it was pineapple in February, macadamia nut in March). Expect lines out the door at Leonard’s, but don’t let them deter you. The malasadas are totally worth it.

Another Hawaii must-have is shave ice (note: it’s called shave not shaved ice). To be clear, shave ice and snow cones are completely different things. Shave ice is about one million times better than snow cones, because of the way that the ice is shaved very, very finely with an incredibly sharp blade so that the ice actually absorbs whatever flavoring is added to it unlike with a snow cone where it all drops to the bottom. It’s very common in Hawaii to eat your shave ice with ice cream or red beans at the bottom. I’ve never tried the beans, but the ice cream is a fun choice because it gets all the leftover syrup and thus makes for a tasty treat. As for flavors, I like to stick with the tropical choices, including liliko’i (Hawaiian for passion fruit), mango, and pineapple. Probably the most popular shave ice shack in Hawaii is Matsumoto’s on Oahu’s North Shore. I’ve had it and can vouch for it, though this time we tried Aoki’s and I would rate it just as highly.

I’m a big fan of seafood, especially when it’s served in a casual atmosphere, and it’s hard to get much more casual than the shrimp shacks and trucks dotting the islands. The biggest collection of them that I am aware of is in the vicinity of Kahuku on Oahu. These “restaurants” keep things simple with a small menu that basically consists of shrimp served in a couple different ways (with butter and garlic sauce, with cocktail sauce, with a hot and spicy sauce). They’re delivered in a styrofoam container with the common two scoops of rice, and there’s really nothing to do but dive in and get messy. The shrimp are ridiculously huge and delicious. The only negative is how long the wait can be. This is not fast food; waits of 40 minutes are not uncommon. But, hey, you’re in Hawaii. This is island time. Get used to it. As for recommendations, I’ve tried both Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp Truck and Romy’s Kahuku Shrimp Shack and can vouch for both of them, though if you’re a fan of spicy, I’d suggest Giovanni’s. Their spicy shrimp live up to the billing.

I’m a sucker for farmer’s markets, so of course, I made it a point to seek one out in Hawaii and I’m definitely glad I did. We happened to arrive in Po’ipu on Kauai on the day that the farmer’s market was being help in nearby Koloa. As we pulled up, I thought that there must be something else going on in the park where it was held, because of the overwhelming number of people, but nope, people just take their farmer’s markets seriously on Kauai. (There was a gate keeping people out until the designated start time, and there was a huge crowd waiting at it, so to get the good stuff, get there early.) The market wasn’t huge, but the offerings were delicious, with a special emphasis on the tasty fruit grown on the island. We loaded up with apple bananas (my favorite!), oranges, grapefruit, papaya, pineapple, starfruit, and tomatoes, all of which were awesome. I highly recommend seeking out a farmer’s market while in Hawaii. Each island seems to have a near-daily farmer’s market, though they rotate locations (every Monday in one town, every Tuesday in another, etc.).

Sadly, I didn’t get photos of the other food we enjoyed in Hawaii, but on our list of favorites was the ahi tuna (just barely seared; so good), Kalua pig, saimin and other noodle soups, the Korean barbecue, and the sweet bread rolls.

Other restaurant recommendations include:

Nico’s on Pier 38 (Honolulu): Casual seafood right on the pier. Get the ahi.

Pizzetta (Koloa): The pizzas are really delicious. Pasta servings are large and tasty as well.
Scotty’s Beachside BBQ (Kapa’a): The brisket sandwich was really good, and I loved the baked beans. Nice view as well.
Duane’s Ono-Char Burger (Anahola): We only had the milkshakes were (nice and thick), but I’ll go back for the burgers next time.

Kona Inn Restaurant (Kona): If you’re looking for a splurge, I enjoyed the classic Hawaii atmosphere here. The view is good too, and the ahi was excellent. If you opt for the mud pie, share it with the whole table. It’s ridiculous.
Kona Brewing Co & Brewpub (Kona): Fun atmosphere, good beers, and good pizzas.
Bite Me Fish Market & Grill (Kona): Right in the marina, Bite Me does the seafood proud. Picnic-table eating with a view of the water is teh way to go. (Don’t opt for a salad here. They’re very sad.)
Thai Thai (Volcano): Food options in Volcano are extremely limited, so if you’re staying in Volcano bring food with you or be prepared to drive down to Hilo. Or you could just eat all your meals at Thai Thai, where we found excellent curries and stir fries.

*Be sure to check out other Photo Friday fun at Delicious Baby.

Photo Friday: Snorkeling in Hawaii

There are so many things to love about Hawaii, but to me, one of the best things about a trip to America’s 50th state is the snorkeling. Even though I’m now a certified diver and can go cavort with the fishes deep under the sea, I still get really excited about snorkeling in Hawaii. Honestly, aside from large ocean animals like sharks, rays, and whales, you can see snorkeling almost everything you can see diving in Hawaii.

So what makes snorkeling in Hawaii so awesome? First, the waters are stocked with all kinds of sea life. You really do feel like you’re snorkeling in aquarium. This is not a case of oh look there’s a fish. Oh another one. This is a case of “Oh my God I am completely surrounded by fish. There is absolutely nowhere for me to look and not see a fish.” Second, the waters are amazingly clear. Visibility is awesome. Third, the water temperature, while not as warm as some tropical destinations, is plenty pleasant. And fourth, there are just so many places on the islands to go snorkeling.

Hanauma Bay is probably Hawaii’s most famous snorkeling spot, but it’s not my favorite. It can get pretty crowded, and with so many free places to snorkel, I have a hard time justifying paying to do it. On this trip, we skipped right past Hanauma Bay. The place I would not recommend skipping, however, is the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island. Hands down, best snorkeling in my opinion. There are so many fish and so many types of fish here. The visibility is stellar, and the reef is pretty cool too. I’d also recommend Poipu Beach on Kauai for a good general assortment of sea life and Kahaulu’u Beach on the Big Island for turtles. But what are words when it comes to snorkeling? Definitely not as good as pictures. So without further ado, here’s some of the sea life we encountered while snorkeling in Hawaii.

Kayaking to Oahu’s Sunken Island

Because I’m a glutton for punishment even when on vacation (or maybe especially when on vacation?), we followed up our morning of surfing with an afternoon of kayaking. I may rarely do any sort of upper body workout, but when I do decide to give my biceps a work out, I go whole hog. Luckily, the kayaking we had planned was in an easygoing bay on Oahu’s eastern shore (and not, say, in the whitecaps of Lake Malawi).

After joining the ranks of surfing fans all over the world, we met up with my parents back at our hotel and headed to Go Bananas to pick up two tandem kayaks. The excellent staff at Go Bananas got us all set up, gave us some useful pointers and tips, and sent us off to Kane’ohe Bay for our trip to Oahu’s sunken island.

Though I’d been to Hawaii before, I’d never heard of the sunken island, and Jeff, who grew up on Oahu, was not familiar with it either, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. And of course, considering our destination was sunken, we couldn’t actually see it from the beach just north of He’eia State Park where we launched our kayaks. But what we could see were a whole lot of boats seemingly anchored in the middle of nowhere and what appeared to be a crowd of people walking on water.

We pointed our kayaks in their direction and paddled out on what turned out to a be a very relaxing one-mile trip. The water was clear, calm, and a brilliant blue color. The lush green mountains and dramatic cliffs of Oahu’s east shore framed the view to our right. Chinaman’s Hat rose in front of us. And to our left, a few rocky islands dotted the ocean. Because the sunken island is essentially a sandy fringe reef over 1,000 acres in size (that was, over 12,000 years ago, part of Oahu), the waves break out at reef’s edge, and the water in the bay is smooth as glass.

As we approached the sunken island, the deep water suddenly became shallow, so much so that our kayak quickly became stuck in the sand and we were forced to abandon ship. The water was, at its deepest, up to my knees, though in some spots it was only a few inches deep and in other spots, dry patches of sand emerged.

Motor boats ringed the reef, anchoring in the last bits of deep water before the reef presented itself, and, seeing that it was a Saturday, large groups of locals were hanging out. They had brought with them gazebos, lawn chairs, yard games, and even grills and were essentially hosting barbecues out on a sandy sunken reef one mile from shore. It was surreal but definitely the coolest (both literally and figuratively) way to host a cookout on Oahu.

After anchoring our kayaks by sticking our paddles down into the sand, we wandered around and explored this unusual piece of Oahu. Though primarily sandy, the reef does have some coral outcroppings that are home to small fish and anemones, so we were able to do a bit of snorkeling before just sinking down and relaxing in the water. Next time, I think I’ll bring my barbecue.

*Thanks to the calm waters and the easy paddling, Kane’ohe Bay and the sunken island is a great paddling destination for families and novice kayakers. For their equipment, prices, and friendly staff, I highly recommend Go Bananas for kayak rentals and gear.

Surf’s Up: Learning to Ride the Waves in Waikiki

I was tempted to upload the photo above as a very low-res image, so that you couldn’t enlarge it, and then tell you that it was a picture of Jeff surfing during his very first lesson. But alas, I’m a terrible liar. And then there’s the fact that I have very smart readers. You guys would call BS in an instance…and rightfully so. The guy in the photo above is surfing just down from the Bonzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore in the winter. If that means nothing to you, let me just say this is not novice territory. The waves were huge and the shorebreak fierce. If we’d have tried to surf there, we’d have been tossed around like a pair of barely-there underwear in a washing machine.

But shrink that wave down to a friendly little break and increase the size of the board by a few feet, and there you go—that’s us, surfing in Hawaii.

On our first morning in Hawaii, Jeff and I walked the two blocks from our hotel to Waikiki Beach with the goal of learning to surf. I’d put it on the itinerary. It was my idea. But that morning, I told Jeff a couple of times that if he didn’t want to do it, we didn’t have to. I was beginning to imagine myself attempting to surf, and it didn’t look pretty.

“I guarantee that you’ll get up.” That’s what Mikey says as he tries to get us to sign up for lesson with him. He’s offered to take out just me and Jeff for the price of a group class ($40, usually five people per class).

“You don’t even know how coordinated we are,” I reply.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ll give you your money back if you don’t give up.”

And with that, I’m lying on a board on Waikiki beach, getting an introduction to surfing. Five minutes later, I’m in the water, paddling out to the break. A few minutes after that, Mikey, looking back at the waves, waiting for the perfect break, asks, “Ready?”

“No,” I  think

“Yes,” I say. My mind and my mouth are having communication issues.

“Okay,” he yells. “Paddle!” I dip my hands in and out of the water as quickly as I can. I feel the wave catch my board. I feel Mikey give the board a little boost. And then I hear him yell, “Up! Stand up!”

I pull my knees up so I am in a crawling position. I lift my knees into the air. I let go of the board. I pivot and crouch. And just like that, I’m up. I’m surfing. I’m in Hawaii, and I’m surfing.

It’s surprisingly easy. And way fun. Fun enough to make me keep paddling back out for another go even though my upper body is exhausted from the effort. (Paddling back out after each ride is by far the hardest part of surfing.) Our class is scheduled for one hour of in-water time. That didn’t sound like much time when we first signed up, but once we’re out in the water, we realize it is. With just the two of us in the class, there’s no sitting around waiting on others. We ride a wave in, paddle back out, and then catch the next wave.

My paddles back out get slower and slower as time passes. I stop and lie on the board and let the water carry me where it will. My arms are burning, My neck muscles are tense from holding my head up while I lie on my stomach. I feel bruises forming on my hips and knees, where my lack of padding is proving a detriment as my bones grind up against the board. As I lift up to avoid a wave, I think, “Okay, this will be my last one. I just can’t paddle out again.”

But then I’m up and riding, and I’m leaning forward to go faster, and I’m moving my weight side to side to change the direction of my board, and I’m surfing. I’m surfing, surfing, surfing. And when the wave dies under me, and I tumble into the surf, I climb back on the board and paddle back out to catch just one more wave.

What Skiing Taught Me About Travel

I was a few months shy of 21 the first time I donned a pair of skis, and I think I fell down about five times before I even made it to the lift. I was in the German Alps, near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host to the 1936 Winter Olympics. Jeff had come to visit me in Germany over his winter break, and we’d decided that a ski trip was just the thing to do.

The Alps are not for weenies. On the edge of the slopes were signs warning about steep drops but there were no barriers to keep you from actually going over the edge. I should have signed up for a class, but the classes were all taught in German and the oldest person in the class was maybe 3.5. As I watched tiny tot after tiny tot come whizzing down the mountain, stopping with a snow flinging turn, I figured that skiing couldn’t be that hard. That was before Jeff struggled to explain to me the exact method for skiing, before I slid down almost the entire mountain on my butt, before I spent the night in the hot tub trying to soothe my aching muscles. By then I was convinced that those kids I had seen flying around on skis must have been born with a special gene that made skiing as easy for them as falling down was for me.

By the third and final day of our trip, I could make it down a hill without falling, but it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t fast. We then didn’t go skiing again for five years, until a spring wedding took us to Denver in time for the last ski weekend of the season. This time I took a class, and I began to understand why people might consider skiing fun.

But then, we got caught up in writing guidebooks and finishing PhDs and traveling around the world, and it wasn’t until this past weekend, that we were able to go skiing again, my third time. I had received assurances that skiing was like riding a bike, and it would all come back to me easily. I’d say that’s a partially true statement. I didn’t feel like I did the first time I clicked my boots into my skis—I certainly didn’t flail around as much—but I still wasn’t entirely comfortable.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a worrier with an overactive imagination, so every time I got going at a decent pace, all I could imagine was what it would be like to wipe out at that speed. And so, I made lots and lots of turns. I gave my glutes a workout through overuse of the snowplow. Essentially, any time I got up to speed, I made myself slow down. By the end of the first day, my knees were killing me. On the second day, they began to bug me as soon as we started down the first slope. I mentioned this to those we were skiing with and no one could quite figure out why. I played around. I experimented. And then I realized what the problem was. I was going too slow. Essentially I was taking every turn without much in the way of momentum, meaning my knees were having to do all the work of turning my skis. What I had to do was let go.

It wasn’t easy. I hesitated a few times. I pulled up on the steeper parts. But eventually, I let go. I trusted in my ability. I knew that I knew how to ski, that I knew how to turn, that I knew how to slow down, that I knew how to stop, and so I let myself go. My knees quit hurting. Skiing became much more fun and much less work. I tried bigger hills, tougher slopes. I fell a few times, but I popped right back up each time. I didn’t throw caution to the wind so much, as I trusted in my knowledge, skills, and abilities and then went for it.

As I see it, this is exactly the same thing you have to do with travel. Whether it’s deciding to take a major trip, opting to travel without a detailed itinerary, or choosing to travel to a challenging destination or simply somewhere outside your comfort zone, eventually you simply have to let go. You have to trust in your knowledge, your instincts, your experience, and whatever planning you have done, and then you simply have to make the leap. And that’s when the adventure begins.

Five Ways to Keep Traveling at Home

As I reflected on in “You Can Go Home Again,” not all travelers choose to stay on the road indefinitely. In the end, most of us come home again. Almost always the choice to go home again isn’t about a dying interest in experiencing places around the globe but is instead about the happiness we also find at being home. In the end, being a traveler has very little to do with how many stamps are in your passport and much more to do with having curiosity about other places and other people, a desire to experience the new and the unusual, and an interest in expanding your perspective.  Travelers remain travelers even when they’re rooted at home. Sometimes in the re-entry process, however, we can lose track of how we can maintain our traveling spirit when we’re at home. Here are five tried-and-true ways to keep the adventure of travel alive even on terra familiar.

1. Try out the local ethnic restaurants.

For me, food is an integral part of any trip. I love walking into a place packed with locals, scanning the menu and the plates of those around me, and then diving into a plate of regional specialties. When I’m home one of the things I often miss most about a place is a particular taste, whether it be perfectly ripe mango or boerewors straight from the grill. For us Americans, we have the great fortune of living in a melting pot, where authentic ethnic restaurants abound. To find the good stuff, you’re going to have to dust off your sense of adventure, because it’s usually not located on Main Street. Instead you’re going to have to duck into nameless hole-in-the-walls and see what the guy in the truck on the corner is serving. You may have to order blindly off a menu written in a foreign language or just point at something that looks good. Hey, isn’t that exactly like eating in a foreign country? Perfect. With an extensive enough search, you’ll probably find some fried plantains or a bowl of pho or a meat pie or a plate of Malai kofta that lives up to your memories.

Where to look: Start your search online by seeking out local food blogs and message boards for foodies.

2. Join a foreign-language conversation group.

If you’ve traveled extensively in one country or area, chances are you picked up some language skills or improved your fluency. Unfortunately, the phrase “use it or lose it” applies directly to such skills. Speaking French is, unfortunately, not like riding a bike. It doesn’t just come back. So keep your language skills alive and well by finding a local group of linguists who share your love of the language. Groups speaking everything from Italian to Urdu can be found in cities around the world. In addition to getting to practice your language skills, you’ll also get to meet people with a shared interest in the culture of the countries that speak your language. It’s the perfect way to connect with people who  might actually care to hear your travel stories!

Where to look: is a good place to start looking for such groups in your neighborhood.

3. Play tourist in your own town.

It’s easy to settle into a routine at home and forget that there are cool things to explore right in your own backyard. When we’re traveling, we don’t hesitate to check out museums, picnic in the park, hike the nearby trail, go swimming in the lake, attend a performance, or get tickets to a sporting event. So why not do that in your own hometown? Dedicate one evening a week to trying out something new at home or spend a whole weekend as a tourist, seeing your town as a visitor. To really get into the spirit, book a night at a local hotel or B&B and pretend that you honestly don’t know a thing about the area.

Where to look: Stop in at your local visitors bureau to find out what they recommend to out-of-towners. There might be something on the list you haven’t heard of.

4. Volunteer with a program serving immigrants.

Imagine actually trying to move to one of the countries you visited on your travels. Imagine trying to find somewhere to live, learn the language, get a job, get your water and electricity turned on, register with the proper authorities, and so on and so forth. It wouldn’t be easy, would it? A friendly face who could help guide you through the entire process would be most welcome, don’t you think? As a traveler, you obviously have an interest in people and cultures and making the world a better place. So what are you waiting for? You don’t have to go to Korea to teach English or Africa to build schools. There are probably people in your own neighborhood struggling to learn the language or trying to figure out how to enroll their child in the local school. Consider teaching an ESL class or asking how you could help local organizations helping immigrants and refugees.

Where to look: A good place to find organizations doing good in your area is

5. Take a class to learn something new.

Part of what makes travel so exhilirating is the fact that we’re always being confronted with opportunities to try something new. We’re also more likely to say yes when we’re traveling. Ride a bike 20 miles to see a waterfall? Why not. Give rockclimbing a try? Sounds fun. Learn to cook the perfect pad thai? Hell yeah. When we travel, opportunities like these often throw themselves in front of us. Whether it be though other travelers’ raves, a flyer on the hostel bulletin board, a note in your guidebook, a post on someone’s blog, or a tout in the street, we find out about all kinds of fun and sometimes crazy things to try. At home, the opportunities aren’t always so in your face, but they’re there. From French cooking to yoga to whitewater kayaking to marathon training to speaking Mandarin to wilderness safety to container gardening to scuba diving, there are classes out there and ways for you to keep learning and trying new things, even if you sleep every night in the same bed.

Where to look: Check with your local community college or adult education program, ask at REI or your local sporting good’s store, and read the bulletin boards at local bookstores.

Any other ideas? What do you do to keep the travel spirit alive at home?

Photo Friday: Kentucky State Parks

With version 2.0 of this blog up and running (with only a few snags), I’m going to join in on one of my favorite blog events, Photo Friday. Though I’d love to tell you I plan to participate every week, I can’t promise that. I will try though.

For my inaugural Photo Friday post, I decided to honor the suggested theme of state parks, especially since I spent this past summer touring all 51 of Kentucky’s state parks. State parks are a huge asset to any community, and in Kentucky they’re especially great, since admission to all Kentucky parks is absolutely free. In other states, admission is usually quite nominal, so what are you waiting for? Go check out your parks.

As it’s fall, I’m going to focus on four of my favorite Kentucky parks for hiking.

First up, Cumberland Falls, the only place in the Western hemisphere to see a moonbow, which is essentially a nighttime rainbow created by the light from a full moon and the mist of the falls. Remaining viewing dates for 2010 are November 19-23 and December 19-23. While viewing the falls is the most popular activity, you can also go rafting, hike in the surrounding forest, and camp.

South of Cumberland Falls and just a few miles north of the Cumberland Gap, where Daniel Boone entered Kentucky and blazed the Wilderness Trail, is Pine Mountain State Park. The hiking here is gorgeous, thanks to lush thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurels.

Another popular hiking destination is Natural Bridge State Park, where you can follow a rhododendron-lined trail up to a huge natural stone bridge that you can observe from below before walking across. If you’re feeling lazy, take the chair lift up and then hike back down.

Carter Caves, in northeastern Kentucky, is not nearly as well known as Natural Bridge, but it also has many cool rock formations. Those looking for hiking opportunities without the crowds will want to put this park on their itinerary.

Visit the Kentucky State Parks website to find out more information on all 51 of the parks in the Bluegrass State.