Snowstorm in the Desert…in May

So where were we?

Something to do with bison and angels, I believe. A month on the road, another 4 in San Diego and then a week exploring national parks along the West Coast. That’s right.

It’s been a while since we’ve last spoke, so let’s just get right to it; why don’t we?

We awaken from our comfy, king-sized slumber, pack the car of the few things we brought inside the hotel and take our respective seats in the front of the car: Riley in the driver’s seat and I in the passenger’s. At the helm of the vehicle for the first time in a while; Riley is feeling reckless today and blazes along i15 at 6 mph above the speed limit. Too fast, says the police man in an undercover sleek, silver Dodge Charger. Riley receives her first ever speeding ticket.

We pull off at a nearby exit, and I return to my usual spot behind the wheel.

A few days prior I had received a LinkedIn message from a company based out of New York; looking to form a subsidiary in Miami Beach. They were looking for a hedge fund accountant, with my background and experience, and seemed ready to offer a hefty salary. While neither Riley nor I were ready to settle down into full time jobs; the proposal sounded interesting enough for me to hear out. The phone interview was scheduled for 3pm today.

3pm rolls around and I receive a call from one of the New York executives. A tad nervous and slightly more excited; I pick up the phone, ready to impress. Unfortunately, I never get the chance. One thing I forgot to consider, while scheduling this interview, is that I would be in the middle of nowhere at 3pm; and that my shoddy T-Mobile reception would be far from sufficient. I spend the next hour unsuccessfully redialing the man’s phone number. Around 4pm, I get ahold of him, but as expected he shows absolutely no interest in speaking with me. Looks like I won’t be working in Miami any time soon.

As we near Denver, excitement builds up inside of me. “I have a good feeling about Denver,” I tell my passenger.

“You do?” Riley asks, appearing surprised by my statement.

“Yeah, I think we’re going to like it a lot.”

We arrive at Riley’s cousin, Earl’s, graduate-student apartment building at 9pm. Earl is a wiry lad, a few years older than Riley and I, possessing eerily similar features as Riley’s dad. He is a man who doesn’t lack in intelligence nor wit. I’ve met Earl twice before: once when running a half marathon with Riley in Denver and again in South Carolina, at the Smith Christmas party, and have always enjoyed his company. We spend little time on greetings; as the 3 of us are starved. Korean BBQ is on the menu tonight; as we pull into a dimly lit plaza in Aurora, CO.

We spend the night on Earl’s blowup mattress and wake up to a rainy May morning. Earl has already departed for school and Riley and I soon leave as well. We drive west for about 20 minutes, watching dilapidating tire shops and dollar stores transform into trendy restaurants and upscale homes. We pull alongside a corner house in the heart of Washington Park, a middle-upperclass neighborhood in Denver. A college friend of Riley’s mom, Michelle, lives here. She’s kindly offered to accommodate us while we get acclimated to our new hometown. But first we need to take care of the rumbling in our bellies.

We walk down the pleasant street to a fine-smelling restaurant named, Homegrown Tap & Dough. A specialty pizza and a salad for $10? You got it. We feast and sip on Pelegrino while watching sports highlights on TV. We’ll be back here again, Riley and I decide.

Michelle, a tan woman with dark features, a friendly smile and an equally friendly southern drawl, welcomes us with open arms. And apparently we’re not the only ones benefitting from her hospitality. Another family of four (including 2 adorable baby twins) is staying here as well. Fortunately, with Michelle’s daughter being away at college, and her basement containing sufficient space, all guests have more than enough room to get comfortable.

Most of my May’s have been spent in Florida. A handful have been spent in Atlanta. Similarly, Riley has spent the majority of her May’s in the Southeast. So when the sun began to set on this May evening and the rain turned into snow, Riley and I were intrigued, to say the least. And when the light snow turned into a full blow snowstorm, will falling branches and knee high piles of powder on the ground, we were full-blown shocked. But that didn’t stop us from heading to dinner with one of Riley’s best friends from Atlanta, Candace. We chowed down on family-style Italian entrees, including garlic knots, vodka sauce pasta and chicken ptarmigan. Feeling like we ate a building, yet barely making a dent in our massive plates, we box the remaining goodies (good for another 4 meals, each), and head back to Michelle’s. By now the roads are barely drivable, with snow and ice covering the asphalt, and large portions of trees, whose branches could no longer hold the weight of the snow, blocking entire streets. Riley and Candace make the wise decision to not go out tonight.

We spend a week with Michelle, exploring Denver and ducking raindrops. The city is unlike any we have lived in and we are instantly drawn to everything it consists of. Despite rumors of desert-like dryness, the rain is ceaseless and the nature is green. The restaurants are hip and yummy; the breweries are plentiful and even yummier; and the people go out of their way to introduce themselves to us and answer any questions we may have. People don’t appear to be in a rush, contrary to what I’ve experienced in many other big cities. We notice an absurd amount of dogs; damn near everyone’s got at least one. And we soon come to realize that no one here is from Denver! The city, growing at an unsustainably rate of 10,000+ new inhabitants per month, is filled with everyone and anyone imaginable – Floridians, Georgians (the state), New Yorkers, Californians, Texasians (yes, I made this word up), and prior residents of nearly every U.S. state. In fact, for every 10 people we meet, 9 have lived in Denver for less than 5 years. The few that have lived here their entire lives are called, “Natives.” You can usually spot them driving a 2001 Subaru Forester hatchback, their back seat and trunk filled with flannels and hiking gear, a bike rack hanging from the back of their vehicle, an elderly dog sticking it’s head out the passenger seat window and a “Native” bumper sticker rocking the right side of the car bumper. These people are generally in even less a hurry than the rest of the laid-back Denverites and seem to be pretty content with life (except for one things which eats at them like nothing else – they cannot stand how quickly Denver is growing and how many people are moving here. Hell, can you blame them? They grew up in “America’s Best Kept Secret,” which is now transforming to America’s Dream Destination).

On May 16 Riley and I hug Michelle an Co. goodbye, and head to a small town, within Denver, dubbed Glendale. Glendale, historically not known for being the greatest of areas, has gone through a major renovation over the past decade or so (as have countless other parts of Denver), and is now a cool and [relatively] affordable place to live. We pull into Creekside Apartments, not so coincidentally located right across the street from Cherry Creek, itself. We seek out building 18, subtly positioned in the back of the complex. We make our way up one flight of stairs to apartment 18B. A pair of ornately positioned tennis shoes rest atop the Welcome mat and the fresh scent of marijuana dribbles through the sides of the door. I knock on the wooden door and a tall, lanky figure with blood shot eyes and a crooked smile peaks out. This is Kevin, a 30-year old teacher working at the local middle school. The school year just ended and he’s off to explore the Galapagos islands this summer break. In the meanwhile, Riley and I will be subleasing his vaulted-ceilinged, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.

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Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 3) Oh, and my Birthday!

Back on unfamiliar road, we head Northeast. I drive while Riley recuperates in the passenger’s seat from a couple of blisteringly hot days in one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. Aside from stopping a couple of times to refuel (our stomachs and our vehicle) and to use the facilities, our drive to St. George, Utah is short and sweet. We arrive in this pleasant town with plenty of daylight left. Our first matter of business is fixing Riley’s hair. Mind you, I don’t see what’s so horrid about her new haircut – but I’m a guy and I know nothing about women’s hair. Riley tracks down a highly reputed hair salon, inside which she spends her first St. George hour. She emerges smiling and beautiful. Seemingly, her haircut is fixed. Hooray!

While the initial plan was to camp here for 3 nights, the impending storm and our dirty nails plead otherwise. Instead, I locate a Marriott brand hotel which will accept my absurd collection of Marriott points. I haven’t mentioned Corporate America in a while, but here’s a good opportunity: One benefit of working for a large company is the benefits. Back when I worked for a Big 4 Accounting firm, I spent many days and equally as many nights traveling the United States and collecting countless Delta Skymiles and Marriott Rewards points. Now I can guiltlessly stay in a large comfortable bed for free.

I drop Riley off at the hotel before setting off for a nearby disc golf course. Despite disc golf being a serious passion of mine, I only played it twice in San Diego. This is unacceptable, especially compared to in Atlanta, when I would “frolf” with my friend, Nick, sometimes twice in a weekend. This course is nice. Nothing spectacular, but nice. A huge open field, within a park, surrounded by canyons and mountains. The layout of the course is a zig-zag with little obstacles, making for little challenge. I spend a few calming hours tossing the plastic and walking from teepad to basket. Tonight, I’m the only player on this course. I shoot a respectable 4 over par.

On the drive home, a rainstorm commences. Rain; what a pleasant sight. Having only seen water fall from the sky a handful of times in the past 5 months, I enjoy this moment of car-pounding wetness. I walk into my hotel room to the site of a tiny spec immersed within a ginormous square of wood, cotton and cloth. Tiny Riley lays beneath the covers in our enormous king-sized bed, making for a very entertaining visual. I order some Thai food and chow down while planning our hike for the next day. Being the cheesy lover of surprises I am, I refuse to inform Riley the plan for tomorrow.

Day packs packed, we hop in the car and head towards Hurricane, UT – home of Zion Canyon. As we near we can’t help but stare out the window with mouths agape – massive red-orange canyons, chiseled to perfection, surround us. The canyons boast diverse shrubs, plants and even flowers and press against a blue-screen sky. We park in a dirt lot and track down a shuttle. 30 minutes later we stand at the trail head to Angel’s Landing. We pass a sign forewarning hikers of the dangers of this trail. A picture of a stick figure falling off a cliff leaves one with a feeling of disconcert.

“Misha, are you sure this is safe?” my risk-averse girlfriend asks me.

“I guess we’ll find out,” I reply.

The hike begins along the Virgin River which, while it may appear weak and helpless, is actually the source of all the beauty around us. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the Virgin River has carved Zion Canyon into the formation we see today. I marvel at this fact, as the river is only a few feet wide at it’s widest point, and struggles to carry a leaf along it’s waters; yet the canyon around us is thousands of feet tall and equally as wide.

The trail consists of switchbacks, of various inclines, carved into rock. We spot freshly bloomed desert flowers, familiar and unfamiliar shrubs and even an owl. 2 miles and a 1,500 foot increase in elevation later, we arrive at the infamous chains. These chains encompass the next half mile of our journey, as we shimmy up steep and narrow rock towards the apex. Parts of this section are certainly challenging, and it’s never a good idea to stare down at the canyon floor, but neither Riley nor I feel overwhelmed by this challenge. In fact, we find this section significantly easier than it was made out to sound on Trip Adviser. The 5-mile round trip journey takes us 3 hours to complete. We hop back on the shuttle and head back to the visitor’s center.

Our bellies having worked up an appetite and the calendar (showing May 5) screaming Mexican food, we drive back to St. George with one thought on our mind – San Pedro’s Family Mexican Restaurant. After a reasonably long wait, we are guided by our server towards a red-cushioned booth beneath a sparkly green, red and beige sombrero hanging from the wall. Before we finish reading through the appetizers, crunchy chips and fresh salsa arrive before us. We gluttonously munch down, knowing damn well that we’re suppressing our appetites before even ordering our entrees. Riley orders a burrito while I order fajitas.

A few pieces of shrimp and a sliver of chicken later, I look up at my girlfriend who is ¾ the way through her burrito. “You may want to slow down, Riley. It’s been like, 3 minutes, and you’re nearly done with an entire burrito.”

Riley looks down at her meal and her eyes expand in wonder, as if to say, did I really just eat all of that? “Am I going to feel sick?” she asks me.

“Most likely,” I tell her.

With great effort, Riley nibbles on the rest of her burrito in a slow and mindful manner.

I wake up and it’s my birthday. Yay! I’m 26 years old. I think that’s the last birthday milestone – at 17 you can watch R-rated movies; at 18 you can smoke cigarettes and buy porn; at 21 you can drink yourself to oblivion; and at 26 you can rent a car at a discounted rate. Not much else to look forward to, I suppose.

Riley presents me with a pair of Converse sneakers. She knew I wanted them, and she got them for me – what a gal! I know how difficult it was for Riley to keep this a surprise; as she had asked me on numerous occasions whether I knew what the rectangular shoe-box-shaped cardboard box in our car contained. She also asked me, even more frequently, if she could tell me what my gift was. But I gotta hand it to her – she stayed strong. Never once revealing that my gift-to-be was a pair of gray, size 9.5, low-top Converse sneakers. I try them on and walk a few steps in them. Perfect.

Our day packs packed, yet again; this time with a few additional pieces of gear, we head back towards Hurricane. Prior to entering the park, we stop at Zion Adventure Company, where we rent slip-resistant water shoes and a walking stick. We then drive the remaining ¾ mile to the park before transferring to a shuttle. Today we hike the Narrows; a hike famous for it’s breathtaking beauty, as you hike through the Virgin River, in between narrow canyon walls.

The first half mile or so of this hike in on dry ground. It then transitions to water. Before immersing ourselves in wetness, we change into our waterproof gear – sneakers come off and are replaced with water shoes; shorts and t-shirts are covered with rain-proof pants and jackets. I then climb atop a small rock structure and hide our sneakers so as not to lug them along with us.

The water is cold, but our gear prevents numbing. We eloquently step from rock to rock, as we traverse the river. At times, the water shallows to our ankles and at other times it comes up above our belly buttons. Less than a half mile into our hike I spot a dead deer in the water. “Flash flood must be coming,” I tell Riley. She doesn’t react, as she knows my stupid jokes by now.

We continue our slow pace through the canyons, awe-struck by the endlessly tall structures on all sides of us containing various shades of red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. This reminds me of the time I explored the Valley of Fire, in Nevada, with my parents; during which my dad taught me how various elements react with rocks, causing certain colors to emerge. We continue for a total of 2 more miles, coming up just short of the Orderville Junction, famous for its waterfalls and 1,500 tall walls. We head back the way we came, now moving with the tide. Our old buddy, the dead deer, remains where we left him, now a herd of flies circling his corpse. Upon arriving on dry ground, we gather our shoes and make our way back to the trail head. Filthy and wet, we rush into our respective restrooms and change into dry clothes.

The adventure at this magical park has ended, but we still have a birthday to celebrate. On the way back to St. George we stop at Cliffside Restaurant, cozily located, as the name suggests, on the edge of a massive cliff. We eat ornately decorated appetizers, salmon and steak entrees, lilokoi cheesecake and chocolate cake. Our stomachs having joyously expanded and our minds at ease, we leave the restaurant satisfied with our day. We arrive at our hotel exhausted and are soon situated beneath the king-sized sheets dreaming of canyons and cakes.

Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 2)

An Elantra, having seen many better days, pulls up to the curb outside its owners’ apartment building.

“What’s up bro?” Josh shouts, jumping out of his car.

“Hey,” I mumble, exhausted.

It’s past midnight, and Riley and I have been awake since the Catalina sunrise 17 hours prior.

Riley and I grab a few essentials out of the car before shuffling upstairs to the familiar 2nd-story apartment. We take turns showering, leaving a thick layer of grime on the bottom of Josh’s bathtub. Our skin appearing 8 shades lighter, Riley and I plop down on our inflated air mattress, centered in Josh’s living room, and shut our eyes for the night.

In the morning I get a chance to speak with the newest resident of Josh’s apartment, Buckwheat. Buckwheat, a fellow hip-hop artists, recently replaced Dustin as Josh’s roommate. While I try not to judge, I don’t get the greatest vibes from Buckwheat. Beside the fact that he hasn’t paid Josh a dime for rent, Buckwheat has been generously offering Josh’s apartment as a party and sleeping pad for all his “homies.”

Shortly after noon, Riley and I are back on the road. Our next stop is Death Valley National Park. After leaving the city, the roads free up significantly. We pass desert and more desert. The towns become smaller, as do the gas prices. As per usual, Riley’s eyes swiftly close and the sound of her breathing intensifies. This gives me time to relax and let my thoughts flow freely. Crap, I think to myself. Tonight’s the fight. While having had my phone on airplane mode for the past two days, I completely lost contact with the outside world. As a result, I nearly forgot about the Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather fight taking place tonight. This is the Fight of the Century, for goodness sake.

“We need to find a town between here and Death Valley,” I tell a newly awaken Riley.

After explaining the situation, I pull the car over and allow Riley to take the wheel while I search my phone for a sports bar televising the fight. Being nearly 200 miles away from Death Valley, you’d think it’d be a piece of cake to find a suitor, right? Wrong. Only two, somewhat prominent towns remain along this route. I call every bar within both towns to no avail. Half of these so-called-bar-employees don’t even know who Floyd Mayweather is. After exhausting nearly every option Google has to offer, I’m referred to Tommy T’s in Ridgecrest, CA.

We arrive a few hours before the fight. With time to kill, Riley and I meander through the streets of this tiny town. A Rite-aid and a closed-down Wendy’s make up the highlights. “Why don’t you get your hair cut here?” I ask Riley, pointing to a narrow building with the words “Hair Salon” hand-painted in an arch along the glass window. Riley had mentioned needing a haircut quite a few times over the past month or so.

“You think it’ll be good?” she asks.

I peer through the window at the upright woman with straight, black hair hovering over a young male with spikey hair. She snips at his mane with elegance and precision. “Yeah,” I reply. “It’s just a trim, right?”

$15 and 8 freak outs later, Riley has “the worst haircut of [her] life.”

We take our time walking the span of the town (2 blocks) from the hair salon to Tommy T’s. We take a seat at a high top table positioned in the center of the half-empty bar and attempt to track down a waitress. We finally get the attention of a woman, appearing in her early 40’s, with greasy highlighted hair, thick red lipstick pasted on her displeased facade, and a splash of belly protruding from beneath her Tommy T’s tanktop.

“Ya?” she asks, looking around the shop, as if she’d rather be anywhere rather than beside our table.

“Can we get a menu?” I ask.

Stranger words have never been uttered here. “A what?” the woman asks.

“A menu. For food,” I respond, confused by the confusion.

“We don’t have that,” the woman responds, smirking.

“Is there anything to eat here?”

“Nah,”: she says, taking a step away from the table. She stops mid stride and looks up to the ceiling, as if attempting to remember a long-forgotten lyric. “Actually, yeah. We got some food out back. We got wings, a cheeseburger and chicken fingers. Which ya want?”

An image of the feast ahead of us nearly makes me change my mind about dinner. But my rumbling stomach says otherwise. “I’ll take the chicken fingers,” I say. And Riley orders the wings. We also order a pitcher of Blue Moon for $4.95 (now that’s a deal)!

The fight is, well, not that great. Considering these guys are making hundreds of thousands of dollars for every second they stand in the ring, you’d expect a bit more. Pacquiao wins a round or two, but Mayweather is clearly the conqueror. The most entertaining part of the night is watching the crowd. The man sitting beside me, appearing in his 60’s (but likely only 40), ceaselessly curses at the television. “Fuck you, Tom Brady,” he shouts through his two remaining teeth. What Tom Brady has to do with this fight, aside from viewing it from the second row of the MGM Grand, I cannot tell you. The angered man begins to convulse manically as he slams the table with his fist and curses under his breath, “fucking Tom Brady.” His son, appearing to be a miniature version of his father, turns to face his ol’ man. Anger filling this young boy’s face, he harmonizes his fathers distaste, “I can’t stand that mother fucker. Get that fucker off the screen.” Just when I thought this family’s dynamic couldn’t get any more odd, the man’s daughter (who I had previously mistaken to be his wife), with wild eyes and maroon hair down to her hips, begins to openly flirt with the 40-something year old Native American man sitting at our table. With the fight having ended and Riley and I not wanting to witness what may or may not happen between these folk, we leave the bar.

“That sure was interesting,” I say to Riley a few minutes after getting into the car. No response. Riley’s asleep.

We whirl and twirl along pitch-dark roads for the next two hours. About 30 miles from our campsite, I pull the car over to use nature’s facilities. Holy hell, it’s hot, I think to myself the moment my body makes contact with the outside air. I return to my vehicle and check the thermometer. 98 degrees. And the time? 11:30 p.m. Welcome to Death Valley.

Shortly after midnight, we arrive in the accurately named, Furnace Creek Campsite. I set up the tent without the rain cover. A) it doesn’t rain here. And B) we need to keep things as cool as possible tonight. Not bothering to take our blanket out of the car, Riley and I attempt to sleep. We wake up constantly, drenched in sweat. Each time I wake up I take a sip of water from my gallon jug. By the time the sun rises, there’s barely any water left.

Today’s our one full day in Death Valley National Park. First matter of business is more water. We gather all the empty water bottles we can scavenge and fill them with tap water. We then purchase another gallon from the general store, for safe measure. We climb into our car and head to Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. Interestingly enough, Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, is only 84.6 miles (136 km) to the north west.

Badwater Basin consists of a small spring-fed pool of “bad water,” formed by the accumulation of salts from the surrounding basin. The salts make this water undrinkable, thus giving it the name. Despite the seemingly unlivable environment, the pool has animal and plant life, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the Badwater snail. The most fascinating feature at this site are the hexagonal honeycomb-shaped patches of salt stretching as far as the eye can see. This massive field of white makes for a surreal visual.

With the 108 degree sun baking us alive, Riley and I hop back in the car and blast the A/C. Next stop is the natural bridge. We arrive to this site, surrounded by only jagged rock, which seem to stretch for light years. The bridge itself is a half mile hike awake. That’s a half mile too far for us. So we get back in the car and head to the Devil’s Golf Course. This site is named after a line in the 1934 Death Valley National Park Service guide book, stating that “Only the devil could play golf” on its surface. This title makes sense once we witness the large halite salt crystal formations encompassing this area.

We reenter the Acura and head north towards Artist’s Drive, which boasts a handful of miles of stunning rock formations and colors. These reds, pinks, yellows, greens and purples are formed by the oxidation of different metals, including iron, mica and manganese.

Our last two stops for the day are Zabriskie Point, containing miles upon miles of erosional landscape, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, having starred in many a Hollywood Movie (including the Star Wars series). We snap a few touristy photos at these locations and are well on our way for some much needed relaxation.

We pull into the Furnace Creek Resort and purchase a $5 pass to the natural spring swimming pool. We cool off in the 90 degree water, before drying off and heading back to our campsite to begin cooking dinner.

Not to toot my own horn, but damn – this dinner is absolutely sensational. Keeping steaks on ice for the previous 48 hours pays off, as we now lay these fresh slabs of meat out over the open fire and grill them to perfection. Throw in some grilled corn, broccoli and brown rice pasta and we have yourselves the tastiest meal of 2015. As if we need it, Riley and I pull out graham crackers, marshmallows and a Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bar and concoct mouthwatering s’mores.

Our energy levels expended and our stomachs content, we lie down in our tent and gaze at the full moon glimmering in the distance. Before long we are sound asleep.

Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 1)

Beads of sweat drip off Jaime’s plump face. His close-knit eyes scan the apartment, seeking any damage or misplaced items. “Everything looks good,” he says. “You’ll be getting your security deposit back within the next week.”

And with that we lock the door to our San Diego home for the final time. We have Jaime, the Total Property Management inspection manager, snap a photo of us on my iPhone before Riley and I hop in her packed-to-the-brim 2011 Acura TSX and begin our 2nd road trip in 5 months.

En route to the San Pedro port, we accidentally stumble upon a Mexican-themed farmer’s market. We order pupusas, pollo encebollados and panes rellenos in bulk to satisfy our empty stomachs. Our appetites quenched we head back to the car. I adjust the bike rack carrying Riley’s Bianchi and my Schwinn, before heading off for the port, locating only a few miles from here.

For the final 10 minutes of our drive we pass mostly construction zones and industrial sites, as this working-class city has very little beauty to boast. We park in a massive parking lot surrounded by an immense teal structure possessing thousands of multi-colored freight containers. Countless cranes maneuver these heavy chunks of rectangular plastic, steel and fiber, repositioning them onto cargo ships. In front of the industrial havoc rests the Catalina Island Tours building. Riley and I extract our backpacks from the car and load them up with camping essentials. With my 55 Liter backpacking backpack weight approximately 3 times that of Riley’s JanSport, we waddle over to our ship.

I nap as our boat floats along the Pacific for 75 minutes, towards the Two Harbors port, located on the North East part of the island. The boat docks and we follow a small herd of people, including an eccentrically dressed bride and groom, onto the island. Despite the 80lbs of combined weight on our shoulders, a sense of lightness instantly encompasses Riley and me as we step foot on this majestic plot of land. Light waves splash into the bluest bay, mirroring an equally radiant sky. Sand stretches from the water towards the areas’ only general store and restaurant. Only 2 dozen people circulate Two Harbors as the tourist season hasn’t hit full force yet. These individuals ride kayaks and eat ice cream purchased from the general store.

With the afternoon sun threatening only 5 to 6 hours of remaining daylight, Riley and I run into the general store and purchase the one essential we lack – a gallon of water. Map in hand and hip-belts tightened we set off for the 7 mile hike towards Parson’s Landing. The trail commences with a quarter mile 35 degree incline. A half hour later we reach the apex, exhausted, and wondering if this hike was a good idea. Fortunately, the trail evens out, with occasional inclines followed by immediate declines. We walk along the edge of a mountain, with breathtaking views of the ocean to our right and vegetation and rock to our left. The climate here is noticeably less arid, as the Southern Californian succulents and brown vegetation we have gotten used to has been replaced with a slightly greener and more humid ambiance.

An hour into our journey we stop to hydrate and refuel. I tie my shoe, tighten my backpack straps and begin walking again. As I look up a fuzzy creature with red fur turns to stare me in the eye before scurrying across the trail and ducking into a hole in the ground. This 4 foot bundle of joy was a fox. “I just saw one of the 4 animals posted on the Animals You May See on the Trail sign at the beginning of the hike,” I tell Riley.

“Ugh, I missed it,” Riley exclaims.

For the next hour we continue our brisk pace, stopping often to drink and eat; more so to relieve the weight on our backs than to fulfill our bellies. About 2/7 of the way through our journey, Riley and I discuss how thankful we are to the Catalina Island Conservancy. This nonprofit organization was established in 1972, through the efforts of the Wrigley and Offield families, to protect and restore Santa Catalina Island. The families deeded 42,135 acres (170.51 km2), approximately 88% of the island, to the organization. Essentially, this means that 88% of the island cannot be touched for any purposes other than hiking and maintaining trails. As such, the view Riley and I see now is the same as it was 45 years ago. This is truly amazing when considering how much towns like Coral Springs (which was 100% covered in swamp), Atlanta (which has grown from 1.5M to 5.5M people since 1972) and San Diego (which was essentially unknown outside of its military base) have grown during this time frame.

As we near the ¾ point of our hike the trail thins significantly as most prior hikers have turned back by now. “A couple more miles,” I tell Riley, who is noticeably worried about the descending sun and the increasing heaviness of her backpack. Moments later we spot a deer crossing the trail. “That’s 2 out of 4,” I say to Riley. “All that remains is a bison and a rattlesnake.” We’re still yet to see another hiker along this infrequently traveled trail.

The hike turns more inland as it cuts through a chunk of the island. We can no longer see the ocean, but are surrounded by lush fields of grass and trees. A hunch tells me to glance at one particular batch of shrubs and trees; a rather unspectacular viewing by itself. For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off it. As I near, a large brown mass forms among the green. “Holy shit, that’s a bison,” I yelp, scaring my girlfriend half to death.

“Where?” she asks.

I point to the hungry creature before us. Comparable only to the buffalo I’d see roaming the filthy streets of India; this is the largest animal I have ever seen in the wild. “At this rate, we’re bound to come across a rattler,” I tell Riley.

With less than a mile to go, a gorgeous sunset begins to form in the distance. A gradual incline among the multi-colored grasses leads to a panoramic viewpoint: mountains and fields make up 270 degrees of view and a magnificent ocean splashes wildly among the rocks in front of us. “That’s it,” I say, pointing at the isolated bay. “That’s our spot.” The setting could not be more dramatic, as we descend the final steps, completely alone except for a slight breeze, a pink and orange sky, and a greying campsite awaiting our arrival.

We arrive at a series of lockers containing supplies. We insert the key into “Locker 3” and extract firewood and water. 8 campsites make up this “primitive” campground, of which only 2 are occupied tonight: a young couple reading by the campfire a few hundred paces to our left and 3 brothers finishing up dinner a few hundred paces to our right. Starved, I immediately begin working on the fire while Riley layers warm clothes. Within an hour and a half we have a blazing fire within a circular sand pit and a makeshift chicken, broccoli and pasta dinner cooked on a $4.95 set of pots and pans from Walmart. Maybe it’s just me, but campfire food is simply the most delicious food out there.

Despite our stomachs being full, we scavenger the area for sticks to use for s’mores. Riley and I watch our marshmallows catch fire and char before inserting them between graham crackers and dark chocolate.

Exhausted, we pass out and sleep like kings. I wake up at the crack of dawn, feeling a healthy energy throughout my body. I catch the end of the sunrise before heading out on a solo adventure. I walk along a thin trail leading to…well, I’m not sure. Less than 15 minutes into my trek, I round a corner and am stopped in my tracks. 15 feet in front of my stands another massive bison; this time directly in the center of the trail. He turns to look at me and I stare back. Curiosity fills the eyes of this creature, while his jaw moves in slow, circular movements as he gnaws on some tasty breakfast grass. I take a few steps closer to the creature, wanting to get a better look and hopefully snap a photo. His eyes narrow. I take another handful of steps, now standing literally 6 feet away. His 2,000 pound frame seems to tighten. Even if he charges me, I’m way faster, I think to myself. I take one more stupid step, before the bison begins to charge at me full speed. I nearly stumble to the ground at the shock of this animal’s speed. Realizing he’s gaining ground on me, I flail blindly running as fast as I can in the direction I came. After the fastest 100 meter dash known to man, I turn around and find that the bison has given up chase. Either he got tired (which I doubt), or he was merely satisfied spooking me half to death and felt no need to continue racing after me.

When Riley finally wakes up, 3 hours later, I recount my tale and receive a verbal lashing in return. Words like “stupid,” “thoughtless,” and “idiot” pierce my ears. I probably deserve it.

We hang around the campsite a bit longer before commencing the hike back. As with most hikes, the return feels quicker and easier. We arrive back to Two Harbors in the early afternoon. First matter of business is food, so we order a – you guessed it – bison sandwich. Content and sleepy, we find a shady spot along the beach, beneath a tall shadow-casting rock wall and lie down. Within moments Riley and I are covered in sand and asleep. We wake up an hour or so later to the day appearing even more beautiful than before. Crystals shimmer atop the ocean as the sun’s rays reflect over the aqua blue water. Merely a handful of people parade the island today, casting the illusion of privacy. As we walk from our nap-spot towards the rest restaurant bar we encounter another fox; this time a baby. This adorable undomesticated puppy is less than 12 inches in length.

Still in relax-mode, Riley orders a piña colada and we recline on a bench by the volleyball court. A few minutes later, 4 guys and 2 girls, appearing slightly older than us, occupy the volleyball court and begin punching a volleyball around. “You guys want to play?” they ask us. We decline the invite. 30 minutes later one of the guys puts the volleyball away and pulls 8 large green and red bocce balls and a smaller, white “pallino” ball out of his backpack. “We need two more. Want to play?” they shout at us again.

“Sure,” we reply. For the next two hours the 8 of us joke, laugh and toss large balls at a smaller ball. We play two full games up to 11 and while Riley and I take last place the first time around, we win the 2nd game on an improbable sequence of throws in which we knock away all our opponents’ balls and end up with both our balls resting against the pallino.

Hungry again, we ruffle through our backpacks seeing what food we have left. Peanut butter sandwiches, teriyaki jerky and trail mix make up our dinner tonight. With the sun setting and the night air cooling, we head inside the restaurant to slurp on some warm soup and nibble on complimentary bread rolls while we await our ship to arrive and take us back to the mainland. In typical island time, the ship arrives 2 hours late. All aboard, and we’re off. Arriving back in the industrial land of San Pedro at midnight, Riley and I lazily shuffle over to our awaiting vehicle and begin the drive to our next destination.

Bon Voyage: A Magical 10 Day Trip Through France

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the international terminal. My Delta flight from San Diego to LAX is on time and so am I, for a change. Once my back hits the navy blue passenger seat my eyes instantly close and my mind drifts off into Lala Land.

The wheels hit the ground marking our arrival. Damn, that felt like we were in the air for 23 minutes. That’s because we really were in the air for 23 minutes. The shortest flight I’ve ever been on.

The flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is a bit longer. 11 hours to be exact. In the meanwhile I sleep, read, watch the incredible cinematic spectacle known as Birdman and write my blog. I also make friends with my neighbor to the right, a woman in her 40s traveling to Morocco with her father, and my neighbor to the left, an older woman with dyed black hair anxious to explore Paris for her first time. In line for the bathroom a young German girl, bright eyed and bushy tailed, talks my ear off about her first time being in America. “I never thought I would want to be in America, but now I never want to leave,” she says. For dinner I order chicken. Big mistake. As someone who has frequented his fair share of McDonalds’s, Burger King’s and Salsita’s (see entry, “Everything is Bigger in Texas”) in my 25.9 years of life, I’ve consumed a hefty amount of meats that more resemble chemically injected tire than edible foods. Nonetheless, this “chicken” may take the cake for food that isn’t really food. First of all it’s gray. Maybe this was a byproduct of being trapped inside an airtight airplane tray for God knows how long, but nonetheless it’s gray. Secondly, it’s the shape of the tray. I don’t know if it always was, or whether it expanded while being heated, but the chicken was literally a rectangle. I poke the blob of meat and it jiggles like gelatin. Some sort of brown sauce lingers in one corner of the container, seemingly not having spread proportionately. My best description of the food’s scent is aluminum, plastic and something sweet. Too hungry not to eat, I take my first bight. It’s slimy and it’s chewy but it has probably been processed too many times to contain anything harmful. I finish the meal and go back to sleep. I dream about junkyard tires.

The plane touches down and the doors open. For the first time in my life, I step foot in France. Now I must find my parents. Thanks to T-Mobile’s Global Data plan, communicating over a mobile device while abroad is as simple as domestic communication. Unlimited free text and data plus $0.20/minute phone calls. I call my father and identify his location. Thirty minutes later I spot my parents in the train station. I smile as I watch my dad anxiously look down at his cell phone, wondering why I haven’t answered his texts for the past 10 minutes, and mouth the words “Ну, где он? (Well, where is he?)” My dad turns and spots my wide grin. The side of his mouth curls into a half smile. We embrace and say a few not-so-kind things to each other, in typical father-son style. Despite having seen my parents just over two weeks ago, the feeling of being back in the presence of the two beings that gave me life is no less rewarding

30€ poorer, the three of us stand on a mostly abandoned train heading towards Javal station. 10 minutes into our transition we switch to a metro train. We exit the metro and lug our bags towards Port de Javal Bas where the Amadeus Diamonds awaits our arrival. A ship, significantly smaller than your typical ocean cruise line, rests in the calm water of the Seine (pronounced “Sehn”) River. A green walkway leads us from the concrete sidewalk to the carpeted cruise floor. We check in and receive our keys. While my parents share two twin beds pushed together in Room 226, I get room 228 all to myself, thanks to my little brother having to cancel his trip to France due to the high school state finals in tennis. I drop my bags and plop on the bed to read. I’m going to stay up until nighttime so I don’t get jet…, I fall asleep before I can finish my thought.

Tonight is the Captain’s dinner. 147 individuals fill the dining room consisting of about 30 tables. The right side of the room is occupied by Germans while the left by Americans (and an Australian couple). My parents and I locate a table near the back of the room and sit down. Atop the bleach white tablecloth rest plates, silverware, napkins and a menu. The menu is broken up into 5 sections: a cold appetizer (“entrée”), a hot appetizer (also an “entrée”), a snack, the main course (a “plate”) and dessert, in that order. While I scan the menu a young, black couple asks if they can join us at our table. Robert (pronounced “Ro’-bear”) and Regina are from Denver, CO and have chosen to celebrate their anniversary on this river cruise.

The 5 of us take turns dictating our orders to Julian, our waiter from Romania. With a pudge belly, a shiny bald head and an endless supply of wise cracks, I feel an instant affinity towards this man.

While 5 courses may sound intimidating, upon seeing our first dish I begin to wonder whether 5 courses is enough. A salmon and salad dish is what I ordered and what I receive are four 1-centimeter-in-diameter semi spheres of ground salmon surrounding one lettuce leaf. I down the dish, wondering whether my body gained or lost weight after eating this meal.

In between our teeny portions of food, my family and our table guests discuss a wide array of topics, from travel and food to economy and politics (yes, I know you’re not supposed to discuss politics at dinner, but hey, it happens). Robert and Regina seem to have traveled the entire world. This is quite possibly a literal statement. Of the 20 or so countries we bring up in conversation, the couple has been to every one: Russia, South Africa, Spain, Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. The list goes on and on. For an occupation Regina works for a marketing company and Robert is a project manager, but from the sound of our conversation, you’d think they spend all day reading the newspaper front to back. Whether discussing the Stalin’s rule of Russia in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg or the fluctuations of the Euro over the past century, the couple has a ton of information and opinion to contribute.

Of applicable topic, we discuss the European form of dining. “They treat eating as an experience here,” Regina says. “When Europeans sit down to eat they truly savor every moment. Whether with company or on their own, Europeans consume multiple courses and take the time to enjoy every bite. They don’t watch TV or sit in front of the computer; they simply sit at a table, grab a glass of wine, and allocate a couple hours of their evening to enjoying food.” This statement obviously doesn’t apply to all Europeans, as is evidenced by the group of kids I saw earlier in the day mindlessly eating fries at a McDonalds with their noses buried in their cellphones, but it’s still an interesting concept. I can only speak for myself, but more often than not, I do 10 million things while eating. Whether it’s watching ESPN, skimming the newsfeed on Facebook or texting, I seem to do everything possible to dull out the meal itself. I make a promise to myself to attempt to eat more mindfully going forward.

I won’t go into detail about every course we eat but I will say that they are all delicious. And after desert, we load up our plates with a variety of cheeses and crackers and fill our cups with coffee and tea. From start to finish dinner last 3 hours. But feels a lot shorter. I head to my room and am soon asleep.

I wake up to our boat docked in a new location. We are in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a small commune in North-Central France. This town, with a population barely half as large as that of my college, can be explored in a few hours. The weather is cool and sunny and my parents and I take off on a walk along the cobblestone streets. Not a half block to the left of our ship is a market. Kiosks full of fruits, vegetables, meats, desserts and negotiating customers line a block along the coast of the river. For a tiny market in a tiny town I am blown away by the quantity and variety of meats sold here. Shrimp ranging from an inch to a foot in size, every part of a cow, from its tongue to its kidney, rabbit, lobster and crab. Certain that it’s long dead, I tap a crab atop it’s shell. It’s eyes shift from side to side and it’s claws make sharp, small maneuvers. I jump back in shock. My mom and dad can’t hold back their laughter.

We walk for two hours or so and then another hour after lunch. The typically European cobblestone streets are barely wide enough to fit a pair of bicycles, let alone a vehicle. The cars are tiny, with the brands Peugeot, Renault and Citroen making up the bulk. We ascend the hill leading to the apex of the town and towards a large cathedral. Upon opening the doors and entering the cathedral grounds we realize we’ve just crashed a Muslim wedding. Aside from a few glances, the attendees don’t seem to mind our presence. We soon leave and walk to a wall along the hill’s edge providing a panoramic view of the entire town. Not far below I spot our cruise director and a handful of adventurous tourists making their way through a secret passageway. Not long after I lead my parents down the same route.

I wake up the next morning to another new location. This time we are in Rouen (pronounced “Ruw ah”). My parents and I enjoy some breakfast in the dining room before commencing our 9 a.m. guided tour. We walk along streets and through alleys containing homes dating back to the 17th century. What’s most impressive about these homes is they aren’t made of durable rock, they’re made of wood. Oakwood, to be specific. To make the Oakwood more durable, inhabitants would soak the timbers in the ocean for 7 years and then dry the wood for 7 years before building with it. 14 years later, construction could begin. Another interesting facet of these homes is they are significantly larger on the 2nd and subsequent floors compared to the ground floor. Why? Because back when they were built, owners paid taxes on the surface area of the plot of land. So after building a tiny first floor, they would gradually increase the size of each subsequent floor. The result is an optical spectacle of multi-story, overlapping, leaning houses.

As we wander towards the main square the guide points out that the cobblestone roads are taller on the sides than in the middle. The reason for this is twofold. The first reason has to do with the nonexistence of a toilet at the time. Residents of Rouen (and various other towns) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries would toss their waste out of windows and into the streets (of course they would first have to yell “Guardez l’eau!” to inform all passerby’s of the oncoming wad of crap (pun intended)). And in case you were wondering – yes, that expression did, in fact, popularize the modern day term for toilet, “loo.” To maintain the filth and the stench residents used a combination of nature and pigs. They let pigs rummage the streets and consume the waste while the rains would take care of any remnants. The second reason the streets were taller on the sides was because that is where the kings would walk. As such, they would appear taller and “of a higher class” than the rest of the town’s residents. If a mere citizen happened to cross the path of a king, he would have to step down into the middle of the street while the king continued walking on the side.

Our last stop in Rouen is at the memorial of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake (which has been since replaced by this memorial) in 1431, at the age of 19.

Sunday morning I wake up to yet another new city. This time we are in Caudebec-en-Caux. Our morning tour takes us to Etretat, a commune along the English Channel. The weather is much colder today and the ocean breeze only makes matters worse. Our group, cuddling to retain warmth, listens to the history of this town. To me, I’m more entranced by the beauty here than the history. To the left is a hill leading to a massive cliff with a striking resemblance to an elephant drinking water from the ocean and to the right is an equally massive hill leading to an equally beautiful view.

While the hike to the “elephant cliff,” as I’m dubbing it, is more challenging, my parents and I decide to undertake it. Shivering in our boots, we ascend quickly, only stopping to take scenic photographs. I cause my mom’s heart to skip a few beats as I climb atop rocks and stand on ledges “only idiots” would stand on. We make it to the top before rushing down to ensure we make it back before the bus leaves. Arriving a few minutes early, my dad and I meander through a local fish shop, with me careful not to touch any crustaceans.

After lunch we have another tour. This time to Honfleur; home to a scenic harbor in the center of the city, an ageless wooden church and 12th Century chateau ruins. Our guide leads us into the Basilica of St. Thérèse, dedicated to St. Theresa. Photos of this wondrous girl rest along every wall. As the story goes, St. Theresa had an energy unlike anyone. She also had the ability to cure many incurable illnesses. 100 years after her death, the ill still pray to her to cure them. Our guide tells us a personal story in which she also prayed to St. Theresa and a miracle happened.

After dinner I head to my room and chat online with Riley. With a 9 hour time difference between San Diego and France I’m only able to speak with my girlfriend for the few hours between dinner and bedtime. Tonight we do a fair bit of catching up. The responsible girl she is, Riley’s been working every day. And with me not distracting her all the time, she’s been wildly productive in purchasing health insurance from the exchange (since she turned 26 this month and will no longer be covered by her family’s plan beginning in May), applying for tutoring jobs in our next location and coordinating her babysitting gig which is set to begin in a few weeks. This is the first time I’ve been apart from Riley for more than a few days since we started this trip together, and I dearly miss her. But as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Monday morning we’re ported in the same spot as the day before. While the majority of the group leaves for the optional tour to Normandy Beach (think: D-Day), my parents and I decide to have a lazy-day and stay back on the cruise. Our physical activity today consists of my dad and I playing shuffleboard on the deck (this is my dad’s first time ever playing) and my parents and I going on a short stroll through the small town. To put in perspective how small this town truly is, in the 2 hours we walked every inch of Caudebec-en-Caux, we ran into the same man 5 times.

At 5 p.m. every day, anyone interested is invited for coffee, tea, sandwiches and dessert in the panorama room, where servers stand patiently behind the bar and a man in a suit plays classics on the piano. Feeling jocular, I decide to play a prank on my dad today. While he stands up to get some coffee, I take the black olive off my salmon sandwich and bury it into the middle of his vanilla pastry. I carefully compress the surrounding cake to conceal the tiny black ball. He returns to his seat unknowing. Attempting my hardest to avoid laughing I bring up casual topics like our remaining itinerary and how my little brother is doing back home. Waiting for my dad to begin eating his pastry is torture, as he prefers to casually eat his sandwich and sip his coffee. Finally, he takes the first forkful. I turn away, trying my hardest not to laugh. He takes another forkful, still not having gotten hold of his little surprise. I close my eyes and look down at the floor. He takes a 3rd forkful, this time unwedging the olive from its temporary home. It rolls onto the plate. I burst out laughing to the point of streaming tears. My dad stares at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain myself. But I can’t. “You need to fix this problem,” he says, still oblivious to my prank. Shaking his head in non-understanding he forks another chunk of cake, this time taking the olive for a ride. I turn to stare at my dad as he scrunches his face in disgust. His face remains in that form until he breaks out into the longest, heaviest laugh I’ve seen in years. For the next three minutes we cannot stop laughing. For sure, the fellow passengers on this cruise ship are convinced we spiked our coffees with vodka. “Those damn Russians.” Once calm enough to speak my dad looks at me and says “If you were 13, I’d understand. But you’re nearly 26 years old, Misha.”

I wake up early on Tuesday, knowing I have to be on the tour bus by 8:30 a.m. The drive to Giverny is storybook like (well, at least the parts I see in between naps). We pass fantastic fields of animals, gorgeous gardens with blooming spring flowers and endless rows of pink-flowered apple trees. Our pint-sized tour guide, maintaining a hilarious high-pitched French accent, utters the words “ooh-la-la” and “ya,” more times in a 5 hour stretch than I have heard in my entire life. But she makes up for it as her tales are captivating and her knowledge is expansive. She takes particular joy in morbid stories, such as that of the 2 men who were having an affair with the prince’s wives and were thus tied to horses, urinated on for days while being starved, then castrated, skinned alive and hung from a tree. “How crazy, ya?” she says upon finishing her recollection with a smile.

Giverny is where Claude Monet lived and painted for the final 43 years of his life. His 5 bedroom home is a spectacle in itself, but his garden is out of this world. The scene for many of his most famous work, including countless bridge paintings and the world renowned water lilies series, this garden contains rows upon rows upon rows of exotic flowers of all shapes, colors and sizes. Foot and a half tall yellow and red tulips, full beds of remarkable red roses, passionate purple Aubrietas and gorgeous white irises trees fill this massive plot of land. We cross the bridge, represented in countless masterful works of art, and near the water lilies. How tranquil it must have been to live here.

No one enjoys this gander through the gardens more than my mom, an aficionado of flowers. The smile never leaves her face as we quietly stroll through this rainbow of color. Using me for my photography skills, she has me snap pictures on her phone of the countless florae dispersed here.

Foregoing the second tour of the day to Versailles, we stay on the boat as it takes off back to Paris. My dad and I sit atop the deck and watch as we approach a dam and are subsequently entrapped inside a lock which fills up with water before allowing us to continue our journey, now 10 feet taller. We then play another round of shuffleboard, which is won by my dad. Old man’s still got it.

At dinner, we eat our usual 4-5 course meal with our new Russian friends, Valerie and Irena. We met them on our second night on the cruise and have been eating all our meals with them since. The couple, appearing in their late 40’s to early 50’s have actually been married for 40 years. Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, they moved to Brooklyn, NY around the same time as my family. They now own a house in Brooklyn and seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Tonight’s conversation is mostly dictated by my mom and Irena, as they discuss TV shows and Russian books. After dinner I finalize Riley and my move out inspection (taking place the day after I return, on April 26) and our move out date (April 30).

On Wednesday morning we are docked in Paris. The trip has come full circle. We rush breakfast in fear of missing the 8:30 a.m. bus tour. My parents and I stand outside the bus confused why only Germans surround us. Turns out our tour doesn’t begin until 9 a.m.

In the few hours we have before lunch, the bus driver cruises through Paris, while the fast-speaking tour guide describes our surroundings. If you’ve been wondering when I was going to mention all those places you generally associate with Paris, the answer is now. We drive past the French Parliament, cruise beside the Louvre (a whopping half-marathon’s worth of hallways and containing 30,000 paintings on exhibition and another 270,000 in the basement) and park beside the Luxembourg Gardens. We then drive over to Trocadero square where we observe the gorgeous Hôtel National des Invalides and the, you guessed it, Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889 for the world fair and the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower is truly a magnificent work of art and architecture. Parting from our tour group in order to do our own exploration of Paris, my parents and I walk beneath this 986 foot tall structure. As much as I’d love to ascend the 3,720 steps to the second (of 3) levels and then ride the elevator to the top, I know that this will consume the entire day and we won’t get to see anything else. As such, we merely walk through the evergreen fields of the Champ de Mars and onto the artificial island of Île aux Cygnes, containing the 1/3 in size replica of the Statue of Liberty, before returning to the ship. After lunch my parents and I walk to the L’Orangerie museum, highlighted by two galleries containing the eight tranquil paintings of Monet’s large-format waterlily series. If lined up side by side, the works would measure 91 meters, or 298.5 feet, in width. They are also conceived so that the four in one gallery represent sunrise, and the four in the other evoke dusk.

The day is capped off with a delightful 5 course Captain’s dinner, an introduction to the wonderful men and women that make our dining experience possible (the kitchen crew) and a few meaningful words from the ship director. The Baked Alaska dessert is the perfect topping to a delightful meal.

At 9 a.m. the next morning we depart the ship for our final time. Despite not refunding us for my brother’s cancelled reservation or allowing us to switch out his reservation to another name, Gate 1 (the company through which we purchased our reservations) and Amadeus Diamond were a class act. Everything from the food to the service was sincerely enjoyable.

A few metro transfers later we arrive at Saint-Mandé Station. A 20 minute walk later we arrive at Building # 23, home to Yafa. Yafa is a woman we contacted through AirBNB. While our original plan was to stay in her second flat in the center of Paris, her boiler exploded. However, she was kind enough to lend us her main unit in Saint-Mandé while she left town for a personal matter. The flat is everything we need. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and a living room. WiFi and a functioning boiler is included.

After unloading our belongings, we head back to the center of Paris to meet with a tour guide we hired through recommendation. Her name is Zhenya and she is originally from Moscow, Russia, like us. We start our tour with a tasty peasant-style lunch at Lyon Café, where I get to try foie gras for my first time. For those who don’t have a weak stomach, foie gras is the overfattened liver of a goose. To create this delicacy, a goose’s liver is force fed with food until it becomes excessively large. The goose is then killed and it’s liver is fed to the French. This sadistic ritual results in this fat and cholesterol rich food I consume today. The rest of our afternoon is spent on our feet.  Our first stop is the Saint Chapelle, where Zhenya attempts to bypass the long line awaiting entrance by stating she is a tour guide. In return for her efforts she is reamed out by the woman working the ticket booth, loud enough for the last person in line to hear. After a few impolite things said (which I won’t disclose in this blog) between these two alpha females, we get back in line and eventually enter the cathedral (but not before the ticket lady told Zhenya she will not sell her tickets until Zhenya apologizes). What stands out most about this 13th century building are the stained glass windows on the second floor. These intricately designed pieces of art are the most extensive in-situ collections of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The blues, yellows, greens, oranges, reds and purples illuminate as the clear-skied sun shines through the glass. The 4 of us then stroll through Ile de Cite en route to the Notre Dame. Emphasis, on “the” as this is the world famous Notre Dame, built in the 13th century. Not one of the umpteen other Notre Dame’s we’ve seen on this trip. The cathedral lives up to the hype, from both the exterior and the interior. 315 foot tall gothic structures encompass this massive form or architecture. It took 185 years to fully complete this structure, and the result is truly awe-inspiring. We also wander through the Latin Quarter, home to the world famous Sorbonne University (University of Paris). In the center square countless students rummage through textbooks in notebooks while sipping on coffee and nibbling on pastries at the Café’s. Unlike my experience at the University of Florida, rather than locking yourself in the silence of your room or the library, students here prefer the jibber jabber of the many cafes dispersed throughout Paris.

As we cross one of the many bridges from which tons and tons of locks (yes, like the cheesy scenes in love movies), a boy on a scooter (not unlike the Razor scooters we rode as kids) scoots by me. This is another unique aspect I’ve noticed of France. These scooters are everywhere. Children and adults alike, cruise around town in these L-shaped chunks of metal as if it’s the greatest invention on earth. And with the narrow streets and heavy traffic, they may be the greatest invention here.

At 6 p.m. we depart from our host and catch a taxi towards Avenue George V, home to the famous Crazy Horse show. Before entering the theater we sit down for dinner at a nice looking restaurant. We order escargot, duck and salmon. Despite the concept of eating snails sounding rather nasty, the pesto and olive oil drenched delicacy is absolutely delightful.

Not to say I’m overly experienced in erotic shows, but Crazy Horse is by far the most sexual thing I have ever witnessed. I won’t get into detail, plus I’d rather you see it for yourself, but all I’ll say is you will be hard-pressed to find any sign of clothes, at any time, on the performers. I also wouldn’t say this is the ideal show to watch with your mom and dad, but if it’s not awkward for you then be my guest.

By the time we arrive home it’s nearly midnight. I undress and plop down on the bed belonging to a child. With my feet hanging off the edge, and surrounded by Spider Man toys, I fall asleep.

I wake up Friday to our final day in France. My mom is sad, as she always is at the end of vacations. Today’s itinerary consists of the D’Orsay museum. While this 5 story, former train station has a plethora of visually stimulating pieces, I am most overjoyed by the 5th floor, containing Impressionist work from the likes of Claude Monet, Eduard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Renault and Pablo Piccasso. Three to four hours and a sub-par café lunch later we exit the museum and continue our exploration of Paris. Our next stop is Montmarte, home to the stunning Basilique du Sacre-Cœur. We ascend the 270 steps to the structure and walk through impressive interior. We then walk through the overcrowded-with-tourists streets of Place du Tertre until locating a pastry shop. My mom has been waiting for this moment since, well, probably since before she even arrived to France. Paris is renowned for their pastries and my mom has been aspiring to purchase and munch on one of those little pies with berries and glaze on top. We purchase 3 goodies – a slice of pear pie, a chocolate éclair and a slice of raspberry pie. We sit on a typically tiny French table and ingest more unneeded sugar. Since arriving in France, I’ve been eating desserts 3 times a day. Like clockwork, I have a sweet every lunch, pastry hour (see olive in the cake story above) and dinner. If I’m feeling really rowdy I’ll even have one of those chocolates the cleaning lady leaves on my pillow before bed. That’s an absurd amount of sugar but I’m in France; I can’t help it.

After this tasty break, we stroll along Rue Lepic, where we encounter the homes of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, before entering Boulevarde de Clichy (the red-light district). Here we have shop after shop of sex stores and club after club of strippers. We pass a 6 story Sexodrome. Speaking of sex, one thing I would like to talk about is the P.D.A. (Public Displays of Affection) in France. Like the stereotypes suggest, there’s plenty of it. At bus stops, museums, restaurants or merely in the middle of the street – couples are constantly sucking face for the world to see.

After getting offered hashish and cocaine and kindly declining, I continue walking with my parents in search of a restaurant. Along the border of the gay district we find one. We order duck filets and lamb. A wonderful last dinner in Paris. The only thing missing are frog legs.

An hour later I’m hungry again and I order a crepe with chicken, cheese and tomatoes in the Jewish district. This tasty goodness is prepared right before my eyes. Meanwhile, my parents, seemingly wanting to avoid a sugar crash, order another raspberry and strawberry pie at the local pastry shop.

We walk a bit farther until reaching the Bastille metro station. Before descending into the underground world of metro trains we take a second to admire the Place de la Bastille (the center square). Many years ago this city housed one of the most prominent prisons in the world.

I wake up Saturday morning feeling well-rested but unsettled. This wonderful trip has come to an end. I spent 10 wonderful days with my family and once I walk out Yafa’s front door, I likely won’t see my mom or my dad for months. My sadness is mitigated by the thought of Riley. In less than 24 hours she’ll be waiting for me at the San Diego Airport terminal.

I shower and join my parents at the breakfast table. An omelet, fruits and yogurt. It’s a few minutes till 10 a.m. and I turn to look at my mom. The corners of her lips curl downward and her eyes take on the form of a sad puppy’s; a face I’ve seen her make at the end of many a family vacation. “I don’t want this vacation to end,” she says.

A slight pang of guilt fills me as I realize my parents go back to work in two days while I go back to traveling. I stand up and hug and kiss each of my parents. Bon voyage.

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the terminal exit, where Riley awaits me.

Our Last San Diego Visitor

My biggest worry going into this trip was leaving my family and friends behind. It’s now 4 months into our travels and we’ve had a total of 17 visitors. That’s 4 visitors per month. Not bad, eh? Constantly seeing the people I love has made the transition to this foreign city very smooth. It’s also better enabled me to enjoy this life changing experience.

Our previous visitors traveled from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and California. Today, our visitor comes from the Big Apple. Fabianna will be landing at the San Diego Airport in mere moments.

I drive around the small airport a few times, waiting her call. The familiar sound of my generic Apple iPhone ringtone blasts through the phone speaker. “I’m here! Yay!” says the enthusiastic voice of my old friend. I spot a tall, thin figure glistening in the afternoon sun. She carries a designer suitcase, wears fashionable boots, and rocks an ombre hairstyle. No doubt it’s Fabianna. We exchange hugs before hopping in the car and heading back to my apartment.

Despite being on vacation, Fab has some work to do today. She’s from NYC, after all. This allows me to catch up on some shut-eye after a hectic birthday weekend. Hours later, I’m awake and Fab is still working. Once ready to adventure, my friend sets her work status to “away” and hops in the car with me towards Cowle’s Mountain.

Although this is my 3rd time hiking this mountain, the experience is yet to get old. Being with a friend I haven’t seen in a year doesn’t hurt either. After a mile and a half hike, Fab and I take a seat in a secluded spot atop the mountain. With a hectic and stressful work schedule in NYC, Fabianna greatly enjoys this moment of fresh air and nature. However, she is unable to full withdraw from social media and soon takes out her phone and clicks the Snapchat app. We smile as the camera shutter snaps the first selfie of the trip. The first of many.

The hike down flies by as Fabianna and I catch up on the past year of our lives. Before picking up Misha from work, we stop by Trader Joe’s and buy orange chicken and fried rice; a meal we often consumed in college. As we near Misha’s office, I am engulfed with excitement as Misha and Fabianna are about to meet for the first time (well, excluding the time they chatted on Facetime for a split second). Ironically, I miss their first encounter, as I ran into the office to fill up my water bottle.

Back at the apartment Fabianna and I begin planning our next few days. Clearly displeased with my current itinerary consisting of “Friday – Padres Game” followed by a bunch of blank rows, Fabianna takes over the job. If I hadn’t known what a master planner my friend was before, I sure do now. Within minutes Fabianna has sorted through countless Groupon and Living Social offers and Googled every restaurant in the metropolitan San Diego area. My previously bare itinerary is now an ornately formatted, Arial font, size 10, boxed, bordered and color-coded masterpiece. Let the fun begin.

Upon awakening Friday morning we head straight to the well-known and highly recommended Richard Walker’s Pancake House. The line is out the door, as usual, but as we’re a party of 2, our wait is a mere 10 minutes. Fabianna and I order coffee and pigs in a car (sausage wrapped in pancakes).

We then head to the zoo. This is my 3rd time here and I feel like I know this place like the back of my hand. I weave Fabianna through the gems of this ginormous place, including the baby gorilla and orangutan stops. Fabianna, a lover of plants, is more mesmerized with the diversity of florae than the wildlife. She stops to take a picture of every succulent we pass.

Among many other things, the San Diego Zoo is famous for their pandas. Unfortunately, the wait is always extremely long and I’m yet to see these endangered species. Today, however, Fabianna and I decide to endure the 45 minute wait. The sight of the two pandas is genuinely enjoyable. They sit there, fat and content, chomping on bamboo. Seemingly, this is all they do. I’m surprised to learn that these cuddly creatures eat about 30 pounds of bamboo a day.

By mid-afternoon we leave the zoo and head back to my apartment. Tonight we’re going to my first Padres game. That’s the San Diego Padres – San Diego’s baseball team. Fabianna and I dress up and head to the stadium an hour before the first pitch. We locate a rooftop bar beside the stadium, Rare Form, and make our way up the stairs for the pre-game happy-hour. This place is truly amazing. Not only are the cushions comfy and the inexpensive drinks delicious, but we can literally see into the stadium. This is arguably the best view in the house. While Fab and I are sipping on our Pina Coladas and enjoying each other’s company, Misha arrives at the bar. Soon after, we head down to the Petco Park entrance. No offense to my fellow Braves fans, but Petco is a step up from Turner Field. The food and beer selection here is unlike any sports stadium I’ve been to. We order brats and Italian sausages along with craft beer before heading to our seats in the nose bleed section. From the comfort of our seats we are exposed to the gorgeous downtown skyline.

It’s the second game of the year for the home-town Padres and they come out victorious. Brandon Morrow pitches his way to a 1-0 victory over the in-state rival, San Francisco Giants. We stay a bit after the game to watch the fireworks show before heading to the streets below. Unlike many big-city downtown areas, San Diego has a lively nightlife. The 3 of us head to a rowdy bar named Bub’s at the Ballpark, where we meet up with our friends Patrick, Ainsley, Matt and Shane. We celebrate the win and enjoy some more beer. As the clock hits 1 a.m. we decide it’s time to call it a night.

I wake up excited for the day to come. Today Fab and I are going whale and dolphin watching. This is something I would never in my wildest dreams have thought of. But thanks to Fab’s incredible research skills, we got 2 cheap tickets to this awesome event. By 9 a.m. Misha drops us off at the San Diego Harbor where we aboard the Hornblower cruise ship. The ship is packed with tourists and volunteers. Volunteers share information about the creatures we’re about to see. As we depart from the harbor I point out the massive sea lions sun bathing on the docks. One brave sea lion follows the ship and splashes in the wake. We pass Point Loma, where Misha and I had been two months ago, before sailing another hour into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here we spot at least 300 dolphins. It’s mind-boggling how many dolphins are around us. These beautiful mammals jump joyfully and glide through the water. They turn on their sides in mid-air before plopping against the endless blue. Upon closer look, Fabianna and I spot baby dolphins swimming with their mothers.

After two hours, the captain announces that it’s time to return home. To our discontent, we’re still to see any whales. Before starting the motors, the captain agrees to wait 10 more minutes in the unlikely hope of spotting these ocean monsters. One of the workers speaks over the intercom, asking everyone aboard to make deep whale sounds. Fabianna and I laugh as the entire boat, us included, calls out, “ooooo ahhh ooooo uhhhh oooo ahh.” Suddenly, one of the tourists on the boat yells out, “whale.” Everyone rushes over to where the man stands and looks towards the water. The whale is not to be seen. We continue our desperation whale calls until a huge chunk of mass emerges from the water. A spout of water shoots out of the enormous blowhole, elevating yards into the air. The volunteers explain that this is a Finback Whale, the 2nd largest whale known to man.

The two hour journey back is relaxing as was sip on Mimosas and learn whale facts from the volunteers. Before returning to civilization, Fab and I check out the whale artifact presentation. We’re the only ones in attendance.

Since my birthday lasts a month. Misha takes Fabianna and me to dinner at a Russian restaurant in North Park, Pomegranate. In the 20 months Misha and I have been dating, this is our first time at a Russian restaurant. Although excited, I can’t imagine the food here will compare to Misha’s mom’s scrumptious cooking. Misha drops Fabianna and I off and heads to find parking. Fabianna and I are greeted by Demetri, the owner of the restaurant. We seem to make a good impression as Demetri offers to be our server. Misha soon arrives to the table and helps select our meals for the evening. We order golubtsi, chakhokhbili and chakapuli. If you don’t know what these foods are look them up. And then find a place that makes them. Because they are to die for. As we finish our meal I can tell I’ll soon be developing cravings for Russian food.

After dinner, Misha and I do our best to introduce Fabianna to North Park. Our first stop is a bar called Hamilton’s Tavern. This bar, known for its absurdly massive beer selection, has a ceiling covered with beer taps. While sipping on our drinks, I try to get Fabianna to talk to a handsome guy playing billiards. Being the outgoing girl she is, Fabianna agrees and sparks a conversation with him. She comes back shortly after with the unfortunate news that this man is gay. At least we tried.

Next stop is Bar Pink, which is ironically a gay bar. The interior is decorated with pink elephants and martini glasses while the DJ plays hits from the 60s. The 3 of us snag a pool table and play a couple of rounds, Fabianna impressing most. As with most bars in North Park, we’re surrounded by scraggly hipsters.

Sunday is our last day together. We spend the morning shopping along Prospect Street and sunbathing on the beach. Deciding to get some physical activity in and sweat out the toxins we accumulated the past few nights, we then head to Torrey Pines State Reserve for a leisurely hike. As the sun begins to set we head back to the apartment and cook dinner. Another scrumptious meal. The night is bittersweet as I chat and watch TV with one of my best friends, all the while knowing she is leaving the next morning. Fabianna is one of the funniest people I know and she constantly brings a smile to my face. It may be a while until I see her again and I’ll surely miss her.

Happy Birthday to Me. Come on Down.

It feels like the days of old – when I was a teacher and Spring Break arrived. No babysitting, tutoring or teaching this week, just play and birthday celebrations.

It’s Saturday morning and my bags are packed for Temecula, a city an hour north of San Diego. Ainsley, Courtney, Patrick, Shane and I pile into Pat’s pickup truck and head north. Courtney, my teacher friend from Dunwoody Springs, is in town visiting her sister, Ainsley. In fact, Courtney is the reasons Ainsley and I met. And how thankful I am to her, as Ainsley has become my best friend in San Diego.

Today we are honoring Courtney’s arrival by going to the “Napa Valley” of Southern California. The large plots of land and spacious houses are a drastic change from North Park, where people practically live on top of each other. Ponte Winery (or as I heard it, “Poncho” Winery) is the first stop. Rose bushes, adequately watered grass and a lavish lake make Ponte the perfect venue for wine and fancy events. We each purchase tickets good for 6 samples of wine and select our first beverage. We then step outside to sip our drinks amid the spectacular landscape. Walking into the vineyard, we are pleased to find ourselves the only occupants of this area. We walk among the rows and rows of grapes, chatting about useless things and snapping photos.

On to the next winery – Wilson’s Creek. This location is even more stunning than the previous. The boys play bocce ball while the girls sit on the soft grass beneath a shadow-casting tree. Between the effects of the succulent wine and Courtney’s dry sense of humor, I find myself in tears with laughter.

All that wine makes us hungry, so we head to Public House, a restaurant in the town’s old-western style downtown. Between Pat’s family and our group of friends, we occupy the entirety of this massive, circular stone table. Hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and fries satisfy our tummies.

That night we relax and watch and the epic March Madness Semi-Final between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Well, not ALL of us watch – by half time Courtney, Ainsley and I are merrily snoring away. The boys seem to enjoy the game though. After a late night snack Misha and I head over to the guest house, which was graciously offered to us by Pat’s parents. We lay down and are soon staring at the backs of our eyelids.

Packed again, Misha and I are ready for another trip to L.A. Holding back the tears, I say goodbye to Courtney, unsure when I will see her again.

Seat belts on and hungry, Misha and I drive straight to Chinatown. We park and bee-line past the Chinese lanterns, cheap souvenirs and pet shops straight to Yang Chow restaurant. After our ungratifying experience in Chinatown – San Francisco, these dumplings, wonton soup, rice, green tea and sesame chicken far exceed my expectations.

With a few hours remaining before the arrival of my mom and her best friend, Vivian, Misha and I head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You may know this museum by the famous lamp posts constructed on its premises. While I’m not a connoisseur of art, I do find some of the contemporary works by Andy Warhol and his peers quite fascinating. To my pleasant surprise, I stumble upon a painting by my grandfather’s first cousin, Jasper Johns. Among the many buildings and hallways present here, Misha and I view exhibitions entailing German Horror Films, Faces of America and Tibetan Pottery.

As we pull into the arrivals terminal at LAX I think to myself how fortunate I am to have my mom fly over 2,000 miles to visit me…twice in two months. While I love San Diego, I do get homesick – and seeing my mom this often mitigates the sentiment. I am also looking forward to seeing Vivian. When my mom and Vivian get together, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing is guaranteed – things will get interesting.

LAX is not my favorite airport. I’ve had poor experiences here before and seeing the chaos unfolding here now isn’t doing much to change my mind. The traffic here is worse than Atlanta rush hour. People flock across the street, disregarding all signs and rules. Moody cops do little to control the situation other than yell at unsuspecting drivers (including one cop who called Misha an “idiot” for putting on his blinker and attempting to switch lanes). It’s an hour after their flight was supposed to arrive, yet neither my mom nor Vivian have received their baggage. Once again, welcome to L.A.

Tonight we have a late dinner. It’s after 11p.m. when we’re handed our menus. Despite it nearly being the next day, Bossa Nova Brazilian Restaurant is packed. This reminds me of the late nights I had in Rio de Janeiro, when my friends and I wouldn’t even begin getting ready for the disco until midnight.

The table next to us hosts two couples. Stylish haircuts, leather jackets, designer skinny jeans and high-rise sneakers make up their appearance. These kids, possibly a decade younger than me, speak in a nearly indistinguishable music-industry-esque accent, indigenous to Los Angeles. Misha and I heard similar speech from some of Josh’s peers last time we were here (see entry “The Final Leg”).

Feasting in a Brazilian restaurants reminds my mom and me of my brother, Pierce, who is currently teaching English to schoolchildren in Brazil. Pierce and I often discuss how genuine and friendly Brazilians are. Our waiter reinforces this opinion. He is almost too eager, with smiles and attentiveness, to make sure we are having an incredible experience at his restaurant. He even gives us a completely flan dessert for my approaching birthday (at midnight).

While brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed at the Comfort Inn, Misha escapes outside stating he left his toothbrush in the car. Moments later he knocks on the door, marking his return. In his hands he doesn’t hold a toothbrush; rather, he holds a large rectangular shape covered in wrapping paper. It’s past midnight, meaning I’m unofficially 26 years old. Feeling a mix of emotion and curiosity I clumsily rip apart the wrapping paper to discover a canvas upon which an image is drawn. Two faces, painted black and white with the exception of blue eyes and red lips, stare at each other affectionately. One is a man while the other is a woman. Between them is a wooden heart covered in pink construction paper and split into quadrants. The characters clearly represent Misha and me. I can’t help but crack up at the image of Misha’s blood-red, voluptuous lips, and perfectly chiseled face, making him appear a bit homosexual. While the painting is nice, the true gift lies within the heart (no pun intended). My job is to peel off a quadrant of the heart, revealing the name of a restaurant. Misha will then treat me to a meal at that restaurant. I then peel off the next quadrant and repeat the process until all 4 quadrants have resulted in tasty meals for us. This is a very thoughtful gift as I have often preached to Misha how I regret not having taken advantage of San Diego’s vibrant food scene. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Not having slept nearly enough to function, Misha and I leave bright and early to pick up my mom and Vivian from the Lowles Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. No one loves seeing celebrities quite like my mom. And in not-surprising fashion, she finagles her way into obtaining free studio tickets to see The Price is Right, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil.

Misha and I drop my mom and Vivian off at Ellen before heading to The Price is Right. We stand in a long line only to find out that the morning episode is “16 year olds” and that we can’t get in. While Misha and my mom (via text) attempt to convince me to tie my hair in pig tails and feign being 16, I highly doubt I will appear a decade younger than my sincere age.

Turns out, my mom and Vivian arrived way too early for Ellen. So they grab an Uber and head our way. With time to kill, we cross the street to a farm-to-table restaurant and order eggs and mimosas. Bottomless mimosas, that is. The plan is to eat and drink and then head back to The Price is Right, in attempt to get onto the 12:30 p.m. episode – themed “Teachers.” Fittingly, I’m a teacher. Even Misha qualifies, since he’s technically a substitute teacher (despite him never having actually stepped foot into a classroom).

After a long wait, we are let in through the gates. Woohoo. We are first seated on bleachers in a large room resembling a storage garage. For the next hour or so, we sign waivers, receive name tags and have our photos taken (which will later cost us $40 a piece if we want to buy them). All the while, the 298 people surrounding us scream endlessly and jump for joy in attempt to be noticed. After all, only a handful will “Come on down.” Despite the mimosas, the atmosphere is a bit too enthusiastic for me.

About twenty of us are ushered into the next waiting area where casting directors select random people and ask them questions. Misha and I are both selected. I am asked two questions by the casting director and I intentionally give bland responses to avoid getting selected. Misha, on the other hand, is asked 3 questions. He jumps and pounds his fist with (what I believe to be fake) excitement.

We are escorted to yet another waiting area. This time we stand outside for about an hour before being guided into another room with more bleachers, TVs and excessive amounts of cheering. While waiting and munching on our overpriced quesadilla, Misha and I examine the self-made t-shirts and make guesses on which contestants will get called down.

After a combined 5 hours of waiting we are finally let inside the studio. Somehow Misha and I land front row seats and are right by the camera (hopefully, this means you’ll be seeing plenty of our faces on the September 8 airing of the episode). The show progresses mostly as expected. Certain audience members get called down while other cheer and applaud on command. After a few minutes my cheeks and hands begin to hurt from all the smiling and clapping. During commercial breaks Drew Carrey (host of the show) chats with the audience. To my surprise, he has a very dry and, dare I say, vulgar sense of humor. Some of the words that come out of this family-TV-person’s mouth truly surprise me (and outright offend a few of the unsuspecting teachers in the audience).

It’s after 6 p.m. when we finally get out. We need to be at my birthday dinner with my mom, Vivian, Beegie and her friend in negative 15 minutes. We rush to our car and head to Spago, an elite, celebrity-infested L.A. restaurant offering Wolfgang Puck’s luxurious menu and sleek decor. After valeting our car we rush inside to 3 familiar faces and Mike, Beegie’s friend and celebrity dogwalker, sipping on martinis. Before introductions are over, Mike orders me a lychee martini and informs me that, ironically, Drew Carrey is one of his clients. He modestly names a few other stars’ dogs he walks while sipping his Belvedere.

Eyeing the food choices presented on this 3-course menu, I salivate over the impending meal. Oysters, lobster pasta, cous cous and scallops are the first to arrive. Then the veal, seabass, meatballs and salmon show up. Dish after dish appear and soon disappear, as we indulge in these delicacies. Between the talk, the drink and the eating we manage to spend over 4 hours seated at this round table. The experience ends perfectly with the most delicious dessert I have ever witnessed. Just writing about it makes me melt with desire. This chocolate brownie is prepared from scratch in the kitchen and is immediately inserted into an air tight bag. The bag is only sliced open once it arrives at our table, emitting a mouthwatering fragrance which wafts 3 tables over. We cannot remove our eyes from the brown spectacle. Ice cream is placed beside the brownie. We all dig in simultaneously. And within an instant, the finest dessert known to man is consumed.

In the morning we are guided by Beegie on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Misha and I admire the multi-million dollar homes compressed along these sloping streets of Hollywood Hills. Beegie points out the homes occupied by celebrities, and there are many, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck and Selma Hayek. Oh, and of course, the home originally belonging to the Monkeys. My mom and Vivian spend the next 30 minutes singing Monkey’s songs I’ve never heard. After the hike, Misha takes off for home while my mom, Vivian and I head dinner.

The next day, us three ladies head to a filming of Dr. Phil. Prior to entering the studio, one of the producers hands me a yellow slip, instructing me to sit in the front row. Unbelieving of my luck of having gotten front row seats to two consecutive shows, I joyfully walk up to the front and take me seat. Soon after, my mom and Vivian enter the studio and stare jealously at me in the front. They proceed to complain to the producer about not being able to sit with me in the front row.

“Well, that yellow slip is for the entire party. She should have brought you with her,” the producer explains.

“Can we go now?” my mom inquires.

“Unfortunately, the seats are already taken,” he says.

With envy in their eyes, my mom and Vivian assume their seats in the 5th row.

The episode is about the Amish Mafia (I can disclose this information now as the episode aired last week). While the show is interesting we are more concerned whether the cameras are capturing us and whether our faces will be appearing on daytime television in a few weeks. Ironically, my mom and Vivian receive significantly more camera action than me.

That night I catch the Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to Old Town Station in San Diego. I hop off the train and straight into the passenger seat of my Acura TSX; Misha sitting at the wheel. At home, I plop on the couch, ready to relax. Birthdays are always exhausting. Especially when traveling. And especially especially when you are constantly surrounded by family, friends and events. That being said, my 26th birthday was everything I could ask for and more.