Travel Untangled: Starved Rock State Park

Illinois is an interesting state. Most people who don’t live here know of Chicago, maybe Springfield then the rest fades into oblivion. Well, I suppose some who do live here also think that way. 

Over the weekend I got to visit a natural treasure of the state that I would recommend to residents and visitors alike: Starved Rock State Park.

Council Overhang

Starved Rock is a little less than a 2 hour drive from Chicago…located in Oglesby, Illinois. On almost 3000 acres of land include miles of hiking trails, canyons and waterfalls…something for all ages. 

The local towns to Starved Rock are the size that city-people like me call “charming.” On a shuttle tour, we learned the grain silos in town are considered the skyscrapers. Imagine my surprise. 

Random grain silos from Google lol
Sears Tower photo taken by me Monday during Chicago River Architectural Boat Tour

I had the best, most relaxing experience during my visit to Starved Rock. 

We hiked through a few canyons, saw some beautiful waterfalls flowing into hidden dips and valleys from the Illinois River and learned of the history of Starved Rock, named for a rather tragic 1760’s incident in Native American history. 

Illinois Waterway Visitor Center

This family trip was also my nephew Malik’s first big adventure. In fact, our group ranged in age from 2 months to 60+ and we all enjoyed every minute. 

The park is free to enter and has free parking. They offer guided hikes, guided trolley tours or people can go explore on their own. They said on a busy holiday, they can get 400,000 visitors. They have a hotel and cabins on site for booking. They also have campgrounds for anyone interested in roughing it for a night or two under the stars. There are restaurants, live music at The Lodge and during our stay, we saw two weddings get hosted. 

I’m telling you, this place has so much to offer. 

Here are some more photos from our trip. Visit Starved Rock! You won’t be disappointed. 

Me & Dad with one of our guides
Me in Ottawa Canyon
Mom & Dad enjoying the view of the canal

Above is a victory photo.  My mom has been through several health things in the last few years including hip replacement surgery in February on Valentine’s Day. She was unsure if she could handle the hiking and so were we but she did it! This particular canyon and hike through Ottawa was a lot of climbing up and down steep steps, taking extra care in slippery and muddy areas, stepping on jagged rocks to cross water in our paths and she friggin (I wanted to use a stronger word here but I know mom will read this lol) rocked it ALL!!! I’m so proud, as we all were. This was a major accomplishment on the journey and such an awesome photo to take!

Loved ones
Sister & Nephew
Me posing with my waterfall friend

Until next time! 

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Reflections: From Chicago to Central America…My Journey Abroad

In 2009 during college, I lived in Central America for four months…Nicaragua to be exact, a beautiful country nestled between Honduras and Costa Rica. 

When I first landed was immediately overwhelmed by the decision I made. I didn’t know the language, missed my family and had no clue what to expect from the adventure to come. 

Connecting to people back home wasn’t nearly as easy as you’d expect, often relying on unreliable internet connections for Skype video chats or international phone calls. My boyfriend being the amazing person he is, helped to make hundreds of miles in distance feel like down the street whenever we did speak. 

My first moment of relief came a few days in after I met my host family. 

We pulled up to their home and called ‘Buenas’ inside the front gate. Maria and Alex appeared at the door and I immediately felt a wave of peace and calm over me. It was incredible and they took care of me like my own parents would over the following months that I lived there.

We struggled communicating at first with the language barrier but eventually I learned more Spanish and they got comfortable using the English words they knew. We made it work. 

Most mornings in my Nica home, I didn’t need an alarm for the neighborhood roosters were a standing substitute. We also had street vendors daily walking past our house at the sight of dawn selling fruits and vegetables. I can still hear the lady yelling AGUACATE over and over, hoping for customers to buy up her box of avocados. 

I was fortunate enough to have not just a loving host family but a friend from college lived there. Her family had settled not far from my barrio as missionaries. Having that family there was another sign that I was exactly where I should be and God would look out for me wherever I landed the world.  

I miss those days often now when I reflect back. It was a fun, challenging experience and a time of tremendous growth for me. 
Over that short time which felt like forever on days when I missed home, I really grew up. You learn so much about yourself when you travel, especially alone. 

We trekked between Nicaragua and Costa Rica – beautiful lands with beautiful people. I am grateful for the friends I knew and met along the way. 

Many Nica friends became like family and my own family and friends back home were incredibly supportive during my months away. Some days I simply missed home even when I no longer cared about the cushy comforts of living in the States. It was great to have good people near and far. In fact, my host Maria still rings me every now and then and we struggle through our broken shared languages haha. I got really good at Spanish in Nicaragua when it was everywhere I went. I needed it to survive really. I haven’t been as diligent since returning home though my goal one day is fluency.

I have been thinking about Nicaragua a lot lately as I feel my passport’s need to travel becoming restless again. I want to be moving around the world with my partner. I want us to visit new places and see new faces and soak in life in beautifully unexpected new ways. 

Me on top of a volcano

I overcame a lot of fear and doubt when I lived abroad. I did things I maybe thought I could never do. When I read over the very raw emotions I shared on a basic blog at the time, it is so clear I journeyed a long way physically, mentally and spiritually during those days away from the comforts of home. I am the better for it and it is a good reminder that no mountain is too big to climb. 

Celebrating the View

Yesterday I was bundled in 2 layers, winter coat and snow boots just in case. Chicago can be unpredictably brutal this time of year.

Today I have the extreme pleasure of penning this post from the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

This post won’t be that long because I am eagerly awaiting my ride to Maracas Beach on the other side of the grand mountain here.

This experience even from last night to today has been fun. We have no true plan or itinerary. Our goal is to go with the flow and we are. Sometimes life is like that and those can be the most memorable moments.

The country is beautiful like they said it would be. I am feeling quite nostalgic because so many things are reminding me of when I lived in Nicaragua.

The weather, the houses, the scenery, the hospitality among many other things.

I love traveling and telling people about new places they can make their own adventure to. If you have never been, consider booking your trip in the future.

It is so important to take some time to enjoy the view everywhere you are. I hope on this Sunday you take a breath, say a prayer of thanks and enjoy the view.

See you next Sunday when I take a deeper dive into all I will learn from this stunning place. For example, did you know it is illegal to curse in public in Trinidad? As in, people can actually get arrested. Stay tuned for the ins and outs of Trinidad including the greatest show on earth…Carnival.

Peace & Blessings

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Travel Diaries: The Vacay Mindset

In a few days, I will be fully emersed in the world and culture of Trinidad. I am starting to get so excited!

Naturally, during and post-trip, I will share great lessons, tips so look forward to that.

More and more I realize two of my favorite things are traveling and writing about it. I hope more doors open in the future and opportunities to do more of these two things that I love.

I spent a few hours today on YouTube learning about what to expect from the Caribbean island. I look forward to the traditional food, Carnival partying, hotter-than-Chicago weather and beauty everywhere from people to scenery.

Any opportunity to see the world and open up your mind and perspective, seems worth it to me. A trip to a new town near where you live or a new country across the world offers the same chance to evolve as a human being.

I cannot wait to share with you the experience. I hope it might inspire you to take mental and physical break from the day-to-day routine to just take a few days for yourself.

Travel is nice but a staycation is perfect too. Some weeks we just need to be kinder to ourselves and take time off to rest, relax, recoup and do what makes us feel joy. 

Actually my new motto is “I work to vacay.” I hope you will take that challenge as seriously as I do.

Talk to you soon from the West Indies!

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The Aloha Life: Giving Thanks in Hawaii

I wrote this to you from aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight headed home Sunday evening from The Big Island,  Hawai’i,  where I spent the last week enjoying the holidays with my family.

Vacation always has such a nice ring to it. It is set on a pedestal as an escape from reality and our regular day-to-day lives. Having been to Hawaiian islands before however has confirmed to me, I can live in Aloha more often than just while on hoilday.

A few years ago I was invited on a trip to Hawaii with a girl friend and her family and even though I was stretched to afford it, I felt as though I couldn’t say no. What if that was my only lifetime chance of seeing the most exotic paradise in our country?

It was paradise indeed. I visited Oahu for a few days and stayed in Honolulu. Walked the loud and busy streets of Waikiki Beach, full of sun-tanned tourists. I saw the sites of Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. After a few days, we hopped on a jet to Kauai and THAT was even more so  the Hawaii I dreamed of. The Hawaii you see on calendars and in peaceful movie scenes is what Kauai is made of. It was breathtaking, gorgeous, stunning.

Fast forward to this year when my own family decided we would spend our Thanksgiving holiday on The Big Island together. I was beyond ecstatic. How many people get a trip of a lifetime…twice!?!

The Big Island was much different than the others I have seen. Much of the land is covered in volcanic rock.  Far fewer lush green fields that go on for miles. Yet it was still beautiful at every twist or turn. During the day the sun glistened off the ocean, illuminating the white, black, green and red sand beaches around the island. At night the full moon felt close enough to grab right out of the sky. On the nights with no moon, the stars shone bright like diamonds.

I enjoyed the sea and the shore. The trip I shared with seven of my loved ones was my most favorite vacation yet. We did lots of activities together but I aso took time each day to sit alone, reflect, enjoy, introvert and so on. It was so peaceful and fulfilling.

Whenever my mind would start doing too much, thinking too hard or remove me from vacation I would snap back to the present. “You have this moment only. Exist here right now,” I might say to myself. It worked.

I took and posted lots of photos but never did I stop fully living in my mental and physical vacation there.

Even now as I sit on this long journey home to icy Chicago streets probably filled with snow, I am reminding myself to keep in the Aloha.

Aloha is a greeting and salutation but also a state of mind and a state of being.

Living Aloha to me means two things:

1. Life Isn’t Perfect
2. But It Can Still Be Damn Good

There were plenty things that did not happen exactly how I wanted on this trip. Life goes that way sometimes — on vacation, at home, at work, in public. Sometimes it is good and healthy to let the controls go so you can ride with the tide. Or sometimes you get the chance in those moments to stand at a crossroads and decide, whether what everyone else chooses is best for you right now. If that is not what you want or need, will you be bold enough to go another way? 

That was the damn good part. I made decisions like am I going to roadtrip with the group or chill and catch up on some reading by the pool? Do I want to climb a mile down this scary looking mountain or miss the experience because of fear? I did climb the mountain by the way. It was exhausting and scary at points but turned into my highlight of the trip.

What kinds of questions, mountains, decisions, challenges are you trying to answer, conquer, resolve and overcome in your life?

I am thrilled to say that I am on my way to becoming a regular Hawaiian island visitor.

I will do as many trips as it takes to remind and instill the Aloha in me, whatever place I travel.

May you find your Aloha.

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Kona Coffee Shop
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Oceanside at Hilton Waikoloa Village
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Polulu Valley for sunrise & mountain climbing
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Legends of the Island Luau
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Kilauea Volcano at Volcano National Park

Wake Up and Live

It is a great week to give thanks. I am especially thankful for the holiday to spend with my loved ones. We decided to take a vacation for the holiday this year. More on that next week.

This year has been full of fun, adventure, challenge and change. I have taken on a lot of mottos this year. I have lots of resolutions. I have set and accomplished many goals. I have set and failed at others. All lessons learned with grace and an open mind.

Wake Up and Live is an important one. It is so valuable to be a person of action.  It is much better and far more rewarding to actively live this life we have instead of passively waiting for life to happen for us.

Monday evening signals the beginning of my vacation. I get to take a break from the regular rhythms of everyday life. It will be a mental and physical vacay. It is so timely and welcomed.

To enjoy life, we have to get out of our own way sometimes. We have to chill on the status updates and work emails. We have to give ourselves a chance to live the fulfilling life we actually desire.

I plan to re-energize, relax and recoup this week. Each morning is a new day to wake up and live. What will you do with it?

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Life along the Thames River: My first trip to London 

I had the privilege and opportunity to spend some time in England this week. It was my first solo trip to Europe and I was terrified at first. I had this irrational fear it would be like Taken 4: The return of Liam Neeson. Then I went and put my brave boots on and had a brilliant English adventure I will never forget. I am fortunate to have now done something so far outside of my comfort zone. It reinforces I am fully capable of empowering myself to live the life I desire.

Here are 25 tips, observations and lessons I can share now thanks to London:

1. Activate international data plan before day of arrival. Sprint made for a shitty and confusing first day. I could not make any calls or use the Internet (including Google maps — can you imagine?) to figure out things. The silver lining was I lived pre-Google old school and just asked people. Thank God it is an English speaking country and also people are friendly. I found out though many people who live in London have no clue where things are.

2. Fly Virgin Atlantic. The high level of customer experience I received in economy (coach for us regulars) was amazing. Just imagine first class. Truly Virgin was phenom from check-in to landing. I even had to tweet Sir Richard Branson and his staff about it. Thanks again Richie B for giving me life.

3. Mind the Gap between the train and the platform.

4. Heathrow Airport offers 4 FREE hours of wifi. There is no limit on devices. There is no catch. There is not even a password you need to type in. London’s hospitality is off the charts and this is a classic example in its purest form. Where I’m from, there is no such thing as free wifi in airports. Not even 15-30 minutes. Sad in comparison isn’t it?

5. The underground train is not all underground. Barreling through the deep, dark tunnels of London I was expecting this ho-hum florescent light experience. I was miracles only if I wanted to check a site on my phone. Every now and then though we burst through the darkness into the light and it was glorious. Keep some gum handy though while riding the Tube. The speed and pressure makes for intense eardrum plugging.

6. Press the open button to enter and exit DLR trains. The Docklands Light Railway is accessible by the underground Tube but operates differently. If you don’t want to look like a fool and you are the first one on or off the railcar, be sure to press the “Open” button otherwise you won’t be leaving. The doors do not automatically open on these trains so paying attention is key. I struggled to remember the first couple of times.

7. Tap your Oyster Card at the beginning AND end of your trip to be charged the correct amount. I kept forgetting to do so at the end because (mainly on DLR), there is no gate to exit through which serves as a reminder. For a while I thought maybe it operates on the honor system. You could potentially ride and never pay. Station attendants can request a ticket or Oyster card at any time though so not worth the risk. Later I also realized there are penalty charges involved. I think some fees for my forgetfulness ate up the pounds on my card pretty quickly.

8. London is more ethnically & culturally diverse than I expected. It was quite amazing. I saw blacks, whites, christians, muslims, asians, even Asian muslims cycling through life together. My AirBnB host was born in Bulgaria. My amazing airport Uber driver was born in Pakistan but had an English accent after 9 years of residence. I met a multitude of women from different nations at the Trailblazing Leadership conference. There were over 400 women in attendance from all over and I was the only American. It is always really lovely to see the globe represented any place I go.

9. People watching is universal good fun.

10. Google maps tells you what stop to get on and off at but never the direction to travel in. I never knew which side to stand on or which platform to be on. Every time I thought I knew…wrong lol. When in doubt, just ask.

11. Police can be approachable, friendly, helpful and harmless. Novel idea really. I could walk up to any of them and ask a question. They were literally always happy to help. I never had to feel intimidated though I still did a little bit but who can you really trust these days right? :\

12. Having staff at every train station to answer questions from tourists like myself is genius. I am convinced London is the most hospitable and accommodating city I have ever been to. If you look lost, they will ask how they can help you. They genuinely want to do their jobs well. Friendly doesn’t seem to have an expiration date.

13. Use the Thames River as home base. Almost every major viewing point in Central London is a short extension from the Thames. There is a gorgeous riverwalk and easy to find Tube underground lines or buses along the way.

14. The Underground Tube is mostly quiet. No one is asking for money, selling socks or yelling incoherent words & profanity on the platforms or trains. I enjoyed the change of pace.

15. Most of the men & women walking around in the city are in high-class business professional suits. I occasionally felt quite under-dressed. Some women were walking around in classic silhouette dresses with those cute hats we see for English weddings and such. Many men are in really fancy, nice suits. I saw one man with a top hat and coattails like I have only seen in movies. Where do these people work?

16. AirBnB makes traveling solo so much more enjoyable. My host was funny and cool. It reminded me of my days living with a host in Nicaragua. The level of quality care from a stranger really puts humanity in positive perspective.

17. Even when mean, Londoners sound nice. I went to the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and there were people climbing on the gates so they could see better. The police kept saying, “Please don’t climb the gate. Thank You” and never got crass about it. They could have said, “Please don’t climb the palace gate or I’ll bash your effing head in. Thank you” in that English accent and it would have sounded just as pleasant I imagine.

18. The English accent makes regular sentences sound so full of drama. I enjoy listening to the English speak unless they have the Eliza Doolittle twang

19. Public transit elevators do not have to smell like urine or other abominable human waste.

20. The English love the F-word and I love hearing them say it. Consider it a guilty pleasure.

21. Don’t book an early flight on a Sunday morning. Don’t do it that is unless you’re ready to spend lots on an Uber or express train. I learned public transit doesn’t run as early on Sundays so I was almost stuck but Uber saved my life and got me to Heathrow in plenty of time.

22. Bring shoes that make sense to walk around the city in. A great way to see the city of London is by foot so stay smart and keep the shoes comfy so you can enjoy exploring.

23. The children naturally sound incredibly intelligent because of that English accent. Unless they sound like My Fair Lady. See number 18.

24. My English inspired vocab replacements are as follows: Brilliant! (over awesome), biscuit (over cookie), loo or toilet (over bathroom), rubbish (over trash), bloody, proper, surname (over last name), piss off (over leave me alone), queue (over line) and diversion (over reroute).

25. People are beautiful all around the globe. I was fortunate enough to spend time at a Trailblazing Leadership conference for 2 days with over 400 women. We had great, meaningful conversations about our goals, dreams and fears among other things. It was wonderful to be in a room full of women to both cheer and challenge other women along. I was fortunate enough to develop some good connections out of that. The Internet makes it almost effortless to keep connected with new friends around the world. The important thing is to make the effort. I learned from and shared personal stories with strangers that made us not so strange to each other any more. When we get to the core of things, we’re not so different — you and I. I love when I catch glimpses of the mountaintop Dr. King always spoke about.

I would definitely live there if given the opportunity. Regardless, I will for sure be back to visit. Thanks London for making me feel at home.