Monday, May 12, 2014

"Heart Places"

Recently, I read a blog post titled "Places Around the World that I Shall Never Forget." It was a great read, filled with exotic locations and remote destinations-- it gave me chills just reading about it.

The author writes on his blog, "While I always talk about the people I meet being the most rewarding aspect of a life of travel, let’s face it, sometimes people can truly ruin our day....I still love people of course but man, I must admit that I’m also grateful for those special places out there..."

I completely understand what he means. Sometimes, you just go to a place, and you're completely in awe. Humbled as a human being. These are the destinations you will never forget.

BUT. Let's face it. I'm probably an extravert. I love interacting with people. Whenever I travel,  the most random and unexpected people always seem to find their way into my heart and into my memories. These are the people that find a way to speak to you---probably in a different language, probably through miscommunication, but always to teach you something new about yourself and about the world. These are the people you will never forget.

So for this post, I think I'm going to attempt to answer the age old travel question: what's the favorite place you've been to?

To me, my favorite places will always be the dynamic locations that have the most unforgettable landscape and culture. When you go somewhere and you stumble upon both amazing scenery and amazing people, these are the truly special places that stay with you--these are your "heart places."

So in no particular order, here are my heart places so far...

Sumatra, Indonesia

When a friend told me about her 4-day backpacking trip to Machu Picchu, I thought, holy crap--that's hardcore. Until I somehow signed up for a 9-day jungle trek in the rain forests of Sumatra...oops! But we were going to Southeast Asia....I had to see the orangutan! And I have to say, that was probably one of the best decisions of my life. Not only was it amazing to see a mother orangutan and her child about a foot away from me, but I got to hike through the jungle with an awesome group of local villagers who showed me where the tiny elephant trails were and taught me that tigers like wild durian. And every night when the rain started to pour, we would huddle underneath our makeshift shelter and (as corny as it sounds) share stories, sing football songs, and play games. Oh, except that one night, when we caught a baby python in between our sleeping bags...

Córdoba, Spain

When everyone talks about studying abroad in Spain, no one talks about Córdoba. In fact, most people don't know where it is! But after quickly falling in love with the Spanish language, I can't tell you how lucky I felt to find myself here.  Once the largest city of Spain and also the capital of Andalusia, over the years, Córdoba fell on the popularity ladder to become a place for touristy day trips. But when the tourists leave on their buses at night, here was a magical city that just felt so right to be in. There's too much in its history and culture in the air to even begin to touch on, but all I can say is that I'm grateful to be have lived in this beautiful city, even for such a short time. Córdoba really is my home away from home!


Angkor Wat is a breathtaking location--with its temples overtaken by encroaching jungle, it's one of the most picturesque places in the world where nature and humanity collide. But beyond that, it's a country seeped in a rich history. The bullet holes that dot one of the holiest places in the country are a testament to its violent past. But here, I met people with resilience, tenacity, and above all, a good sense of humor. From Dr. Fish, to our amazing tour guide, to the slickest fast-talking hard-working tuk tuk driver you'll never meet, I easily and instantly became charmed with Cambodia.

Lyndonville, New York
It was like Dorthy being airdropped into Oz when I landed into the town of 838 people in upstate New York. I was shy, I was anxious, I was so out of place. But Uncle Ron picked us up from the airport and welcomed us into his house. And when I heard the country music playing from the radio, just like that, I knew a connection was made. Without any reservations from that point on, I delved into an every day life that was so different from my own. From shooting guns to riding crazy magnificent horses, it was so fun to I got to be able to experience something as intimate and loving as Lydonville, New York. And most importantly, I got to learn out what real cowboys wear! Hehe, I don't wear my Justin boots for new reason!


I don't think anyone can fully understand what Nicaragua means to me. I went there to play doctor, and the poor villagers that welcomed us taught me humidity and happiness. I went there a second time to play scientist, and I got a paper published. This country is overwhelming in its beauty, reflected both in the earth and in the faces of every day people. It has so much to offer if you choose to look. Plus, can I just say, there is absolutely no feeling that ever compares to waking up with the jungle. From the moment you wake up in completely darkness to the sound of the howler monkeys, to the minute you feel the fog lifting and the world around you coming to life, Nicaragua is quite possibly the most beautiful place in the world.


So there you have it---my five "heart places." Interestingly, I tried to keep the writing somewhat consistent when describing each place, but I just couldn't--each destination evoked such different emotions in me. But in the end, there is one thing I feel throughout all of this: lucky.

Here's to adding more heart places in my future!

And I'd love to hear...what's the favorite place you've been to?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

6 Julio, 2013: San Francisco >> Miami >> Manaus

Just like every other trip for the past 5 years, the night before my trip to Brazil consisted of very last minute packing and frantic music downloads. It was the typical all nighter leading up to a race to SFO, followed by a kiss, a wave, a goodbye, and before I knew it, I was off on my new adventure.

Before started this trip, I honestly wasn't sure how to feel at all. I was too busy with work and other things to actually think about this trip. Frankly, if you had asked me the day before, I wasn't altogether that excited to go. I mean on one hand, I had about a week to myself in Brazil...which sounded fun since I hadn't traveled alone since 2010. On the other hand though, I had about 10 days with a Catholic Vietnamese Youth Group....and I hadn't traveled with them...ever. Who knew how that was gonna go?

But sitting at the airport, waiting for my flight, the only emotion running through me was stress. I was stressed about some screw up at work. I was stressed about the cigarette pack I forgot to carefully hide in my room. I was stressed about all the things I hadn't completed on my list of things to do. And I knew I had left something important back at home, something that I probably wouldn't find again when I came back.

Real talk: Sylvie feeling stressed can only last for so long. After that, I just felt hungry! The first leg of my trip was a 6 hour flight to I assumed they would feed you. I mean, 6 hours is a long time! Unfortunately, American Airlines didn't think so, so by the time I got to Miami, I was starving. Luckily I found what I thought was a very all-American option.

Yup, Pizza Hut & Samuel Adams! Well, that definitely took the edge off both the stress and the hunger, and with that, it was "Bye Bye 'Merica!" and....

Hellooooo Cuba! Haha, can you see it? That dark shadow beneath the clouds? That's Cuba! On my way to Brazil, I got to fly over it...which is probably the closest I'll ever come since I'm not Beyonce and JayZ :)

Besides the exciting view of Cuba, the plane ride from Miami gave me a chance to catch up on some good old guide book reading. Armed with my Nook (the best invention since paper back books, I swear), I started reading all about my destination to the heart of Amazonia. That got me a little bit more excited, but even better was my travel companion!  Sitting next to me on the plane was some cool old guy from the University of Texas...studying the behavior of river dolphins in the Amazon! It was his 8th time in Brazil, and he had a wealth of knowledge he wanted to share with me...both about the country and river dolphins. And yes, the nerd in me just died (of happiness).

Unfortunately, that happiness quickly diminished the minute I stepped off the plane. I arrived in Manaus...and I was scared shitless. I had landed in a foreign country where I couldn't speak the middle of the night! I had already arranged for an airport pickup though (in anticipation of this fearful arrival), so I figured all I had to do was look for someone holding a sign. But as I got into the nondescript black car with the random guy who had my name written on some piece of paper, my only thoughts were: "Please don't kidnap me, please don't kidnap me!"

And that was my first night in Brazil. Taken: Part 3.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Road to Brazil

So I'm heading to Brazil in about a week...and I'm completely unprepared! It's kind of a volunteer trip, but I wasn't really given much of a heads up about it (oops, should have checked my Google Groups!) and now I'm kind of scrambling last minute. But anyways, I've been making a few purchases that I'm SUPER excited to test on the road, and I wanted to share (ahemshowoffahem) with everyone!

1. Kelty Women's Cosmic 35 Synthetic sleeping bag
After 3 days of rigorous research, I have a sleeping bag! This one is a made for women so it's a perfect length for a shorty such as myself. I also chose synthetic instead of down because apparently down stuffing loses all of its heat in damp conditions (and I think the Amazons can get kind of wet...). It also is pretty compact at 2 lbs or something, so hopefully it won't be too much added weight.

This is the FIRST time I'm traveling with a sleeping bag! I've previously used a bed cocoon or whatever, which is basically like a sheet you sleep in, and I only had to use it once (in a hostel that was temporarily a bed shaped like a coffin...good one, Budapest!) When I went trekking in Indonesia, the company lent us sleeping bags and the porters carried them for us. But this time, I'm on my own! And I wasn't even aware that I'd be needing one until about 3 days ago! Apparently the volunteer trip will include a lot of sleeping on both gym and jungle floors...basically, "don't expect a bed."

I must admit, owning my own compact backpacking sleeping bag makes me feel...kind of hardcore. I know, I know, most backpackers don't even need sleeping bags anymore! Whatever, I don't care, let me live the dream! :)

2. Outlander Packable Handy Lightweight Travel Daypack
So another thing about my travels...I haven't traveled alone, in a LONG time. Last two times were both one month trips with a boy (i.e. person who carries your stuff for you) and before that were my European not really rough and tumble territory. I finally gave in though and bought myself a daypack. Ugh, does that mean I have to carry stuff myself?

I won't be using a daypack in the cities I'm visiting on my own (hello, tourist alert!) but it'd be pretty useful for planes and during the volunteer portion of the trip when I'm going to classrooms and stuff. Also if we do some light hiking in the Amazons, this would be good to pack with a water bottle and my fancy pants binoculars.

The real reason I got this daypack because I don't like daypacks. I'd much prefer not carrying anything but a tiny cross the body handbag, so this is like a necessary evil for this trip. The good news is that when it's not in use, it folds up quite small. So hooray for innovative design!

Another thing: having a daypack WITH my backpack is gonna make me look pretty silly...I mean we all know those "turtle backpackers"
Evidently, I found the picture on a webpage titled "10 things that look ridiculous." I'm actually going to look even MORE like a turtle though, because both my backpack and daypack are green (hey, I wanted to match!). Awkward turtle, here I come...

3. Croc sandals!
Yup, I done did it! I bought myself not one, but TWO pairs of crocs! And I have no idea why. I was looking into buying some sneakers that I could travel with, then found myself buying some replacements for my beloved Rainbows instead! (I still have no idea what shoes I'm going to hike in...)

I bought these because they're neutral, look normal enough online (I hope they do in person!), and are supposed to be super comfy! I love my Rainbows, but on rougher surfaces, sometimes they do hurt! And also, I can't wear Rainbows into showers in dirty hostels...I'm planning to buy a pair of famous Brazilian havaianas (flip-flops) but in case I don't get to them first thing, I have a back up! And thank god for Amazon's awesome return policy for shoes. Bought both so I can see which one is cuter, then free return for the other one! Gosh, Amazon, you've done so much for people who hate malls and/or lazy people.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Anyways, it's safe to say I'm super stoked. I obviously have a bunch of other supplies and equipment to bring, but these are the best of the best (and by that, I mean the ones I'm most excited about...probably because they make me look more legit). Will I review any of these items? Probably not. While that kind of information is probably (absolutely) more useful for the everyday traveler...I'm just here to share my excitement :)

Brazil, get ready....I'm coming for you!!! 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wild Weekly Photo Challenge – Movement

Another last minute entry!

Bullfight in Pozoblanco, Spain

Bungy jumping from the Bridge to No Where, Angeles National Park

I’m participating in’s Wild Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s Challenge is: Movement!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wild Weekly Photo Challenge – Birds of a Feather

Here's another weekly photo challenge...birds of a feather!

I was SO happy when I saw this challenge, you know, being a professional bird watcher and all :P
But when I realized it was over in a few hours, I just had to scramble for whatever I had. Hope you like it!

These first two were taken in Nicaragua during my field biology quarter.

A hummingbird in its nest
This little guy was nearly impossible to see! The only thing that gave him away was his wing flap. There were actually two tiny eggs in there too!

Rufous motmot / Baryphthengus martii
At least I think that's its scientific name. Anyway, this is the national bird of Nicargua, so even though this may not be my best shot, I'm putting it up anyway in honor of a beautiful country full of surprises. I kind of like the way it contrats against the greenery!

These next two were taken at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park in's largest free-flight walk-in aviary! I think President Clinton's been there!

Sun Conure / Aratinga solstitialis 
I'm guessing he likes the color yellow...or maybe just the corn!

A beautiful raptor
If anyone could help me ID this bird, I'd really appreciate it! I simply love this profile but feel sad that he has no name!

And finally, one from my back yard in San Jose, California (literally).

Black-crowned night heron / Nycticorax nycticorax
I stumbled upon this mean looking fella in the parking lot next to my house. He caught my attention because he was the smallest heron I'd seen yet! From a side view, you could automatically tell from he's a type of heron, but from this straight shot, I think he looks kind of like a kite with those red eyes and white coloring. And it looks like he has attitude of a raptor too from that glare! 

And to end things, I leave you with a video. I know most people who participate in this are photographers, but if any birder stumbles upon this post, this one's for you!

I’m participating in’s Wild Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s Challenge is: Birds of a Feather!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Introducing...Adventuras de Sylvia.

This is it. I've decided to start and try "blogging" again. It's been one of those things that's been constantly on the back burner of my list of things to do, but I've really never gotten around to it. Funny how now that I'm busier than ever, I want to try and pick it up again. Yeah, who needs to be logical, right? :P

When I look back at what I've been able to do over the past few years though, I just can't believe how lucky I've been! And I know that if I don't record my thoughts and experiences somewhere and somehow, I'll regret it later. So here it as, the adventures of Sylvia! This blog will now be the home of my travel stories, inspiring pictures, and maybe little bits and pieces of my stream of consciousness.

To start it off, I thought I'd repost my first entry from the fake travel blog I kept on Tumblr, just to give an idea of how I got started in the first place and what made me pick this name. Enjoy!

May 21, 2011

As the weekend passes by, I try to do anything but work. Attempt #1: take pictures of my cat to show off to the world...isn't little Micho cute?! Attempt #2: Start a new project. Recently, a friend asked if I had a travel blog she could follow. After all, I'd been traveling quite a bit and have major plans to travel a lot more. I mean....I have a Tumblr? Does that count? (The answer is an obvious no.) So on this lazy weekend alone, I've decided to take on the project of a travel blog. 

Introducing...las adventuras de sylvia. Why Sylvia? When I was a kid I used to hate the name Sylvia. It always seemed like the ghetto version of Sylvie. And it really annoyed me when people couldn't pronounce it, especially because it sounds exactly like Sylvia without the a! Then there was also the fact that I grew up with a very francocentric mindset. Being named after a famous French singer, I kind of idolized everything French--food, culture, and especially the language. All of it seemed so romantic, so sophisticated, and so (let's be honest) sexy! Spanish on the other hand, was way too common, way too plain, and way too ordinary. 

But after the twists and turns of life that took me through Nicaragua-and oh yeah, and did I mention the half-Peruvian boyfriend?- I suddenly found myself in college with a fascination for Latino culture. I loved their sense of family and community that extends so far past the home. I loved the passion and strength they brought to everything they did. I loved the rich culture in which Spaniards and Latinos came from. And omg, the food! I loved the food!

So from there, after a brief detour in Geneva, I somehow landed myself in Cordoba, Spain. It was there in Spain and in other  parts of Europe where I began introducing myself not as Sylvie, but as Sylvia. Why? Well the obvious reason being that I was in a Spanish speaking country (duh!). But also, I loved the idea that a different name would help me take on a new persona or identity (and no, not that weird Beyonce as Sasha Fierce kinda way). It just made me feel removed from the ordinary American Sylvie and inspired me to add some fire and sizzle to my travels as Sylvia. Sylvia helped me learn how to keep an open mind; Sylvia helped me see things through fresh eyes; and Sylvia was never afraid of taking chances. 

I will always love all things French and still insist that I have some French blood in me (Come on! They did colonize and inhabit Vietnam for years!). But after my travels through Spain and Nicaragua and with my travels to come, I sometimes like to think of myself as Sylvia. And I might not have the blood, but dios mio, I'm beginning to think I can handle attitude. 

Disclaimer: If you haven't noticed, I like writing/talking. A lot. This blog will likely be a chapter book, so be warned!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Wild Weekly Photo Challenge – Black & White

Hello all! This is my entry for this week's photo challenge: black & white

Государственный исторический музей

So this is a picture of the State Historical Museum in Moscow's famous Red Square. I think this week was challenging because really, the art form of black and white is somewhat lost in the age of digital film since any picture can be converted. In deciding a picture for this week, I looked for something that would be worthy of the drama of black & white. I settled on this one because of the buildings crisp architectural lines highlighted by the lighting of the sky in the background. Hope you like it! 

I’m participating in the onlineadventure travel and photography magazine’s Wild Weekly Photo Challenge for bloggersThis week’s Challenge is: Black and White!