Monthly Archives: August 2010

Global Phone or No Phone?

I recently have been stressing about ways to save on expenses while living in Ecuador for six months and have made a decision. I am suspending my phone for the duration of my time down in South America.

free skype-to-skype calls anywhere in the world are a cheaper alternative than global phones

My Blackberry is global capable, which is why I bought it. However, because it costs me $65 a month, excluding the global activation, which would be an additional $30, it just seemed to be more of a burden than a blessing.

So, I went to my cell phone provider and asked them to suspend my phone. The girl told me it would be about $30 total because it would have to be re-activated after 3-months and then re-suspended. GROOVY! That is less than one-month of having my phone turned on.

I figure I can keep in touch with my family and friends using Skype on my computer and e-mail. However, for emergency purposes, I am going to look into pay-as-you-go phones while I am in Ecuador.

Do any of you know of good phone companies in Latin America that offer such plans?

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Filed under Ecuador, Facts, International, Latin America // South America, Tips, Travel

No diamonds but plenty of sparkle!

Just one mile from the popular Mammoth Caves is a gem that should not be overlooked.

diamond caverns is privately-owned

For more than 150 years, Diamond Caverns has offered tours into an underworld of stalagmites and stalactites. You can see more formations here than on most tours throughout the tunnels at Mammoth Caves. The hour-long tours through Diamond Caverns are intimate, ours being less than 10 people including the guide, providing opportunities to ask many questions and have many picture-taking moments.

Walking up and down the stairs (noticing a pattern in exploring caves?) and through these caverns on a 1/2 mile trail you’ll notice one unique attribute: this cave is alive. Yes, alive. You can hear and see the water dripping, and see the river that flows through the place.

You’ll feel it falling on your head or shoulder and realize these formations are still growing and have been for thousands of years.

At one time, they used to hold wedding ceremonies in these caverns. You can see the altar during the tour and realize just how small these ceremonies must have been. They were definitely standing room only, with enough foot space for maybe five people to watch the couple recite their lines in front of the pastor.

the altar for weddings once held in the caverns

Mammoth Caves and Diamond Caverns were in good relations. When the railroad was developed, Diamond Caverns was a major stop on the line and tourists could visit both attractions in the same day.

However, once the automobile decided to ride the roads, more people went straight to Mammoth Caves, passing by the others. With more than 15 caves in the region, competition soon got the better of them.

The result: Kentucky Cave Wars.

Local cave owners would use harsh tactics to attract visitors to their caves, such as false advertisements or spreading rumors about Mammoth Caves. In the Diamond Caverns you will be able to see some of the results of the Cave Wars where people snuck in and actually broke formations.

stalactites and stalagmites inside the diamond caves

To bring some focus on Diamond Caves, improvements were made. Electrical lights were modernized, the wooden stairs were upgraded to concrete and a bridge was added. Above ground, the lodge was made bigger and cabins were added to make the destination an authentic tourist attraction.

Sadly, it wasn’t until the tragic death of infamous spelunker Floyd Collins that people flocked to Cave City. He was trying to discover a new cave but soon became stuck after a rock fell, trapping his leg. Rescuers made several attempts over time to reach him, unable to use explosives in fear of a cave-in. People from all over drove their cars and camped out to watch the ordeal, others sent him food in glass jars. Unfortunately, a collapse did occur before the rescuers could save him. His death brought national media attention to all the caves and soon after, Mammoth Cave National Park was established as well as a healthy relationship among the other caves.

a puddle of water in the caverns

Diamond Caves faced transformation for many following years, including a growth in size after explorers found more passages, being hit by a tornado, new owners, as well as the re-naming to its current title, and much more. It is the fourth-oldest commercial cave in the United States and is still aging with evidence of each slow drip of water falling from its formations. Do not drive past this jewel!

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Filed under History, Kentucky, Nature, Tour, Travel, United States

Becoming ant-sized while crawling through Mammoth Caves in Kentucky

mammoth caves is known as one of the best interpretive national parks

About three hours from Indianapolis is Cave City, Kentucky, which is located off Exit 53 on Interstate 65, passing through the capital city of Louisville. Since its founding in 1835, the area thrived, but has recently undergone some depletion after being hit hard during the country’s economic recession. However, it still has much to offer the adventurous traveler.

Most of the businesses that closed their doors were not worthy of your time or money, essentially the typical tourist trap. The quality attractions, such as the Green River Canoe or the Jesse James Riding Stables, which take you horseback riding on what they deem the most gentle horses around throughout the hillsides and valleys where Jesse himself rode while fleeing the law, are still going strong and provide memorable moments during your visit.

Nonetheless, the number one tourist attraction in the caves region is Mammoth Caves National Park. The caves are the world’s longest, running more than 390 miles in length with still more to be discovered. There is no entrance fee to the park, which is home to  over a dozen endangered species and has as much to see and do above ground as there is beneath. You can horseback ride and hike over 80 miles of trails or mountain bike on over 20 miles of trails.

the map of over 390 miles of trail, with more still being discovered

In the summer of 2010, the park opened the doors to its new visitor center, where people can purchase gifts, souvenirs, books and tickets for more than 10 different cave tours.

Note: Some do sell-out quickly and others are only offered once a day, depending on the season. I highly suggest checking the Website for Mammoth Cave to make reservations online for most of the tours. A few are not available by reservation and must be purchased at the Visitor Tour on the day of the tour.

Before every tour the guides explain the physical and mental considerations that must be taken on your part. Yes, mental considerations. The caves can play tricks with your mind. There are points in tours where you have to bend down and almost walk on your knees to get through passages. At other times, you are walking across a bridge or up/down a staircase, look over to the side and see a never-ending drop. The mere fact that you are hundreds of feet below the surface is another hurdle to overcome. I can honestly say it is worth it all though. Groups, depending on tour, range from 12 to 120 in size.

It should be known that Mammoth Caves National Park has highly knowledgeable and passionate guides. Every question you ask them will get an in-depth answer with an eager tone. These people look forward to spending their days underground sharing the stories of the caves, its history as well as their own personal experiences in the caves. One of the girls first visited the park when she was eight and now she is leading tours.

Tip: Choose to either be at the front of the pack or at the end  if you want to have the chance to ask the guide leading the group or the guide at the back of the group specific questions you have regarding things you notice in the caves or have in general about the history of them while you walk. Trust me, you will have many questions pop up in your head and they are more than willing to answer.

I took two tours: New Entrance Tour & the Historic Entrance Tour.

walking down stairs in a narrow passage

New Entrance Tour:

Length: 2 hours, 3/4 mile.

Tour Limit: 114 people

Total Stairs: 500, including 280 on initial descent

Difficulty: Moderate

The New Entrance Tour has the guides shuttling you to an entrance that appears to be a random steel door in a hillside, resembling a portal to a bomb shelter. The opening was created after a man, who wanted his own cave, had purchased land with a sinkhole above a portion of the caves that he knew were linked with Mammoth Caves. He used dynamite to blast a new way into the caves and started exploring.

On the initial descent, you walk down 280 steps that become extremely narrow and steep, winding through passages no wider than your hips. Once you reach the stopping point you make your way through the caves. At one point you reach a big room, and the group will take a seat while the guide explains some history and tells stories about the caves. This is also where they turn all the lights out, showing you what some of the earlier explorers faced during their time down in the very passageways you are walking through.

During your entire time down in the caves, the guides will be explaining various things such as the writing on the walls, how the rooms got their names and prominent people whose names will be forever associated with the caves.

Frozen Niagara Falls

The main attraction of the New Entrance Tour is the Frozen Niagara, which is 130 feet below ground surface. You enter a room of formations rising from the ground or hanging from the ceilings like icicles. These columns are called stalagmites and stalactites. They are created by calcium salts and the dripping of water. The bigger formations, such as the Frozen Niagara take thousands of years to form by the slow drip, drip, drip of water and is a sight to marvel. After this stop, you make your way out of the cave via the Frozen Niagara Entrance, completing a two hour and 3/4 mile trip.

This tour does not require a jacket and is a great basic introduction to the Mammoth Caves. It takes you down and up stairs, crouching through tunnel passages, provides a glimpse at the river below you and a stroll through a room full of formations.

the Historic Tour path

Historic Tour

Length: 2 hours, 2 miles

Tour Limit: 120 people

Total Stairs: 440, including 155 at Mammoth Dome

Difficulty: Moderate

Warning: This is tour is not for those who suffer claustrophobia or are afraid of heights. You will experience steep stairs, bridges and crawl spaces. Again, it is worth it to push yourself!

On this tour you get to enter the original opening to the caves and walk to a large room at 140 feet below the surface, called the Rotunda, which still has artifacts from the early days when these caves were mined.

After this you walk yourself through tunnels that make you feel like a tiny ant in an ant hill, and over a bridge that crosses the Bottomless Pit. Take a peek over the edge and see blackness for as long as your eyes can see.

the giant's coffin

You will have the chance to pay respects at the Giant’s Coffin. A large granite form is laying in front of you and appears to be the final resting place of a large person. This is also where the guides will tell a story about a slave woman who was the only one buried in the Mammoth Caves in this spot on the tour. They believe she may have held a prominent position for having been brought all the way underground to be placed.

The biggest attraction on this tour, in my opinion as well as my mom’s, is Fat Man’s Misery. They even have a tiny sign to let you know that you have arrived to this portion of the tour, which is a passageway that has you going from a standing position, to a crawling position in a narrow space that has you squeezing your way through to make your way into the Relief Room, where you can stand and go to the bathroom.

At last you’ll make your way to The Tower in Mammoth Dome where you’ll climb up five levels of stairs that also get more narrow along the way before making your way back to the Rotunda Room and into daylight once again. Although you won’t see any formations, you’ll get a rich taste of history and stories about the people who walked before you in these caves.

squeezing through Fat Man's Misery on Historic Tour

I survived both tours. Granted, it took me some deep breathing and support from my parents to get me in there, it was well worth it like I’ve mentioned in this blog post. To feel smaller than ordinary and see the vastness of these caves is astonishing.

The passion the tour guides possess for the caves is inspiring. Some are the next in their generation to walk underground, and now their kids are working themselves up the hierarchy ladder to become a guide.

Both tours I went on are excellent introductions to the caves. The New Entrance Tour is on the opposite end of the Historic Tour, so you get to enter from both sides of the cave system.

For the more daring, there is a tour offered at night, Violet City Lantern Tour, where the only light you have guiding you for 3 hours and 3 miles is a lantern you are holding. As for the cave explorer,  the Wild Cave Tour is about six hours and 5 miles in difficult and strenuous situations.

Note: Some pictures in this post were taken by my mom.

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Filed under Facts, Kentucky, Nature, Outdoors, Tour, Travel, United States

In Indiana, Brown County is Very Green

brown county state park

There’s not much provided in the form of activities in the Johnson County area of Indiana. You could “just be” like my mother says they were back in the days growing up in the county. They would bowl with their leagues, go swimming and boating on the lake, and read. During the weekends they would drive up to Indianapolis to go dancing and follow the local bands from hotel lounge to hotel lounge. Of course there are local fairs and festivals, but a trip can’t really be planned around those. Fast-forward to the present and not much has changed, the same bowling alley Hi-Way Lanes still stands. There is Rascals, the local go-kart racetrack that is pretty popular, but my mom says that didn’t exist while she grew up. However, about 30 minutes away, depending on traffic, an active paradise can be found at Indiana’s largest state park in Brown County, which opened in 1929.

The park’s rugged hills and hollows are said to resemble the Smoky Mountains and gained the nickname “the little smokies”. There are two entrances into the nearly 16,000 acre park: the North Gatehouse and the West Gatehouse. I recommend the north entrance off highway IND 135 & 46 because you get to pass through a covered brige, which crosses over Salt Creek. A lot of covered bridges are hard to see these days, being torn down or replaced with modern bridges that are more structurally safe.

the covered bridge to the north entrance to the park

The park entrance fee is $5 for in-state visitors and $7 for those out-of-state. Visitors can find plenty of camping and picnic areas around the hills and among the trees that cover the park. For those just exploring the park for the day or afternoon, there are vistas that offer breath-taking views, playgrounds for children and the Nature Center.

The best activities one can do inside the Brown County State Park are hiking and mountain biking. The park offers eight different types of mountain biking trails (which are noted as alphabetical letters on the park map) that range from easy to more difficult, most difficult and extremely difficult. You can connect with the other trails in certain instances. Their length vary from 1.2 miles to 4.1 miles, such as the Schooner Trace. As for hiking, there are about 12 trails (represented by numbers on the park map) ranging from easy to moderate or rugged. None is longer than three miles, unless you combine them just like you can with the mountain bike trails. Some trails can connect with each other like the one my parents and I hiked around Ogle Lake in the Ogle Hollow Nature Preserve.

the giant trees that stand over you

The Preserve is home to a special species of tree. The Yellowwood are rare all across Indiana but seem to prosper in Ogle Hollow, which was dedicated in 1970 as a preserve. It is classified as a mesic upland forest because of its medium moisture of soil, which is drier on the slopes and wetter in the hollows.

We started on Trail 4, which is a moderate 1.25 mile path that descends through bush and a forest of all sorts of trees with thick and thin trunks. Their branches reach out at all angles interweaving with each other to create a green canopy overhead. This creates a cool atmosphere with plenty of shade. A haziness brought about by a mixture of humidity and patches of sunlight breaking through the clusters of leaves make you feel like your in a whole other realm.

The trail ends with a view of the lake but we continued forward and met the start of Trail 7, which is a 1.5 mile hike that loops around Ogle Lake at a moderate level. It takes you over slopes, across wooden plank bridges, and up and down wooden stairs over ravines.

ogle lake

People are allowed to fish in the designated areas off the trail. After you circle the lake, the trail re-connects with Trail 4, eventually turning into the rugged Trail 5. There are two steep climbs on stairs that will get your heart racing and lungs pumping, but should be expected to get you back up the hill you descended earlier. When you make your way out of the lush forest you’ll realize you made a complete 3.5 mile circle from your starting point.

the fire tower

We finished our visit to Brown County State Park with a climb to the top of one of the few remaining Fire Towers for a panoramic view of the park. The actual cabin at the top was locked and we were unable to get in, but the view from the highest point was still worth the scary climb up the steps that got smaller and smaller with each turn.

Overall, Brown County is a popular spot for tourists, especially the shopping village in Nashville, Indiana, but the vastness of the State Park will make you feel as if you are getting to see a remote and untouched part of Indiana.

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Filed under Facts, Indiana, Nature, Outdoors, Sites, Tips, Tour, Travel, United States

Ditch the main road, the backcountry is where it’s at

a water tower

Roughly 25 miles south of Indianapolis is the small city of Franklin where my mom spent her childhood. State Highway 135 passes through Greenwood, where my Grandma lives, and Whiteland, where my Aunt and her family live right inside the city limits, before entering Franklin.

The welcome sign is located directly across from my aunt’s neighborhood on the 135, which is the one main road that all three cities reside along. Within 10 minutes of driving along the highway, you’ve pretty much visited all three of these little cities.

the road to my mother's childhood home

It’s not until you turn off the major interstate and get on the backcountry roads that you see the vast expanse of farmlands that are signature to the central and southern regions of Indiana. The northern portion is more industrial with factories and production plants. The green hills seem to roll on forever until the corn fields pop up in shades of green, brown and yellow, depending on the time of season. Clusters of assorted trees such as oak, pine and willow are interspersed among the farms and houses. They reach taller than the houses and silos.

the house where my mother grew up

Every mile or so a farm or house will appear within a hundred feet of the bumpy, country road. My mom’s old house is located on farmland surrounded by fields. It used to have white aluminum siding but has since been painted a yellow that is lighter than harvested golden corn. Her dad rented the house for only $65 a month from an artist across the street who owned all the farming property.

A little farther down, the street curves and crosses a creek. We wanted to explore the area and pulled into the parking lot of a country corner store that is still open for businesses since the days when my mom would stop in to buy wax bottles filled with juice for no more than 10 cents. She would bite off the top and chew the bottle because the juice would seep into the wax. She said kids would chew it until the flavor was gone, just like gum. My dad and I bought a package of sunflower seeds and asked if we could climb down to the creek.

the corner country store

The man at the register warned us to watch out for rat snakes, but our sense of adventure drowned out any concern of danger. We slipped and slid down the brushy hill and reached the water with no snakebites.

My dad kept insisting I watch out for poison ivy, but I haven’t been itching yet.

exploring the creek

I walked in up to my calves and it was cool enough to be refreshing from the heat and humidity. A couple of stray dogs heard us and started barking, eventually strutting toward us from the backyard of a nearby home. After a quick sniff they left us alone. A pair of kayakers paddled on by while we relaxed.

The sun began beating down on us so we climbed back up the hill toward the car where we immediately turned on the air-conditioning and regretfully headed back into the hustle-and-bustle of the town.

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Filed under Indiana, Nature, Outdoors, Travel, United States

Hand-sized Hamburgers & Super-sized Sunsets

Once your lungs get used to the thick, humid air and your ears get used to the buzzing sound of cicadas in trees, you can start to enjoy all that Indiana has to offer the casual traveler.

The Hoosier State’s capital city of Indianapolis

is known as the “Crossroads of America.”

My first day of this trip was spent eating at the places “you must eat at” when in the Mid-West and traveling back through my mother’s memories. There are restaurants and fast-food places that don’t exist on the Western part of the country such as Hardees (think Carls Jr.) , Steak N Shake and Bob Evans. However, the most discussed by everyone who grew up here or, in my case, whose mom grew up in Indiana is a little well-known place called White Castle.

It is a U.S. fast-food chain that was the   first to focus on the production of hamburgers. It’s reputation grew larger than the size of its hamburgers, which are smaller than the palm of your hand and can be eaten in two to three bites.

The ingredients are basic:

100% beef patty

Diced, tasty onions

Soft, white bread buns

Dill pickle slice

The menu is basic, using the number system for a meal that comes complete with a side of fries and a drink. An individual hamburger costs less than $0.50. Most of the meals come with either four hamburgers or two, depending on the type, such as beef, chicken or pulled pork.

For the really big fans, they can order the bagged or boxed set of a large quantity of White Castle, and don’t be ashamed if you’re one of them. They are quite the popular food item. My mom actually ordered a box the night she flew back to Arizona and they were still warm off the airplane and scarfed down on the drive home by an eager husband and kids from what I recall some years back. White Castle truly becomes a tradition for families whether it is a weekly visit or at least eaten at once during a trip.

Later that evening, while driving down the one road that goes through downtown Franklin and into farm country, where my mother’s childhood house still stands right off the rugged, bumpy pavement, the sun began setting. Our windows were rolled down to let the chill, sticky air play with our hair during the orchestra of buzzing performed by the cicadas and the trees became silhouettes against a backdrop of bright orange and pink haze.

The Mid-West’s landscape can be more appreciated at night because its industrious appearance is taken back to its earlier days. The roads are empty except for the occasional headlights seen far off down the path before you. Individual lights shine brightly in the front windows of homes barricaded by large trees and fireflies are taken for a ride on the cool, breeze over cornfields.

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Filed under Food, Indiana, Nature, Outdoors, Sites, Travel, United States

Oriententing Myself

I’m at that point where I am nervous and excited about my move to Ecuador. I have to continually remind myself that I’m leaving this weekend to visit family in Indiana, with a side-dish road-trip to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

It will most likely be filled with ups-and-downs because my grandpa just went through a quadruple bypass surgery after a minor heart-attack and, well, let’s just say that side of the family still seems to be going through World War II, which is where the seed for the family-tree was planted.

This will be my only vacation taken all summer and I haven’t even started doing laundry. In my opinion, once you’ve traveled internationally, you lose the excitement of packing for any trip. You wait until the very last night before or the day you leave — depending on the time of departure — to actually put the loads of laundry in the washer and toss a pile of disheveled, wrinkled clothes into a suitcase.

For Indiana and Kentucky, I’ll most likely revert to an Adidas duffel bag and wing it:

  • Shirts – check.
  • Cargo pants than can become shorts with one quick zip – check.
  • Converse – check.
  • Toothbrush – check.

No stress. No worries.

My mind is more focused on Ecuador than anything else. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? I’m practically moving to a foreign country. I’m thinking about money. I’m thinking about the internship – what if I’m not cut out to be a travel writer. I’m thinking I need a full-time job. Why can’t I be normal like my older sister and twin sister. One has been a crime-scene technician for more than a couple years now and loves it. My twin sis just started her career as a teacher today — and I’m still here, going from internship to internship still trying to get the big break.

But isn’t that part of the excitement in not knowing what’s going to happen? Stepping off that airplane and into an entirely different part of the world brings out that adventurous spirit in myself. This is the job I want. This is the office where I want to work. I admire those like my sisters who can take pictures of dead people and have the patience to mold the minds of our future.

However, I want the opportunity to bring cultures to people in all corners of the planet, whether it be in the pages of a geography book, in an online article or in the pages of a travel guide I may have written or contributed to.

At this point, I have to stop wanting and actually do it. This is the dreaming turning into reality.

I will educate people about a variety of languages, food, cultures, music and places they may never have heard about, because maybe, just maybe they’ll think of traveling there one day because of the pictures I have taken and the words I have written.

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Filed under Ecuador, International, Internship, Travel