When I was young, I had a Carmen Sandiego book where she she went to Machu Picchu, and it always stood out in my mind as a place that I had to see for myself. Something about building a city on top of a mountain seemed impossibly appealing. I finally did get to visit Peru and Machu Picchu with my family and a close friend last month.
What I liked most about Peru was learning about the ancient cultures that lived there before Europeans arrived. I am intrigued by some of the general beliefs of Native American peoples, especially in terms of their connection and respect for the environment, and the plants and animals around them.
For the ancient people of the Andes, the goddess “Pachamama” is the origin of the four elements and basically embodies “Mother Earth.” She is responsible both for bringing harvest, and natural disasters, like earthquakes. Taking too much from Pachamama, without giving back, is believed to cause these disasters. While I don’t connect as much with the sacrificial practice of “giving back” to earth, I do think we can live in harmony with it, and that is reflected in the ways the Incas and pre-Inca tribes lived in South America.
The gateway town to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, is only accessible by train and has no cars. I love car-free towns. I always thought that car-free towns were quiet because of the lack of traffic noise, but this town was loud, day and night, with the streets truly reserved for the people, like a community park that grows through the town. There was also a hydro plant on the Machu Picchu river that we got some great views of and it made me happy that the mountain air wasn’t spoiled by pollution. We used the tour company Tierras Vivas, which is committed to responsible travel and also hires and trains women to lead tours.
Seeing Machu Picchu revealed to us after a long hike in high altitude was literally breathtaking. After following the Inca trail, I could see why they picked this seemingly remote and hard to get to mountain to build their city and temples. It was surrounded by sharp mountains enveloped by soft clouds on all sides. A city protected by the elements that conquerors could never find, and wouldn’t until 1911
While Machu Picchu was the amazing place that I expected to be, there were many other endearing and unexpected experiences that we came across on our trip in Peru. From hunting signs of extraterrestrial influences featured on Ancient Aliens to the countless and varied versions of vegetable quinoa soup that I had nearly every day. The experience that stood out to me most, however, were the floating islands of Uros.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and one of the largest in South America, sitting in the highlands between Peru and Bolivia at 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level. Puno is a city on the bay of the lake that faces east. I got up early one morning to climb up to a viewpoint above our hotel to catch the sunrise coming up through the narrow inlet of the bay formed by the two peninsulas. Again, an impeccable placement of a settlement by the ancient tribes to pay tribute to the rising sun.
Off the coast of Puno in the bay is a marsh made up of very tall grasses, akin to the Everglades that I’m so familiar with in Florida. On the second to last day of our trip, I booked a boat tour that would take us to visit the floating islands of Uros within theses marshes. I didn’t really realize what “floating islands” meant until we got there, and we were all impressed.
The Uros are a community of about 2000 indigenous people living on over 100 islands that are composed of the straw-like marsh grasses and mud. They live on the cold water year-round, constantly re-building their islands and homes from the degradation of the elements. It is really an amazing site to see, a community that looks primitive but is actually very innovative, figuring out how to live in concert with the lake and marsh in quite harsh conditions.
The Uros use the environment around them for everything. The long grass-like plants in the marsh are their islands, their houses, and their food. They have an extremely close and unique community, because they rely on each other to survive. The kids go to school (by boat) and there is even a floating island dedicated to a medical center.
It’s easy to question, how people can live like this, and why? Everything is wet and cold and they have to work on rebuilding their islands everyday. The Peruvian government had even offered to move them back to shore in the 1990s but they refused. The Uros want to live as their ancestors had. Instead, the government built better sanitation huts and provided solar panel/battery systems. One woman, Margarita, offered for me to visit inside her house and she boasted at having the solar/battery to charge her phone.
The Uros people would probably also think our lives are strange. That we spend our days inside, in front of computers or commuting in our cars and packed metro trains. We deal with endless administration and bureaucracy. While, they probably don’t have paperwork, because paper gets wet! We only spend two (three if we’re lucky) weeks per year on vacation, visiting their mountains and their islands, a place that they get to experience every day.
My father is not a religious man, or so he claims, but he is spiritual in a way and always remarks when we’re at high altitude, in the mountains, that this where we are closest to god. Not in an enclosed church, but facing an expansive lake where you can see the snow-capped mountains touching the sky and feel Pachamama in between the scarce particles of air blowing around you.
Everyone seems to be Marie-Kondoing right now, so much so that thrift stores are actually having a huge influx of items that they can't deal with. Marie Kondo has been around for a while but recently got more popular in the U.S. with her Netflix series. I've been following the "minimalism" movement on The Minimalists blog for a few years, and mainly started reading about it before I moved to Europe for business school.
At that time, I got rid of nearly everything that I owned. I stored some sentimental things (photo albums, diplomas) at my parents house in Florida and then sold my largest and most important possession at the time - my trusty little Honda Civic Hybrid. My car was harder to let go of than I thought, it had been my first and only car (and one of the first hybrids on the market) and had moved me all over the country on many adventures. Before I even knew about the sparking joy concept and thanking your items (Marie Kondo method), I thanked my car for all the places that it had taken me and cried as it left for a new owner.
While I lived in France and Austria, I kept to my 2 suitcases and when I bought something new, I had to get rid of another thing to make room for it. Even settling down in an apartment in Vienna, Austria, I didn't accumulate many things because I didn't have a car to go outside the city to shop at malls/Ikea, and the stores in the city were almost always closed when I was off work (everything closes on Sundays in many parts of Europe). In addition, I had to be home to accept any packages from Amazon, otherwise they wouldn't deliver them.
Upon moving back to the U.S., I've seemed to accumulate a lot more things than I meant to. American consumerism is so engrained in society that even though I prefer minimalism, I still find myself buying things that I don't need without even realizing it. Shops are plentiful and open at all hours, advertisements promising happiness are everywhere, and you can buy anything you could ever want online and get it delivered within 2 days.
A few months ago, I realized that I had way too many unnecessary things and my space felt cluttered, so I decided to play the 30-Day Minimalism Game. I have been following The Minimalists for a while, they also have a documentary on Netflix, but I had never played their game. The basic rules are that you get rid of 1 thing the first day, 2 things the second day, 3 things the third day, and so on until 30 things on the last day. That's 465 items total! It seems like a lot but doing it gradually over 30 days doesn't seem so extreme.
It actually took me over three months to complete the game because of my travel schedule, I wasn't home 30 days consecutively. Speaking of travel, I actually love living out of a suitcase because I have so few things I feel "light" and I don't have to make too many decisions about what to wear. I like the concept of being able to pack up and move on, it makes me feel free and unburdened. This confirms for me that I prefer to be a minimalist.
The game is also fun to do with a partner and send pictures to each other of what your getting rid of. So what counts? I got in an argument with my partner because I was getting rid of nails (the type you hammer into walls, not fingernails) and counting them individually, there were over 50! He said it should only count as one item, so I settled on counting it as 10 items. Anyway, you make your own rules for counting.
I also altered the game slightly. Normally, you can sell, donate, or trash your items. I also decided to add a category of fixing things to incentivize myself to fix things instead of get rid of them and buy new ones. You should also practice a shopping ban during this time. I'll be writing a separate post on that...
At first I thought that I wouldn't have 465 items to get rid of, do I event own that many things? It was definitely easy at first and then I hit a slump around day 23, at which point I had to go through all of my spaces again to really think about the items I owned. In switching out my winter for summer clothes and doing some spring cleaning this weekend, I finally reached day 30!
How to decide what to get rid of? This is where watching the Marie Kondo series is helpful. My own guidelines are to get rid of things that I haven't used in a year or keep around "just in case." For example, I turn the hangers in my closet inside out every season. Once I wear something, the item goes back on it's hanger the right way in. All of the items still hanging on inside out hangers at the end of the season get donated (or sold if they're in good condition). I also think to myself, would I pack this item in my two suitcases to move to Europe? If not, I probably don't need it.
What did I get rid of? So many things I don't event remember. I fixed 4 things, including a watch, parts on my bike, and sewing some pants (instead of buying new ones). I posted 47 items to sell on eBay and Poshmark. I ended up selling 27 of them, making a total of $158.26. I donated the items that didn't sell and donated an additional 141 items. It can be hard to donate things without a car, but there are Planet Aid bins around cities and H&M takes used clothes for recycling. You can also schedule a home pick up for donations with organizations like GreenDrop. Finally, I trashed 273 things. So that's 59% trashed, 30% donated, 10% posted to sell, and 1% fixed.
My space feels much better now, it's never cluttered and every item has a dedicated place and purpose. I think I could get rid of more things and really streamline, but my focus now will be to not accumulate more things. It is not sustainable to be buying this many things and then trashing or even donating them. The goal is not have this much stuff in the first place. So I'm experimenting with a few things like mindful shopping and buying used items, I'll be writing more on that later!
Winter is gloomy and season affective disorder is a real thing. The best way that I combat it (besides taking vacations to somewhere warmer like I usually do for my birthday in February) is getting outside. When I think about getting outside in the winter, and winter sports, I usually think of snowboarding and skiing. In addition to that, this year I tried something different.
I love hiking and normally reserve it for the warmer months. I had honestly never thought about hiking in the winter. All of the ice and snow and cold air would make it pretty difficult and uncomfortable, right? Then I came across the Winter Hiking Series at my local REI store in DC. If you don't know, REI provides all kinds of outdoor classes and events (and transportation!) everywhere that they have stores.
I try to do something outside in nature every weekend that I'm home and even when I'm traveling. I perused the REI events site trying to find something that would take me outdoors in January and found their Winter Hiking Series, which involves a day-long local hike led by an instructor and they give you tips along the way on hiking in the ice and snow. I signed up to go on the White Oak Canyon (in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia) trip and my first step into the woods, I fell in love with winter hiking...
It doesn't snow that often in the DC area but we got lucky that weekend with the snow starting to fall during our hike and giving the woods a light dusting of white. It was beautiful, serene, and peaceful. Shenandoah is usually packed with hikers on nice days but in the winter, it is pretty much empty and you have the trails all to yourself.
The hike started out pretty easy but got much more difficult as the snow came down and covered the ice on the trail. Ice is hard enough to walk on but even harder to gauge when it's covered with snow. Our guide was pretty good at pointing out the ice and going slow, hiking poles helped too, but a few people in my group still fell on their butts. It definitely got much more difficult coming back down the trail on icy snow, but we made it, and it made the hike all that more challenging and rewarding.
My next favorite part of winter hiking, is the frozen waterfalls. Waterfalls are amazing to see normally, and frozen they are stunning! You can see the partly frozen waterfalls of White Oak Canyon behind me in the picture above. It's unique to see frozen layers with some water still gushing underneath. Even more unique is to see a huge fully frozen waterfall like the one below.
That's Palisade Falls near Bozeman, Montana. It's hard to capture the majesty of a huge frozen waterfall in a picture but you can kind of see the scale above with me standing in front of it. You can walk straight up the waterfall (and even climb it) and it feels like it may break and swallow you up at any moment. My friend Chelsea and I took this side trip to explore the waterfall during our ski/snowboard trip to Big Sky, Montana. Read Chelsea's full post about it on her blog Her Life Adventures.
Winter hiking isn't always snowy and icy and can be quite gloomy, as well. I went to San Francisco in early March, it was raining the entire weekend but we still took the plunge and got outside to take a stroll on the Lands End trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Wet and covered in mud, we finally got what we came for when the Golden Gate Bridge peaked out from the gloominess as Karl the fog lifted for a second (pictured above).
Winter hiking can be cold, wet, and gloomy, but is completely worth it to get outside and get over that seasonal affective disorder. Plus, you see some cool things once in a while, like frozen waterfalls! Be prepared and read my tips below.
Tips for Winter Hiking
I know that winter is almost over in the Northern Hemisphere but there's still plenty of places with snow and time to get out there and see some frozen waterfalls or start your Spring hiking season early. Would love more winter hiking or outdoors ideas in the comments below.
You may have noticed that I haven't written on this blog in a while (since 2015) and that I recently updated this entire website. What inspired this was looking through my iPhone photos, I was trying to find a good picture of nature that I took myself that I could use on my various social media pages. The vast views of nature - whether it be beaches, mountains, or plains - inspire me and motivate me to continue to preserve nature in my work.
I came across the picture above that I took nearly a year ago in Patagonia. It shows the massive Grey Glacier leading into Lago de Gray, with majestic mountains in the background, and gray sky forming into painted clouds. It really is a beautiful picture and perfectly captures the magnificence of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
Beyond beauty, this photo also captures the fragile balance of nature. The icebergs in the foreground are the remnants of a huge chunk of the glacier that broke off a few months before my visit. Just 30 years ago, the glacier still came up all the way to where I am standing taking that picture. See these satellite images of Grey Glacier taken by NASA in 1986. I selfishly thought to myself, I'm glad that I saw this before the glacier recedes even more, and turns into just Lago de Grey.
I fully realize that my own travel to these beautiful and far away places contributes to pollution, climate change, and environmental degradation. I reduce my impact in many ways: eating less meat and no dairy; giving up a car and biking/metro-ing instead; shopping less and reusing more (still working on this one!); and of course, working in an industry that provides a significant portion of carbon-free energy. But travel is one thing that I'm not willing to give up.
Therefore, the least that I can do is share the things that I learn from traveling, in hopes of inspiring others to live sustainably in the ways that they see fit. The original name of this blog "Living" is still very appropriate, living sustainably, mindfully, and with positive impact. Everyone is living in their own way and I'd like to share my way of living. Welcome back to the blog!
I'll leave you with another beautiful picture of Grey Glacier leading into Lago del Grey.
I spent this year exploring new places, learning about new cultures, challenging my thinking, making lifelong friends at INSEAD, and starting a new career at the IAEA. Here's to a great 2015 and an even better 2016!
When thinking about my first post on this blog, I wanted to write about something that defines me. My grandmother passed away recently and it had me thinking a lot about my family and where I come from. My grandparents raised my father to be be his own person, and he raised me the same. My independence and my need to challenge ideas and norms define me, and I get those, in part, from being a refugee.
My parents grew up in what is now known as Slovakia, and what was then part of the Soviet Union. In a small town (really, a city in their terms, but small town to me), my parents met through friends. My mom played basketball for the city and was able to travel and see other parts of Europe, while my dad yearned for a way to break out of the communist regime and see what else the world had to offer.
In Spring 1986, when the Chernobyl accident happened, my mom got pregnant with me (I know, it's ironic that I’m a nuclear engineer). Discussing the possibilities for a while, my mom and dad decided to leave the country. They packed nothing, didn’t tell anyone, and left in car with money hidden in the tire. They safely crossed the border, using a fake alibi, and eventually settled in a refugee camp in Austria. My dad got a job doing manual labor and I was born soon after.
While slightly different back then, the refugee system was still essentially the same. You worked and you waited your turn. You lived in a house with other families and you didn’t contact your family back home - in fear that they would get questioned and threatened by the authorities.
Speaking of fear, can you imagine escaping a country? Facing the risk of being arrested and not know what will find you on the other side? And while pregnant? Leaving was not an easy decision and took bravery to execute. However, you can’t change your circumstances without risk and the ability to take action.
And the family you left behind, they’re worried and afraid, and I can still sense some resentment in my family for us leaving. My grandparents came to visit us secretly in the refugee camp after I was born. My grandma jokes (jokes now) that my mom was afraid that they would take me away, back to Slovakia.
After two years in Austria, my parents and I finally got our chance to start a new life. We were sent to Boston and the US refugee program set us up with an apartment and a job for my Dad. We started learning English and integrating into society. Once we could live on our own, we moved to Florida to be closer to some distant family, and for the weather.
I started school in Miami and had to be in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program until I caught up to my American classmates. My two younger sisters were born in Miami and my parents then applied for citizenship. After a few years in the US as contributing members of society, we became citizens.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union broke up and Slovakia gained back its independence. It joined the EU and is now a fully integrated member with a stable economy. Things are much better than they used to be and my cousins live good lives, working around Europe.
I probably would have ended up with a great life if we hadn’t left Slovakia, but I don’t think that I would be the same person. My adaptability, curious mind, need for adventure, and sense of entrepreneurship come from my unique upbringing in a different country. I feel the need to do great things because my parents took great risks to make sure that I grew up in a country of opportunities.
While America may not seem like the utopia it used to, it is still the easiest place to start a business, make something of yourself, and be who you want to be. America is a land of immigrants and that’s what makes it so unique and successful. It takes risks from both sides, from the immigrants and from the host country, but the risks are worth it because the nation and people are richer, in culture, life, and wealth, in the end.
I’m living back in Austria now and feel like I’m reliving my parents' escape. People are trying to seek better lives, only to encounter closed doors and racial discrimination. Back then, people didn’t want the communist refugees and my friends still joke that I’m a spy.
I am an entrepreneur, I work for the United Nations, my family is from Slovakia, I’m American, and I am a refugee.
This post is dedicated to my grandma,
"Babička" Mária Kollárová
May she rest in peace.
After the retirement of my Healthy Fit Goddess blog earlier this year, I'm finally back! I'm excited to blog on a more personal note, sharing my experiences and ideas in entrepreneurship, healthy lifestyle, and travel. I hope that you keep following me as I build this blog and please send me your comments, ideas, and inputs!