Climbing Crough Patrick, in Co. Mayo: 2,500 Feet Above Ireland

Having grown up in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, I felt the pull to finally hike the mammoth. Join me as I crests the 2,500-foot peak to gain a new perspective on this quaint Irish community.

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Dirty snow and chunks of mud nipped the skin under my fingernails as I scrambled up Croagh Patrick, a coastal mountain in western Ireland. Claw. Step. Claw. Step. All the while, the ocean wind whipped beads of sweat down my temples as I struggled.

I couldn't be more than 100 feet from the summit when I slipped and faltered. Terrified, I fell forward into a low crouch, shredding my palms on the scree. One misstep to either side, and I'd tumble over the icy drop-offs, perishing long before I hit bottom.

I cursed myself.

A young Irish woman gingerly scooted past me on her butt and offered her right hand. "You're not too far from the top there now," she said. She pulled me upward until I found my balance, and then continued her awkward descent.

How did I get here?

For some, County Mayo's Croagh Patrick is a must-hike for its stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and western Irish countryside. But to pilgrims and history buffs, it's much more. According to Catholic tradition, St. Patrick scaled the 2,507-foot mountain in 441 A.D. to banish all snakes from the Emerald Isle. Before that, the Celts worshiped a deity, Crom Dubh, they believed lived in the mountain.

Those stories help to draw more than 100,000 people annually to hike the spiny ridge, traverse the saddle, and spring for the summit. And though I was neither an avid climber nor a history enthusiast, in 2011 I began to feel the mountain's pull.

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In many ways, a summit of Croagh Patrick would be a homecoming for me. The daughter of American academics teaching abroad, I spent years living in the shadow of the mountain—more specifically, in the hamlet of Louisburgh, a village of 207 and home to the College of St. Scholastica. And though I'd immersed myself in the local culture, I'd never ascended the famous peak. So when a globe trot brought me within a stone's throw of that familiar edifice, it seemed wrong not to attempt it.

Of course, nostalgia is all well and good at sea level. Clinging to the side of Croagh Patrick, 2,400 up, I resumed my crawl. Claw. Step. Fifty feet to go. But the scree gave way and I slipped back ten feet and swore out loud.

Forty feet. I thought of the granola I ate that morning and prayed I wouldn't vomit.

Thirty. The sunlight made diamonds out of the snow.Did I overestimate myself? Should I have brought crampons?Sweat fogged up my sunglasses so I pushed them back through my blond braided hair.

The sunlight made diamonds out of the snow. Did I overestimate myself? Should I have brought crampons?"


Twenty. My contact lenses had dried out and stuck to my eyeballs.

Ten. The brain does funny things when fatigued. I began to drift, fantasizing about sledding down the mountain, when the icy path suddenly leveled out. I crested the mountain into knee-deep snow. The pink stopwatch on my wrist read 2:23:17.

I'd made it. Heart rate: 171. Total elevation: 2,507 feet. Blisters: too many to count. But I made it.

CRESTING CROAGH PATRICK

Two men in their 50's stood eating apples and digging circles in the snow with their walking sticks, not too far away. "Good girl," said one. “That'll get the heart racing now, won't it?" He jabbed at the west edge of the summit with his staff, and I followed his gaze off the coast. An army of islands (365, I found out later) dotted the waters of Clew Bay.

Nestled between the mountain and the bay, the green countryside was dotted with white and yellow cottages, ribbons of cobblestone walls separating one farmer's land from another. I nodded to the men and waded through snow to the summit's small church, a shrine to the mountain's namesake.

Munching a granola bar, I returned to those legends in which the peak was shrouded. Serpents and gods certainly lend an air of the mystical to Croagh Patrick, but they weren't what drew me to the summit. Rather it was the community the mountain had built, at its base and on its slopes—the strangers it drew together on the trail, the passing hellos, the strong grasp of a helping hand. It was my community, one I missed dearly, but had been lucky enough to find again.

With an aching back, but a renewed spirit, I waded back through the snow, put my toe to the edge of the mountain and looked down at the tiny people steadily climbing toward me. I smiled to myself and began my descent, a pilgrim coming home.

6 Best Places to Scuba Dive in North and Central America

Skip Oz for Dive Spots Closer to Home

Great Barrier Reef, Australia is known as the top place to dive, but the influx of divers over the years has damaged the coral reefs. But for divers on the western side of the globe, Australia is much more expensive to reach. “The best places to go scuba diving are most often the ones with the least tourists,” says Marc Turenne, a National Aquatic Service scuba instructor in central New York. “The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places where so many divers visit that areas are drastically damaged.” You don’t have to go to Oz for cool underwater views. In fact, there are many dive locations much closer to home for divers (and beginning divers) in the Americas.

1. Swim with Sharks in Shark Ray Alley

Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize, is a stretch of eight-foot deep water where you can dive and swim with nurse sharks and rays. Local fishermen used to gut their day’s catch over this area of water. Consequently, the sharks and rays built a habit of feeding on the small fish, and now stay here. “You’ll also see fluorescent-colored fish, four-foot long black groupers, and delicate sea fans,” says Holly Corbett, travel author, expert, and certified scuba enthusiast. “It’s one of the best places for marine life, and one of my favorite places to dive in Belize.”

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2. Deep-Water Dive in The Blue Hole

The Blue Hole, also located in Belize, was created after an ancient underwater cave collapsed to form a sink hole that can be seen from outer space. It’s more than 400 feet deep and 1,000 feet across. There isn’t as much marine life, apart from a few sharks, but you can dive 130 feet down the Blue Hole to the lip of cave and then “go underneath the ledge. But you have to be careful because the depth is outside the recreational diving standard of 100 feet,” says Tia Hastings, a National Aquatic Service scuba instructor in central New York.

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3. Diverse Underwater Life in Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador has some of the most diverse marine life in a concentrated area. When diving the Galapagos, you’ll see everything from penguins to four-eyed fish, and iguanas to dolphins and sea lions. “We just saw it all,” says Turenne. “It was hard to believe that this whole world existed under water, and then I was there and it was incredible. Being that close to an eight foot shark or a tiny sea horse is awesome.”

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4. Freshwater Wreck Dive in Thousand Islands

Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence river in New York is a famous U.S. dive spot and some consider it the best freshwater diving in the world. With shipwrecks at dive-able depths, the water is an attractive place to vacation for the weekend. “Thousand Islands is my favorite place to dive because the water is relatively clear, it’s affordable for those on a dive-budget, and the ship wrecks are all very different from each other,” says Turenne.

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5. Great White Cage Dive in California

Thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands are one of the best places to view Great White Sharks in the world. You can cage dive here, and you don’t have to be a certified scuba diver to do it—although you will have to undergo a crash course in safety equipment. The sharks range from 15 to 20 feet long and some of the world’s largest. Dive experts specializing in cage diving will set you up for $875.

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6. World’s Second Largest Barrier Reef

Just a flight away from America, the Caribbean offers less known dive sites. Holly Corbett was dive-certified in Thailand three and a half years ago, and has been traveling the world on dive trips ever since. One of her favorite spots is exploring off the coast of Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile long Caribbean island in Belize. At San Pedro, the island’s only town, you fill up your oxygen tanks and have prime-dive access to the world’s second largest barrier reef.

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Snow Storms in Europe: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (I think)

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Three hours. Standing. Sweating. Thirsty. Exhausted. Frustrated.

I’ve waited for three hours in line just to get inside the double doors for the international departure ticket booth. My number, #709, sits far down the list on the numbers of Frankfort’s computer screens. Frustrated, I wait for the 200+ people in front of me to re-route their tickets so I can make it home for Christmas. We’re all trying to get somewhere for the holidays but flights look  bleak. And our current situation is even bleaker. We’re all here, in this dark lounge, for the same reason: snowstorms sweeping most of Northern, Western and parts of Southern Europe, cause cancellations or delays on most flights. Thousands of us missed connecting flights in Frankfort today, and for a Frankfort-based hub like airline Lufthansa, that means thousands of people who need re-routed tickets, free hotel rooms, meal stubs, and water.

The little girl next to me can’t be more than five years old. She’s stretched out on the blue plastic seats, her mousy brown hair piled under her head for a pillow. Her purple socks dangle off her feet and her eyelids flutter in a half-sleep interrupted by constant intercom announcements.

An American man, probably in his low 30’s, asked to share my outlet. He scratches his shaved head, and twirls his white gold wedding ring aimlessly as he stares into space waiting for his computer to charge. His wife just had a baby—he hasn’t met his son yet because he has been out of the country for two weeks on business. He’s eager to get home.

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A smiling woman in a yellow vest offers water and granola bars to everyone. “Sweets! Treats! Food!” she shouts over the loudspeakers. She’s eager to get people drinking and eating. It’s easy to become dehydrated during long hours in the airport and the last thing Lufthansa wants is to send someone to Frankfort’s hospital. But her smile is infectious, and soon more and more people are smiling too.

A young couple, just married, sit across the aisle. The bride wears a white sweatshirt screaming BRIDE in pink, curly letters. She rests her head on her new husbands shoulder and by the looks of their colorful sandals they’re en route to somewhere warm on their honeymoon. Hopefully.

An older man in a trench coat has gray hairs protruding from his inner ears around his hearing aids. He scans the rows of plastic chairs for an empty seat before a strapping teenage boy stands up to offer the old man his.

A loud American woman with a thick Long Island accent chats to her sister on her blackberry. She complains about how tired she is, how frustrated she is, and how she just wants to jump the line to get home. Part of me agrees with her, but part of me resents her for voicing everyone’s thoughts so obnoxiously.

Numbers crawl slowly up the screen.  Four stations of exhausted Lufthansa employees help the several hundred of us packed into this lounge. And we’re the lucky ones. We’ve waited outside for three hours just to get in here to wait more. But at least we have a chair. And at least it’s not Christmas yet. There’s still three days to make it home. But for now, I’ve resigned myself to sleeping in yet another airport tonight. The frustrated ambiance in this ticketing lounge gives a whole new meaning to the Frank Sinatra song playing in my earbuds: I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Here’s hoping, Frank.

Athens Travel: My night in a Greek Jail

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Tara and I sat perched on a mustard, moth-eaten couch. On the facing wall, a yellowish stain—vomit or urine, I couldn’t tell—congealed in drip-dry formation down the peeling white paint. It was almost midnight. Two dirty, sweaty men leered at us, thick forearms hanging through steel bars crisscrossed on a large wooden cell door. It reminded me of the dungeon scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, except this was a Greek jail.

A tattooed “police officer” sporting a black leather jacket sauntered around us. He was massive.  His greasy, bleach blond hair slicked back in a bun nearly brushed the caving ceiling. His thin lips expunged heavy breaths, agitating the smoldering cigarette wedged between the gap where a tooth should’ve been. He eyeballed us. My instincts flared, I didn’t trust him at all.

We were in jail because of a thief. We met at the Athens airport two hours before—Tara flew in from Madrid, I flew in from London. The promise of spring break, six days filled with gyros, beaches and the Parthenon, absorbed our attention. It happened in a second. The thief vanished into the March night, on the metro platform with my friend’s $600 camera—an elusive shadow.

Our immediate—and admittedly panicked—reaction was to find the police station. Surely Greece had police reports.

Wrong.

At the directions of a sympathetic stranger, we headed to the nearest police station a half-mile away. Outside, five men with M16 guns strapped across navy blue and white uniforms stood in a circle, smoking and spitting on the concrete.

We desperately explained the stolen camera situation and that we’d please like to file a police report. They laughed. Their amused dark eyes saw only three things. Young. American. Women.

Nonetheless, they took us into the station motioned us into an elevator. Were they serious? Their fingers on the trigger told me yes. My mind took off. I wrote my own disappearance headline as I stepped inside: Two American college girls missing in Athens, whereabouts unknown. The missing shaft wall exposed the pulley system. I watched the floors pass, counting as we jerked upward — one, two, three, four, five.

Thirty minutes later, Mr. Leather Jacket handed us a document—supposedly a police report, although I’m certain they later filed it in the garbage. Tara hastily filled it out. Mr. Leather Jacket lurked around, smoking his cigarette, cursing in Greek at the criminals behind bars. My instincts raged. The whole situation felt wrong. Very wrong.

Another officer looked at Tara’s police report, and tore it in half. He angrily told her to redo it, stating that she “lost” the camera.

But it was stolen! she declared, frustrated. STOLEN, NOT LOST.

Everything escalated at once. The officer Tara argued with turned an unusual purple color.  The criminals behind bars taunted filthy broken English, come here babies, good vacation? Mr. Leather Jacket strode around the corner to yell at the criminals. She snatched a blank report and scribbled that she lost the camera.

I grabbed her hand. She tossed the police report on his desk, and we lunged toward the elevator. I pushed the call button a hundred times. An eternity later, we tripped out on the ground floor pushing past a bloody, bruised man in handcuffs escorted by two machine guns.

The next day, in a Greek heritage parade, I saw that same betraying white and navy uniform. And I gripped my bag a little tighter.

Stung by a Jellyfish: Mykonos Beach, Greece

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I didn’t know I had been stung–at first. And then it hit me. My legs burned, screaming for relief from the salty water. I vividly remember three things: the Mediterranean breeze drifting across my brown nose, the whoosh of escaping air from my lungs, and Emilio’s hand in the small of my back pushing me toward the shore.

***

I met Danny when he plopped down next to me on the bus at Mykonos port. He turned his big blue eyes to me and we talked about the solo-backpacking trip I was smack in the middle of. He traveled to Greece with a group of guys—three of his American cousins from Miami, and one Canadian. Within minutes, I tucked in as their sixth roommate. Less than an hour later, the six of us ran into the ocean.

Emilio and I were the only ones brave enough, daring enough, or maybe stupid enough, to swim across the 40-foot man-made shelf on Paradise Beach. It seemed like a brilliant idea to swim from the 15-foot shallow water to deeper 100-foot water in the Aegean Sea. The other five remained on shore in favor of cold beer over our deep-water escapade. But we went anyways.

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We floated in the open water, two specks lost in Greece’s turquoise ocean.  Layers of tropical fish darted around several feet below us in the crystal clear water. We dove deep enough to set our sinuses on fire, somersaulting through the cool salt water.

I didn’t even see the jellyfish behind me.

But after it brushed, ever so softly against my legs, I sure as hell felt it.

It itched at first. And the itch turned into a sharp, annoying pain. And then it felt like someone stabbed my leg with a knife and twisted it around and around. Something was wrong. I had to get out. I called to Emilio and swam toward the shelf. Within seconds he was there. He grabbed my hand. We  slipped our way across the shell shelf. I collapsed off the other side into shallower water and he pushed me toward shore. From afar, I’m sure we looked like two idiots goofing around, but as we got closer Danny knew something wasn’t right.

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He waded in to help Emilio support me as I stumbled through the shallows. He took one look at the Frisbee-size white and red welts on my legs and said, “jellyfish.”

Oh Jesus, they’re going to pee on me, I thought…the infamous jellyfish cure. But in that moment, I could care less. Anything to take the pain away.

But, travel karma was on my side again. Since the boys were from Miami, they had their share of jellyfish experiences. And a few cure-all tricks, too. One hustled to buy two oversized cans of beer. The other packed wet sand around my legs. After several rounds of drizzling beer on my welts and compressing wet sand around my legs, the throbbing subdued.  A few hours later my legs were okay–albeit red.

I still have scars around my right knee that turn purple when I get cold. Travel isn’t always glamorous and I learned solo travel is much easier  when you make friends along the way. But it could’ve been worse, and that night we danced for hours at the disco.