My 13 Favorites of 2013

Thanks to a variety of factors, 2013 was an awesome, adventure-filled year full of numerous new experiences, destinations visited, foods eaten, drinks imbibed, books read, films watched and more. What follows is a list of 13 of my favorites of 2013:

Movie: 12 Years a Slave
Perhaps I’m biased because the screenplay I wrote last year, and the novelization I’m working on now, tackles the same subject: slavery and the quest for freedom, but 12 Years a Slave was far and away my favorite film of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor brilliantly carries the movie as Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender’s turn as a manic, brutal slave owner is perfect. There are a number of great performances and the acting is solid all around. In addition, director Steve McQueen is extraordinary, having created a film that is at times excruciating to watch, yet so gripping and masterfully executed that the viewer cannot turn away. Based on a true story, the film is necessary and educational. Rightfully so, it will not be easily forgotten. If you haven’t seen the powerful, evocative film, I highly recommend it. Just bring tissues.

Accomplished Goal: Spending a night alone in the wilderness
It was one of the most daunting goals on my 30×30 list, but I successfully completed it a couple months ago and greatly enjoyed it. You can read about the experience here.

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I could eat heaps of this deliciousness!

Meal: A meze plate in Katakolon, Greece
While visiting the Magna Grecia farm on the outskirts of Katakolon, Greece, I was treated to a plate of delectable nibbles such as Kalamata olives, sausage, and bread dipped in olive oil procured from olives from a 300-year-old olive tree. Paired with copious amounts of wine, shots of ouzo, and fun, friendly conversation with my generous Greek hosts, it was my favorite meal of the year.

Artist: Macklemore
I was introduced to the music of Ben Haggerty (stage name Macklemore) via his chart-topping hit “Thrift Shop.” Expressing his joy for shopping at thrift stores to save money–and because, according to him, it’s ridiculous to spend $50 for a shirt that six other people will have at the club–I found a kindred spirit and instantly took a liking to him. His songs are catchy, intelligent, fun and perfect for bike rides along the beach boardwalk, or cleaning the house, or dancing (well, trying to dance, in my case).

Experience: Hiking to 16,200 feet in the Andes in Colombia
After a crazy bus ride in the mountains, hiking into camp and spending a night in a frigid cabana where seven wool blankets was barely adequate for a decent night’s sleep, we were set for taking on El Pulpito del Diablo in Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy: the biggest hike of our lives. We started at around 13,000 feet and it wasn’t too hard going at first. Once we reached about 15,000 feet, however, having conquered a pretty steep section, we morphed into zombie-like creatures. With heads down we zigzagged the final pitch, half-dragged ourselves, panted and, when our bodies could afford the extra energy expenditure, let out grunts reminiscent of the possessed dog-creatures in The Thing.  When we finally reached the top, all of the effort had paid off. We were treated to a (literally) breathtaking view of the northernmost part of the Andes Mountain Range, the snow-capped peaks and the moraine lakes below.

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Exhausted but elated at 16,200 feet.

Blog PostThe Pixar Theory by Jon Negroni
Negroni’s article explaining the idea that all of Pixar’s fourteen movies are connected is fun, well-written and thought-provoking. I am not alone in the opinion, as the post has garnered 4.4 million views. If you’re a fan of the Animation Studio that has produced imaginative and creative films such as Toy StoryFinding Nemo and Wall-E, I’ve no doubt you’ll be interested in reading Negroni’s theory that ties them together.

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Thrilled to see the magnificence in person.

Site: Colosseum in Rome, Italy
Constructed nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman Colosseum is the largest amphitheater in the world–and the coolest site I saw this year (though the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, was also magnificent). The second I caught my first glimpse of the enormous structure, I caught my breath. And then I smiled and said, “Wow.” Of course I had seen in photos and videos the former home of gladiatorial contests, executions and dramas, among other public spectacles, but seeing it in person was a real treat and brought my knowledge to life. It definitely shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Rome.

Night: Partaking in the fun in Istanbul, Turkey
The night started with Raki (an unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic drink), fresh fruit, and Turkish music from a lively band led by a female singer who was beautiful and wore fantastic red pants. Dancing quickly ensued, which was followed by more dancing at another joint. After a considerable amount of drinking, dancing and revelry, the night ended with smoking hookah for the first time, enjoying delicious tea, eating more fruit, nuts and other treats, and watching the sun come up over the grand city.

Song: “Lost but Won” by Hans Zimmer
If you missed my post espousing my love for film scores, to reiterate: I love film scores. For years one of my favorite composers has been Hans Zimmer. It’s of no surprise to me that one of his songs from this year made my list of favorites. Featured on the Rush soundtrack, “Lost but Won” is moving, beautiful and complements the film perfectly.

Learned Skill: Guitar
While my singing is best suited for the shower or alone time in the car–places where the ears of others cannot be assaulted–learning and playing instruments has come fairly easily to me. I started playing piano as a kid and I played the flute in middle school. I even dabbled with drums back in the day. The first time I picked up a guitar and tried to play a chord, I immediately became frustrated with stretching and holding my fingers just the right way to eke out something that sounded like a chord. Years later, I added playing a guitar song to my list of goals, determined to fight through the initial bloody and calloused fingers. Thanks to many a Youtube video, I can now strum six chords and even play a song. It has only four chords, and I play it slowly, but I’m getting better. And, best of all, I’m enjoying it.

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I ran up so I could enjoy the view longer.

View: Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
After running three miles to the top of the ancient castle walls that stretch above the city, I was treated to the stunning view of the Bay of Kotor, a highly indented part of the Adriatic Sea that is a ria, or a submerged river canyon. The towering limestone cliffs add to the impressive, picturesque view. One that is definitely worth the sweaty, calf-burning run.

Book: Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French
French reportedly spent six years researching for his book about the largely unknown and fascinating world of a zoo, its inhabitants and its keepers–and it shows. I learned so much from Zoo Story I started taking notes so I could tell my friends interesting facts and tidbits I had acquired (for example that male seahorses get pregnant rather than their female counterparts). The book largely focuses on captivity and the goings on at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, introducing such characters as Herman the beloved chimpanzee, Enshalla the Sumatran tiger with a dark and tragic past, and Lex the overzealous zoo keeper. Additionally, French discusses extinction and conservation issues, which are usually of interest to me. If you’re an animal lover like me, it’s a fascinating read.

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Sipping sangria in Spain.

Drink: Sangria in Spain
If I lived in Spain, I would most likely develop a drinking problem. From sip number one in Malaga, Spain, I fell even more in love with sangria. I had had the drink before, but never a glass as refreshing or delightful, or with such a perfect level of sweetness. I was fortunate to get to imbibe in the tasty drink in a few different cities (Malaga, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca), and attest that it never failed my expectations. If you get the chance to visit Spain, do not pass up the opportunity to imbibe in a little (or a lot of) sangria. Your taste buds will thank you.

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10 Great Places for Solitude

For those who desire a little quiet hermitage, I’ve recently discovered that taking a solo camping trip can be just the ticket. If you want a little more isolation, the following destinations look like some fantastic places to be a recluse. I have described only two locations based on my experiences (PNN El Cocuy and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi), so I look forward to visiting the rest! Except for Alert, Canada. That frigid place in the middle of nowhere doesn’t look all that appealing to me.

DSCN02461) Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy – Colombia

The long and varied journey to the park in the northern part of the Andes mountain range keeps the number of visitors to a minimum. It involves a lengthy ride through the mountains on a bus with screeching brakes that are in desperate need of new pads; followed by a jarring ride on a road riddled with pot-holes, in a local’s truck that no longer has shocks; and completed by an hour-long hike at roughly 13,000 feet carrying all your gear on your back. Your sleeping options are limited to a tent you pack in or a cabana that offers less heat than a meat locker. But once you’re there, you will realize the joy and elation of being nearly all alone in a weird and unique environment that exists only a few places on Earth.

2) Rongbuk Monastery Guesthouse – China

You don’t need to climb the tallest mountain in the world to experience the solitude Mt. Everest can offer. Staying at the guesthouse at an elevation of 16,732 feet might have you winded just walking to the bathroom, but gazing up at the snow-covered peak that has claimed the lives of more than 200 climbers will likely make you feel pretty small in the grand scheme of things, which is usually a good exercise in humility.

3) Wilson Island – Australia

If you want to experience near-seclusion without high-altitude trekking, an ideal location is the island in the Great Barrier Reef that shares its name with the beloved volleyball friend of Chuck Noland in Castaway. As only twelve guests are permitted on the five-acre island at a time, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful and relaxing place perfect for a recluse. If you desire to see life, but not of the human variety, visit in January when green turtles and loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.

4) Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve – South Africa

If you prefer the company of animals of the non-human variety, there are few better places to stay than in game parks in Africa. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, the oldest proclaimed natural park in Africa, is home to the Big Five—elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and cape buffalo—as well as a plethora of other animals including zebra, giraffe, hyenas, crocodiles, warthogs and numerous others. Staying in a safari tent in the park puts you right in the midst of the wildlife, where your only neighbors are the slithering snakes, mischievous monkeys, elegant Wahlberg’s eagles and a few other adventurous travelers like yourself.

5) Alert – Canada

If the idea of merely spending time alone isn’t enough, and you want to put your survivor mettle to the test, look no further (as if you can) than Alert, the world’s most northern inhabited land, a town some 500 miles from the North Pole with a population of five. Yes, five. As it is a far cry from another city—the nearest being roughly 1,200 miles away—and a really far cry from being a tourist destination, you must bring your own sleeping bag. And provide your own food. And build your own accommodation, specifically an igloo to adequately combat the icy temperatures.

National Geographic World

(property of National Geographic World)

6) Kobuk Valley National Park – USA

Avoid the throngs of people that flock to well-known national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite by traveling to the least-visited national park in the U.S. Thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s Kobuk Valley offers visitors complete solitude in lieu of trails, roads or campgrounds. In typical fashion for many who inhabit the Last Frontier, most park visitors are skilled hunters, and subsist primarily on caribou. Make like Katniss Everdeen and shoot your dinner with a bow and arrow if you’re up for the challenge. At any rate, it is likely to be just you, the caribou and a few other animals.

7) Pitcairn Island – South Pacific

Another idyllic place that is mostly devoid of people—only fifty call it home—is Pitcairn Island, noted for being the landing spot and eventual home of nine mutineers from the H.M.S. Bounty who settled there more than two hundred years ago. Located just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the island enjoys warm weather year-round, and is home to many birds and nine plant species that exist only on the island. The island is volcanic, however, so be sure to visit before it blows!

(property of Travel Channel)

(property of Travel Channel Tumbler)

8) Glover’s Atoll – Belize

Apparently even many Belizeans aren’t too familiar with this ninety-square-mile ring of coral reef located forty-five miles off the coast of the mainland. The unspoiled atoll offers privacy, solitude, snow-white sand, coconut trees and a vibrant underwater world that can be mere inches from your nightly lodging if you stay in a thatch cabin over water. With your only neighbors being animals you’ll barely hear unless they jump out of the surf, Glover’s Atoll seems like heavenly seclusion.

9) Svalbard – Norway

If Norway is considered a quiet and remote country, than Svalbard, an island 400 miles north of Norway, must be even quieter. Roughly 2,000 people reside on the island in the only town aptly named Longyearbyen. As it is located above the Arctic Circle, the inhabitants—mostly coal miners and scientists—live in months of continuous daylight and then months of continuous darkness. While it is not known for having a productive agriculture, it does house the Global Seed Vault, an underground store of the world’s plant seeds in case of a global doomsday.

10) Tristan Island – South Atlantic

To visit the most remote inhabited place in the world you’ll need to go to Tristan Island in the Tristan da Cunha group of four islands, located about 1,700 miles from Cape Town between Argentina and South Africa. As a testament to its remoteness, Tristan boasts a meager population of 271 and there are only seven surnames among the inhabitants. Visiting is allowed, but taking up permanent residence can be difficult. There are no spare houses, only a few jobs exist, and, perhaps the biggest barrier to entry, new residents must be approved by the Island Council.

(property of New York Times)

(property of The New York Times)

What’s the most remote place you’ve been? Let me know in the comments!

4) Play Bingo at a Bingo Hall

“N-33,” the caller announced. Throughout the room heads dropped and hands quickly made marks on Bingo cards. I slowly searched the “N” column on each of my six cards, not wanting to miss any. Oh, there’s one. Let me just—

“0-72,” she said moments later. Whoa, slow down, I’ve barely had a chance to use my fancy marker to blot out the N-33s.

“G-54,” called the pleasant voice. Another one? Already? I thought Bingo was supposed to be enjoyable, not a frenetic activity of feverish number scanning.

In reality, I had no idea what Bingo was supposed to be like. Sure, I had played the game with my family as a child, where we sat at the dining room table, ate ice cream, and chatted between drawing the tokens that had the letter-number combinations. It was even competitive—as were most games and activities with my family—but it was never for money. Adding a monetary element to just about anything automatically ups the ante. (Pun intended, of course). And these Bingo games were no joke. Each payout was $250.

For whatever reason, my idea of Bingo was a room full of blue-haired old ladies peering at their cards through their coke-bottle glasses, silently marking the called numbers, and hypocritically loudly hushing anyone who dared distract their concentration by so much as coughing. I imagined the winner of each game thrusting her wrinkled hand into the air, thunderously calling out, “Bingo!” and grinning gloatingly at those she deemed her rivals, while the latter sneered and grumbled under their breath. I figured such halls were no place for a novice outsider like me.

In addition to my childhood game playing, the only other experience I had had with Bingo came while working as the librarian on a cruise ship. One of my myriad tasks was to help sell Bingo cards, and then calculate the winnings for each game based on the number of cards sold and the price of each card. A perk was when I sold a winning card to a guest who wanted to show appreciation to the card seller—me—by treating me to a drink or two. (As a crew member, I was allowed all the food I wanted, but I had to buy my drinks).

I earned additional cruise ship Bingo experience by volunteering to be the caller for one of the monthly crew games. I had never called Bingo, but I had seen the show host do it for the guests often enough that I was fairly certain I would be able to work it out. Maybe I wouldn’t know the same jokes, but calling letters and numbers? Surely I could handle that.

Those experiences, combined with the knowledge of how much my late grandmother enjoyed playing at her local Bingo hall—and the prize money she took home on one particular occasion—enticed me to try my luck as a participant.

“I-21,” the caller stated. I sighed, still working on G-54. If Bingo was this much of a race, I would surely fall behind and never be quick enough to be the first to notice Bingo or call it out, as I so very much wanted to do. This thought troubled me, considering the average age of the participants was around fifty. Not being able to keep up with people nearly twice my age frustrated me. Fortuitously, “Mother Hen” was there, seated across the table, to offer her assistance. In her words, she had been playing for as many years as I’d been alive. Her set up, one that involved an assortment of fat markers (what are referred to in the Bingo world as daubers), four packets of cards for a total of twenty-four games to watch at once, and a stand propped up to more easily display her large collection of cards, indicated she was telling the truth, and maybe even underplaying it.

“See that?” she asked, pointing to a small TV screen on the wall facing me. It showed the caller’s hand retracting the ball that randomly popped up into the chute, and turning it so the letter-number combination was clearly visible to the players.

I nodded.

“You can look up there and see what’s coming next,” she said. “That way you can mark the number before it’s even called, mmkay?” I nodded again. “If it gives you Bingo, you can call Bingo as soon as she says it, mmkay?”

“Thanks,” I responded quietly, not wanting to disturb the other players that were giving rapt attention to their cards.

“I don’t want to get in your business,” she assured me, seemingly not wanting to go against a Bingo credo of not meddling with other players and their cards.

“No, please do. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

She smiled, looked at my card, and marked a G-54 I had missed ages ago.

“B-9,” the caller said, reminding me of the time I called Bingo for my fellow crew members. If you have a tumor, I hope it’s B-9! Like I said, my calling abilities didn’t automatically come with the best, or even appropriate, jokes.

“Bingo!” a lady shouted. I swiveled my head and saw in the sea of older women an arm outstretched, holding what was presumably the winning card. An attendant walked over, called the number on the bottom of the card and announced the contestant won. Bummer. But at least there are a couple dozen more games.

As the night wore on, and one hour became two, two became three, the room got noisier. Bags of chips popped open, sodas were slurped down, chatter picked up. Mother Hen conversed with nearby players and some of the attendants who, in addition to verifying the winning cards, sold pull tabs. “Three Little Pigs!” they’d say walking up and down the rows. Mother Hen would respond, “Three little homies,” and then exchange a couple dollars for a chance to win a couple thousand.

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No winners in this pile, unfortunately.

Game after game was played. I had the hang of it and relied primarily on the screen, listening to the caller only when I had missed what was shown overhead. “Bingo!” was shouted numerous times but never by me. I ripped failed card off of failed card. Loser, loser, loser. I craved yelling Bingo, and having everyone else groan and temporarily despise me, almost more than the prize money.

“B-8,” I heard the announcer say. If you fall overboard, you’re liable to B-8 by sharks. I groaned at the memory. My groan continued when another player exclaimed, “Bingo!”

Mother Hen noticed my disappointment. “Are you having fun?”

“Yes,” I replied with a smile, though apparently not very convincingly.

She laughed. “It’s more fun when you win.”

“Have you won a lot?” I asked.

“Like I said, I’ve been playing for years, mmkay? You win some, you lose some.”

“If I don’t end up winning tonight,” I said, “I’m going to want to come back just to make up for all of my losses.”

She laughed again and nodded. “Honey, I play as often as I can. I can’t play every night because of my work schedule, but I’m here all the time.” A participant walking by on her way to the bathroom during the break in between games exchanged a few words with Mother Hen. I looked around and saw people engaged in lively conversations, laughing, eating, making a night of it. At that point, I realized that Bingo was more than a game. It was more than a chance to win some money. I saw here, in this room in Buckingham Heights, it was a little community. Sure, if a contestant won more than once, other players said under their breath that she was what veterinarians call female dogs, but at the core it was a room full of comrades. Many of these people played several nights a week, no matter how often they won or lost, and no doubt they would keep coming back. For Mother Hen, who had been playing for a few decades, it was an integral part of her lifestyle.

The beginning of the last game was announced and the voices in the room hushed. This was it, the ultimate chance for glory, at least until the following night, when everything I had witnessed would once again be played out in a very similar fashion. Each number called got me one step closer to victory. But it got everyone else closer as well.

“N-36,” the caller said, for what turned out to be the last time of the night.

“Bingo!” was happily shouted. I would like to say it was me, but alas, it was not.

“Bummer,” I said.

“I hope you had fun,” Mother Hen replied, as if she knew I had directed my dejected sentiment to her, a long-time player who most assuredly had experienced the feeling countless times before.

I smiled, told her I did, and thanked her for all the sage advice she had provided during the past four hours.

“You come back, mmkay?”

I nodded, grateful to be accepted into the world of playing Bingo, a world that had previously been foreign to me. A world that had been made up in my mind to consist only of blue-haired old ladies with coke-bottle glasses and stern glances to those who coughed. Mother Hen did have glasses, but her hair was not blue. It was brown. With tinges of gray.

20) Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal

For most of my life, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. I love watching football, playing games, gathering with friends and family, helping prepare a delicious feast, and then eating all the tasty dishes. More than that, however, I enjoy the celebration because it provides an opportunity to think about all the reasons I am thankful.

This year, rather than limiting my appreciation to one day, I decided to keep a daily gratitude log for one month. Though I am extremely fortunate and have much to be grateful for, thinking of a very distinct aspect of my life for thirty days wasn’t always the easiest task. While I always make an effort to show appreciation for things like birthday gifts or being treated to dinner, I seldom consider some of the fortunes that have been a standard all my life, like having convenient food sources or potable tap water. Only when I forced myself to reflect on every aspect of my life did I truly appreciate some of the things I am lucky to have. What follows are a few selections from my month-long journal:

Hiking at 16,000 feet is tough, but worth it!

Hiking this high is tough, but worth it!

Day 4: I am thankful for my legs. Admittedly, I find it easy to want to despise my legs, having battled shin problems for nearly a decade following simultaneous tibial stress fractures I sustained while running cross country and track in college. My legs have inspired me to curse, yell, cry, become depressed and loathsome, and contemplate surgery. In short, have spent a great deal of time and effort not appreciating them. Despite all the issues, pain and frustration my legs have caused me, I am grateful for them. Though my shins still bother me on occasion, and I’m unable to run as much as I’d like, I can still do so many things. I can go for a bike ride along the Santa Monica beach boardwalk. I can trek through the jungles in Thailand. I can hike to 16,300 feet in the Andes. I can SCUBA dive and snorkel with ease. I can ride horses and elephants and donkeys. I can dance! (Well, no, not really, but I can try!). When I focus on what I can do rather than on what I can’t, I realize how many wonderful activities I can do thanks to my legs.

hiking 069Day 8: I am thankful for having the means and desire for backpacking. There is little that is more satisfying than stuffing everything I need for twenty-four hours into a pack, slinging it over my shoulders and trucking off into the wilderness. Taking a solo trip is especially fun! I love experiencing nature, seeing wild animals in their natural habitats, “roughing it” a bit, testing my survivor mettle a tad, and taking a step back from modernity to our ancestral roots. Cooking food over a fire; gazing at the night sky unimpeded by city lights; listening to chirping birds or grasshoppers rather than sirens and arguing neighbors; and snuggling up in my sleeping bag, zipping it all the way up to my chin, and seeing the stars through the tent one last time before falling asleep is pretty unbeatable. I am thankful for such fantastic, unique experiences that backpacking offers.

Pepper, the awesome dog I got to grow up with.

Pepper, the awesome dog I grew up with.

Day 14: I am thankful for dogs. They come in various sizes, colors, temperaments and breeds, but they all make me smile. Dogs are the most loyal of companions, the perfect exercise partners; and superb listeners–my secrets are always safe with a dog. I believe dogs enrich the lives of everyone, and I am grateful for their presence on Earth. I was fortunate to grow up with a wonderful, fun and smart Chesapeake Bay retriever.

Day 19: I am thankful for movies. And the creative minds that make them. I am thankful to live in a society where people are afforded the opportunities to create masterful, poignant, thought-provoking, emotional, mysterious, hilarious, historical and evocative films which I am able to view. At their worst, motion pictures can be banal two-hour time sucks. At their best, they can transport viewers to another time and another place filled with historical or newly invented characters. They can grip viewers’ minds, throats and hearts; move them to the edge of their seats; confuse, amuse, paralyze and entertain them; and create diversions or new perspectives. Films are capable of offering viewers so many wonderful things, and I am grateful for getting to see them nearly as often as I’d like. Hopefully one day I’ll play a bigger role in the world of film than merely being a viewer.

Day 20: I am thankful for having the five senses. My nose delights in smelling the wonderful aroma that wafts through the house when I’m baking chocolate chip cookies. My mouth savors every hint of sweetness and every iota of saltiness when I’m feasting on sushi. My eyes are mesmerized by ribbons of pink, orange and purple that light up the sky at sunset. My ears are treated to striking chords, inspirational notes and evocative melodies when I’m listening to my five favorite film scores. My skin luxuriates in soft, warm fabric when I’m wrapped in my favorite blanket. I am grateful for the heightened life experiences my senses afford me, and will cherish them as long as I have them.

One of South Africa's stunning sunsets.

One of South Africa’s stunning sunsets.

What are you thankful for? Let me know in the comments!