Descending into the Parisian Catacombs

Who wouldn’t want to walk down 135 stairs into tunnels full of dead people on a random Wednesday afternoon? Well me being me, I was up for anything and my roommate Meredith and I decided to adventure into the Parisian Catacombs. I hadn’t heard about the catacombs in Paris until one of my favorite Youtubers, FunForLouis, had gone with his Live the Adventure crew into the thousands of tunnels under the city to see the bones of the departed. They stumbled through water up to their waist and ducking their heads in order to fit into the small tunnels. I had no idea what to expect when my roommate and I got onto the line outside the entrance of the Catacombs (it was a pretty long line to get in, so if you’re thinking about going make sure you get there early).  IMG_6732

Winding through the tunnels, I was amazed to see the seer amount of bones just on display. For what seemed like kilometers (it was only about 2), the the tunnels led me deeper and deeper into them. In the old quarries from when Paris was being built, the tunnels were lined with heads and all different types of bones. I had no idea more than 60 million bodies were houses under the streets below were I have been living for the past 4 months. The city continued to collect bodies within these tunnels between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when graveyards were being closed because of sanitation reasons. A majority of the bodies came from “Cimetière des Innocents” graveyard, but soon the number grew and included bodies from the surrounding hospitals, people dying on the street, and from local morgues. During the French Revolution, the catacombs were used a final resting place for victims of the war.

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The cold, stale air added to the eeriness of the walk, as Meredith and I stared in wonder about the lives of the people in the Catacombs. I could not help but think about they types of lives these people had. Were they children? Mothers? Fathers? Bankers? Lawyers? Being living on the street? What were their stories? Who were they? It is easy down there to just get lost in the volume of the bodies, but all of them had lives just like us. Lost in history, their bodies had been placed here due to just circumstance. Do their families know they’re here? Where are the relatives now? Do they even have relatives? You might think I’m over thinking these questions, but these people never received a proper burial and I doubt they knew their ruins would be on display for hundreds of years after their death.

It was interesting to see all the bones displayed in different formations and to hear how the bones get rotated every so often to ensure they don’t get damaged. Maybe it was the dreary, rainy day or the fact that I was tired from taking a final exam earlier that morning, but I left the Catacombs with an unsettled feeling. But I enjoy eerie things (shoutout to American Horror Story) so descending into the Parisian Catacombs allowed me to get my fix of creepy things during my time here. If you’ve been to the Catacombs in Paris or somewhere else, let me know your thoughts!

P.S: We were not up to our waists in water and the walk was very easy!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Hang Gliding in Interlaken Switzerland

It’s almost like a right of passage for college students studying abroad to travel to Interlaken, Switzerland for a weekend and after I went there I 100% understood why.

After a full day of traveling from Paris to Interlaken, with a few hours in Geneva to explore, my roommate Casie and I found ourselves in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Our hostel was right on the water of Lake Brienz and whenever we looked, everything had a blue glow. The water was so clear that the mountains reflected onto it and there was a sense of peace in the world. It is almost impossible to be unhappy there due to fresh, clean mountain air and the local people smiling everywhere we turned. It was a huge contrast from smelly, depressing Paris we had left behind for the weekend. Although everything was 5x more costly than Paris, the atmosphere made it all worth it.

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View from our hostel window

Interlaken is a mountain village is known for its hiking trails and extreme sports like mountain biking, snowboarding, paragliding, hang gliding, and sky diving. Although I was not up for the complete thrill of sky diving (I am just not that daring), Casie and I set up to go hang gliding with a company called Hang Gliding Interlaken. Hang gliding is where you are basically suspended in the air, flying with an airplane type thing- it looked sorta like a paper airplane. Now, if you’re nervous about these types of adventures, as I was, these two Aussie’s are the way to go. The company is owned by “Birdman” Bernie and he is an expert in this territory for knowing exactly where to take off and land. He along with his sidekick Ed, drove us up the side of the mountain to our take off spot. They told us stories and cracked jokes the entire way which give me a chance to forget about my fears about trusting this flying contraption and POSSIBLY running to my death.

At one point they stopped the car about halfway up the mountain and said that we could either jump here or go further up the mountain to get better, longer views.

IMG_6394Casie looked at me since I was the nervous one (she had already gone sky diving and loved roller coasters). I thought about it for a second before I thought, FUCK IT! I would be dying if something happened either way, so I might as well die looking at a better views (for the record: I was COMPLETELY over reacting. I’m a baby). So further we went up the winding trail to the very top with a bunch of other hang gliders and parasailers. The car stopped randomly as the road did, so we had to hike up the rest of the way which proved to be more difficult due to my body being quite out of shape and the air being quite thin due to the high altitude.

Once we reached the top, to my surprise Bernie had me help me prepare the hang glider which I believed was a TERRIBLE idea. But it was a good tactic because it helped me to forget how high we were and it kept me present in the moment instead of freaking out about the jump. Then it was finally time to run off the cliff in the middle of the Swiss Alps mountain range. It was now or never- at this point I wanted it to be never. But we ran right off the mountain and suddenly we were soaring!

The first thing I thought of was the old Disney ride called Soaring (it was replaced by Star tours), because it felt EXACTLY like that. I felt as though I could fly with the wind flowing through my hair and being higher than the clouds. We flew over the mountain tops and with the lake beneath us, it is a sight I will never forget. I felt invincible as _1000364we drove through the air with the views of the Swiss Alps all around us with little houses dotting the roads. All the cars looked like ants from thousands of feet in the air. It was incredible to feel so in the moment and present in life. The day before I had woken up in Paris, and now I was soaring high above the Alps in Switzerland, truly incredible.

Before I knew it, it was time for us to return to land and the small objects below grew. Suddenly, we were hovering above the ground until the wheels touched the grass and then we rolled to a stop. I was shaking with adrenaline and immediately wanted to go again (although my wallet said no). I was so proud that I had accomplished a bucket-list activity. Casie and I drank beers as we handed over 300 Swiss Francs (this included the flight, plus many pictures and videos) for the thrill of a lifetime.

I spent the rest of my day traveling farther up the Alps towards a town called Mürren, where I hiked along the IMG_6415panoramic trail. It was amazing to be alone and to spend time with nature in its purest form. I was able to look down on the clouds and the small mountain villages in awe. I would have never thought I would be as lucky as I was just then. I was fully present in the moment without thinking about my future plans or what I wanted to do with my life. It was all about making sure I was taking in the views and being at peace with myself. I had found my balance once again and I felt truly happy. I hope to explore more and experience the natural beauty of Mother Earth. Where are some places on Earth that have natural beauty that you’ve traveled to?

Happy travels, Cynthia

The hostel we stayed at: http://www.lakelodge.ch/

Check out “Birdman” Bernie : http://www.hangglidinginterlaken.com/

Paris Bucket-list

Before I left for Paris I researched both the city and the country to find what to do here. For countless hours I read blogs and watched vlogs on youtube showing places to see and things to do in and around Paris. Here is my list:

1. Climb the Eiffel Tower: I mean seriously? How can I not?

2. Spend and afternoon at Shakespeare and Company: a well known English bookstore that has been visited by  famous authors like, Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I may or may not have spent more than one afternoon AND I may or may not have an obsession)

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3. Visit the Louvre- This museum has one of the best collections of artworks in the world.

4. Go to the top of the Arc de Triumph: The views are spectacular and one of the view places where you get a view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower

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5. Visit the Pablo Picasso Museum: He is one of my favorite Cubist artists and he lived in Paris for most of his life.

6. Go to the top of Sacré- Cœur and wander through Montmartre: The arts district of Paris where Picasso, Monet, and Pizarro used to hang out. In the heart of the district, there is a beautiful basilica with views of the city.

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7. Visit Notre Dame and climb to the top: A beautiful gothic church in the center of Paris. (I really just wanted to see if Quasimodo was still there)

8. Visit Sainte- Chapelle Church: The stain glass windows are breathtaking, so made sure you go on a sunny day. IMG_4168.jpg

9. Discover a secret restaurant

10. Visit Musee D’Orsay: A museum with one of best collections of impressionism in the world.

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11. Stroll through Tuileries Garden

12. Day Trip to Palace of Versailles: The famous Châteaux that Louis XIV built that has amazing gardens and The Hall of Mirrors.

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13. Try escargot: It was sorta slimy but I covered it in butter so I mostly tasted that. But when in France right?

14. Day Trip to Mont Saint Michel: A monastery that is sometimes completely surrounded by water when there is high tides. The place is a holy spot with an Abby at the top of the island.

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15. Visit the Catacombs: Who wouldn’t want to hundreds of year old bones and creepy heads under the streets of Paris.

16. Day Trip to go Champagne Tasting

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17. Read in Jardin du Luxembourg

18. Walk along Champs- Elysees

19. Try macaroons from Ladurée: It’s a must do for anyone coming to this amazing city

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20. Climb the Palais Garnier staircase

21. Spend an afternoon in Le Marais

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22. Design my own perfume in Maison Guerlain

23. Eat a crêpe: The Nutella ones have been my favorite, although a “jambon et fromage” (ham and cheese) savory crêpes are good too.

24. Drink the hot chocolate at Angelina: I have gone 4 times and had to stand in line BUT it was sooooo worth it. Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, try the egg croissant- also amazing.

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25. Climb the Montparnasse Tower: Beautiful views of Paris at night.

26. Day trip to Disneyland Paris: I wanted an excuse to be a kid for a day.

27. Visit the love lock bridge

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There is my list of everything I hope to accomplish in France before I leave on May 15th!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Utopia56: Volunteering at a Parisian Refugee Camp

I never know who I am are going to meet to meet in life, and on my way back to my apartment from Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of those times. My roommate and I shared an Uber with a woman who was on her way to volunteer with refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Never would I have thought that the experience would help change my outlook for the better.

In the metro system and the streets of Paris, I constantly see women and children huddled together on a blanket with a few items asking for money. Many of them hold make shift signs saying “Famille Syrienne” and have heavy eyes looking into the walkways. Whenever I pass them, my heart always go out to them and hope that their situation is better than the life they left behind in Syria. I think about where they are coming from and if they lived in similar conditions that I have seen in my travels to Ghana and Cambodia, or if they have family back home. I am the type of person who acts on my feelings and when the woman from the Uber told me about an organization that help refugees, I automatically signed myself up to volunteer.

The organization is called Uptia65 and it’s located in the heart of the poor region of Paris. It is surrounded by old, vandalized buildings with make shift housing for multiple families. It is crazy to think that a 20 minute metro ride from the Eiffel Tower, people are just starting their new life in Paris. The refugee camp is not much to those who walked by and although it’s on a busy street it is hard not to notice the sad state of it. There were security guards surrounding the camp and fences huddled together with blankets being used as shelters for the people who could not get into the camp that day. It broke my heart to see the people laying on the ground trying so hard to stay warm in the cold, March weather.

I was welcomed into the camp by smiling volunteers who were surprised to see a new face coming to help and I was shown around the camp with explanations on the work being accomplished there. The organization helps mainly male refugees from South Sudan and some Middle Eastern countries, although there are some families staying at the camp. Due to territorial conflicts, the security guards were there to help stop any fights that may break out. The men can stay at the camp for two or more weeks while they start to get on their feet. They are given new clothes, food, shelter, and access to social workers to get the right immigration or mental health information the men might need. The camp serves close to 400 men at a time and with the help of only about 10 volunteers a day, there is so much work to be done.

I was immediately put to the task of helping to hand out clothes to the new men who arrived at Utopia56. It was set up like a store where the men can pick out their own clothes that we take out of the bins. It is a quick process to look at their ID cards to see what clothes they have already received and what clothes they might need in the future. Because it was still pretty chilly, many needed better pants or long shirts.

At first the job was overwhelming due to the language barrier, the volunteers do not know much English and the refugees do not know much French, but through hand gestures we were able to communicate. It was fun to try to help the men figure out what clothes they wanted although at times it did get frustrating. Some of the men didn’t know their size or were not happy with any of the clothes that we available for them to choose from. Some of the men were picky about style, but some seemed so grateful to even have a jacket. Those were the men, to me, that made the volunteering experience so worthwhile. To see the look on their faces when they got the new clothing and to laugh with them about some of the ugly clothes they had to choose from, made the word “refugee” that much more relatable.

Being from the US, immigration and the “refugees crisis” are always on the political agenda and people seem very divided on the subject. Many times, the people who have the loudest voice against the idea of an open door policy are those who are the most ignorant and uneducated about the subject. We get so caught up with the word “refugee” that we forget that these people are just looking to survive and to live a life they are proud of. These people just want to have a life that we have been fortunate enough to have. They are not looking to steal from our government or take up our resources; they just want to live a life they deserve. To live a life human beings deserve.

When I mentioned to my family back in the US that I spent the afternoon volunteering, they responded with: ‘wow those people are so lucky to have you helping them’. But in reality, I am the lucky one. I had the privilege to help those men get back on their feet and to feel good about themselves even when they have been put in such a shitty situation. I had the opportunity to be more educated on what life is like in a Parisian refugee camp and to gain another perspective on life. I spend so much on travel and new experiences, but volunteering with these men reminded me that some experiences are priceless and sometimes three hours is all it takes to change multiple lives: theirs and mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia