Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Explore the Catacombs Beneath the City of Paris

In April of 2010, I took my school kids on a field trip that no sane teacher in her right mind would take kids on - but since I'm not exactly the most sane person, this was a field trip perfect for me!

For a year and a half, since early 2009, I had been planning an international field trip for my students with a company called Explorica, hoping to be one of the first junior high groups in our school district to be allowed to travel under school sanction to another country. Many high schools had done this before, but not a group with the age range of my students. I wrote an eleven-page proposal, sent many (annoying) emails, and finally got my way! Our school's first "Travel Club" was headed to London, Paris, Italy, and Rome on a 10-day whirlwind trip! I will expand more on some of the adventures we had during this learning vacation, but I want to focus now on one of my favorite moments in the trip, a moment where I was very happy to check something off my bucket list: the Catacombs of Paris.

Bones, bones, bones - that's what's hiding under the streets of Paris.

For about eight months prior to the trip, I had been gearing students up about the catacombs. It wasn't a planned sight-seeing stop on our itinerary, but I REALLY wanted to see them. They are a bit morbid, considering they are a network consisting of miles and miles of tunnels under the city of Paris, and some of those tunnels were used to transfer and store dead bodies from overflowing cemeteries during certain periods in Parisian history. The Catacombs at Denefert-Rochereau are the only legally accessible parts of the catacomb tunnels, and have artfully arranged remains lining the tunnel walls: crosses made of skulls, altars of bones, and other such 'pieces'. I showed videos and pictures to my students, did some creative scenarios in which we were lost in the catacombs, and finally, after eight months, I had about 90% of my group convinced that exploring the tunnels was going to be the greatest part of our trip.

The Catacombs of Paris feature morbid designs such as this, complete with bullet-riddled skulls.

When we arrived in Paris, we naturally did a full day of sight-seeing immediately. Our adventures there must be reserved for another post, as I managed to check off several items from my Travel Bucket List. However, on our second day in Paris, our tour guide allowed us some free time in the evening to see sights that weren't included on our original itinerary. Naturally, myself and over half of my group chose to visit the Catacombs.

Markers such as this tell us where the Paris Catacombs bones were disinterred from.

Our group of about 17 navigated the Paris subway system independently, and were quite proud when we made it successfully to the 14th arrondissement, the neighborhood of the Catacombs entrance. However, after exiting the subway station, we had no idea where to go. Luckily for us, people in Paris are more than willing to help 17 lost-looking tourists!

We were directed to 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, which was on a street corner: a small, dark-green building with a single door and a tiny plaque overhead that stated simply: Les Catacombs. I negotiated an entrance deal with the gentleman at the door and got us in as a group. (Not phoning ahead when you're with a group of seventeen people is not technically a courteous or smart thing to do while traveling! Be sure to phone ahead while traveling in large groups.)

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs

We entered the Catacombs and traveled about three stories down a flight of narrow and sickeningly twisting steps. At the bottom, we followed a long, narrow, darkened corridor - occasionally finding wall plaques that told us which street we were on, or how long ago the tunnel had been constructed. Many passages wove out from the sides, but were blocked by barred doors to prevent wayward tourists from becoming lost in the unending maze below the surface.

Walking in an underground tunnel towards the "Empire of the Dead"

Finally, we entered a chamber with pictures on the walls (of dead people) and a sign above a darkened doorway announcing poetically in French that we were about to enter the World of the Dead. The kids became excited and nervous just at the sight of the sign. Inside, we marveled at the grotesque but beautiful arrangements of Parisian bones - over 6 million skeletons, in fact! The walls were made of neatly arranged layers of brittle, ancient bones, the doorways lined with femurs and ulnas, and even the artwork all consisted of bones. Hearts, portals, crosses; every pattern you could imagine was designed using these discarded bones. It was obvious that this was not some morbid tourist trap, but rather, a way to memorialize all the people who had been laid to rest haphazardly in the Catacombs.

Walls of bones guide your way through the underground passages.

We had a fantastic security guard who undoubtedly loved his job and loved kids: as soon as he saw I was leading a school group, he leapt from his chair and turned on his flashlight. He excitedly showed my students skulls with bullet holes, child skulls, and other such items that we would have missed without the use of his knowledge and flashlight. Thank you, French Catacombs guard!

On our way out of the Catacombs.

Upon emergence from the Catacombs, we spotted two skulls sitting on a shelf. I inquired in my rudimentary French what they were for. I was informed that they had been confiscated THAT DAY from a tourist's backpack! My students, bless them, were appalled that someone would desecrate the Catacombs in that manner. What great students I have! Then it was back onto the streets of Paris to wind our way back to our hotel, leaving the world of the dead behind us.

People actually tried to steal these skulls - such disrespect!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Voodoo Priests and Bourbon Street Adventures in New Orleans

Attending seminars and conferences is a large part of a teacher's professional development. A first-year teacher learns this quickly. But most first-year teachers don't get to attend conferences internationally, which is something I found myself doing during my first year at my little rural school. This conference, held in New Orleans of all places, was something my principal was keen to attend, but didn't want to attend alone. Two other new teachers and myself joked about going with him to 'supervise' him, not realizing we'd actually be able to. But one week before March break, we found ourselves packing our bags to head to the 'Big Easy' for a week of sessions, sight-seeing, and even a few leprechaun sightings!

Strolling Bourbon Street with some lucky leprechauns!  Anything can happen in the Big Easy!

Canada in March is cold. Too cold. I'm not really a lover of winter weather. So when we landed in New Orleans, I rejoiced: the sun was hot, the air warm and humid. I shed my coat instantly. We checked into our hotel, a fancy place about one block away from famed Bourbon Street, and two blocks away from Canal Street, ensuring we had a nice, central location for everything we wanted to do. We dropped off our bags and then decided to map out our area, finding the conference area and seeing what was nearby for tourist trappings. We strolled along Canal Street, and reached the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. A majestic paddleboat was parked along the dock, advertising a dinner and theatre evening. We were excited to try that (but in reality, never did... next time!)

Outside the Creole Queen boat on the Mighty Mississippi.

We found the conference center, one block away from a giant mall that was built parallel to the water. Inside the mall, we were pleasantly surprised to find that margaritas, daiquiris, and huge mugs of beer were cheap and made to go! We filled up with our drink of choice, and headed back down Canal Street, sipping them contentedly.  We noted how truly close we were to Bourbon Street, and walked down its length. In the day, it is fairly unremarkable, boasting many, many liquor stores and bars, and more than a few sleazy strip joints. We stopped at a little seafood restaurant called "Oceania" and I had the greatest crab cakes of my life.

The rest of the first evening, we bounced from place to place, working our way down Bourbon Street. We even bought some cheap masks and beads in the spirit of New Orleans!

Our beautiful Bourbon Street masks!

The next morning, we were up early and out to our conference, which was very well organized. The second night of our trip, we just wandered the streets of the French Quarter, soaking in the unique and exciting atmosphere of the city. Street performers are a common sight on the streets, and we were lucky enough to see a live old-school jazz band performing on a street corner.

We also saw some well-polished break dancers, who slid on their heads and did other amazing tricks. We visited the casino, and my boss won $300 with ONE spin on the slot machine... disgusting. We couldn't whine about it though, since he took us out for a fresh lobster and seafood dinner with his winnings!

Other things we did while in the Big Easy included a wild St. Patrick's Day celebration, where the two other girls and I battled for beads - without flashing any part of our bodies - and I got kidnapped by an inebriated gentleman, who shoved me on his float and tried to drive away with me. We visited the IMAX theatre and learned about all the environmental issues that were associated with the famous Hurricane Katrina.

The result of our bead competition - all done while keeping our dignity intact, thank you very much!

On the afternoon of day four, I got on the wrong trolley, and instead of being delivered to the conference center, I headed the opposite direction down St. Charles Street, which was actually a plus. I was able to see all the traditional southern mansions, Emeril's first restaurant, Loyola University where they train all those classic southern lawyers, and I befriended a charming older New Orleans native named Ray, who took me to a wonderful restaurant called "The Carmelina Grill", which is a favorite for New Orleans residents, but kept a secret. We ate outside on the levy, now repaired after breaking during Hurricane Katrina. After saying goodbye to Ray, I took the trolley back the way I had come, and realized that I'd missed the last afternoon session at the conference center.

A typical apartment in the French Quarter - very beautiful!

While waiting for my group to return, I explored some of the side streets in the French Quarter and found Lafitte's Bar, the oldest bar in town, opened originally by pirates and is now, supposedly, a gay bar. I didn't go in, so I can't say for sure.

Lafitte's, a historical landmark in the French Quarter.

I discovered the voodoo museum, which outlined the history of voodoo and had a real life practitioner living upstairs. He was very friendly and open about what he did for a living, and I went up to visit his pet albino python, who slept in a dog basket in the corner of his living room. He made me a few 'trinkets' for luck and money, and a poppet, or voodoo doll, for future use should I need it. I still have everything, but have never used the poppet!

Creepy voodoo poppets, apparently still 'active'.

My group and I also went for an early evening swamp tour. A bus picked us up at our hotel, and drove us out of New Orleans to a small Creole fishing village that offered swamp tours to see alligators, swamp life, and the after-effects of the hurricane. We saw four giant alligators, some snakes, a heron that eats alligators by pecking through their skulls, and some gorgeous scenery and vegetation. Our captain was incredibly experienced and informed, and entertained us thoroughly the whole time. I would recommend a swamp tour for anyone heading to the Big Easy for a vacation.

Can YOU spot the gator?

Going home was a completely different story - not as enjoyable as my stay. Read about it here. But I do hope to head back to New Orleans one day, dragging my husband with me. It is now one of my favorite cities, and I know Joey would love it. Plus, I still have to ride that paddleboat!

All decked out for the St. Paddy's Day parade.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Go on a Zip Line in my Wedding Dress

Zip lining has always been something I wanted to try. I came close a few years ago when I helped to chaperone some students at their yearly Grade 5/6 Camp. Zip lining was listed as a team-building activity, and I was very excited to try... until I found out that I was required at the school that day and couldn't join the 5/6 students on the zip line. I'm still bitter about missing out on that opportunity. But I was able to make up for this disappointment... on my wedding day!

My ziplining outfit - my wedding gown! (And some pants.)

That's right. Instead of having a dance and watching drunk people doing the worm, wear ties around their foreheads, and fight over drink tickets, my wedding celebration consisted of donning a pair of capri pants and a tank top underneath my wedding dress and hooking myself up to some suspended wires overtop of a jungle. Joey and I got married in Costa Rica with just us and a few random people to act as witnesses, and as soon as lunch was over, we ditched everyone and headed to a place called "Wingnuts Ziplines".

The view from the top - best wedding celebration ever!

We'd visited Wingnuts the day before our wedding, since last minute planning seemed the appropriate thing to do considering the laid-back nature of our entire wedding planning strategy. The day of our wedding was actually all booked up, and Wingnuts originally turned us down. However, when they heard we were planning on zip lining in our wedding outfits, and that I would be wearing a dress and tiara, they opened up two spots for us quickly. Their company believed in the spirit of adventure, and this, they told us, definitely qualified!

Joey flies through the Costa Rican canopy on the zipline

So, on April 1st - yes, my husband and I got married on April Fool's Day; would we have it any other way? - we ventured to Wingnuts Ziplining and tried zip lining for the first time. The gentleman leading our group wasn't too sure what to make of me, at first. I assured him I had pants on under my dress, as he had to buckle me into my harness, which wrapped around my pelvis area. Every time he had to hook and unhook me from the zip lining wires, he had to dive under my wedding dress while I held the folds up as high as I could - a very interesting sight for the other people in our zip lining group! I looked about five months pregnant when my dress was sitting naturally on my hips, since the zip lining buckles and hooks rested right on my lower belly. My look turned out to be a saving grace for one family. The mother of the family was terrified to go down the zip line, but when she saw me dressed in a gown, with huge gloves and a belly full of buckles, her feelings of anxiety disappeared completely.

One happy couple, way up high in the jungle!

I was the first in our group of 12 to buzz down the zip line into the jungle. The guide hooked me up to the wires while I held my dress up to my chin, then gave me a brief explanation on how to maintain speed while moving along the wire, and how to slow down as I reached the next platform. With that, I was off, my dress billowing in the breeze and snagging on the tree tops. It was such a rush! It was easy to keep the speed, and hard not to want to go faster. Then the quick trip was over and I was at the next platform, ready for more. Joey followed behind me, holding a video camera and smiling like a fool. We did this for about 14 more platforms, stopping midway for a snack and a chance to feed a manticooti, which is like a large jungle raccoon.

By the end of the voyage, my dress was virtually ruined, torn and dirtied at the hem, and wrinkled beyond belief at the waist from scrunching my body as I swept through the jungle canopy. I didn't mind in the least - that rumpled garment tells more stories than any perfectly preserved gown sealed in a dry-cleaner bag! Time to start planning my next zip lining outfit...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Get Married in Costa Rica on the Beach

I was never the type of child to dream about her wedding. I never dressed up as a bride, or cut out pictures of flowers and dresses. When I was 25, I worked at a museum that had a lovely viewing space, which was used for weddings. Since the wedding planner at our building ironically didn't work weekends, I had the lovely job of using her notes to make sure the weddings were pulled off according to plan. After an entire summer of suffering through brides, the mothers of the bride, and drunken grooms and guests, I HATED weddings.

Enjoying the view during our wedding lunch.

I just wanted to get married on a beach. No guests. No music playlist. No table centerpieces. Just my fiance Joey, and I and a Justice of the Peace.

As luck would have it, my fiance's father purchased a house in Costa Rica. Billy, Joey's father, and his mother, Marni, had been going to Costa Rica for years, staying in a rental condo unit while there. They had fallen in love with the country, and had decided to make the leap and buy a house in a beautiful area called Playa Carillo, near the surfing village of Samara on the Pacific Coast side of the country in the province of Guanacaste. So when my then boyfriend, Joey, asked me to marry him, we made plans to elope. At first, both of our families didn't want us to leave to get married, then wanted to come with us, then starting planning the wedding for us... so we threatened to not get married at all! Eventually, it was settled and we were going to Costa Rica for Spring Break of 2009 for a wonderful vacation, and, oh yeah, a wedding.

Costa Rica is paradise on earth - I could stay there forever!

We flew into Liberia, and immediately I felt the wonderful cloak of humidity wrapping around me, making my hair curl at the neck and my skin start to glow. I think I was born for tropical climates! I breathed in the rich air and knew that we had made the right choice for our wedding destination. After a two-hour taxi ride to Playa Carillo, we arrived at the house - a beautiful yellow bungalow with terracotta tiling and a rich, green lawn surrounding it, ginger bushes gating the front doors.

We found a beautiful old church in Nicoya, Costa Rica.

We spent the first three days exploring the beaches of Playa Carillo and Samara. The most notable difference was that Playa Carillo was much less busy, being a hidden gem in a little populated area, and that Samara's gorgeous white sand was unfortunately riddled with sharp pieces of broken coral from the reef just beyond the cove. Otherwise, both beaches were peaceful, beautiful, and wonderful to just lie on in the hot sun.

The gorgeous white-sand beach at Samara.

We were also told about a hidden, private beach not far from the house in Carillo - just a mere 15-minute walk, Billy told us. Unfortunately, both Joey and I are absolutely useless when it comes to directions, and our 15 minute walk turned into a 3 hour trek, with no water or sunscreen. Needless to say, I was getting a bit cranky by the end of it - especially when the trail we'd been hopefully following ended in a cliff, so we had to turn around and go back the way we'd come. We hiked through that sweltering jungle, the ocean always within view but only accessible down a steep cliff that neither of us were willing to traverse, and finally found the right path and made it to the private beach. In the end, it was worth it and we got some gorgeous cliff top photos as a result of our trek!

Me Tarzan!  Loving the swinging vines in the jungle.

On the fourth day of our trip, we were married on the beach in Playa Carillo, on some stunning black rocks sitting mid-point on the crescent-shaped strip of glistening sand. I felt like a princess, with my prince perched beside me in bare feet, the roar of the crashing waves virtually drowning out the Spanish wedding ceremony being recited by our very pregnant J.P. It was perfect in every way, with total strangers as our witnesses and people we'd only met the day before showing up to gift us with a bottle of champagne. It was the most stress-free wedding I'm sure has ever been performed on this planet, and it was perfect. I did miss having my family there, but ultimately the wedding was about Joey and I, and we did everything our way with no worries or strains.

Enjoying some 'sombra' (shade) during our wedding photo shoot

We took our small, impromptu wedding party out for lunch, then went off to do our own thing... I'll discuss that afternoon in a later post. It was something unique and extremely fun as part of our wedding 'ceremony'!

The rest of our time in Costa Rica, we went boogie boarding in the swells of Samara, ventured up to a beautiful Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Resort for some amazing scenery and a high-class dinner, relaxed on the beach of Carillo, visited the city of Nicoya to pay our photographer, J.P., and my hairdresser, and just enjoyed the relaxed pace of life that Costa Rica offers. We ate very well, also, and my favorite dish was the traditional Tiko chicken, rice, and beans platter. It doesn't sound very glamorous, but it was delicious. As well, I really enjoyed the arroz con pollo.

Joey enjoying the beach at Carillo in his sexy sun hat. Ha ha!

We are hoping to go to Costa Rica again, and next time I am determined to take Billy's Jeep, Snowball, out for a cruise to the volcano of Arenal, to the Cloud Forest in the middle of the country, and turtle beach on the Atlantic side of the country.