Top Impressions from India

At the beginning of January this year my mom and I took a tour of North India. It has been a trip I’ve been dreaming about taking for a long time, so I was incredibly grateful and excited when my mom said we could go as an early college graduation present (mainly because who knows when we’ll both be able to take a trip like this again once I start a real adult job)!

Our nine-day tour took us to four cities: New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi. (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are known as the “golden triangle”, aka the most popular itinerary for tourists.) This blog post is not an attempt to recount every little detail of the trip – I kept my own personal travel diary for that – but, rather, there were certain aspects of India that really stuck in my memory as defining characteristics of the trip. Those are the things I’m going to write about in this post.

1. Traffic. And honking.

So. Much. Traffic. I swear I have never been somewhere that has such awful traffic and such crazy driving – no exaggeration. Drivers in India completely ignore the lines on the road and weave in and out of every available space. Imagine Tetris but with cars, trucks, motorbikes and tuk tuks. It’s actually kind of terrifying – our five-hour drive from Jaipur to Delhi was quite literally the scariest car ride of my entire life. My mother concurs. Our driver was excellent, but other drivers were not. We kept zooming in and around trucks, over bumpy service roads, getting so close to other vehicles at times I thought we would crash. It didn’t help that we were rushing to the airport to catch a flight.


View of traffic in Delhi from our rickshaw

There are so many people in India (with 1.3 billion people India’s the world’s second most populated country), and when you’re driving they all seem to be on the road. The traffic in New Delhi was unbelievable – it took over an hour to get somewhere that was not very far away by distance. And the honking. My goodness the honking. If I were to pick one sound to encapsulate my time in India it would be the sound of a car horn. It literally sounds like a cacophony of beeps and blares. You know how I mentioned no one follows the lines on the road? Well, I learned from observation that there is a certain honking etiquette drivers use to let other drivers know when they’re passing and on which side they’re passing. It still sounds like chaos, but once I figured that out there was a little more structure to the chaos. Safe to say, India is a country in which I will never be renting a car. Or a tuk tuk.


Tuk tuks are everywhere

2. Insanely thick fog

Before coming to India, I thought I had seen fog. I had not really seen fog. The fog I experienced in India made any other fog I’ve seen seem like nothing. Every morning, except in Jaipur, we awoke to an incredibly thick wall – yes, a wall – of dense, impenetrable fog. On our balcony in Agra we could not even see six feet in front of us. Our driver said he walked outside and couldn’t see the car at first. The fog slowly cleared up into the early afternoon, but only because the sun came out. They said this was common in the winter.


Fog so thick we couldn’t see the Taj from the entrance


Thank goodness the fog cleared! Photo taken from the same spot as above, about an hour later.

The morning we were going to the Taj Mahal in Agra we had to change our itinerary because it was so foggy – our guide said we wouldn’t have been able to see anything had we gone when we were originally scheduled to go. Instead, we waited a few hours and got there around 11 a.m. Even then we couldn’t even see the Taj from the main entrance. But, by the time we were done with the tour, the sun had come out and the fog cleared. Thank goodness. We almost went to India and didn’t see the Taj!

3. Air pollution

I already knew a lot about the air pollution crisis in New Delhi (in fact I produced a show about it), but it still was shocking. Even from the plane coming into Delhi I could see the pollution blanketing the city. Coupled with the extreme fog in the mornings, you could see the pollution hanging in the air. We brought pollution masks but didn’t end up wearing them except once in Agra when we were riding in a golf cart. Who knows, maybe we should have, but they weren’t very comfortable and I was conscious of trying not to stick out more than we already did and not be insensitive. The pollution wasn’t as bad outside of Delhi, but it was still quite visible in Agra.


Rocking chic pollution masks

4. Cows and animals everywhere

This was probably my favorite part about my time in India. When I saw the first cow roaming in the street on the way from the Delhi airport to our hotel, I squealed with excitement. Little did I know just how typical such a sighting would be over the next nine days. Cows and bulls roam the streets everywhere. I saw cows more often in India than I see dogs here at home.



Many of the cows just plop themselves along the medians in the middle of roads (even on highways) and chill as cars and trucks maneuver around them. And not just cows, I saw tons of goats, pigs, monkeys, camels and even water buffalo. I thought seeing all these animals out and about would get old after a few days – it never did.


Buffalo heading down the street to the Ganges in Varanasi


Casual goat on the ghat in Varanasi

5. Religion

India is for sure one of the most fascinating countries I have visited, and a large part of that is due to its culture of religions. Unlike places like Rome and Greece that are very religious but in one dominant religion, India is teeming with numerous different religious cultures: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Islam are the main ones. I had taken a world religions class in high school in which we learned all about these religions, so it was pretty incredible to see them in person.


Hindu pilgrim in Varanasi

Varanasi, the holy city and pilgrimage site for Hindus, is unlike any other place on earth. It’s called the “city of death” because Hindus believe dying and being cremated in Varanasi is the ultimate spiritual ending. We witnessed from a fort above the 20+ simultaneous ceremonial cremation pyres burn, lighting up the pitch black night sky. That was truly a surreal experience. On a night tour through the twisting and winding back alleyways of the old city, we saw multiple processions of grieving families carrying their deceased loved ones to the cremation area.


Buddhists in Sarnath

We visited Sarnath, a town outside of Varanasi, that was home to where the Buddha gave his first sermon. One of my favorite experiences of the trip was watching the Hindu Aarti ceremony at night from a boat on the Ganges river in Varanasi. The ceremony was honoring the holy river Ganges. Talk about magical.


Aarti ceremony from a boat on the Ganges

6. Colorful clothing 

Many of the women we saw were dressed exquisitely. Although I’m sure it was typical attire for them, it looked beautiful. People say India is a photographer’s dream because of all the rich variety of colors, another reason why I wanted to go so badly. Much of the colors can be attributed to the women’s clothing.


Woman working at the Amber Fort in Jaipur

As we crossed into the state of Rajasthan to get to Jaipur (there are 29 states in India and many states have their own unique culture, including clothing, food and dialect/language) our driver told us to pay attention to the difference in clothing people wore: men wore a different style of turban than we’d seen the men wear in Delhi and Agra, and women had different styles of dress. Our driver pointed to some women walking along the side of the road in brightly colored outfits.

IMG_0767 2.jpg

Women walking along the road in Rajasthan

7. Hospitality

The hospitality we experienced in India was among the best in the world. All the hotels we stayed at went above and beyond to ensure our comfortability, more than anywhere else we’ve stayed. Giving gifts is apparently a tradition in India (as it is in many Asian cultures) and we were kindly gifted little souvenirs along our trip, including small purses, chocolate and a copy of the Bhagavadgita, the Hindu scripture. Our driver even gave us a painting his daughter made for us.


Instead of a Bible in the hotel drawer, the Bhagavadgita. We were given another copy as a gift.

8. Food

I will admit, neither my mom nor I are big fans of Indian food. It’s just not a cuisine we seek out very often, and we both don’t like curry. But we went into the trip with open minds and a willingness to try new things. We ended up having dosa several times at breakfasts, as well as this potato pancake-like dish I enjoyed. I also liked saffron rice and naan, which I’d had before (but not in India!)


Dosa at breakfast in Agra

Our trip to North India was incredible and uniquely fascinating – no where else compares to India’s culture. Witnessing the Taj Mahal up close and in all its majesty (thank goodness the fog cooperated!) is something I’ll remember forever. And taking this trip with my mom was extra special, seeing as it might be a while before we’re able to do such a thing again. I hope to return someday and explore the south part of India, which I’ve heard is completely different from the north!

Here is a video I made of the trip, including the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi at the end:





Seeing Friends From Thailand

This week we got to visit with some international friends who I hadn’t seen in 10 years. My mom had a student named Dneya who got her master’s degree and PhD at Mizzou a while ago. Dneya came all the way to Columbia from Thailand to study. Her husband, Tim (who is also Thai), studied at Mizzou as well and they had their first son, Mick, in Columbia while Dneya was finishing up her degree (I even remember going to her baby shower!)

Fast forward to 2007: Dneya and Tim had moved back to Thailand, and Dneya invited my mom to speak at an Asian music education conference in Bangkok. My mom and I had an amazing time visiting Bangkok and spending time with Dneya’s family (including Mick who was then about 1 years old.) After the conference, my mom and I went with Dneya’s family to Chiang Mai, Thailand. We rode elephants, visited a crocodile farm and saw more beautiful temples.


Dneya, Me, Tim and Mick in Thailand 2007


Me holding Mick in Chiang Mai 2007

Fast forward to this week: Dneya’s family was currently doing a U.S. trip and came to Columbia in between their stops to NYC, D.C., and San Francisco. Since 2007, Dneya and Tim had two more sons, Mil and Mikey, who are 9 and 7 (Mick is now 11.) They all came to our house for a dinner of Shakespeare’s pizza (which Tim and Dneya fondly remembered.) The three boys spoke some English, and I had a lot of fun playing with them outside, as well as having them teach me some iPhone camera tricks. They even taught me a few words in Thai.


From left: Mick, Me, Mikey, mom, Dneya, Mil, Tim


Mick, Mikey, Me, Mil

It was really great to see Dneya and her family again after all this time, and especially to see how much Mick has grown! I hope I’ll get to see them again in the future — Thailand is definitely somewhere I want to go back!


Mick, Me, Tim, Mom, Mikey, Dneya, Tim’s sister Pim, Mil

Airline Snafus

Unless you have been living under a rock the past few days, I’m sure you’ve seen that horribly disturbing video of the passenger being dragged off the United Airlines plane by Chicago police officers. Airlines have long been subjects of consumer anger (albeit this incident took things to a whole new level.) In fact, I can think of few other industries in which customer satisfaction rates are frequently so low and in which people are so vocal in sharing their displeasure.

Traveling is one of my absolute favorite things, but getting caught up in airline shenanigans is definitely not. I’m actually one of those weird people that usually enjoys airports and airline travel. However, I’ve had a decent amount of airline mishaps (some extremely frustrating, some more amusing) and am in the mood to reflect upon them:

When a pilot-in-training couldn’t land the plane in Spain

We were flying either into Barcelona or Madrid, I can’t remember exactly, and the plane wheels were about to touch the runway when all of a sudden the plane abruptly angled upward and took off again into the sky. We circled around for a while before finally landing successfully. This incident more strange than upsetting. Some people thought there was an animal in the way on the runway. Who knew. But then as we were getting off the plane, a young-looking guy wearing a bright neon vest that said “Trainee” in Spanish walked back with the pilot. Guess he needed to work on his landing skills a bit more.

Getting stuck in Reykjavik when Delta’s system shut down worldwide

My mom and I were trying to fly home from Reykjavik through Minneapolis on the day this past August when Delta’s entire computer system shut down worldwide. We were waiting in the long luggage check-in line when staff members said their computers weren’t working and didn’t know what was causing it. After over an hour of waiting and no improvement, people started to realize this problem wasn’t just in the Reykjavik airport. I looked on Twitter and saw that people were tweeting about their Delta flights being delayed in places all over the world, from Rome to San Fransisco. Long story short, after a very stressful day stuck at the airport dealing with airline personnel and on-edge passengers, we ended up getting put up in a hotel for the night and flew out the next morning.

FullSizeRender 13.jpg

Waiting in the baggage check-in line at the Reykjavik airport

Flight delayed for hours in Chengdu

When I was 9, we took a tour of China trip with other families who had girls my age. We had a flight from Chengdu to Guangzhou that ended up getting delayed for hours due to bad weather. I remember sitting around the airport with these other girls — it actually ended up being like kind of one big party. We played games and ate LOTS of junk food. Honestly, I clearly recall eating at least three small tins of sour cream and onion Pringles.

Having an entire plane to ourselves flying to Memphis

Once in January my mom and I were flying home from Cleveland to Columbia via Memphis. We got on the plane from Cleveland to Memphis and were airborne for about five minutes when the plane turned around and landed back at Hopkins. The airline crew said there was some sort of smoke coming from the plane so everyone had to get off. Little did we know that it would be hours and hours later before the plane finally took off for Memphis. By that point, a majority of the other passengers had been switched to different flights. But not us. The fun part of this story is that when the plane finally left for Memphis, my mom and I were only two of four total passengers on the whole plane. That’s right, we basically had an entire small passenger jet to ourselves!

Flight cancelled trying to get to a funeral

This has been by far the worst travel experience I’ve had. My grandma passed away in late November of 2006 while she and my grandpa were visiting my mom and me in Columbia for Thanksgiving. Jewish funerals are supposed to take place as quickly as possible, so my mom and I needed to get to Cleveland that weekend. There was terrible wintery weather, and our flight to Cleveland kept getting more and more delayed until it was eventually just cancelled. My mom ended up having to rent a car and drive all the way from Columbia to Cleveland in icy conditions.

Getting food dumped on me by a flight attendant

I’ve already written about this experience in a previous blog post (#3), but I can’t talk about airline snafus without mentioning this story. Short story is, a flight attendant accidentally spilled the airline dinner meal all over me on a flight from Dallas to Shanghai. She was extremely apologetic and nice about it and gave me one of her own personal t-shirts to wear while she washed my shirt in the plane bathroom and hung it up to dry for the duration of the flight.

My Travel Bucket List

The world is a huge place, and I’m so lucky to have been able to see different parts of it, but I still feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. One thing I’ve heard about traveling is that, once you start, you can never get enough. This is so true. I never stop wanting to go somewhere new and hop on a plane to a place across the globe.

Like a lot of people, I have a bucket list–destinations I’m most longing to visit. I’ve got a Pinterest board dedicated to my bucket list spots, and I follow travel YouTubers and bloggers who give me a glimpse of what these places are actually like in real life to tide me over until I’m able to go there myself. Below is my bucket list of places that give me endless wanderlust.

Bali, Indonesia: Bali has been my #1 bucket list destination for a long, long time. I think it’s in part due to the famous Indonesian island’s lavish, resort-style aesthetic mixed with its lush natural landscape and exotic appeal that places Bali at the top of my list. I would love to visit the rolling green rice paddies, trek through the ancient Hindu shrines and ruins and watch a traditional Balinese dance performance.

This blogger I follow has visited Bali multiple times and has some great posts and photos about the island: 

Morocco: A solid second place. Places with a sense of adventure that have exotic and colorful scenery call to me (hence, Bali.) I am dying to visit Marrakech, wander through the vibrantly colored market stalls and ride a camel in the desert. Moroccan style and interior design is my favorite, and I would love to see it in person. My Morocco wanderlust has been fueled recently by the fact that several of my classmates who are studying abroad in Europe this semester have taken side trips here. Super jealous.

Istanbul, Turkey: Turkey is not the safest place to visit right now and that breaks my heart. In fact, my mom’s biennial conference was scheduled to take place in Istanbul next summer, but was relocated. I love, love, love Islamic art and architecture, so visiting the Hagia Sophia is a big dream of mine. I also am so fascinated by the Muslim call to worship prayer and the fact that it is called out throughout cities for all to hear. I think this would be an incredible and spine-tingling thing to hear in person.

Egypt: Oh how I want to take a cruise on the Nile. Ironically, I used to be terrified of mummies when I was a little kid, but now ancient Egypt and Egyptology is incredibly interesting to me. I’ve seen sarcophagi and Egyptian artifacts at museums all over the world, but visiting the Eyptian Museum in Cairo would be the pinnacle of all things Egyptology. I’d love to see the pyramids, the Sphinx and the ancient temples up close, especially Abu Simbel.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote about her visit to Luxor and its stunning temples:

Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe/Zambia): There’s something about waterfalls that’s magical. I’ve stood under thunderous waterfalls in Milford Sound in New Zealand, been surrounded by the panoramic Iguazu Falls in Argentina and have walked above and below waterfalls in Iceland. Seeing these amazing feats of nature up close, getting sprayed by the water and deafened by the roar, always leaves me awe-struck. Victoria Falls is one of the most incredible set of falls in the world, and I would love  to see its wonder up close.

Patagonia (Chile/Argentina): I fell in love with the mountains when I visited New Zealand. Patagonia and its instantly recognizable jagged peaks is high up on my list. The photos I’ve seen of Patagonia are unreal — stunning purple and pink sunsets, sparkling waters and majestic mountains. The photographer in me would really go to town here.

This blogger captured some gorgeous photos of Patagonia:

India: I have been to Asia a lot, but never to India. I feel like India would be such a different place than I’ve ever been, even compared to the other Asian countries I’ve visited. I recently found all of my grandparents’ photos from their trip to India in the 1980s and, although the photo quality wasn’t very good back then, India still looks beautiful. Several YouTubers I follow have visited India and I’ve devoured the videos they’ve made that showcase the Taj Mahal, Jaipur and Varanasi.

Mike and Jay are two travel YouTubers who make gorgeous videos. I especially love their series of India and Indonesia. Here’s the India playlist.

Antarctica: I’ve heard that expedition trips to Antarctica are most popular among retired people. Antarctica is one of those places that you wait to visit until you’ve gone almost everywhere else. It’s mysterious, hard to get to, and there’s even a slight element of danger (at least that’s how it seems to me.) I’ve been to the world’s six other continents, and I hope to get to the seventh by the end of my lifetime. But, thankfully, I still have plenty of time to get there 😉

How My Mom’s Conferences Changed My Life

The main reason I have been able to travel to so many different places throughout my life thus far is because of my mom’s involvement in ISME: The International Society for Music Education. ISME (pronounced: “IS-mee”) holds conferences every two years in July or August in a a different city somewhere in the the world and has members from all over the globe — everyone connected by their love of music and teaching it to young people.

My mom is a music education professor who teaches future music teachers, but a large part of what she does also involves doing research, publishing and editing in academic journals  and attending conferences. She joined ISME way back in the 1980s when she was just starting her doctorate at Florida State. She’s been very involved in the organization since then and, in fact, was awarded ISME’s “Honorary Life Member” award at the most recent conference in Glasgow this past July, which is the organization’s highest honor (I’m proud, I get to brag a little.)


Mom outside the conference center in Thessaloniki, Greece (2012)

My mom has attended nearly every single ISME conference since she joined, and has taken me with her to these conferences since 1998. Because of ISME, I have had the opportunity to visit these incredible places: South Africa, Canada, Norway, Spain, Malaysia, Italy, China, Greece, Brazil and Scotland. We always visit other cities or countries during ISME trips, and when I was little, my grandparents accompanied us as well. Since my mom has taken me with her to so many of these conferences, I’ve gotten to know a lot of her friends who hail from all over the world — Australia, Germany and Taiwan to the Netherlands, South Africa and beyond — and they all have literally watched me grow up in two-year intervals since I was 2 years old.


Mom and me with some schoolgirls after watching their dance performance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2006)

At the 2014 conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the woman who was in charge of writing and sending out the ISME newsletter asked me if I would contribute something to the newsletter, kind of like an outsider’s perspective to ISME. Below is what I came up with:

ISME: An Outsider’s Perspective

By Rayna Sims

I was in diapers when I attended my first ISME conference. My mother brought me with her to the South Africa conference in 1998 when I was 2-years-old, and I’ve been to every conference since. In fact, you may have seen me over the years hanging around outside meetings and presentations, albeit the coloring books are now Facebook and the Disney DVDs now Netflix. Although my 16+ years of experience with ISME have not been of the typical professional nature, the organization has had a huge impact on my life. Because of ISME, I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled the world and made lifelong memories. Every other summer, ISME led my mother and me to a new and exciting place, sometimes to exotic countries we would not have thought to visit otherwise.

As a musician myself, I have loved hearing all of the music that ISME conferences offer. Whether it be Malaysia, Greece, or Brazil, it is touching to see how prideful each host country is in sharing its own music and heritage with the myriad of international conference-goers. I can think of few other instances in which an audience full of people from all over the world join together in song, splitting off into perfect three-part harmony — it’s a goose bump-inducing moment, even for a non-music educator.

While the travel opportunities and concerts are unparalleled, what I’ve seen that makes ISME truly incredible is the people. Some of my mother’s dearest and oldest friends are from ISME, and she speaks with such fondness of previous conferences and seminars and the great times she had with the people there. Over the years I have met many of these friends, all of whom are so lovely and have literally watched me grow up in biennial increments from baby to young adult. To think that we have friends from Australia to Germany and everywhere in between, some who even let us stay in their homes, is something that I am grateful to ISME for. They say music is universal, and I’ve witnessed ISME as the ultimate testament to that. From the places to the people to the actual music itself, ISME creates an environment unlike any other, and one that I’m so glad I got to be a part of.


Mom with one of her longtime ISME friends, Gudrun, who is from Germany at the most recent ISME conference in Glasgow (2016). We once stayed in Gudrun’s house when we visited Germany!

Give My Regards To Broadway

I grew up on musicals. I’ve loved them as long as I can remember. My mom and I were season ticket holders to the local University Concert Series and saw countless traveling productions. Our house is full of musical soundtracks and Broadway show piano books. The typical go-to radio station we listen when we’re in my mom’s car is Sirius XM’s “Broadway” channel. In fact, recently my mom and I were having a conversation in which we were trying to remember what the first live musical I saw was. (She couldn’t remember, but thinks it was something like “Annie.”)

There’s just something about seeing a live musical — the live singing, the carefully crafted choreography, the music beat that you can feel in your chest, the dazzling costumes and the intricate moving sets — that simply captivates me. And it’s not just watching/listening to musicals that I love — I played lead piano in the pit orchestra for five of my high school’s musicals and then accompanied a local community theater production after graduating. Those were so much fun to do.

I love when I hear a song from one of my favorite musicals and can’t help but start singing along, or when the opening few notes of a song start playing and I know within a second what song it is and which show it’s from. I love how simply hearing a certain song from a musical I grew up listening to can bring back so many memories.

My love for musicals and my love for travel intersect. One of my favorite places in the world is New York City, and one of my favorite things to do there is see Broadway shows. My mom and I have kind of made it a tradition to go to New York once a year and see shows (we’ve done this the past three Januarys.) Although many of the touring productions we’ve seen have been fantastic, there’s no question that Broadway is the top of the top (I mean, it’s Broadway.) I always get so excited for our nights out to see a show: dressing up a bit, going out to eat at a nice restaurant before the show, then making our way over to the theater. I honestly get a rush of adrenaline when the house lights go down and the orchestra starts playing the overture.

There’s also just so much excitement at the fact that I’m on Broadway, seeing the best of the best actors and the highest quality of production. I’ve loved every Broadway show I’ve seen (well, except one…) and each show has provided a special experience shared with my mom.

Here are the Broadway shows I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to see so far:

Catch Me If You Can: My very first Broadway show! I hadn’t seen the movie so it was all new to me, but it was cute and enjoyable. And I saw it starring Aaron Tveit!


First Broadway show! (2011)

Wicked: So magical. One of my favorites. Everything from the phenomenal costumes to jaw-dropping gorgeous sets, and, of course, the incredible music. Wicked is definitely a show I’d love to see again.



Addams Family: We got half-price tickets to see this one afternoon on a whim, and I’m glad we did! This show was funny, had cool sets and catchy music. And we got to see the original cast, which was pretty cool.


Something Rotten: I had really no idea what this musical was, but we got half-price tickets to see it when we couldn’t get in to another show we wanted. This show was hysterical and especially great if you were musical-lovers like us because it made so many allusions to different shows.


Kinky Boots: Cindy Lauper’s music really made this show amazing. And watching grown men dance around in high heels was quite impressive.


Book of Mormon: Lol’d literally throughout this entire show. So crude, yet so funny.


Finding Neverland: This was the show our cousin, Robert, was in! Really great and emotional storyline, and extra special that we had a family member in it, that Matthew Morrison was the lead, and that Robert gave us a backstage tour afterwards!


L to R: Mom, Robert, Me, our cousin Jeremy on the Broadway stage!

Matilda: Okay, the one Broadway show I’ve seen that I didn’t like. Not sure why I didn’t like it, I know it’s a really popular show. But, I wasn’t feeling it.


Cats: Definitely among the top three musicals I’ve ever seen. I loved it so much I wanted to buy tickets to see it again the next night, but, sadly, the show didn’t play on Wednesdays. Seeing this musical has an entire backstory that I won’t write about here for it is far too long, but I will include the photo and my Facebook post I did so you can read the story.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 9.09.44 PM

Hamilton: There are no words for this. It is Hamilton. I knew the soundtrack by heart before seeing the show, and it definitely lived up to all the hype. The smartest, best-written musical out there.


The room where it happens

Besides just New York, my mom and I also like to seek out musicals in other cities we travel to. We saw Billy Elliot on the West End in London, which was fabulous. We saw West Side Story in Chicago, and in Las Vegas I’ve seen The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera. Seeing shows during my travels to cities like these that are known for productions are more than just fun nights out at the theater, they are special experiences that help shape my memories of that city and that trip. At this point, I can’t imagine going to NYC and not seeing at least one Broadway show. And, this summer when I’m in London, I’m hoping to go see Les Miserables!


Under the Sea

I am not a huge fan of water. I hate it when it rains, I don’t have fond memories of being around lakes, and I was never really excited to hang out poolside during my summers as a kid. However, one type of water that I do enjoy is the ocean. Besides loving the beach (as I wrote about in a previous blog post), there’s something about the ocean that intrigues me. Maybe it’s because I live bum-smack in the middle of the country and miles and miles from any ocean, but every time I have the chance to be around an ocean I get extremely excited.

Probably my favorite and most  unique ocean experience so far has been when I went snorkeling for the first time. I’d never been snorkeling, but I’d always wanted to try it. A perfect opportunity came about when my mom and I visited Australia in July of 2015. The first place we went to in Oz was Cairns, which is a resort-style town in the north east coast of the country. Cairns is a popular gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. There are a million and one different companies that run tours out to the reef from Cairns, so we did some research and ended up going with a company called Ocean Spirit Cruises because it went out to a more secluded cay beach on the reef. (More secluded = less people).

The day of our tour, we got really lucky. The waters were not rough that day and it wasn’t freezing cold. Note, it was winter in Australia at the time, but the tropical winter of Cairns is nothing compared to winters I’m used to. We boarded the catamaran and, after some safety presentations (I know am fully aware of how to properly put on a life vest), we were off to the reef! It was about a three-hour boat ride, which was the longest boat ride I’d ever been on. Once we neared Michaelmas Cay, they started fitting everyone in wetsuits and snorkel gear. We wore lycra suits (to prevent from coral and animal stings) underneath our wetsuits — even though it was warmish outside, the winter ocean was cold.


Our catamaran

Getting into my lycra suit, wetsuit, flippers and snorkel mask was an experience in and of itself. The flippers were definitely the most awkward and cumbersome things I have ever tried to walk in. My mom and I had booked a snorkel tour, so once we got off on the beach of the cay, we met up with our guide, Elliott. There was one other American family of three on the tour with us. Man, what an amazing experience it was to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef.


Me looking highly fashionable in my snorkel get-up

Finding Nemo had long been my favorite Pixar movie, so seeing the long stretches of colorful coral and watching schools of fish swim around me was the most incredible thing. It took a second to get used to breathing with the snorkel mask, but once I figured it out there was nothing stopping me. Everywhere I looked it was just so vibrant and full of life. My only regret was that we didn’t get to see any sea turtles, and apparently the afternoon tour saw seven. But, oh well. Maybe next time.

I think part of why I loved snorkeling the GBR so much was because it was the first time I was actually seeing all of this coral and wildlife in person. You see so much about life under the sea and the GBR in movies and on TV, but not a lot of people actually get there in their lifetimes. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget, and now I am keen on going snorkeling in more places. And, who knows, maybe I’d be up to try diving!

I filmed my snorkel adventure with a GoPro, check out that video:


A Friend A World Away

So, here’s an exciting life update: I recently found out that I will be spending the summer in *drum roll, please* LONDON! I am doing a summer internship program through the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This internship program was legit one of the reasons I came to Mizzou’s J-School as a freshman, and it’s surreal that it’s actually happening now. My best friend, Sarah, is doing it with me, and I can’t wait to take on London and Europe with her. Bonus: my awesome convergence professor, Judd, is the faculty member this summer.

London is by far one of my favorite cities in the entire world and I am stoked to go back and explore it more in depth. One of my longtime friends, Christie, lives in Reading (which is about 30 minutes away by train) and I was able to visit her the last time I was in London, which was 2013.

Interesting fact: Christie has been one of my dearest friends since I was 12 years old, but I have only met her once in my entire life. Confused? I feel like this blog post is the perfect opportunity to revive this essay I wrote for my college application (trust me, it will all make sense after you read it):

My sweaty hand gripped the railing of the escalator as I descended from the platform into the sea of people. My heart raced, loud thumps that had only intensified over the 30 train ride from London, now ringing out over the muffled chaos of the bustling station. My anxious eyes darted from face to face, scanning the crowd until…there. There she was. The girl with whom I’d been friends for six years yet had never met.

Christie and I began writing each other the summer before I started sixth grade. When I had my mother send my letter requesting a pen pal to her friend in England, I hadn’t the slightest idea what to expect back; thus, my elation a month later when my inbox dinged with a message from a “.uk” address. Christie’s first letter was mostly general tidbits about her family, school, and interests. Although our initial emails were tidy and introductory— “What kind of music do you like?” “Do you have any pets?”—they proved crucial to the construction of this special world I’d begun building in my head: the place where Christie lived. We had exchanged pictures, but, besides her blue eyes and long brunette locks, I knew nothing of what Christie mentioned in her letters. Like imagining a scene in a book, I pictured Christie’s world as a quaint English town; colorful flower tufts adorning balconies of charming Tudor homes that lined narrow streets, blanketed in cobblestones. When Christie wrote about her friends, I placed her in a gaggle of uniform-clad girls, chatting and gossiping as they walked to school.

As years went on, our emails blossomed in substance and length as we delved deeper into each other’s worlds. She went through middle school with me and experienced my angst of starting high school. I felt Christie’s grief at her grandparents’ passing and her joy at her eldest brother’s engagement. Each letter became a portal into England, into her life—at least, what I dreamt it to be. I “heard” her emails with a Hermione Granger-esque lilt and continually added details to the place I envisioned: Christie’s “mum” baking scones while a tea kettle whirred on the stovetop, and Christie’s little brother running around in the winter, cheekily throwing snowballs at the neighbor girls.

My friendship with Christie extended far beyond the bounds of virtual reality where it existed; it was a reliable place I could go to seek comfort and conversation with someone to whom I was so close, but also somewhere I could lose myself in imagination. That’s why, when my family traveled to Europe this summer, I had mixed feelings about visiting Christie. Of course we wanted to meet, but after having spent six years as pen pals, the environments we had created for each other were extremely elaborate. Deep down I’d always known that her school would not really be tipped with the conical spires of Hogwarts, and that her voice would not ring with the exact posh timbre of Emma Watson’s; however, the entire train ride to Reading I couldn’t help but feel like the snow globe was about to shatter.


“Americans don’t say ‘fortnight’?” Christie asked incredulously. “You call bangs ‘fringe’?” I jokingly countered. Both of us, having admitted our nerves about meeting, soon realized how silly our apprehensions had been. Lounging on her bed, making fun of each other’s accents, Christie and I connected instantly. As she showed me how to delicately spread the clotted cream over my scone like a proper Brit, I could feel the dense stone wall of cyberspace crumbling away.

Although there are pros and cons to seeing a movie after you read the book, in this case, I’m undoubtedly glad I saw it. While the world I had pictured was reconstructed, I can now truly see Christie’s beautiful gothic church, and hear her real voice in my head. Even though I’ve seen reality, I believe in the unequivocal power of words. Through words, Christie and I were transported into each other’s lives and built a friendship as strong as any other. And, whenever I feel the urge to re-immerse myself in the captivating enchantment of England, I merely have to open my inbox.

Since then, Christie and I have grown even closer and Skype regularly. Although our friendship is unconventional, I feel a unique bond with her that I don’t have with anyone else. We’re only able to Skype about once a month or so, but when we do we can talk for hours. I’m so looking forward to meeting up with her again this summer in London!


When I first met Christie outside of her house in Reading, 2013

Collecting Things Around the World

One thing about me is that I like collecting things. Movie tickets, mementos from special events, programs from concerts, etc. I like having physical reminders of things I’ve done and places I’ve been so that I can go back and look through them later on. Besides saving keepsakes from my everyday life, I also have collections of specific things from my travels.

The fun part about collecting a specific item when you travel is that you can see how it differs from place to place. Since I was little, I have collected three things on and off throughout my travels: erasers, hotel slippers and soda cans.

Now, erasers might seem like an odd things to collect. But this was the first collection I started, and I initiated it when I was 7 during our trip to Scandinavia. Back when I was in elementary school, having cute little erasers in different shapes was really popular. That’s probably why I started looking for erasers to collect in the places I traveled to.


Above from left to right: eraser from the Franz Liszt museum in Budapest, two Dutch children erasers from Amsterdam, five Beijing Olympic erasers from Beijing, five animal erasers from Bangkok.


Above top row: Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (NYC), The National Archives (Washington D.C.)

Second row: Art Institute of Chicago, New York Public Library (NYC), U.S. Patent Office (Washington D.C.).


Above are erasers from my trip to Spain.

Top row, left to right: Prado Museum (Madrid), Picasso museum (Barcelona), Aquarium (Barcelona), a music school (Barcelona), Reina Sofia Museum (Madrid)

Bottom row, left to right: Poble Espanyol (Barcelona), Miro Museum (Barcelona), Tenerife (Canary Islands), two erasers from the Reina Sofia Museum (I liked that they had my name on them, even though it was spelled the Spanish way).


Top row, left to right: La Galerie de L’Opera de Paris (Paris), Magritte Museum (Brussels), Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (London), Sydney Opera House (Sydney)

Middle and bottom row: 500 euro note from the European Union (Brussels), Museum of London (London), Eiffel Tower (Paris), The British Museum (London)


The five white erasers and the heart eraser are from Rome. Bottom middle eraser is from the Academia Gallery in Florence. The bottom right eraser os from the Jewish Museum in Bologna.

Another thing I like collecting is hotel slippers. Hotel slippers are more of a European and Asian thing — I can’t at the moment recall staying in an American hotel that offered nice slippers. I mostly just collect slippers that have hotel logos on them (some hotels that offer slippers are just plain with no design, boring.) Although I’ve noticed over the years that fewer and fewer hotels are offering slippers, I still love to keep my eye out for them.


Above is my hotel slipper collection so far. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where every pair is from right now, but I do have it written down somewhere.

Top row, left to right: “R” slippers (can’t remember), two Sofitel slippers (one from Rio de Janeiro), InterContinental (Sydney)

Middle row, left to right: Royal Garden Hotel (London), Majestic Villa Hotel (Paris), Alvear Art Hotel (Buenos Aires), Villa d’Este (Florence), Hotel Spadari Al Duomo (Milan), Nazionale (Rome)

Bottom row, left to right: Royal Park Hotel (Tokyo), Hotel Villa Real (Madrid), Hotel Giorgione (Venice), Le Meridien (Budapest), airplane slippers, can’t remember :/

Lastly, I also sometimes like to collect soda cans and bottles from around the world. My mom actually inspired me to start this collection because I found two old-fashioned Coke bottles she’d kept from trips to Israel and Japan years ago. The funnest part about this collection for me is seeing the different languages on the bottles. Perhaps the most interesting can I have in my collection is from Belgium — it has both French and Dutch on the same can, because those are two of the official languages there.


Top two cans: Portuguese Nestea from Rio de Janeiro, Dutch/French Lipton Ice Tea from Brussels

Left to right: Hawaiian water from Honolulu, Chinese Sprite from Shanghai, Greek Fanta from Athens, French Coke from Paris, Spanish Coke from Buenos Aires (this Coke bottle was a special edition 2014 World Cup bottle because Argentina was playing), Portuguese water from Rio, Icelandic spring water from Reykjavik, Japanese Coke from one of my mom’s trips to Japan, Butterbeer from Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour (London), Chinese Fanta, Israeli Coke bottle from my mom’s visit to Jerusalem.

Not only is it fun to keep an eye out for new items to add to my collections in new places I visit, but it’s also fun to go back through my collections from time to time and remember the places I’ve been and the hotels I’ve stayed at. Because, in the end, it doesn’t so much matter what you collect, just that you’re collecting anything at all that will serve as a little piece of a memory later down the road.

My Favorite Wildlife Sighting

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate nature more. I’m not saying I’m eager to go on a camping trip anytime soon (or ever, because lol if you know me). However, I can say that, over the past few years, traveling to places that are rich in natural beauty has become a key interest of mine.

Over the past three years I’ve been able to  visit some places in the world that have incredibly gorgeous scenery: Iguazu Falls, the Great Barrier Reef, Australian rainforests, literally the entire country of New Zealand, the Scottish Highlands, literally the entire country of Iceland. I definitely love me the hustle and bustle of a big, fancy city and all of its bright lights, but something about nature has really gotten to me.

Along with my desire to see more nature, I have also become really keen on seeing wildlife in the places I go. I mean, who doesn’t love animals? There have been animal encounters in trips I’ve taken since I was little, from giant pandas in China to alpacas in New Zealand, but my favorite animal encounters are the ones that are completely natural — not in a zoo and not even in a wildlife sanctuary.

My all-time favorite animal travel memory so far comes from Iguazu National Park in Argentina. My mom and I stayed at a Sheraton resort that was actually located inside of the national park. The first morning after we arrived I was woken up by my mom urgently saying in a loud whisper, “Rayna, Rayna get up! Look outside!”

I got out of bed and went over to the big, windowed sliding doors that led to our room’s balcony. Outside our window, in the trees just a little bit away, were toucans! There were at least four of them, and they were content just sitting in the bare branches, occasionally hopping from branch to branch. It was the most incredible thing to witness. I never thought that our first morning there we’d wake up to my favorite bird right outside our window. The toucans eventually flew away, but they returned every morning we were there, and I couldn’t got enough.


A couple of the toucans in the tree



There’s something special about seeing real live animals out in the wild in their natural habitat — not in an enclosed space in a zoo or on a wildlife farm. I’m dying to go on a real African safari. I was 2 when we went to South Africa, so I don’t actually remember what that safari was like other than from seeing photos of it.  (And speaking of seeing photos from that trip, see below for a pic of wild baboons on a cars. One lady in our tour group had her purse stolen by a baboon!)


Wild baboons in Cape Town

I love seeing wild animals in places where if feels like I’m the one intruding on their space. From the fish in the Great Barrier Reef to my favorite toucans in Argentina, seeing beautiful wildlife up close and personal — moments in which it’s just you and the animals — is one of my favorite things about traveling.