Book review: The Alchemist

Click the image above to buy The Alchemist online from Barnes & Noble. Photo courtesy of Barnes & Noble
Click the image above to buy The Alchemist online from Barnes & Noble. Photo courtesy of Barnes & Noble

What’s it about?

The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, was first written in Portuguese in 1988. Today, it is an international bestseller and has been translated into at least 67 languages.

This book is a treasure, and if you’ve read it, you’ll understand why saying that is sort of a pun.

Loved by almost everyone who reads it, The Alchemist is a short novel about a young boy from the south of Spain who sets out on a journey across north Africa to fulfill his “Personal Legend” — or, as many people in the non-fictional universe would call it: his wildest dream and greatest personal goal.

It’s a story that, while profoundly simple in its language and progression, conveys deep a message about the importance of following one’s heart and working to realize one’s dreams — a message that is reiterated throughout the novel as Santiago (The Alchemist‘s main character), in search of an awesome treasure, literally lets a dream guide him to the Pyramids of Giza.

It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

What begins as a search for a great wealth of gold, however, results in the discovery of a totally different sort of wealth: the special wisdom of understanding the “Language of the World” — of finding simplicity in chaos, harmony in diversity and hope in hardship.

As only good fiction can do (in my opinion), The Alchemist nurtures a fresh appreciation of the world and redraws the boundaries of possibility for anyone who reads it.

What makes it a good airplane read?

The book is incredibly inspiring… And it’s also short, which means you’ll probably be able to start and finish it one sitting as you snack on free peanuts and sip your plastic teacup of ice water.

I do have one qualm with this book, however: While I adored the message and the main character whole-heartedly, I couldn’t help but feel the plot was extremely biased toward the success of men, while it sidelined all of its female characters.

Hey, Paulo! Women are allowed to have Personal Legends too, right? Because you might have unintentionally implied that we are all only facets of our husbands’ Personal Legends.


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Click here to read more book reviews, or click here to see more posts where I talk about sexism.

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A new way to get from here to there

By plane, train and automobile… and by boat, foot and bicycle

I made a promise to myself about a decade ago, on one of the many family road trips I took as a kid, that I’d always love the “going there” as much as I love the “being there.” We were on our way to Yellowstone National Park in 2004, and at the time, enjoying the “going there” part meant taking miniature foods (mints, Saltine cracker packets, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, McDonald’s catsup, etc.) to hide in the the over-head hideout (known as the sleeping space above the cockpit to most non-children) of my grandparents’ RV.

Now that I’m 20 years old, though, and not traveling with my little sisters in a mischief-conducive house on wheels (most of the time), I find other ways to make the time spent en route to wherever I am going more enjoyable. How do I do it, you ask? Curious friend, I travel by the most interesting means possible!

Anyone who spends a lot of time in foreign places inevitably spends a lot of time in airplanes, but it’s easy to tire of the view at 30,000+ feet, especially when it’s your only scenic option for more more than six hours. Unfortunately, plane travel is really the only option for most people when it comes to traveling overseas… Or, at least it is if you don’t count include long-distance boat travel, which can be pricey and/or labor intensive, depending on the type of boat you choose to take.

Luckily, not all destinations need to be reached by crossing vast expanses of ocean, and that leaves a bit of wiggle room to choose non-airplane vessels for place-to-place going.

Choose to go by boat.

Taken from the back of a tour vessel on Lake Titicaca, this picture shows the Peruvian Isla Taquile disappearing on the horizon line. Photo taken by Megann Phillips
Taken from the back of a tour vessel on Lake Titicaca, this picture shows the Peruvian Isla Taquile disappearing on the horizon line. Photo taken by Megann Phillips

Inspired by my recent sea voyage to Catalina (courtesy of my very own parents and their fixer-upper sailboat), I’ve got to telly you: Traveling at sea level — and actually, literally on the sea — is awesome, even if it’s not totally realistic for the vast majority of the population to do long-distance.

A cruise ticket can break your bank, and learning to sail your own boat might just be more trouble than it’s worth (although my dad would beg to differ). But believe it or not, ferries are a relatively economical option when it comes to covering short distances over water, and I happen to find them a lot more enjoyable than airplanes*. There’s nothing quite like feeling the sun on your face and the sea breeze in your hair as the waves roll beneath you.

Choose to go by bus.

A bus waits on the border of Argentina and Chile as it waits for its passengers to pass through customs. Photo by Megann Phillips
A bus waits on the border of Argentina and Chile as it waits for its passengers to pass through customs. Photo by Megann Phillips

I won’t encourage you to spend 12+ hours on a bus unless unless your budget absolutely rules out traveling the distance by plane or train, but if you’re running low on funds, let the wheels on the bus go round and round.

Here are the the benefits of going by bus: (1) The scenery out the windows is almost guaranteed to be beautiful. (2) If you have to take a really long bus ride, chances are you will be saving money on overnight hospitality services at a hostel or B&B.

Choose to go by train.

The Tren Patagónico (Patagonia Train), in southern Argentina, sets a northward course from Viedma to San Carlos de Bariloche. Photo by Megann Phillips
The Tren Patagónico (Patagonia Train), in southern Argentina, sets a northward course from Viedma to San Carlos de Bariloche. Photo by Megann Phillips

There’s just something romantic about train travel, isn’t there? It’s really not that much faster than going the distance in a bus, but trains often take you through roadless, scenic parts of the countryside other vehicles can’t access… and the rattling of metal train wheels on metal tracks definitely adds something to the railroad experience.

IMPORTANT: There’s also more room to stretch your legs inside trains cars than there is in the aisles between bus seats.

Choose to go by bicycle.

Two bicycles rest near the edge of a dirt road near Puerto Madryn on the ast coast of Argentina. Photo by Megann Phillips
Two bicycles rest near the edge of a dirt road near Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Argentina. Photo by Megann Phillips

The recipe for a perfect bike ride = scenic landscapes + mild terrain + a road or trail that, while too long to walk, is not insurmountable in distance.**

Choose to go on foot.

Hiking through the Peruvian Andes is exhausting, but the area's dramatic landscapes and historic ruins make the effort worth while. Photo by Megann Phillips
Hiking through the Peruvian Andes is exhausting, but the area’s dramatic landscapes and historic ruins make the effort worth while. Photo by Megann Phillips

There are some journeys that just need to made on foot in order to fully appreciate the destination (the trek to Machu Picchu, for example, which follows an old Inca trail through the Peruvian Andes).

*I’ve haven’t been seasick a day in my life, so with that in mind: My “go by boat” transportation advice really only applies to people with wave-tolerant stomachs.

**Cycling medium- or long-distance routes requires prior experience and a moderate fitness level. It may result in crotch-bruising and soreness for the ill prepared.


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Click here to see more posts with general travel advice, or click here to see more posts about the Inca Trail (featured in the image above). You can also click here to access my photo gallery and view more images like the ones featured above.

How to make the most of your visit to Catalina Island

Doodle by Megann Phillips
Doodle by Megann Phillips

Santa Catalina Island, a small island nestled in clear blue water off the coast of southern California, is a place unheard of by most west coast non-dwellers… although I’m not sure it qualifies as one of the state’s hidden gems, considering its long history of celebrity glamour.

I believe the most recent celebrity appearance on the island happened this past January, when Taylor Swift spent an Instagram-published day in Avalon (the island’s main town) with Lorde and the HAIM sisters. But Catalina’s star-studded history dates as far back as the early 1940s, when Marilyn Monroe (then Norma Jean Dougherty) lived there for a year with her first husband.

For all of it’s glamour, though, Catalina is a quaint, peaceful place. It’s known as the main haunt of sailboaters in and around the Los Angeles area, and it’s famous for the more than 100 wild buffalo that roam its hills.

Two buffalo relax of the beach near Isthmus Cove, scaring human tourists away from the area. Photo by Taylor Butzbach
Two buffalo relax on a silty beach near Isthmus Cove, scaring human tourists away from the sand. Photo by Taylor Butzbach

Fun fact: Buffalo are not native to Catalina Island, and all the buffalo that live on the island today are descendants of an original 14, which were turned loose to set the scene for a movie filmed there in 1924 called The Vanishing American.

If you want to get up close and personal with this cool Catalina wildlife… Well, you can’t, because buffalo are pretty aggressive. If you want to see them from a reasonable distance, however, consider taking a hike outside the boundaries of Avalon.

Hiking trails around Isthmus Cove, a distance from Avalon, provide a great view of the Pacific and ample wildlife viewing opportunities. Photo by Taylor Butzbach
Hiking trails around Isthmus Cove, a distance from Avalon, provide a great view of the Pacific and ample wildlife viewing opportunities. Photo by Taylor Butzbach

This weekend, I went with my family and a couple friends to Isthmus Cove, a short sail northwest of Avalon, and we saw two young males taking a leisurely stroll along the beach. It was curious picture, to say the least, considering a buffalo’s natural habitat are the salt water-devoid plains of the central United States. But indigenous or not, they seemed to enjoy watching the waves break on the sand around their hooves.

So, what’s my advice for anyone planning a visit to Santa Catalina Island? To make the most of your visit, be sure to explore the natural beauty of the island as well as the town in Avalon. Avalon’s great for buying ice cream and shopping for trinkets, but if you want to see some of Catalina’s famous buffalo, head north and west.

Also, go snorkeling in the water near the Catalina coastline! The island’s no Hawai’i, but you’ll find at least a few vibrantly colored fish and twisty shells in the water there.

The clear water around Catalina Island is great for snorkeling, and bright orange Garibaldi fish love to swim in the warm water close to shore there. Photo by Taylor Butzbach
The clear water around Catalina Island is great for snorkeling, and bright orange Garibaldi fish love to swim in the warm water close to shore there. Photo by Taylor Butzbach

Note: If you’re visiting Avalon in the near future and want to learn more about the town’s longstanding relationship with the men and women of Hollywood, visit the Catalina Island Museum! It’s an adorable little place, and right now it’s featuring an exhibit on “Hollywood’s biggest stars on Catalina Island.”


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Click here to see more posts regarding the USA as a whole, or click here to see more posts about California specifically. You can also click here to access my photo gallery and view more images like the ones featured above (although the photos in this post were taken by my friend Taylor Butzbach, and most of the images in my photo gallery were taken by me).

Photo gallery: exploring the Argentine side of Iguazú

Click on the images below to enlarge them.


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This gallery has a companion post (linked here)! Read it if you’d like to know more about my visit to Parque Nacional Iguazú, or if you want a few tips for your future visit.

Drinking in the majesty of Iguazú Falls… literally

Why heavy rains won’t put a damper on your visit to the Cataratas de Iguazú in Misiones, Argentina

Fog partially obscures the awesome view of Iguazú Falls in this picture, taken on a rainy June afternoon. Photo by Megann Phillips
Fog partially obscures the awesome view of Iguazú Falls in this picture, taken on a rainy June afternoon. Photo by Megann Phillips

Rainy season in the tropical north of Argentina runs from November through March, but visiting the region in its “dry” season doesn’t guarantee that the sun will be warming your face as you tour its attractions. (Trust me! I would know.)

Well inside the limits of the dry season, which stretches from April through October, my day trip to Parque Nacional Iguazú last June was shrouded in veil of rain and waterfall mist that nearly ruined my camera.* In fact, the rains were so torrential on that day and in the week that followed, that the park was closed due to flooding only a few days later.

Contrary to what one might assume, however, the heavy rain didn’t mar my experience at the falls with horrible memories of wet pants and runny makeup. I was soaked through my expensive rain jacket and the protective plastic poncho I bought at the park gift shop, but I don’t think I would’ve wished it any other way.

The falls, seen here through a waterlogged lens, are one of the natural world's seven wonders, according to the New7Wonders Foundation. Photo by Megann Phillips
The falls, seen here through a waterlogged lens, are one of the natural world’s seven wonders, according to the New7Wonders Foundation. Photo by Megann Phillips

For your pleasure, here are the benefits of visiting Iguazú Falls on a rainy day:

  • Heavy rain adds enormous water volume to the falls, making their already spectacular presence even more fantastic.
  • Crowds of tourists tend to steer clear of outdoor attractions in wet weather, so brave the rain if you’re keen on less crowded scenic viewpoints and stranger-free vacation photos.
  • Remember that scene in A Bug’s Life, right after the ants win the battle against the grasshoppers and rain drops begin to fall from the sky like bombs? The ants are screaming and running as fast a they can toward their hill, while the flying bugs desperately dodge droplets as they plummet through the air. It’s total chaos… and it’s exactly what I imagine happens in the mosquito world during a tropical rainstorm at Iguazú National Park. The rain keeps those mosquitos running for cover, and what’s not to love about that as long as you’re out in the elements?

*Luckily, the water only damaged my camera temporarily. (And that’s a miraculous thing for which I should probably be thanking some supernatural power.)


Explore related posts.

If you liked this post, then you’re in luck! It has a companion gallery, and you can access it here.

Click here to see more posts about Argentina, or click here to see more posts about amazing landscapes around the world. You can also click here to access my photo gallery and view more images like the ones featured above.

Photo gallery: Glaciar Perito Moreno

To expand the images, just click on them.


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If a picture really can tell 1,000 words, then there are 20,000 words in this gallery. But if you’d like to read a little bit more about my adventure in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, you’re in luck! These photos have a companion post, and you can access it here.

Click the link above to learn more about awesome ice tours through Hielo y Aventura, the Pertio Moreno Glacier and Los Glaciares National Park.

Chillin’ with Perito Moreno in Argentine Patagonia

Travel tip: If you’re spending any amount of time in Argentina, the Perito Moreno Glacier is a must-see landmark.

The Perito Moreno Glacier, visible here between two evergreen trees, is one of only a few glaciers in Patagonia that have not been affected by increasing global temperatures. Photo by Megann Phillips
The Perito Moreno Glacier, visible here between two evergreen trees, is one of only a few glaciers in Patagonia that have not been affected by increasing global temperatures. Photo by Megann Phillips

The morning started out bleary, with cloudy gray skies and wind-whipped snow particles obscuring my view of what was supposed to be one of the most gorgeous landscapes in southern Argentina. I remember staring hard at the place where I was supposed to be seeing a fantastic glacier and thinking to myself, “For what stupid reason did I think it would be a good idea to visit Patagonia in the dead of winter?” Beyond the objects in my immediate vicinity, I could only see a white blanket of bad weather.

I was in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in early August, standing in front of the Perito Moreno Glacier almost two months before the southern hemisphere’s spring equinox and just days after the tour company Hielo y Aventura began offering the season’s first fair-weather ice trekking excursions. My guidebook told me I should have waited at least another month to be doing this, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place (or, more literally, the end of my summer study abroad program in Buenos Aires and the beginning of fall semester at my university in the United States).

Doodles by Megann Phillips / GIF created at imgflip.com

Due to the scheduling circumstances, I had to choose between visiting Los Glaciares in the winter and avoiding the place altogether…

Luckily, I chose the former, and my excursion to Perito Moreno (the national park’s most famous glacier) wound up being everything I could’ve possibly hoped for. As the day progressed, the clouds cleared and the sun came out to shed its rays on sapphire blue glacial ice.

These photos, taken just hours apart, show the often unpredictable weather patterns of Patagonian winters. Photos by Megann Phillips
Believe it or not, the two photos above were taken just hours apart on the same winter afternoon. Photos by Megann Phillips

My trip turned out beautifully, so this is my advice for anyone thinking of traveling Los Glaciares National Park during the winter season: If it’s your only option, go for it! (But no ice trekking excursions on are offered in June or July, so I’d avoid traveling during those months if you’re hankering for an up-close and personal experience with the Perito Moreno glacier.)

Any time of year is going to have unique ups and downs when it comes to exploring a new place, and isn’t seeing a spectacular site in bad weather better than not seeing it at all?

That being said, however, I have to recommend visiting Los Glaciares National Park in the summertime (December through March in the southern hemisphere) if you’re able to do so. Here’s why:

  • The only tour company that offers ice trekking excursions on the Perito Moreno glacier is Hielo y Aventura, and Hielo y Aventura only offers these excursions on a seasonal schedule. Weather permitting, they offer a mini trekking tour (the one I took) early August through late May, and they offer a longer trekking excursion (called the “Big Ice” tour) mid September through late April.
  • Summer’s warm weather causes the ice of Perito Moreno to melt and refreeze on a more rapid cycle than it does in colder months, and this results in huge chunks of ice calving off the glacier’s face and splashing into the lake below on a pretty regular schedule. It’s spectacular show… or so I’ve heard. When I visited the glacier in early August, the ice chunks falling from its face were were small and relatively rare.
  • Last but not least, viewing conditions of the glaciers in Los Glaciares are often better in the summer months than they are in the winter due to seasonal weather patterns.

Even with all of these downsides to wintertime travel, though, my August visit to the park was nothing short of amazing. I got some fantastic views of the Perito Moreno glacier, and I can’t imagine my day there would have been any better in warmer conditions.

Summer isn't the only time ice chunks calve off the front of the Perito Moreno Glacier. In the photo above, crumbling ice makes a splash in early August. Photo by Megann Phillips
Falling ice is more spectacular and more frequent in the summer, but that’s not the only time of year it can be witnessed. In the photo above, a glacial ice chunk makes a splash in early August. Photo by Megann Phillips

Wintertime travelers, there is hope!

One huge benefit of visiting Los Glaciares National Park in the winter: It’s not a popular tourist season, so the scenic viewpoints are hardly crowded and you will rarely find unwanted strangers in your vacation photos.


Explore related posts.

If you liked this post, then you’re in luck! It has a companion gallery, and you can access it here.

Click here to see more posts about Argentina as a whole, or click here to see more posts about Argentine Patagonia. You can also click here to access my photo gallery and view more images like the ones featured above.