Thank you all for participating in our travel writing contest! We’ll contact the winners today through email about their prizes. And without further ado, the winners are:
Winner: “Upside Down in the Land Down Under” by Debra Simpson
Runner-Up: “Schillerplatz” by Angelika M. Offenwanger
Runner-Up: “Getting There Is Half the Journey” by Mekenna Wilson
Read the winning stories below and start dreaming up your next big adventure.
“Upside Down in the Land Down Under” by Debra Simpson
“Do people like me?” is the question that teens ask themselves with ceaseless self-flagellation, like being pecked to death by a duck. This very question burned deeply as the awkward, introverted 14-year old version of me boarded a plane with a student ambassador organization from Utah: twenty teenage students, three adults, all strangers. The fear of being on my own without a friend was all jumbled up with excitement of heading off to the land of my dreams…the subject of countless grade-school book reports, fanciful stories, and starry-eyed daydreams. Australia.
It was evening at Mowbray Park, a charming farmstead nestled in the surprisingly lush countryside just outside of Sydney. Our group gathered around the farm’s dusty horse corral. Twenty-six animals, ranging from towering silky chestnut mares to bristly little white ponies, were saddled and waiting. We were about to embark on a short horseback adventure into the Australian bush. Everyone was bunched together, chattering nervously while they waited to be matched to a horse. I quietly stood apart.
A weathered rancher in a leather duster, looking like he’d stepped out of an Australian tourism ad, sauntered toward me. I desperately hoped I’d somehow blended into the scenery. I hadn’t.
“Hi, I’m Barry, “ he greeted me with a thick Australian accent and a nod, while handing me a helmet. “Put that on and follow me, please. You’re gonna ride Daisy.”
I followed my craggy Australian guide past row upon row of majestic beasts until we stopped beside the squat, bristly legs of the little white pony I’d spotted first, certainly the smallest, most unimpressive animal of the lot. Barry helped me into the saddle. My legs dangled over Daisy’s flanks and I could feel her bristly fur through my jeans. Barry adjusted the stirrups to reach my tennies and gave me some basic instructions about the correct way to hold the reins, sit in the saddle, and guide the horse. He parted with some wise words before heading to his own mount.
“Remember, horses sense fear so just relax. Daisy’s a good ol’ girl and she’ll take it easy on ya.”
“Relax,” I said to myself, taking Barry’s advice seriously. “RELAX! RELAX! RELAX!”
Unfortunately, badgering myself into a state of relaxation didn’t seem to be working. But then…we were off. Barry led the pack but a few other expert riders were mixed into the train. With little instruction needed from us, the horses innately took to the well-worn dirt path. With each step of Daisy’s hindquarters, I was roughly jostled. We traversed over the emerald hillside and then threaded our way into a forest of towering eucalyptus trees with patchy pale trunks. The golden evening sunlight was streaming through the canopy and dappling the ground with dancing specks. I forgot my predicament for a moment. I was enraptured in a feeling of euphoria, realizing I was physically in a place I’d only ever dreamed about, in a forest as magical as a fairytale, on a continent as far away from home as it was possible to get. The tears pooling in my eyes were of disbelief and joy.
The euphoria didn’t last.
My whole body jerked toward Daisy’s neck as her head dipped unexpectedly. I held onto the saddle horn, white-knuckled and panicked. Our caravan of horses was descending a very steep hillside covered in dense underbrush and I was being pulled forward by gravity. We continued to descend and I managed to keep myself in the saddle. But soon I began slipping in another direction entirely. Sideways. As Daisy roughly navigated the steep hillside, the saddle was slowly sliding to the right and toward her underbelly…taking me along with it. I was terrified. Should I call out? Sixty scenarios of every possible bad outcome ran through my brain like a film reel.
Just then a gloved hand grabbed the reins and pulled Daisy to a stop. The handler riding behind me had noticed my predicament and spurred his horse forward until he was alongside. With a whistle, the rest of the team came to a halt and Barry trotted back toward me and dismounted. Everyone in the group craned their necks to see what was going on. I could hear the susurrus of whispers all around me, though I couldn’t hear clearly amid the crashing of underbrush.
“You’re alright. Don’t worry,” Barry said to me, sympathetically. “We’ll just tighten this.”
Barry and the handler deftly slid the saddle back into place, me along with it, and then Barry tightened the girth and cinch strap around Daisy’s belly.
“That shouldn’t happen again,” he said as he knotted the strap, “But don’t be afraid to call out if it does.”
I nodded. He smiled, patted Daisy’s rump, and got back on his mount.
The rest of the trip I managed to stay upright on Daisy but I wasn’t thinking about the beauty of the scenery any longer. I was replaying my embarrassing predicament over and over in my head. With each replay, the eyes of all my fellow travelers grew bigger and bigger and more scornful. Had they been laughing at me? I must have looked so stupid, leaning sideways on the horse, holding onto the saddle horn with my skinny arms. Before long we were back at the corral. I dismounted and hurriedly tried to make my way to the bunks in front of the others without making eye contact. But I felt a quick, congenial slap on my back. I turned. Several of my peers had caught up to me with huge smiles.
“Wow, that was nuts!” said the boy who’d been trying to get my attention.
A girl chimed in, “Yeah, I can’t believe you didn’t fall off. That was crazy.”
Someone else said, “Good job staying on the horse!”
And another, “Whoever saddled that horse is in trouble.” Then laughter.
They crowded around me, talking excitedly, recounting the harrowing experience, now as much their adventure as mine. And just like that, I wasn’t alone at all.
“Schillerplatz” by Angelika M. Offenwanger
The last time I saw Schiller, they had put him in a box. Oh, no, not the kind that leaves you six feet under. This one was a skeleton of scaffolding neatly surrounding Herr von Schiller as he stood in all his brazen glory in the square next to the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart. The glory had accumulated too much verdigris and needed a cleaning.
I was disappointed not to be able to see the statue. Obligingly, however, one side of the box had been covered with a giant billboard-like photograph of the statue, so that by standing in the right spot and pointing the camera just so, one could get the illusion of having taken a picture of the Schiller statue in front of the Prinzenbau after all. The only problem was that the billboard photo showed a bright blue sky, whereas on the day we visited the skies were overcast; the illusion in my photo is imperfect.
But in a way, this is in keeping with the rest of the Schillerplatz, where the bronze statue stands surrounded by buildings that seem fantastically ancient. The Old Palace, massive with thick round ivy-covered towers, dates from the Renaissance. The Stiftskirche with its mis-matched spires, the symbol of Stuttgart, has parts going back to the twelfth century. The Fruchtkasten next to it has a magnificent gable that was added in 1596. Or rather, it once had a gable that was added in 1596. What the visitor sees today is the Fruchtkasten as it was rebuilt in the 1950s—as were the Stiftskirche, the Old Palace, and the Prinzenbau and Old Chancellery that flank the remaining two sides of the Schillerplatz. All the buildings around the Schillerplatz burned to the ground in a hail of bombs in 1944.
But the people of Stuttgart meticulously reconstructed their city’s architectural glories after the war. I, for one, am glad they did. Looking at the Stiftskirche and Fruchtkasten today, there is no patch of incongruously blue sky to intrude on an image that looks just like the black-and-white photo of the Schillerplatz in 1900. The only thing missing from today’s scene is the railing which ran around the base of the statue’s pedestal then.
Unlike their fenced-out forefathers, twenty-first century Stuttgarters can, and do, sit on the steps leading up to Schiller as he stands lost in thought, clasping his bronze draperies around him, loosely holding a book with his index finger pinched between two pages to mark a spot. He looks slightly bemused, as if he was not quite sure why he is wearing a bed sheet over his eighteenth-century jacket and a laurel wreath on his curly head. Knowing his personal history, one might assume he had just come back from a fraternity toga party and was struck by poetic inspiration on his way back to bed.
Schiller attended a military academy in Stuttgart, and in 1781 had to flee for his life after the publication of his politically inflammatory first play. His flight eventually led him to Weimar and into close collaboration with Goethe. But apparently all his subsequent years of living in the North and becoming Germany’s second-most famous poet never could erase his Swabian dialect; Stuttgart came with him wherever he went. Stuttgarter people are proud of “their” poet. Stuttgarter fauna, however, show little respect for the literary giant: I have a photo of him presiding regally over the Christmas market in the square with a pigeon perched on top of his head.
When I’m asked “Where are you from?” I usually reply “I was born in Stuttgart.” But really, that answer is as misleading as the reconstruction of the Fruchtkasten. We moved away from Stuttgart when I was two; growing up, I knew practically nothing of the city. I am not the real thing. It was not until I was an adult that I began to get to know my “native” town on visits back to Germany.
One of those occasions was that visit to the Christmas market. It’s a child’s dream. Brass bands playing the old carols echoing all across the square, booth upon booth filled with delights—toys, crafts, candles, Christmas decorations, baking, hot food, handiwork, household goods… I came home with an extra-fat wooden rolling pin, a coloured candle, and a cookie cutter shaped like a little donkey. There was no snow then, but it was easy to imagine the soft flakes settling on Schiller’s laurel wreath as he overlooked the roofs of the stalls beneath him.
Come to think of it, when the poet lived there in the flesh, the scene he saw was perhaps not so different from today’s. He would have been a young boy then, darting between the booths, perhaps longingly staring at a carved rocking horse or tin whistle—and if he was lucky, spending a Pfennig or two on gingerbread.
Yes, I know the buildings we see today are not the genuine article, the ones he would have seen two hundred years ago. They are replicas. But if his bronze eyes today could see, he would hardly know the difference. The physical substance of the Stiftskirche, the Fruchtkasten, and the Old Palace might be mostly new, but, in a way, their essence is not. They have been there for centuries, and they still are. Their destruction and reconstruction is but one chapter of their history.
When we left the city last year, they were dismantling the scaffolding box—Schiller had once again been tidied up. And from inside of the box, I know, his statue reappeared just as the picture showed on the outside. The real Schiller was in there all along. Only now he is cleaner, and no longer surrounded by a patch of artificially blue sky that one can only properly photograph from one particular viewpoint in the square.
Once again Stuttgarter people can sit on the steps below his gaze, and Stuttgarter pigeons land on his head. I don’t think he minds. He belongs, and so do they.
“Getting There Is Half the Journey” by Mekenna Wilson
When we arrived in Paris, we looked haggard and homeless, and we probably felt even worse than we looked. As the woman on the airport intercom muttered away in French and the people around us moved purposefully to their destinations, we collapsed on the ground in exhaustion with our carry-on luggage. We’d seen it all, and it had only been 48 hours since we left home.
My cousin Abby and I make it a point to see a different part of Europe each year. We love everything about Europe — the breathtaking architecture, the culinary delights, the majestic scenery — it’s perfection in our eyes. 5 countries. 9 days. Each day was planned down to the hour. Last year, getting there was half the journey.
When you buy discounted airplane tickets, they’re cheap for a reason. Three connection flights provide more opportunity for disaster. At our first stop in Phoenix, we learned our flight to London had been overbooked, forcing us to re-purchase our tickets at top dollar to be guaranteed a seat. The flight was also delayed several hours, which meant a six-hour wait. 26 rounds of cards later, we learned that the delayed flight had made us late for our final connection to Paris.
Although the situation wasn’t ideal, we met some colorful characters. Our favorite was a man from Scotland who was excited to drink himself silly on his business trip without his family. The night before, he became so intoxicated that he was considered unfit to fly. But by golly, he was determined to get home, so he successfully sneaked back into the airport and was miraculously able to make it through to tell us the whole story. (This made us somewhat skeptical of London airport security.)
When we arrived at the Paris airport, we got off the plane and were greeted by mass confusion and panic. Someone had abandoned a black bag in the terminal and everyone was being evacuated and herded backwards by military personnel with AR-15s as all the shops and cafes around us were shut down and locked up. Some were not fazed by the incident and played games on their cell phones. Others were crouched in corners speaking to their loved ones on the phone in hushed voices. My heart dropped to my stomach and I drafted a text message to my family and contemplated why I ever thought it was a good idea to leave the house and the safety of Netflix in bed.
After an excruciating hour of this chaos, they let us go. My cousin and I took a moment to breathe and boarded a shuttle to ride to the rental car claim on which we witnessed a drug deal. The scruffy, rough-looking men caught our glimpse and gave us a threatening glare. A drug deal – our very first impression of the city after a bomb scare. Welcome to Paris, eh? Relief flooded our bodies as we got off and left the two men in the smoke-filled shuttle behind.
It wasn’t until we had a key in the ignition that we realized what we were about to do. We were so excited to get to this point that we didn’t even realize how stress-inducing it would be navigating foreign streets, and at night no less. Abby and I mentally prepared ourselves for probably 30 minutes to leave the parking garage. As we inched out onto the street, we were overwhelmed by roundabouts, French traffic signs and pedestrians. A man walking by pounded his hand on the hood of the car as we blazed through a crosswalk unknowingly.
Siri was out to kill us. Somehow, the map lead us up a dark, winding mountain path. Were we headed in the right direction? Or were we driving blissfully into a disaster? We didn’t know, but we trusted the map. Very hesitantly, we inched forward towards a small village with closely clustered homes. The GPS lead us to the backyard of a private property of an elderly couple who spoke only two or three words of English, but happened to be outside. As they tried to understand why we were there, we attempted to explain, in broken French, where we were headed. They perceived that we were two young American tourists looking for town. They kindly opened their garage, allowing us to use it to turn around on an otherwise too-narrow road and helped us navigate our way out. By some miracle, we understood their gestures and phrases enough to embark again.
At this point, we had lost all faith in Apple maps and switched over to Google maps. After finding the main highway, it was a straight shot to our hotel. The stress slowly melted away as we drove until we were cranking tunes and singing our hearts out. Finally comfortable with the roads, we enjoyed the drive through the quaint countryside and took in the scenery, even in the dark. Towering cathedrals and small churches seemed to lie on every corner.
It wasn’t until morning that we realized what beauty surrounded us. After some good sleep, we realized that we had successfully maneuvered the roads, almost without incident, made it through a security scare, met some charming natives and gained street smarts along the way. We opened the hotel window to the light of day and were greeted by the vast, shining ocean with le Mont St. Michel standing triumphantly near the shore. That day, as we walked the thousand-year stone streets of the island that is the Mont St. Michel, we contemplated that travel isn’t always glamorous. It’s dangerous, it’s confusing, it’s exhausting. But it’s all worth it for the moments that take your breath away and make you realize that the world is so much bigger and older than you ever imagined it could be. If you can learn to find joy in the journey, even the worst moments of a trip can turn into hilarious memories that you’ll fondly look back on.