Highlights from the Quirky Capital of Waffles, Beer & Chocolate: Brussels, Belgium

So after five amazing days in Amsterdam (Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things), my next Eurotrip stop was Brussels…the capital of Belgium that’s world-famous for a few key things. Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer were definitely at the top of my to-do list.

We arrived late via train and checked into the Urban City Centre Hostel. The perk here was that we had our own private room and bathroom. The downside was that this was probably the loudest hostel we stayed at. Earplugs be damned. Regardless, it was nice to have some personal space after sharing an eight-person dorm.

One thing that I quickly learned about Brussels is that the city has a sense of humor. Not in that “I’m trying super hard to be hipster-ish” sort of way, but more of in an “I’m so quirky that I don’t even realize that I’m quirky” way.

Take, for example, Manneken Pis.

pisShrouded by legends, mischief, and fancy outfits, this tiny peeing boy statue is a huge deal in Brussels. This shot was taken early in the morning before the crowds piled up. Normally, it looks more like this or worse.

crowdThe statue really is that small and just inconspicuously stuck onto an otherwise unassuming street corner. But still, it’s a big deal to these Belgians. So much of a big deal that the little guy gets a wardrobe change just about as much as I do.

We later visited the Museum of the City of Brussels, which was a pretty average museum…until you reached the top floor. This is where all the Manneken Pis replicas reside wearing outfits from different countries, current events, and random themes.

You can actually look online before you visit to see what he’ll be wearing on upcoming days. Spoiler alert: sometimes he’s just naked!

costumesAnother big hit in Brussels is the waffles. Don’t believe the hype of the “one-Euro waffle.” It might sound like a bargain too-good-to-be true, and it is. That price is just for the plain, boring waffles that I could pretty much just make at home.

All the real deliciousness is in the toppings…strawberries, bananas, whipped cream, peanut butter, ice cream, and Nutella – from what I saw, all of Europe is obsessed with Nutella.

However, the waffles’ deliciousness is somewhat counteracted by their messiness. They’re impossible to eat without getting schmutz all over your face and the weak plastic forks vendors provide you with are an absolute joke.

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Smurf house! I kinda-sorta fit inside.

Belgian waffles should only be attempted by professionals, those not afraid to look like a fool, and those who are not on a first date.
waffleAnother big deal in Belgium is the almighty comic book. We visited the Belgian Comic Strip Center and I was surprised to learn how many comics were created by Belgian artists.
comic2I was a moderate Smurfs fan back in the 80s, and there was lots of Smurfs stuff to be seen here. The museum really wasn’t all that big, but it was more interesting than I expected, especially as a not-so-huge comic book fan. The Adventures of Tin Tin also had a big exhibit here and a whole shop dedicated to Tin Tin memorabilia.

But what got me really interested in Belgian comics was when I spotted GNOMES in a weird Polish comic created by illustrator, Grzegorz Rosinski. His comic is called Thorgal and I bought this particular book of his that featured helpful little gnomes in the woods. It’s called “The Guardian of the Keys” and was pretty entertaining to read.
gnomecomic

Although I didn’t sample as much Belgian chocolate as I did waffles or beer, I did make it to Chocolatier Mary, which is a famous handmade chocolate shop that supplies the royal family. You kind of need to be royalty to afford it too.

I settled on a €9.50 box of chocolate liqueurs and made them last as long as humanly possible…which was about two days.
chocolateWhich brings me to the beer…the strong, delicious, and wonderful beer of Belgium! One of our first stops was the Delirium Cafe. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s actually a whole alley full of Delirium bars, which is pretty fun.

It’s a cute little alley with outside seating and rare varieties on tap that you just don’t find in the U.S. This is where I fell in love with Delirium Red and Floris Cactus. Floris is a Delirium brand that specializes in fun, fruity beers.beer

One of my favorite afternoons in Brussels was spent at Au Brasseur, a beer bar in the central restaurant area where I learned about La Corne in its horn-shaped glass & holder and sipped a few of these while drawing in my sketchbook.

beers

Of course, Brussels has lots of museums to check out if you’re not already museumed-out by this point in the trip. museum

And the architecture is absolutely nuts if you’re into gorgeous city scenery and all that.

night shot

But never fear…there’s plenty of more weird stuff lurking around the streets of Brussels. For one, the Atomium.

I really expected a science lesson from this visit, but instead I got a history about a world expo in 1958 and a bunch of closed-off areas.

atom1There are eight levels spread across five spheres that you can access by stairs and elevators. Honestly, the exhibits weren’t all that interesting…certainly not worth €11. But this escalator was pretty trippy, so I’ll give it that.
atom2Determined to make the most of our €11 tickets, we took the elevator to the very top to see panoramic views of the city and look down upon the equally-weird attraction of Little Europe down below.

Here’s me sipping a pricey drink from the top sphere and looking down over the city.atom3But one of the most random things we did in Brussels was attending a marionette show at Theatre de Toone. It was all in French and I don’t speak a lick of French.

Well, other than, “Haw haw! Oui oui! Baguette! Croissant!”

This is a traditional Brussels puppet theater that was recommended to us by the son of the owner of Achouffe Brewery. The show recounted the history of a French/Flemish battle in the 1300s, of which I was completely lost about 90 percent of the time.

But alas, attending the not-so-well-attended show makes for a fun story to tell, and it was an absolutely random way to spend an evening in a random city. marionettesMeanwhile and elsewhere in Brussels, you can find gigantic cartoon characters and mock their hand gestures…comic1…or reprimand fake dogs for peeing on sidewalks…
dog

…or do some laundry, because well, you’ve backpacking for weeks…

laundry

…or watch street performers do things like this (whatever “this” is)…

performance art...or try to walk through doors that resemble fake forests.

Yep! You can do all that in Brussels and more. P1020413

And then you can write home about it. Just look for the red post boxes and pop in a post card!

postcardBrussels definitely was something to write home about, and I’ll always remember it for its quirkiness.

A Cabbage Patch Dream-Come-True: Babyland General Hospital – Cleveland, Georgia

This is a story about how five-year-old Alyssa’s dream finally came true…26 years late.

Every kid has a favorite toy, whether it’s a teddy bear, Lego blocks, or a plastic truck. As an only child, I was somewhat spoiled with toys, but hands down, my favorites were Cabbage Patch dolls.

Babyland General Hospital is a Cabbage Patch museum/factory/showroom of sorts, and I finally got to see it for myself…with my parents in tow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My grandma bought my first (of six) Cabbage Dolls back in 1983, when they were the hot ticket item on everyone’s shopping list. Her name was Isabelle, and oddly enough, I’ve taken Isabelle to live with me every time I’ve moved. She’s quite the well-traveled lil’ thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo when my parents planned a road trip from Illinois to Georgia to visit me in my current home, a trip to Babyland General Hospital was a MUST.

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It’s located in the tiny town of Cleveland, Georgia…northeast of Atlanta at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the huge, white plantation-style home surrounded by 650 acres of green space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike any decent kitschy attraction, a fair number of famous people have walked through these doors and/or collected Cabbage Patches themselves. You’ll be greeted by their signed photos as you make your way inside to the admission desk past the bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore there were Cabbage Patches, there were Little People, plush dolls that date back to 1977 and that were Xavier Roberts’ first creations. This is the oldest one of them all…valued at a whopping $37,000!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were plenty of good photo ops for Isabelle and me as we toured Babyland General Hospital. To me growing up, Cabbage Patches were more than just silly dolls. They were my siblings. Weird, huh?

Being an only child can get lonely, so Isabelle, Netta, Jerry, Martha, Henrietta, and Lara kept me company by playing school, pretend cooking, going on road trips, and hosting birthday parties. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow it’s important to note that my parents were just as much into this whole experience as I was. They’ve finally accepted me for who I am, and they don’t (outwardly) judge me for playing with creatures and dolls instead of my own unborn offspring. Thanks, Mom & Dad 🙂
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne thing that caught me slightly off-guard was that everyone working at Babyland General Hospital was dressed like a nurse and totally in character. I really think some of these old women believed they were delivering actual babies in a real hospital. But I can support that.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I expected a bit more of a “museum” aspect to this place, but it ended up being more of a sales room than anything else. Practically everything inside was for sale! I would have loved a few more informational plaques, factory photos, and maybe a little video presentation to add to the experience though. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADolls were carefully positioned in “nurseries” and play areas, and even separated by girls’ rooms and boy’s rooms. I’m sure this was to avoid the dreaded case of the cooties.
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Apparently even Andy Warhol got in on the Cabbage Patch craze at one point because a few of his paintings lined the “hospital” walls. 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut by far, the most interesting thing that happened at Babyland General Hospital was the BIRTHING.

I’m not even kidding…a head of cabbage gave birth to a doll while a “nurse” delivered it….and I saw it all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to a little audience participation, this head of cabbage turned out a baby girl and all the gross parts about birthing were edited out of the show. WHEW!

When the nurse asked the audience to name the new baby girl, my dad called out, “Alyssa!” And thus, a new baby me was born this day.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThroughout the course of the morning, I learned that there are many different types of Cabbage Patches and they don’t all look like Isabelle. However, she still had to wear a visitor pass so that she wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the residents.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor a Cabbage Patch fan, this was total sensory overload.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could have probably spent all day hanging out with these little buggas, but alas it was a work day, and there’s only SO much time that “free admission” will buy you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was an onsite birthday party room that I would have absolutely died for when I was a kid. Aw what the hell…maybe I’ll see if it’s available in late August for the big 3-2.
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My parents made it known that they were bound and determined to buy me a brand new Cabbage Patch doll to celebrate this magical day. But with hundreds upon hundreds of glistening, adoptable painted eyes staring at me, how was I to choose just one?!
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After a requisite bout of indecision, I settled on a little brown baby boy wearing monkey pajamas and smelled of talcum powder. But this was no ordinary store purchase…this was a full-fledged adoption!

And you questioned my motherly instincts….heh!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith one look into those abnormally large brown eyes, I signed my life away…with Isabelle as my witness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the adoption process didn’t end there! I was required to raise my right hand and repeat after the nurse that I would be a kind adoptive mother to the little guy for as long as I shall live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd with that it was done! I was too ecstatic at the moment to focus hard enough on choosing a name for my new little guy. So he’s still nameless…any suggestions? I need to write it on his birth certificate (yes, there IS actually a birth certificate) before he realizes that his adoptive mom is a flake.
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And just so Isabelle didn’t feel left out with all this new baby madness, I got her a little “candy striper” dress as a souvenir. They seem to be getting along pretty well so far.

And both 5-year-old Alyssa and 31-year-old Alyssa deem this latest Georgia adventure an overwhelming success! If you could belatedly fulfill one childhood dream trip right now, where would you go?

Sensory Deprivation and Strange Visions in a Flotation Tank

Where would your mind wander if left alone in a dark, silent compartment filled with 10 inches of water and 800 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts?

Unless you’ve found your way into a flotation tank lately, there’s really no good way to answer that question. I recently visited Space Time Tanks in Chicago to find out for myself.

tank1

The unassuming Space Time Tanks center in an obscure medical strip mall.

What the Heck is a Flotation Tank?

Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks and sensory deprivation tanks, are designed to bring about a state of physical and mental relaxation and rejuvenation. They’re supposed to intensify your level of inner consciousness and boots personal powers of concentration and creativity.

According to the Space Time Tank folks, these are the benefits of floating:

  • Reduction of tension caused by stress and anxiety
  • An increased ability to visualize, create, imagine and problem-solve
  • Spontaneous reduction in or the elimination of habits, i.e. smoking
  • “Super-learning” by increasing the minds powers of retention, comprehension and original thinking
  • Peak-performance enhancement, i.e. athletic, creative, mental
  • Recovery from stress of peak output and virtual elimination of fatigue and “post-race letdown”

How Did It Actually Work?

Now keep in mind that I had no idea I was headed to the inside of a flotation tank until I actually stepped foot in the door. My boyfriend had planned the experience as a surprise for my birthday, thinking that I would be open-minded and utterly fascinated by the whole thing. He was right.

The flotation tank waiting room

The flotation tank waiting room

Believe it or not, Space Time Tanks has been in Chicago since 1982, making it the longest running flotation center in America. After removing our shoes at the door, one of the owners led us back to a small spa-like room with a shower to explain how the tanks worked. The concept was simple: get naked, shower, get in the tank, lie down, relax, and see what happens.

Because of the incredible concentration of Epsom salts in the tanks floating on top of the water is essentially effortless. The water is about 93.5-degrees Fahrenheit and completely still inside. We were told to put in earplugs so that water didn’t get in our ears and avoid touching faces because the salt would burn pretty badly.

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

The tanks don’t allow for any light or sound to enter, and after one hour, the owner would come knock on the side of the tank to advise that time was up. We were also assured that the tanks were fully ventilated, that tanks were sterilized after each use, and that it was impossible to drown even if you fell asleep.

My Experience in the Flotation Tank

I must admit that I was a little nervous as I shut the door of my spa room and stared at the coffin-like structure before me. What if it was uncomfortable? What if I got restless? What if I became panicky?

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

I pushed those questions aside, hopped inside, and pulled the door shut. I spent some time trying different positions for my arms and legs while lying down as my thoughts about work assignments and the upcoming weekend flowed through my brain.

It was so dark that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed after a while. It was so quiet that I my breathing sounded like a piece of heavy machinery. And floating was strangely effortless, just like I was promised.

Vision #1

The first odd sensation that happened inside that tank was the feeling that I was floating sideways for long distances. I began having a vision that I was floating in the ocean following a dramatic shipwreck. There was steady ringing in my ears that reminded me that chaos was all around. I envisioned people jumping from the ship and struggling to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I floated effortlessly, without a care in the world.

After aimlessly floating for a while, I was tempted to try to control the direction of my float. I wondered:

If I think about floating to the left, could I start floating left?

Turns out, I could! I practiced controlled floating for a while but really had no ideal direction or destination in mind. As I came to that realization, my mind shifted to vision #2.

Vision #2

My initial thought of the flotation tank was that it sort of looked like a coffin. That imagery must have stuck with my subconscious, because I began to envision that this is what death feels like.

tank2

C’mon, it does kind of look like a coffin…

Completely morbid, I know, but it’s the truth. My mind took me to a place where I started to believe I was dead – a place where my mind was active but my body couldn’t move a muscle. It was a peaceful place where worries had no relevance and my physical self had no purpose. I couldn’t DO anything, but I felt uncharacteristically okay with that.

Disclaimer: I’m conflicted and undecided about the concept of an afterlife and the notion that spirits live on after bodies becomes useless. But something inside that flotation tank was telling me that it might not all be gobbledygook. This vision was a little unsettling on several levels, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me.

Would I Do It Again?

In a word? Definitely.

I can’t compare my experience in the flotation tank to anything else I’ve ever encountered. After I dressed and returned to the waiting room, I tried to describe my first float experience in one of the public journals.

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Although I went in with no expectations, perhaps my subconscious was desperate to get something out of it. I often find it difficult to slow down my crowded and clouded mind, and perhaps my limited surroundings provoked a layer of mindfulness pushed below the surface.

I plan to take a second float in the near future to see what happens when I better understand what I’m getting into. My boyfriend had an entirely different experience than I did, so I’m interested to see whether a second experience would inspire something similar, something entirely different, or nothing at all. What else is going on in my head that I have no clue about?

I’m also curious to try the center’s light/sound machines and NexNeuro multi-sensory relaxation system. Space Time Tanks is located at 2526 North Lincoln in Chicago and a float costs $50 per adult or $40 per student.

Perhaps it’s just my recent mood or state of mind, but I’m finding myself increasingly curious about new agey wellness treatments like energy healing, Reiki, hypnosis, and walking meditation. I’ve downloaded some apps, checked out some books, and Yelped a few highly-rated practitioners in the area. If you’ve ever tried out flotation tanks or any of these treatments, I’d love to hear about your experience and suggestions in the comments below!

My first flotation journal entry

My first flotation journal entry

Nude Barbies in the Front Yard? Only in Georgia.

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Gnomes, flamingos, concrete geese, gazing balls…these are the types of kitschy lawn decor you expect to find in front yards across America.

But Barbie dolls? NUDE Barbie dolls?

Only in Georgia.

I was first introduced to Barbie Beach back in 2009 by my best friend, Michelle, who had recently moved to Newnan, Georgia with her husband. She told me that Barbie Beach was “right up my alley” and that I simply HAD to see it for myself. She tried to explain the phenomenon to me to no avail. It is truly something you have to see for yourself to understand.

barbiebeach Fall 2009

Barbie Beach, Fall 2009

Steve and Lynda Quick own the Barbie Beach property on the outskirts of Turin, Georgia. From I-85, you can take Exit 41 towards Newnan and make a right at the Highway 16 fork. You’ll find Turin about nine miles after the four-way stop. To accommodate gawking tourists and locals, the Quicks have put up some signage directing passersby to a little parking area to avoid traffic congestion.

They started sticking Barbies (often naked Barbies) in the yard back in 2006. There’s always a theme, and some of them have been the Royal Wedding, the Final Four Playoffs, Winter and Summer Olympics. Random people bring Barbies to the Quicks for their display, often naked and with haircuts and tattoos.

Check out this incredibly interesting video interview by Rebecca Riley, Daniel Oramas, and Alessio Summerfield from the Chattahoochee Heritage Project:

These are some of my absolute favorite quotes:

It started with six naked Barbies, a ping pong net, a ping pong ball, and a homemade sign…

Three, four beers…your imagination gets crazy and you start talking it through, and you go, well we could do this, and we could do this, and well…we’ll do that!

The first thing that a child does when they get a new Barbie is take the clothes off.

To me, it is a form of freedom of speech.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

In 2011, the front yard beach was filled with Barbies painted up like zombies, in tribute to The Walking Dead. Barbie Beach has gained so much local notoriety that it even made its way onto Roadside America.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

A couple months ago, I paid a visit to Michelle and made a point to stop at Barbie Beach. There was an envelope along the fence containing informational guides to the history of Barbie Beach.

History of Barbie Beach - Handout from the owners

History of Barbie Beach – Handout from the owners

When I recently visited, it was Memorial Day weekend, so the Kens were decked out in military gear. I must admit that I was a little disappointed by the lack of Barbie soldier representation in this scene. But the plastic spoon headstones quickly made up for that.

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

You can request to join the Barbie Beach of Turin, GA Fan Club Facebook Page, and I recommend doing so to keep up with all the latest themes and gimmicks. You’ll see updates posted a couple times a month.

Close up of the patriot Kens

Close up of the patriot Kens

Make me choose between a gnome and a Barbie, and I’ll take the gnome any day. But Barbie Beach is truly one-of-a-kind and I hope the Quicks keep it up for a long, long time.

If you have a yard, why not fill it with things that make you happy…even if they don’t make sense to the average critic? WHY NOT?!

We need to stop taking our yards (and our lives) so seriously and lighten up a bit. Barbie Beach has the right idea. It’s always brought a smile to my face and re-lit a creative, free-spirited spark that I sometimes forget is inside me. I hope to have a yard of my own in the near future, and you’d better bet it’s going to be really freaking weird.

The Day I Decided to Make Homemade Hair Products

I often only find the inspiration to write when I’ve recently traveled somewhere or had an awesome experience. But let’s be honest – most days are really not that blog-worthy. Today was one of those days. Today was also the day I decided to make homemade hair products.

A few days ago, I swept the floor and was appalled at how much of my hair came up in the broom. I frequently pull out a handful here and there, but during a particularly paranoid moment, I began to wonder…

Slowly but surely, am I going bald?

For the past year and a half, I’ve written for lots of natural health blogs like Navitas Naturals and Seagate but then hit the shower and continued to use my cheap-o, chemical-ridden hair products. I’ve come across plenty of DIY beauty product recipes but always wrote them off as too expensive and too much of a hassle.

But maybe, just maybe, 10+ years of dying my hair and slathering on stuff I can’t pronounce had taken its toll on these tresses. Perhaps something a little more natural would prevent me from sweeping so often and stressing middle-age baldness.

Thanks to a couple helpful recipes from my mom, I already have been making my own carpet cleaner, glass cleaner, eyeglasses cleaner, and granola bars for a little while now.

First thing this morning, I hopped on my bike and peddled over, in stereotypical fashion, to Whole Foods. Where else does one find things like guar gum and castile soap?

Helpful gnome mixing companion

Helpful gnome mixing companion

After scoping out a few recipes on WikiHow and Frugal Living, his is what I picked up for my homemade shampoo:

  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: 18-in-1 Hemp Tea Tree Pure Castile Soap, 8 oz. ($5.99)
  • NOW brand rosemary essential oil, 1 oz. ($7.99)
  • Chamomile tea bag (found in the cupboard)
  • Olive oil (found in the cupboard)
Making shampoo

Making shampoo…not too bad.

Apparently, this recipe is supposed to provide hair with extra moisture and keep it from breaking and getting frizzy. The original recipe recommended tossing in peppermint oil and tree tea oil too, but essential oils aren’t cheap so I eenie-meenie-miney-mo’ed it and stuck with just rosemary.

And here’s what went into the homemade conditioner I made

  • NOW brand 100% natural coconut oil, 7 oz. ($6.49)
  • Bob’s Red Mill premium guar gum, 8 oz. bag ($5.69)
  • Rosemary oil (tapped into the shampoo purchase)
  • Water (found it in the tap)
Making condition...what a mess!

Making condition…what a mess!

I had also considered a conditioner recipe with apple cider vinegar and honey, but this one promised more “deep conditioning,” so I went with that.

Making the Shampoo

My only challenge in shampoo-making was math. You see, my recipe called for 12 oz. of castile soap, and my bottle only held 8 oz. So this Poli Sci and English major whipped out a calculator and did a series of ratio calculations…not exactly my idea of a good time. In the end, my super-scientific proportions looked like this:

  • 8 oz. castile soap
  • Just under 3 tbsp. chamomile tea
  • Just under 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Just under 1 tbsp. rosemary oil
The weird film that developed on top

The weird film that developed on top

After heating the soap for a minute in the microwave, it immediately developed a weird film on top. I wasn’t sure whether to scrape the film off or try to mix it with the liquid. So I compromised and did a little of both.

Even the funnel is homemade

Even the funnel is homemade

Both the soap and the tea were pretty hot, so after letting the mixture cool in a mixing cup, I poured it all back into the original 8 oz. soap bottle.

Making the Conditioner

Unlike the shampoo recipe, this conditioner required no math and no heat. Therefore, my only challenge in conditioner-making was trying to get the mixture into the bottle for storage. This stuff was thick, sticky, and stubborn. Here are the proportions I used:

  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 tsp. melted coconut oil
  • 1/2 tsp. guar gum
  • 10 drops rosemary oil
Gooey glop of conditioner

Gooey glop of conditioner

After relentlessly and unsuccessfully trying to use a knife, a spatula, and a turkey baster, I discovered that the good ole’ fingers worked better than anything else. If you use a tiny 3 oz. plastic bottle like I did, it’s best to use your pinky to push the mixture down and pop the air bubbles.

First Use

After cleaning up the huge mess I made in the kitchen, I headed to the shower to give my new concoctions a whirl. The shampoo was much thinner than your average store-bought shampoo, so I had to be careful to not squeeze out too much or let it run off. But surprisingly, the thinness did not affect the lather. This soap actually lathered really well!

The finished products

The finished products

Maybe it’s the type of castile soap I bought, which had hemp and tree tea oil, plus the rosemary oil, but the shampoo smells heavily of menthol. This may be a deal-breaker for some shampooers, but I didn’t mind having my sinuses opened up a bit.

The conditioner came out a bit clumpy, but the consistently was very similar to an average conditioner. Perhaps I slacked on my whisking a bit. I’m pretty sure I over-did it on the application though, because after blow-drying, my hair was a bit greasier and more weighted-down than usual.

The Verdict?

Is all this fuss really going to make my hair fall out less? Who knows.

Aside from a little extra grease from over-conditioning, it looks pretty much the same as it always does. It’d be silly to try to gauge these products’ effectiveness after just one use, so I’m planning to use them exclusively for awhile until I can make that judgment call and either stick with these recipes or give new ones a shot.

Homemade hair

Homemade hair

The point is that I finally tried it and I felt good about trying it. I love the idea of using stuff from nature on my body and putting stuff from nature in my body. And although it’s often feels too expensive or time consuming to bother with, I’m excited to try something small out from time to time.

This is a great example of one of the things I miss doing when I’m on the road traveling. Campground bathrooms aren’t exactly the best place for mixing up things like this. Sewing and playing piano are a couple other good examples. I love to travel, but I also long to find a place to call home that feels right to me. It’s a hypothetical place where I can mix up whatever I want and that I’m excited to come back to after a long trip. I have yet to find this place, but I haven’t given up that it exists somewhere.

So I’ll just leave it at that for now, keep on washing my hair every couple days, and circle back on the concept of home when I’m a little bit closer to finding it.

Brewing for the Thirsty People of Lafayette Indiana

After an afternoon of aiming at airborne pieces of clay at the Oakwood Gun Club, I found myself craving something cold and refreshing. Since the Gun Club is located in the middle of nowhere, I had to travel an hour and twenty minutes south to find the sort of satisfaction I was looking for. Fortunately, I was headed that way anyway to camp for the night.

Located in an obscure industrial park in Lafayette, Indiana lies a magical place called People’s Brewing Company. By and large, some of the best breweries I’ve ever stumbled upon have been tucked away in shady warehouse districts that practically beg you not to step foot in them.

You’d better but the address in your GPS because People’s doesn’t really have a legit sign – just a plastic banner, which reads “Making Beer for the People.”

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Saunter up the stairs like you know what you’re doing and make your way to the small bar in the back. A big friendly guy will greet you and quickly pour out whatever you’re thirsting for. When I visited on a late Saturday afternoon, this Vermont native was the only bartender on staff, but he was quick, efficient, and full of no-nonsense.

After some not-so-strategic pondering, I tried a small sample of everything People’s had on tap. A sampler of six beers runs you $6, and additional samples are just  a buck each.

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After a not-so-scientific evaluation, I settled on People’s coffee-esque Irish Rover Stout (5.5 IBU @ 6.5%) to fill up the lonely growler rolling around in the back of my Jeep. Honorable mentions go out to The Abbott Belgian Dark Strong (IBU 2.0 @ 8.2%) and Agent Oats Oatmeal Stout (3.0 IBU @ 5.2%).

Nothing was so unique that I instantly had to write home about, but what was done was done well. Filling a growler was a no-brainer, the cost of most growler fills is just $8 and $11 for strongs. As a frame of reference, Revolution Brewing, the closest brewery to my apartment back home in Chicago, charges between $14 and $22 for a growler fill. Peoples 3

This place has a total local vibe to it, with plenty of regulars coming and going to fill their growlers or grab an afternoon pint. Everyone seemed to kinda know everyone else, yet I never felt out of place. Although this is a college town, the crowd seemed to be mostly 30s and 40s. Unfortunately, there’s no outdoor seating, but it’s not too difficult to inch your way up to the open garage door to take in the aromatic waves of tractor-trailer fumes wafting by.

Inside its 6,000-square-foot facility, the brewery has offered tours and a 1,000-square-foot tasting room since 2010. The brewers here specialize in small batch recipes and have about six beers on tap at any given time.

Peoples 4If you find yourself passing through Indiana for whatever weird reason someday, do yourself a favor and stop by People’s Brewing. It’s unpretentious enough to show up in whatever you’re wearing, yet friendly enough to make you remember it each time you’re passing through the “Crossroads of America.”

People’s Brewing is open from 2 pm to 8 pm on weekdays and noon to 8 pm on weekends.

Where to Shoot Guns (without getting in trouble) in Indiana

There are just some things that make more sense in Indiana. Shooting guns is one of those things.

I’m about as far as you can get from a rifle-toting, NRA fanatic. However, I’m also not oblivious to the fact that on occasion, a clay pigeon need to die.

Don't miss this sign as you fly by

Don’t miss this sign as you fly by

I ventured to the bustling metropolis of Wheatfield, Indiana last weekend to put my aim to the test and throw caution to the wind. This was my second visit to the Oakwood Gun Club; the first being several years ago for an early (and inspirational) Fünn Clübb event.

The check-in building

The check-in building

The Oakwood Gun Club is tucked away along a dusty country road, and you’ll probably fly right without seeing it if you’re using GPS. Pull your vehicle (preferably a pickup truck) anywhere in the grass and plod on over to the large house-like structure looming in the distance. This is where you check in and get your weapons and ammo, however, don’t expect much in the way of a lesson.

No need to sign a waiver, show any identification, or prove that you’re not a complete psychopath! Simply collect your ammo and off you go!

Station #2

Station #2

Ask Dave, or whoever else is working at the time, for a “cart.” Gun club carts are actually baby strollers that have been converted into gun and ammo box-carrying vehicles. Sure you could carry your own stuff around. But what could be more hilarious than stashing your rifle where your newborn child should go? America.

Baby stroller/gun carrier

Baby stroller/gun carrier

There are ten sporting clay stations set up in a really nice wooded setting. With lush foliage and curved dirt trails, this place would be really peaceful if it weren’t for the constant blasts of gun fire.

Oh! Remember to bring ear plugs or ask the guy working at the front desk for a pair. You might think they’re for pansies, but no. Unnecessary hearing loss is for pansies.

Shooting at a church in the distance, because yeah.

Shooting at a church in the distance, because yeah.

The ten shooting stands are set up to simulate actual hunting scenarios, in which defenseless animals lose their pathetic lives. Fortunately, no living creatures were harmed during my shooting excursion! And to be honest, not many non-living creatures (i.e. clay pigeons) were harmed either.

Sporting clays is a form of clay pigeon shooting that’s often referred to as “golf with a shotgun.” The sport’s been around since the early 1900s, when British shooting schools started using clay targets to practice for driven-game shoots.

Poor, defenseless sporting clays

Poor, defenseless sporting clays

For those of you as unfamiliar with guns as I am, the rifles definitely do have a kickback. Your armpit will start to ache by about your 20th shot. Toughen up, it’s not as bad as you expect it to be. And if you’re blessed enough to have transparent white skin like mine, you’ll earn a killer bruise that you can show to all your friends and brag about for days.

Some of the shooting stations are out in the open and some are inside wooden box structures. Some of them are easier than others, but honestly, they all rattled my nerves. When it was all said and done, I hit 14 out of 100 clay pigeons….that’s a shopping 14% for all you non-math majors out there. My very favorite shot of them all was Station #10, target B, where I hit an impressive 7 of 10 and doubled my overall score.

Documentation of my embarrassing score

Documentation of my embarrassing score

This is a total locals’ place, and not the sort of place you see a lot of women hanging around. The fact that it was Mother’s Day weekend may have had something to do with that too.

But truth be told, the Oakwood Gun Club is a really laid back shooting facility that is beginner friendly and refreshingly non-judgmental. I visited on a Saturday afternoon and it wasn’t crowded either. There will probably be a few old coots shooting long-distance into a field up near the parking lot, and there’s plenty of grassy space to watch, hang out, or have an awkward picnic.

Old coots shooting stuff

Old coots shooting stuff

One thing to keep in mind is that sporting clay shooting is not cheap. It costs $29 per person to use the sporting clays and stations, and ammo costs about $6 per box. If you’re going to shoot the recommended 10 shots at each station, you’re gonna be shelling out $109 for you and your hot shooting date.

Don't mess with Indiana

Don’t mess with Indiana

The shooting course is closed Monday and Friday, open 10-5 Tuesday and Thursday, 10-dusk Wednesday, and 9-5 Saturday and Sunday. So you don’t make a trip out to the middle of nowhere for no reason, send an email to [email protected] to reserve your spot a couple days in advance.

To my knowledge, there is absolutely nothing else to do in Wheatfield, Indiana. But a day of shooting guns requires proper refreshment and celebration. If you’re not in a hurry, take an hour and 20 minute drive down to Lafayette and scope out the brewery scene. People’s Brewing Company and Lafayette Brewing Company are the best places in the area to reward yourself for being moderately hardcore and for not landing yourself in the ER.

Why Glow in the Dark Mini Golf is Still Totally Blog-Worthy

How did you celebrate Valentine’s Day this year?

I spent my February 14th in a psychedelic black-lit room fighting sensory overload while trying to make a connection between metal and rubber.

No, my boyfriend didn’t buy me an acid trip to show his affection…he took me glow-in-the dark mini golfing!

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Located in the near North Chicago suburb of Norridge, Putting Edge is a 18 hole fantasy land of vibrant color and surreal themes. Sure, I went mini golfing for my fair share of childhood birthday parties back in the day, but decades of time have worn down any natural skill I could have once claimed.
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I know what you’re thinking. Mini golf = LAME. In many cases, I’d totally agree with you, but not this place. Putting Edge is a total departure from logic, an escape from reality, and a cure for the average date night.

Feeling mind-numb from your 9-5? Stuck in a relationship rut full of quicksand? Tired of looking at the same *#[email protected](% walls surrounding every single day?

Go glow golf and make it all better…at least for an hour or so.

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Putting Edge is an 18-hole mini golf course that’s reasonably challenging for the novice golfer, without being too predictably dull. Then again, there’s nothing really predictable at all about mummified eyes lurking in the shadows or an octopus with oozing brain matter hovering over you.

I can’t remember my putting score offhand, but it wasn’t too embarrassing. I’m sure this place gets packed with families on the weekends, but it was nice and peaceful on a “holiday” weekday evening.golf4

When I scoped out the Putting Edge website to reference on this blog post, I learned that’s actually (but not surprisingly) a chain. So if you’re sitting in Denver, Orlando, St. Louis, or Detroit right now, you could be glow-in-the-dark mini golfing right now instead of reading this! Glowing golf must be a big deal in Canada, because the chain has a whopping 10 locations up there.

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My absolute favorite part of the Norridge golf course was the glowing monkey section at the end. Not only did grinning monkeys serve as obstacles on the course, but they also formed a bonus hole after hole 18.

What I wouldn’t give to deck out a room in my apartment with a blacklight some of those neon glowing monkey cut outs. Maybe one day….when I “grow up” and have a home of my very own.

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There are a ton of glowing arcade games that stand between the front door and the golf course, which you can scope out as you walk in. They all take tokens, so you’ll have to exchange some cash for some at the front desk to play.

The good news? There’s a ton of different games here.

The bad news? Most of them are broken.

The redeeming news? Some of the machines accidentally spit out way more tickets than you deserve.

The comforting news? If a machine cheats you out of tickets, hunt down one of the kids working nearby and they’ll get you what you deserve.

Now stop mulling it over and go redeem those tickets for a few silly plastic trinkets that you’ll cherish for all of five minutes before relinquishing them to a dusty drawer you’ll never look in again.

golf7The Putting Edge in Norridge is open from 1pm to 9pm Monday through Friday, 1pm to midnight on Friday, 10am to midnight on Saturday, and 11am to 8pm on Sunday. You’ll have to fork over $10.50 to play if you’re in your teenage years or better.

After succumbing glow-in-the-dark fever, I began searching for other glow-worthy spots around the city. A few weeks later, I headed over to Space Golf in Orland Park. This place defines awesome in a whole other way. Alien planets, giant robots, flying saucers, and space creatures are the norm at this retro course that’s tiny in comparison to Putting Edge.

Some of these holes are next to impossible, while others are ridiculously simple. Pay the extra $1 for 3D glasses and try to golf with them on for a truly trippy night out. No 1980s-style golf course would be complete without an outdated arcade and some cheap eats. The guy working here will heat up a frozen pizza for you for half price Mondays through Thursdays, and there’s usually a 2-for-1 golf special that runs on Tuesdays.

After staring at a computer screen day-in and day-out, these silly little golf courses nudged my senses and woke up part of my brain that never gets used. There’s something about the cheesiness factor of these places that appeals to my inner desire to let loose, get competitive, and be a kid again. And there aren’t too many cheap thrills that I can say the same for.

Inside Chicago’s Polish (Possibly Therapeutic?) Salt Cave

They say 45 minutes in a salt cave is as good as spending three days on the beach. Chicago in February is just about as far from the beach as humanly possible. As a more feasible Tuesday evening alternative, I drove up and over to the Dunning neighborhood to scope out a little place called Galos Cave.

Entrance to Galos Cave, next to the Jolly Inn Polish buffet

Entrance to Galos Cave, next to the Jolly Inn Polish buffet

What the Heck Is a Salt Cave?

Salt caves are designed to expose people to salt therapy, sometimes referred to as halotherapy or speleotherapy. The thought is that exposure to the minerals in the salt produces natural health benefits.

The concept actually dates back to Medieval times. In 1843, a Polish physician by the name of Dr. Feliks Boczkowski wrote that the miners who worked in caves lined with salt didn’t suffer lung diseases. Crimean salt, derived from the mysterious Black Sea, got a lot of attention at the 1912 World Exhibit in Paris. Dr. Karl Hermann Spannage started using salt for therapeutic purposes after noticing improvements in the health of his patients who hid in the Kluterthöhle cave during heavy World War II bombings.

Although salt caves are largely an Eastern European thing, we have one right here in the Chicago city limits. The Everet Company has been building other Galos caves in Poland since 2000, and the Chicago one’s been around since 2005. For you suburbanites, you can also check out Timeless Spa and Salt Cave in Naperville.

Unleash your healing powers upon me, salt cave!

Unleash your healing powers upon me, salt cave!

What Magical Things Are In That Salt?

There are natural deposits of the mineral, halite, in salt caves, which is allegedly derived from ancient seas and lakes. Specific minerals are unique to individual salt caves, however, all salt caves are supposed to have a stable air temperature, humidity, and a lack of airborne pollutants. Here’s what Galos Cave has:

  • Calcium to stabilize the nervous and skeletal systems
  • Sodium to balance bodily energies and pressures
  • Potassium to improve neuromuscular functioning and motor skills
  • Magnesium to calm muscle groups
  • Copper to improve blood flow and prevent inflammation
  • Bromide iodine to control fat transformation and protect against radiation
  • Fluorine to strengthen bones and stimulate immunity

According to the website, the temperature of Galos cave is 70-75 F, and the air humidity is 35-45%.

Does It Actually Work?

Salt cave believers say that just ten 45-minute sessions will treat your respiratory tracts, thyroid condition, heart condition, skin problems, anxiety, exhaustion, and obesity. Not surprisingly, these health claims are met with a fair bit of skepticism.

One cave believer, Merle Golden, told ABC News, “My breathing, my lungs, my sinuses, and energy and just aches and pains…it just seems to help with everything.”

However, most doctors agree that there is little hard science to back up claims like Ms. Golden’s. “From my perspective, there really is no risk to being in a room full of salt as long as you are not eating it,” said Dr. D. Kyle Hogarth, a pulmonologist at University of Chicago Medical Center. “If it helps you breathe better, you know in addition to the medications you are on , I got no problem with it. It’s your money and if you want to spend it to go sit in a cave, go ahead.”

Kids salt boLounging around in the salt cavex

Lounging around in the salt cave

So Honestly, What’s It Really Like In There?

Personally, I was a little nervous about my first salt cave experience. So naturally, I asked the woman at the front desk a few questions while surrendering my credit card. “It will all be explained to you inside,” she replied.

So with no comforting words of advice, I entered the strangely lit room with my wonderfully open-minded boyfriend at my side. I’ll admit, the aesthetics of the room are pretty amazing. Walk in and you’ll see colorful lights, salt sculpture formations, a salt-crusted floor, a ring of lounge chairs, and a stack of towels.

I must admit that I didn’t fully pay attention to the recorded voice talking about the benefits of the salt cave once the door closed behind us. Although the salt cave could have easily accommodated 10-12 guests, we were the only ones there. Like true kids at heart, we excitedly busied ourselves by touching the walls, snapping pictures, tossing salt around the room, and exclaiming what a totally trippy place this really was.

After the initial excitement wore off and the lights dimmed, we settled into lounge chairs and got comfortable. New age-ish music played to the sound of crashing waves and chirping birds. I guess you’re supposed to silently sit still and relax. However, my self-diagnosed ADD got the better of me, and I found myself reading my Kindle and browsing Groupon deals after about ten minutes. After 45 minutes, the colorful floor lights pop back on: the universal cue to get out.

Kids and Salt Caves

One of the things that I found most surprising about Galos Cave was that children are invited to come in. There is a sand (er, salt) box in the corner of the room with tiny shovels, buckets, and beach toys. Although there were no children present during my time in the salt cave, I would imagine the sound of squealing kids throwing salt at each other would cancel out any relaxation benefits that the cave may offer.

Kids' corner salt box with toys

Kids’ corner salt box with toys

The Logistics

  • Located at 6501 W. Irving Park Road in Chicago
  • Open 7 days a week from 10 am to 8 pm
  • Call 773-283-7701 to make an appointment before showing up
  • A 45 minute session costs $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, and $8 for children ages 4-12, and free for kids under 3.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and socks

So is going to a salt cave worth it? For a one-time experience, definitely! Galos Cave is truly unique to the Chicagoland area, and I learned a lot about a therapy that I never knew existed. For a pretty reasonable price, this was an awesome excuse to get out of the house on a snowy Tuesday evening. Clearly, some other Chicagoans agree with me, because Galos Cave just made Chicagoist‘s “9 Best Spas in Chicago” list.

The Jolly Inn next door also serves up some mean buffet-style Polish cuisine. I can rarely turn down a good potato and cheese pierogi.

However, I don’t see myself going back to another salt cave anytime soon. Granted, I only went to one session and not the recommended ten, but I sure didn’t notice any sort physical, mental, or spiritual health benefits. I’m not sure how much I believe in the hype, but I do believe in seeking out and taking a chance on random experiences. Places like Galos Cave spice up the routines of daily life and remind us how much there is to learn about in the world.

Have you ever been to a salt cave. If so, what did you think? And if not, would you consider going to one now?

Soothing Your Skin with Natural Sunburn Treatments

For people around the world, summertime is synonymous with sunburns. And although you probably don’t run to the doctor every time your skin turns red, sunburns are a serious matter that can’t be ignored. Despite common knowledge that sunburns can lead to skin cancer, the Centers for Disease Control reported that over one-third of adults and 70% of children got sunburned last year.

Even people who don’t like trying home remedies or prefer all-natural treatments are familiar with aloe vera. Almost all over-the-counter sunburn treatments that you find in your pharmacy have an aloe vera base, and it doesn’t take a botany degree to figure out how to cut open an actual aloe plant either. You can sometimes moisturize burns better with a an aloe cream than an aloe gel. But believe it or not, aloe isn’t the only sunburn treatment that is made by nature.

If you have a carton of milk in the refrigerator, pull it out when you come home with a sunburn. Try soaking a cloth in a bowl of water with milk, water, and ice cubes. Then hold the cloth on the burned area for several minutes, repeating the process several times a day. Milk contains fat, protein, and a pH that can soothe inflamed skin and reduce swelling. Similarly, the yogurt in your refrigerator may also be able to offer you some sunburn relief. Try smearing yogurt on the affected area to cool your skin, balance the pH, and promote healing. Full-fat, plain, unsweetened yogurt works best since it doesn’t contain as many artificial additives. If you’re feeling especially crafty, you can also mix a paste of equal proportions yogurt, barley, and turmeric to speed up the healing process.

As if tea wasn’t already good enough for you, a pot of strong tea can also help soothe your sunburn. After you’ve made you pot of tea, use a cloth to soak it up and apply to the burnt area. Some people find that the tannins in tea help to draw out the burn and speed along healing. If you have some extra tea bags to spare or have all-over burns, you can intensify the process by soaking in a bathtub full of tea!

You can also find oil-based topical sprays and creams that have shown to give temporary relief of vesicular eruptions like blisters and inflammation. The ancient remedy of making potato peel bandages, as well as lavender essential oil, are also good burn options to try. So while aloe vera is great for burns, it isn’t the only way to find relief. In fact, you can boost your aloe’s soothing power by combining it with a little vitamin E oil and cucumbers that have been liquefied in a blender. Although you should avoid getting burned in the first place, stock up on some easy home remedies in case you leave your common sense at home when you head to the beach.