Friday, January 29, 2010

Marilyn Williams: Passionate Traveler, Artist, and Hostel Volunteer

I have been working at the info desk on Friday afternoons since last June ('09). As a retired French and Spanish Teacher, I find many opportunities to use my language skills! I also love helping people and sharing my enthusiasm about travel. I started using hostels in 1970 when I was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. I traveled all over Europe during school vacations and the summer of 1970. I have been passionately in love with travel ever since.

This is a perfect "job" for me because I feel travel has made me who I am.

After retiring from teaching French and Spanish, I went to a 4-year art school. I now paint from my travel photos (51 countries and counting). My art website is

I currently have 5 small paintings hanging in the dining room of the HI-Chicago hostel. How great it is to combine my passion for art and travel!

-Marilyn Williams, hostel volunteer

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Far Reaches of Hostelling International Chicago

Ilha Grande, Brazil

As I sit in HI-Chicago typing this, it’s hard to believe that only a week ago I was at another Hostelling International hostel in a very different part of the world, living in a very different way. Imagine a 45-minute hike to a white-sand beach as opposed to a 45-minute commute to work as white snow falls outside. Imagine hanging in a hammock under the open-air lobby of the hostel, waiting for a tropical storm to pass with your fellow travelers from Brazil, Argentina, and Australia. Imagine drinking fresh water out of a coconut instead of a latte in a paper cup. Imagine snorkeling, kayaking, and surfing as the day’s activities. This is life on Ilha Grande, an idyllic island off the coast of the Rio de Janeiro region of Brazil.

Ilha Grande (pronounced EEL-yah GRAHN-gee, literal translation: Big Island) is only 40 minutes off the mainland city of Angra dos Reis, but it feels like worlds away. Between 1940 and 1994, this 193 square kilometer island was a high-security prison and closed off from the public. The lack of human presence for all those years has allowed the island to preserve its wildlife and retain a sense of being a true paradise. Since 1994 tourism has grown rapidly, but the island is still an official ecological reservation and vehicles of any sort are forbidden. The only way to travel to different parts of the island is by boat or walking. Out of the 100 or so beaches on the island, we visited Praia Preta, a small black sand beach, and Lopes Mendes, known as the largest and prettiest beach on the island. Many people choose to take a ferry or taxi boat to get to Lopes Mendes, which is on the opposite side of the island from the center, but we opted to hike. The laborious 2.5 hour route takes you up and down the thickly vegetated jungle trails, but it’s entirely worth the effort upon arrival when you are greeted with the fine, white sand and the unbelievably transparent water. It is supposedly a great beach to spot turtles and go surfing, although we were just as content with our experience of wading in the shallow, lukewarm water and lying in the shade of the almond trees that line the interior side of the beach.

HI-Holandês, the 30-bed hostel that we called home in Ilha Grande, is a quaint compound of common areas, dormitories, and bungalows perched on the slope of a plush mountain. It is owned by a Brazilian woman and a Dutch man, who are assisted by their 22-year-old multi-lingual daughter Marcela. Thanks to the small size and comfortable common spaces, all the hostellers interacted naturally and freely. Every evening, the hostel cooks a big meal of typical Brazilian food for roughly $8.50, which is a good alternative to pricier restaurants in town. Most of the guests partake and everyone sits down to exchange stories of the day and decide which beach to venture to next. As dinner winds down, the hostel bar opens and guests enjoy Caipirinhas, the national cocktail of Brazil, and cold-as-it-gets beer, a staple during hot Brazilian summers.

I highly recommend visiting Ilha Grande while it is still the untouched paradise that it is today (and put your HI membership to good use at HI-Holandês when you do!).

-Jessica Smith

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Great Chicago Fire

It was hot and dry evening in early October 1871 when Chicago burst into flames. Although the origin of the fire is forever lost in urban legend, the destruction was very real with the wooden shops and hotels of downtown being reduced to ashes. Even City Hall burned down. The raging fire crossed the Chicago River and jumped from roof to roof as citizen ran toward safety of the Lake Michigan. In the end, a third of the city's worth had burned down.

The map below shows the area of the damage.

Yet as traumatic as the Great Fire was, the event turned out to be an incredible opportunity for Chicago as businessmen and land speculators eagerly set out to rebuilding the city beyond its former glory. Like a phoenix, Chicago emerged as a thriving metropolis once again. The event lives on in the life of Chicago and its citizens who view any challenge as an opportunity.