A hearty thank you to Traveling Ted for roping me into this A to Z of Travel chain blog. I’ll be passing this invite on to a few of my own travel favorites: Tag – You’re it, folks: Johnny Vagabond, Nomadic Notes, Legal Nomads, and Wandering Earl.
A: Age you went on your first international travel
Hard to believe, but I was 26 when I took my first trip to Mexico in 1994. I had just gotten PADI certified in a cold, murky lake in Wisconsin. Spent a week on Cozumel with Blue Bubble (No Trouble), crossed to Playa and used very poor high school Spanish to get on local buses to Tulum and such. Missed two ferries and barely caught the last one back after finding out those little 2-for-1 (or 8-for-4, whatever) margaritas pack more punch than the big frozen jokes at Chi Chi’s back home. We were circled by 8 dolphins just a couple meters beyond our reach during our safety stop on the almost-skipped hangover dive the next morn. It was years before I went on another dive that didn’t get a shrug and a “Yeah, I guess it was alright.”
B. Best foreign beer you had and where:
While I am a beer fan since I became a convert and did my Wisconsin beer guide, I never cared much for it in the past. But when I got to Pilzn, Czech Republic, and the waitress came out with menus and two beers for us as if serving the unrequested drinking water, I was stunned by how much better it was than Busch Light, Milwaukee’s Best, and the other crap we tried to get past our tongues without tasting in college.
C. Cuisine (favorite):
I love Turkish and Thai food. And Italian. Indian is growing on me since Penang. But if I had to choose just one, it’d be from a place where I’ve never even been: Ethiopia. I’ve had it just about everywhere but in Ethiopia. (NYC, Houston, Madison, Chicago, Rome, Amsterdam, Nairobi, DC, Milwaukee…) The raw beef dish kitfo is amazing.
D. Destinations, favorite, least favorite and why:
Turkey is my favorite, probably because it was my first home abroad. The people, the food, the music, the history, and scenery are wonderful to me. I spent a year there as an English teacher, and it was so good I had to write a book about it. I’ve been back many times since, and I feel like it’s being reunited with an old dear friend. Least favorite? Kuwait, I suppose. When you see what Dubai did with their riches and then see Kuwait City is such a dump (I’ve heard it’s improved since 2006, but whatever), it makes you wonder where all the money went. Plus it was mostly peopled by Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans and the like who are doing all the work and being treated like dirt and paid little (if at all in some cases). From the craptacular two-hour-plus passage through immigration upon arrival to the delayed departure, apparent engine failure and emergency landing and continued delayed departure at the airport, I found very little likeable or interesting about the place. Proper rant here.
E. Event you experienced abroad that made you go Wow
Most wildlife encounters in Galapagos were Wow moments. But the one moment that left me in a jittery chatter of adrenaline and kept us going over it again and again the rest of the week was the time we were charged by an elephant in Samburu National Park in Kenya. And there we were deep into the a bush, a half hour from a change of underwear.
F. Favorite mode of Transportation
Trains are so nice. Easier to sleep, easy to walk around and stretch, great for watching the scenery pass by. Overnight trains in Italy could be super cheap and I’d leave Reggio on a Friday night and wake up in Rome, Pisa, Venice, whatever. But I love independence too and have always been happy when I find a local friend with a vehicle.
G. Greatest feeling while traveling
I call it “standing up in the back of the pickup.” Just suddenly being right in the moment (something I am not always good at invoking) and being flooded with the sense of pure joy of being somewhere new and beautiful. The term comes from a volunteer trip when our group had to essentially hitchhike down into the Copper Canyon after a truck breakdown and we initially thought our new drivers were threatening us. They weren’t, of course. They were just communicating the dangers of not sticking with them. Not much room for the large group in back, so I stood behind the cab clutching a bar, cool wind in my hair, as we came around the bend and the whole world dropped away before me. I never felt so alive.
H. Hottest place you traveled to
Bagan, Myanmar. After biking around among the many temples and pagodas, pedaling from water vendor to water vendor, we returned to town to hear the temperature had hit 111 F (44 C) that day.
I. Incredible service you’ve experienced and where
We rode donkeys into the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple, and Valley of Queens. We paid for the three of us what was pocket change to us, plus a fourth equal share for the guide and his donkey. The whole day he took good care of us, totally patient while we changed our minds and ideas from time to time, and then at the end of the day he took us into his dried mud home for tea with his parents. As we left we asked for his address. He pulled a kid in the street aside to write it down because he was illiterate. We tipped absurdly, an amount extra about double what he charged, and he cried with joy. I expect a lot from paying someone $100 for a tour or whatever, but when someone gave a whole day for such a paltry sum, I felt really humbled.
J. Journey that took the longest
55 hours from Madison, Wisconsin to Anahuac, Chihuahua, Mexico. Part of it with 10 people packed into a two-door Isuzu Trooper when we had to leave the second vehicle at the border (it had a lien on it). We had two flat tires on the trailer of donated toys and med supplies we were towing, and eventually a broken axle on the return journey. Good times.
K. Keepsake from your travels
My knit hat from Xela, Guatemala’s football club. Go Superchivo! I had one from Ankara, Turkey’s Gençlerbirliği, but sadly lost it on a tram in Amsterdam. Good luck finding another one even in Ankara. Not the most popular team, let’s say.
L. Let down site: when and where
Xi’an. Don’t get me started. (Too late – Xi’an experience)
M. Moment where you fell in love with travel
N. Nicest hotel you stayed in
Cayo Espanto, Belize. A private island and I had the whole dang house to myself. Personal butler, direct contact with the chef, menu of my pre-selection, and personal divemaster. Pure heaven.
O. Obsession – What photos are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling
I am as unfocused as some of my old manual camera shots. I’ll shoot anything. Birds and wildlife are prominent. I love getting macro shots of bugs, flowers, and things. I do ruins to death. People make me nervous though I’d really love to shoot more of them. With the camera, I mean. Usually. (Misbehaving tourists and aggressive hawkers…well…)
P. Passport stamps, how many and from where
I’ve filled two passports since 1994 including two sets of extra pages in each. I have no idea how many stamps altogether, but I am at 53 countries and counting. No stamps for Cuba or Northern Cyprus though. Those are secrets. 😉
Q. Quirkiest Attraction you have visited and where
The “bone church” in Sedlec near Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. A local was put off by all the bones in the church basement left from making room in the graveyard for more bodies during the Plague years. So he fashioned them into shapes and designs, including a chandelier incorporating every bone in the human body.
R. Recommended sight, event, or experience
S. Splurge: Something you have no problem spending money on while traveling
Even my most favorite things can give me financial pause if I believe it will shorten my travel budget. I balked at Westminster Abbey because I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have the funds to get home. (Consolation prize was an affordable groundling ticket at the New Globe Theater, probably more memorable anyway.)
T. Touristy thing you’ve done
I swam with captive dolphins. I don’t approve. I’m against that. They should be free. Don’t hurt dolphins. Boycott Starkist… IT WAS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER!!!! The SECOND time I did it, I got pushed along the surface of the water by TWO dolphins using their noses on the bottom of my feet. As a visiting journalist, I was even allowed to feed them. It was, um… Horrible. Truly.
U. Unforgettable travel memory
Wandering into Santiago, Sacatepequez for the Day of the Dead Giant Kite festival, finding no hotels, and being taken in by an amazing and kind matriarch and the good people she had surrounded herself with – many of them battered women and their children. She connected me to a local family where I helped put the kite together and paraded it through the street with them and even held the rope a while when they got it aloft. To the cheers of everyone around me.
V. Visas: how many and where
Syria, China, China, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, Chile… I hate these full pager things that eat up my passport pages. On a Patagonia cruise the folks at Isla Horno stamped a full page for nothing passport-related. Not cool.
W. Wine, best glass while traveling and where
Ankara, 1997. A romantic interest and I bought a bottle of Kavaklidere to celebrate her new place. No corkscrew. Man at the corner shop used a screwdriver to mutilate it out. Carried it back, thumb over the top, to the empty apartment, and drank it out of coffee cups while kicking back against the radiator for heat and watching the brilliant white Kocatepe mosque — just one block away and at eye level filling the windows — light up for the night with a Turkish crescent moon passing through the minarets.
X. eXcellent Views and Where
Cappadocia or Pamukkale in Turkey. Tough call. While Pamukkale’s gleaming white, cake-frosting mineral deposits are pretty amazing, I guess the extent and variation of the rock formations in Cappadocia beat it out.
Y. Years spent traveling
Altogether? The three years of Guatemala, Panama, and Italy all lined up together with just short, several week trips back to Madison for friends and family each summer was the biggest portion, plus a year in Turkey. Since then it’s been up to 8 months at a time, but most of the last two years until June this year I have been based in Thailand. Going back for a spell again soon. I spent just over 10 months in Texas once. What was the question again?
Z. Zealous sports fans
I think my Green Bay Packers fandom has been established. I’ve watched them faithfully from nearly everywhere I’ve traveled, and this year I appeared on the Today Show with Al Roker, sampling beers inside Lambeau Field.
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