What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
GIGANTIC kites made from tissue paper, tape and bamboo. Incredible and beautiful!
Describe a typical day:
Awoke this morning at The Homestead, ready for our trip to explore Guatemala before heading south to El Salvador. First stop? The Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango, in celebration of Dia de los Muertos. The atmosphere at the event was similar to that of a fair or carnival, with food stands and kite flying competitions, but the most incredible part was gawking with head bent upward toward the sky at the colossal, colorful kites.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
There were people from all nationalities and backgrounds in attendance at the festival… many Guatemalans, but also European, American and Australian tourists. Unfortunately, the only talking I did was to order food or ask for a bathroom… other than that I was gazing and taking photos.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I absolutely loved seeing the beautiful kites. They were works of art, and must have taken hours and hours to complete. What a labor of devotion and appreciation for a holiday that honors one’s ancestors. I disliked seeing them almost destroyed by the wind, after all the work that went into them. I wonder what they do with them after the event?
Describe a challenge you faced:
Our biggest challenge today was trying to decide which delicious food to eat. Ohh, and we did get stopped as we tried to leave town, by dancers in the street.
What new lesson did you learn?
I learned greater appreciation for the artistic abilities of the Guatemalan people. In the past, I haven’t necessarily considered this culture as being ‘artistic’, but the kites were truly masterpieces.
Next we’ll be headed to Antigua, Guatemala… one of my favorite Guatemalan cities!
One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.
We’re taking this family adventure to the next level this winter. It’s the whole reason we’re making a pass back through North America, to tell the truth. We have two teenagers who need to procure driving licenses before we launch them into the world as fully viable adults. The easiest place for our bi-national kids to leap that hurdle is in the USA, where graduated licensing hasn’t quite caught on and the state motto of our official residence is “Live Free, or Die.” Indeed. This takes on new meaning when one’s spawn slides eagerly behind the wheel with a glint in his eye.
American kids go through a prescribed procedure, depending on their state, usually including formal lessons and a test, before they get their licenses. Canadian standards are similar, but more stringent. British kids learn to drive even though the poor things have to master doing it on the wrong side of the road. But what about international kids? What about those growing up across countries and continents; what sort of driving instruction should they have?
Tony and I have been considering this, as we prepare to launch our own young into the wheeled fray and we’d like to submit the following to the International Committee of Worldschooling Parents as a basic proficiency test for International Licensing:
1. Which side of the road should one drive on?
a- the right side
b- the left side
c- the top side
d- the side with fewest potholes & least oncoming traffic
e- there’s a side?
2. When driving on a 1.5 lane road the procedure for passing is as follows:
a- do not pass, you need two lanes to do that
b- blink lights twice, then pass on the left, hoping the overtaken will squeeze right
c- wait for an oncoming bus, hammer it to the floor and yell, “Banzai!”
d- pass on the berm to the right
e- play chicken with oncoming traffic in the half lane
3. When sharing the roadway with a passenger bus, two Bedouin on camels, a sleeping dog, three naked children, a flock of chickens and push-cart selling fried dough, who has the right of way?
a- the bus
b- the children
c- the pushcart
d- the dog
e- none of the above, there is a herd of goats crossing
4. A branch, or small bush laying in the roadway means that:
a- road crews are clearing the sides
b- something fell off of a truck
c- there is a truck broken down ahead
d- firewood is for sale ahead
e- a hurricane has just blown through
5. Which of the following does not belong on the highway:
b- lawn tractors
d- drunk locals
6. How many passengers can you fit on a 3rd class bus:
a- capacity stated by the manufacturer
b- twice the capacity stated by the manufacturer
c- depends on their genus, phylum & species
d- is one of them carrying durian fruit?
e- one more
7. Should you help your father when he is pulled over by the police in Tunisia?
a- yes, he’s your dad
b- no, hang him out to dry
c- depends on whether or not he’s stopped speaking Spanish in a French-Arab country and making you translate yet
d- only if they make him get out of the car
e- my dad would never get pulled over by the police in Tunisia
8. When stopped by a policeman, in Oaxaca, wearing a badge that says, “I’m not corrupt, are you?” The correct course of action is:
a- pretend not to speak Spanish
b- offer him a bribe
c- hand him your passport and drivers license and act innocent
d- smile and negotiate the “fine” to a lower level
e- hand him your fake ID and drive off
9. The appropriate way to transport a pig is:
a- well, that depends on how far we’re going
b- in a registered farm vehicle
c- on his own three feet (he was lucky!)
d- in a basket on top of the bus
e- trussed out with bamboo, slung across the back of a moped
10. The maximum number of persons to be transported on a moped is:
b- Amsterdam, or Hanoi?
c- depends on how many kids you have
d- are we counting the sidecar?
e- locals or tourists?
11. When transporting a child under two on a moped the following is essential:
a- a helmet
b- a wicker chair for him to sit in
d- a belief in Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection
e- an understanding of “Inshah Allah”
12. When presented with a grungy traveler hitchhiking one should:
a- pick him up
b- toss him a beer and keep rolling
c- assess his potential as a traveling companion based on number of instruments he carries
d- scratch and sniff
e- clap out the window
13. Which road sign should be taken most seriously:
a- stop sign
b- “turn left with caution”
c- camel crossing
d- green branch in the road
e- “toilet to puke in ahead”
14. When passing on a mountain curve:
a- wait for the cloud to lift
b- you don’t pass on a mountain curve, that’s dangerous
c- ambulance chase the chicken bus
d- honk and hope
e- are we going up, or down?
15. Rank in order, from safest to least safe:
a- Mexico City at rushour
b- six backpackers with gear in a Cambodian tuk-tuk in monsoon
c- crossing the street in Hanoi
d- bicycling in Rome
e- taking a cab in NYC
Dear Children (or others new to international driving)
Your performance on this test, both theoretical and physical will not only determine when and if you get to drive, but where and what. Above average results will earn you wheels from 2- 16 on dirt paths to the autobahn. Below average results will relegate you to diesel water buffalo and hitchhiking (better learn to play an instrument!)
Your International Parents
Holidays for me have always been about tradition, but I decided this year that I wanted to experience the holidays abroad, so my family and I are spending a few months in Monte Verde, Costa Rica. I thought it would be magical to be in the mountains for Christmas and celebrate the holidays Tico-style. But I’ll admit I was a little sad when I realized that we would would be skipping nearly all of our former traditions this year because a small strand of lights here is over $10 USD, which meant one strand was our only splurge, and because we accidentally left our “Elf on a Shelf” back home. But traveling fine-tunes my improvising skills, so we have created some new traditions this year.
There are very few Christmas ornaments in the markets here, and the ones that are available are about 5-6 times the price of the ones in the states. This year, we opted to make our own ornaments out of things we found on our nature walks. The kids picked flowers, found interesting leaves and fruits that had fallen along the road, and pressed beans and rice into no-bake ornaments we whipped up. We also strung a huge bag of Fruit Loops into garland, and drew pictures of mountains to hang up around the house. These are all special because so much of the flora here is unique, and we can keep our ornaments as memories of our first Christmas abroad. What types of ornaments or holiday decor can you create that is special to your current location?
It’ funny, but I noticed recently that I have never seen a kid here playing outside with toys. I have only seen them playing with things they have made, playing tag, running, or climbing trees. It makes sense now that I know there very few toys available to buy in Monte Verde. The few I have seen in the grocery store are so incredibly over-priced that no one really buys them. This year, for Christmas, I opted out of buying junky plastic toys for the kids, and I am wrapping adventure coupons that they can redeem for a fun trip to the Arenal Volcano, where we will stay for 2 days and search for lava rocks! Shhh, it’s a surprise! I also found a cute little bookstore, where I’ll get a couple of books for them to enjoy on future bus and plane rides. What gifts do you give your children when you are away from home for the holidays?
My 5 year old doesn’t understand why none of the homes here are adorned with Christmas lights and why there are hardly any trees in the windows. She asks why things are so different here than back in Austin. The best way I have found to explain this is by finding stories about how other cultures celebrate different holidays or by showing her YouTube videos on celebrations in other countries. This gets her excited to try new traditions and embrace celebrating holidays the way local people do, instead of feeling like she is missing out on something from back home.What is a unique tradition you have introduced to your family, inspired by your travels?
I’m not a huge fan of cooking (though I am a pro at chopping up a bunch of random ingredients and throwing them in a pot), but I do like the challenge of learning to prepare traditional (or typical) local dishes. We went to a Christmas party with Ticos over the weekend, and they prepared Costa Rican tamales, rice, and veggies, which was very different from any holiday meal I ever had back in the states. Now I’m teaching myself how to prepare them so I can serve them to my family on Christmas Day this year. Besides, it is impossible to find a ham or turkey up here! What “local” dishes have you prepared that stand out from your own traditions?
Not because it’s Christmas but because it’s the best way to say “thank you”. When we are miles away from home and routine, the community that we are a part of becomes extended family. They embrace us, welcome us, invite us into their homes and lives, introduce us to new traditions, and show us new perspectives. While traveling, we may not have a lot of extra money, but we do have time, and people value that much more anyway. Look into volunteer opportunities during your stay abroad this season. The kids and I are looking forward to spending time at a local school in Monte Verde this next semester. How do you show appreciation to a community while you are traveling?
It’s once again winter holiday season, which means it’s time to tout my books as stocking stuffers for the travel lovers on your Christmas list.
Vagabonding makes a great holiday gift for:
And of course my newest book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, is not just an entertaining and engrossing read for the armchair traveler; its “commentary track” makes it an offbeat travel-writing textbook for students and fans of the genre.
Both books are available from online retailers. If you’d like a signed copy of Vagabonding or Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, send me an email at books [at] rolfpotts [dot] com.
The holiday season is upon us and on every side we’re being encouraged to buy stuff and to give because the holidays are about giving. But what do you do if someone on your gift list is a traveler and, like me, lives out of his backpack. There’s no sense in giving a bathrobe to a backpacker, and that $99 Soda Stream in the Black Friday flier is useless to someone who’s intentionally homeless. So what do you give a traveler?
Here are three intangibles that could be perfect:
If you’ve got two million miles and you know you’ll never use them, why not transfer a few thousand to the gypsy in your life? A voucher for an airline ticket, miles that you have to use or they’re going to expire, or that companion ticket that you got with a new credit card sign up: perfect. Airfare is often the biggest line item in a traveler’s budget and, who knows, perhaps they’ll use the ticket to pay you a visit!
E or Audio Books
Reading material in your primary language is sometimes hard to come by on the road. When they can be found, books are heavy. Rarely do we carry more than one paper book at a time. However, with our iPods and iPads we can carry thousands of books and read them everywhere. If you’re worried about your loved one reading on a tiny screen, then audio books are an excellent alternative. Gift cards for iTunes or Amazon, or Rolf’s new audio version of Vagabonding, on Audible are sure to be welcome gifts for the nomad you love.
Want to really make your traveling buddy smile: give the gift of a first night. There is nothing worse than finding yourself in a crappy hostel on Khao San Road in Bangkok after a grueling 30 hour trip from the other side of the world. Give a weary traveler the promise of a first night in a comfy hotel when they hit the ground. Hand make a gift certificate for them and then let them help select a place that best suits their needs.
Now you tell me… what are your best ideas for intangible gifts for the travelers you love?
“Now the quest for the authentic Other is one of vanishing horizons. One genuine “backstage” is penetrated, only to reveal another fake front-stage: the act of observation changes that which is observed. Hence travelers do not (indeed cannot) succeed in their quest any more than tourists. That is only too clear from the accounts of the great Victorian travelers which are riddled with gross misconceptions. If they were not so serious, as with their concern (for instance) for the ‘mysteries’ of the Middle-Eastern harem, they would be laughable.”
–David Brown, “Genuine fakes,” from The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth Making in Tourism (1996)
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.
“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.
In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.
I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.
The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.
“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.