December 31, 2008

Happy Old Year

The new year has crept up on me with little notice or regard for my schedule. I don't know if I'm ready for 2008 to be over. It's been a rather good year, taken me to some good places, surrounded me with good people. I've been to Mexico and Paris, Jerusalem and the Kalahari Desert, to the French-speaking Arctic and Panamanian rain forest -- all good adventures. I've met a bunch of very cool travel writers and got to visit a good deal of family. And I've published, which is all we can ever ask for. I will spend the last day of anno domini 2008 writing about food and getting over a sore throat. BUT, last night I rode the subway all the way out to the Virginia hinterlands and watched a grand Bollywood musical epic that left me with twinkling eyes and a beating heart. I must remember that the most exotic things are often so closeby.

My hopes and best wishes to all of you out there.

December 22, 2008

Forgotten Hero/Anti-Hero

My current bedtime stories of choice is the riveting biography, "The Adventures of Kimball Bent", published in 1911 by James Cowan. The story is that of one man Kimball, born in Maine, ran away to England, pressed into the British army, deserted, captured and repressed into the British army, sent to India, sent to New Zealand, again deserted, then a lifetime spent living among the Maori of Taranaki. Fascinating. My mother-in-law in New Zealand gave me the book as a Christmas present a few years back to provide some context for my travels in Taranaki. (My book pile is a few years long).

What I gather is that this man was not an 'adventurer' per se, or even a 'traveler', but that he traveled across the globe and ended up living with the Maori simply to survive. He's quite a controversial historical figure--some people count him as a traitor, others a coward, etc. etc., but his story is entirely unique and despite grotesque attention to the intricacies of warfare and cannibalism, his life and story capture a time and a place in the world that would have otherwise been falsely historicized neatly on some library shelf. Here's a brief nod to the man by Wikipedia.

So yeah, at night, right before I go to sleep, I'm at the base of a volcano on North Island, circa 1867.

December 16, 2008

All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True

Just got confirmation that I will be speaking at the New York Times Travel Show on Sunday, February 8 at 11:00 in the morning. I shall be the voice of unreason on a panel entitled, "Make Your Wild Travel Dreams a Reality". Perhaps I should just put it out there that not all my wildest travel dreams are ever a reality, yet. I still haven't snowshoed in Antarctica or watched the sun set on a beach in Yemen or even been to New Hampshire but I guess the important thing is to always keep trying. This year's NYT Travel Show will include for the first time ever a country booth dedicated to Ukraine (!). I've also got a few book signings scheduled throughout the two days of the show. See you there.

December 12, 2008

In Which I Talk on Television

Look at me, I am on TeeVee.

December 4, 2008

There's No Place Like Home

Thanks to protesters in far away airports and the general global chaos of the moment, I'll be staying in this December. Normally I would protest right back, you know, you have to fight for your right to travel, but frankly I'm afraid of anyone who willingly sleeps at the airport for a whole week. Once upon a December I spent 36 hours in a freezing Moscow airport, a single shivering body in a huddled mass of unpapered Indians stranded on their way to Bangalore. Never again. Until further notice, you can find me in not-that-snowy-just-yet Washington, DC. Me and my laptop and a cup of hot chocolate. Working on a bunch of projects, the main one being Christmas. Also, a bundle of restaurant reviews for Blackbook. Tasting menus are kind of a consolation for not crossing the Pacific.

November 25, 2008

The Trip That Got Away

For every wonderful trip filled with memories, there's another voyage that never happened. Sigh. The trips we planned on, hoped for, gunned for, and then missed out on. I was trying so hard to be the fourth member of the team to Antarctica for this, the Shackleton Centenary Expedition. The team of spritely Brits is following in the footsteps, or rather ski tracks, of the doomed Antarctic explorer. I believe that I was disqualified for having an American passport or maybe for just having an American accent. Now, just to rub it in, the expedition sends me an e-mailed daily update telling all about what a fabulous time they're all having down in Antarctica. Wish you were here. Also, the post script asks if I might spare an extra 100 pounds right now to help defray the cost of the trip and all. So they ask me to apply to come along, then tell me thanks but no thanks, then send me daily post cards asking me for money to pay for their trip. It's kind of painful and maybe I'm kind of bitter. Antarctica is at the top of my list. Other pet peeves include people who refer to Antarctica as An-Artika, or worse yet, the "ARTIK".

Perhaps Shackleton himself felt the same way. So close to reaching his goal, and yet never made it, alas. 100 years later, we're celebrating his trip that got away. To all you cold, miserable souls on the ice down south, living the dream, with your satellite internet and such. Happy Thanksgiving!

November 17, 2008

Everyone in Zambia Hates Me

I walked to Zambia from Botswana (with the aid of a small ferry). I had spent all week in the bush and so it was kind of exciting for me to see people again. Alas, right after I took this snap, I incited a small riot of bitter, angry Zambian women. They demanded I give them money for their picture. Oops, I think I just fell right into the great debate of tourism--the objectification of foreigners, "poorism", and exploitation, etc. But you know, all I wanted was to take a picture.

In fairness, while I was a grad student at Oxford, busloads of Russian and Japanese tourists used to stop and take pictures of me, especially when I was dressed in sub-fusc. My only consolation is the thought of hundreds of pictures of me in the family photo albums of Osaka.

November 10, 2008

New York Field Trip

Back from a whirlwind of meetings in Manhattan, most of which were productive, interesting & compelling. And yet all that matters in New York are the senses, n'est-ce pas? So, before I forget, a roundup of favorite discoveries from my latest field trip:
  • Macaron Cafe /161 West 36th Street/ A wee shop the size of a bathroom stall but chock-a-block with les vrais macarons francais. Like a little untrampled pink flower in the midst of hyper-choked midtown. Incroyable.
  • Kunjip Restaurant /9 West 32nd Street/Just another glassfront restaurant in Koreatown but with impossible waits, insane crowds, compassionate waitstaff and perfect bowls of food. I dissected an entire mackerel with chopsticks.
  • Craft /43 East 19th Street/A+ for design, A for foie gras appetizers, extra credit for the memorable risotto. Righteous brussel sprouts with bacon, yessss.
  • Centro Vinoteca /74 Seventh Ave. South /West Village Italian restaurant with white-painted brick walls. Creamy polenta squares with fontina. Warm duck salad, amen.

November 5, 2008

Back from Botswana

Shot this croc in Chobe National Park, me in a boat, safely on the Botswana side, this lovely lizard smiling sheepishly on the shores of Namibia. My African adventure was incredible--I am still reeling from the animals and sunsets.

October 24, 2008

Off to Africa

The best trips are the spontaneous ones. No planning at all--just pick up and go. And like that, I'm off to the Okavango Delta of beautiful Botswana in about . . . well, right now. I think it was all meant to be since I recently met the former president of Botswana, the Travel Channel just released their one hour special on the country AND I live two blocks from the Embassy of Botswana. Lions, warthogs, and lilac-breasted rollers, oh my!

October 19, 2008

My Big Fat Shiny Silver Medal

I always love a good rumor, especially when it's about me. Imagine my excitement yesterday when a travel writer friend shot me an email congratulating me on my recent Lowell Thomas Award. I was like, really? So I checked it on their site and sure enough, it seems that I won the Lowell Thomas for my latest book, Iceland.

Now wait a minute, there. I didn't WIN win. I won SILVER, which if I am not mistaken, means I am not the greatest guidebook author in the universe, but only the second best guidebook writer in the universe . . until next year. But that's okay, because I love silver. In fact, I prefer wearing silver to gold, and it makes me feel just like the United States women's gymnastics team.

Here are the judges' nice comments about my book:

Full of fascinating details in writing, graphics and photos, “Iceland” delves deeply into the country in a format that often resists depth. Evans knows the country, and it shows. But he also organizes the essential information in an easy-to-use way. It’s the combination of depth and breadth that sets this guidebook apart from many others. Evans takes his subject seriously and invites the reader into the experience of Iceland with wit and authority.

"Depth and breadth . . . wit and authority." Oh, I'm so flattered and I have way too many people to thank: Dr. Brian Gratwicke (my trusty sidekick and the photographer whose images made the book pretty), my awesome contributors, especially Gudni Johannesson and Eliza Reid (who fact checked and wrote interesting text boxes), Nick Gilroy, and Dennis Riege. My awesome editor Anna Moores, who was extremely patient and full of good ideas, not to mention smart, meticulous, and respectful of all my little primadonna moments. Thanks to Adrian Phillips, Tricia Hayne, Donald Greig, and the rest of the team at Bradt Travel Guides in England. The biggest thanks of all goes to Hilary Bradt who gave me a shot at writing a book. Thank you, Hilary.

To Iceland and the Icelanders, I can't say Takk enough. Thanks to Einar Gustavsson for his interest and longstanding support of my book project, to Magnus Gustavsson for his genuine kindness and promotion of the book, and to Ambassador Albert Jonsson for his personal support. I am indebted to way too many Icelanders to squeeze into a blog post, but please know how grateful I am to all of your contributions big and small.

Getting a Lowell Thomas means a lot to me, so a huge thanks to the Society of American Travel Writers. It's really nice to be recognized for a book that took a whole year to research and write.

So what will I spend my prize money on? A ticket, to somewhere.

October 15, 2008


It was my very first cruise. Ever. To Mexico, on Holland America. Yes, I loved it--I mean, I loved traveling by boat, being at sea, and coasting down the Baja coast. And I love Mexico. I don't know if I liked going on vacation with 2,800 other people. There are some disadvantages with a bunch that size.

Like so many travelers to Mexico before me, I picked up a souvenir case of Montezuma's Revenge (the Shrimp Ceviche sounded too authentic to miss). Then I made the mistake of going down to see the ship's doctor, who, in lieu of administering me any medicine, put me in quarantine for 24 hours. Aha! There's no vacation like quarantine, especially when you're paying for it. I tried to make the most of it, watching old movies, ordering room service every 20 minutes and trying to establish the ultimate Love in a Time of Cholera moment. Alas, sitting in your bed on a cruise ship with the sunny Pacific Ocean outside, well it kind of really sucks.

Oh, I understand the whole principle of keeping me away from the rest of the merry cruisegoers, but, but, but . . . . I spent a day of my tropical vacation in isolation! Alright, I'll get over it. OK, inhale, I think I'm over it. No hard feelings Holland America. I love your ship and your perky crew and your all day ice cream stand! You know, I might even go on another cruise with you some day. Next time though, don't expect me to tell you about my funny tummy.

October 1, 2008

Bridge To Nowhere

National Geographic Traveler published my bit about trying to walk across the Bridge of the Americas in Panama. You can read it here. Quite tragic that any place becomes popular for suicide attempts, but it's happened all over the world--at the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hampshire Downs in England. The point of my piece was to promote safe intercontinental passage on foot. Alas, our world is not safe.

September 26, 2008

Cajun Fever

Just back from Texas and the post-storm calm that followed Hurricane Ike. Thank goodness, my family's fine. It was kind of fun to live without power for a few days and great to fly into an empty airport. During the week I visited my 96 year old grandfather and met one of his elderly neighbors from just outside Lafayette, Louisiana. A 100% authentic Cajun girl (maiden name Thibodeaux), she told me all kinds of great stories about the little villages in the back bayous of Cajun country. She also spoke in Cajun to me and sang me a refrain from the song Jolie Blonde. It was a wonderful little coda to my recent trip to Quebec and my growing interest in all things French-American.

I am now in search of more examples of recorded Cajun French (spoken, not sung). I recently found this clip from the 1948 movie, "Louisiana Story" in which a father tells his young son that he's "trop canaille" (too much of a scoundrel) before handing him his very first shotgun. Now I just gotta see this movie.

September 12, 2008

Going to Ukraine (in my mind)

Attended a reception for Ukraine's independence day at the embassy in Georgetown. Two weeks late (August 24th is the official day) and with lots of added tension. Let's just say that if there was elephant in the room (and there was), it was speaking Russian. I went for the Ukrainian music and of course, the varenniki--fabulous potato-filled dumplings. I love embassies in Washington because the minute you step inside, it's like being in that country. So on Wednesday night, for about one hour, I was in Ukraine. Made me miss it really. I truly do wish I was there.

Two days later I attended a fantastic music and image presentation on the Crimean Tatars. Both the researcher and photographer used my book while traveling around Crimea this past summer, so I was flattered. Overall, a really quality project that really captured the essence of the place and the plight of the people. You can check out some of their fantastic pictures here: [Photo Credit: Alison Cartwright].

September 4, 2008

(an actual) POST CARD: Tblisi, Georgia

This post card showed up in the mail last week from my friend Alex. He's been working in Tblisi all summer, a city that's at the top of my "need to get there soon" list. The card talks of a "beautiful street cafe" and women selling vegetables. It arrived with Turkish stamps, so I'm guessing Alex is no longer in Georgia. At least, that's my hope. I'm pretty devastated by the whole, ugly situation and look forward to a better day for that country. We have enough wars right now and I would hate to be banned from yet another post-Soviet country. For the record, it's my dream to open a Georgian restaurant in Washington, DC someday. You know, dream big.

August 17, 2008

New Flag

Back from the beautiful land of northern Quebec. Spent most of my time in the Saguenay (Sa-GUH-nay) region and the far away reaches of the province, marked by a stunning fjord by the same name. In my wanderings I discovered their regional flag, which takes a classic Danneborg design but in yellow, green, silver, and red. I was amazed that somewhere so close (two hour flight) can be so terrifically exotic and different. Sad to leave, but back in DC and busy writing for Blackbook.

August 3, 2008

Wild, Wonderful North America

Last week I was out on Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal Zone. Not only did signs warn me of crocodiles, but I saw them; terrifically HUGE crocodiles. Today, I'm flying off to the other end of our fine continent, to the far northern regions of Quebec. Looking forward to cooling off, but also glad to be taking in the breadth of my home continent.

July 24, 2008

Why I Love to Travel

Remind me never to fly through Dallas Forth Worth (DFW) ever again. Or on American Airlines. On the bright side, watching lightning from above the clouds is very cool. Then your plane runs out of gas circling and you have to land at another airport and take a one hour taxi ride home and you wait all day for your luggage to arrive but it never does even though you keep calling and getting put on hold so you give up and spend two hours going back to a different airport and find your luggage sitting in the wide open for anyone to take and it's been there for a night and a day. Oh, and your wet swim suit that smells like the Panama Canal has soaked the rest of your clothes and books.

July 20, 2008


So, I'm in Panama. In case anybody was wondering. Finished my talk on Washington, DC, rushed home, packed, slept for three hours and then was on a plane down south. I'm at 9 degrees north, which is pretty far south. And loving being at the canal betwixt two great oceans and two great continents. Spent all day yesterday catching poison dart frogs with my bare hands. I was told it's not a problem, but then somebody told me not to touch my face afterwards. Hmmm.

July 14, 2008

Insider's Washington, DC

Today's Bastille Day, and though I'm celebrating appropriately with good French food I'm also getting ready for tomorrow's presentation at the Smithsonian. Today's Washington Post Express published a recent interview about the talk, which you can read here.

July 7, 2008

Druk Yul Y'all

What better way to celebrate America's anniversary than to put Texas and Bhutan side by side on the National Mall? An impromptu research visit to the top of the Washington Monument landed me in this colorful display of Bhutanese dancers, reawakening a lifelong ambition to visit the place. Right next door was the Texas pavilion, so of course I felt right at home. Alas, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is officially over for this year, but I count it as one of the many reasons I love living in Washington, DC.

July 1, 2008

POST CARD: Seven Hours in Mali

My writer friend
Eliza Reid lives way up north in Iceland but still manages to get everywhere and anywhere on earth. As a new mother with an adorable son, Eliza's busy balancing words with walking lessons. She's also Canadian, so it's appropriate to have her guest star today, Canada Day. Here's a snippet from her travels across West Africa.

The Ségou “gare routière” (bus station) is milling with people. I arrive at 7am, buy a baguette with fried bananas and freshly grilled brochettes of beef, then make my way to the ticket booth to purchase the 5500 CFA ($13) one-way ticket to Sevaré, 350 km away.

I chat to the driver and the other bus employee on the trip, in case I need their help later on. One passenger offers to send 60 camels to my husband in Reykjavík in exchange for me staying with him; I scoff and he raises the offer to 80.

This bus is typical of most: the front windscreen is cracked in several places and an A3 sized posted of Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali’s President, is taped to the right-hand side, adding a further obstacle to the driver’s field of vision. West African pop music blasts from the speakers.

My small talk with the staff pays off and they assign me an aisle seat in the middle of the bus (safest) and by one of the small “sunroofs” – the windows don’t open, so the main door and the sun roofs are kept open to provide a small amount of respite from the heat. The colour scheme of the bus is based on a palette of “dirt” with “dust” accents.

The aisles are crammed with sacks of onions and bottles of local beer. The kaftan-wearing man across the aisle from me is muttering quietly to himself with his prayer beads. Does he know something I don’t?

The 9AM bus to Sevaré leaves promptly at 9:50am, tumbling east along Mali’s main tarmac road, the driver honking frantically to announce when we are about to overtake a slower van with people on the roof or a donkey and cart.

I have a good view of the driver in his tie-died shirt from the rear-view mirror. I can see when he picks his nose and his ears and when he yawns and rubs his eyes. I can see when he leans forward to pick something up off the floor or turns around to talk to his friends.

We stop at most of the villages along the way, usually small communities with mud houses and a mud mosque. Women and children clamber onto the bus to sell their wares – everything from sunglasses to plastic sacks of unfiltered water to oily clumps of dough or fresh peanuts. I buy some dough balls and give a couple to a little boy sitting near me. He smiles shyly and accepts.

The landscape is dusty, like seemingly all of Mali, and flat, dotted with baobab trees, huge termite mounds (a couple of metres high), shrubs, and fields of thin ripe millet, looking like anaemic corn stalks.

I can feel the sweat trickling down my back.

Mohammed, the bus company employee not driving, regularly climbs over the sacks in the aisle to inquire how I am. Am I too tired? Am I not too hot?

Nope. Everything’s great, Mohammed. I’m lovin’ every minute.

-Eliza Reid

June 21, 2008

All Quiet On The Western Wall/West Bank

I don't love taking my picture in front of famous sites because it feels a little gauche and conquistador-ish. But yesterday I felt the need as I visited two very famous yet very different walls--the first in Bethlehem in the West Bank, the other in Jerusalem. Thanks to the most recent peace agreement, travel between the two was a breeze. These days, crossing into California or Canada pose bigger obstacles.

June 17, 2008

The Sea of Galilee

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Matthew 6:21

June 9, 2008

POSTCARD: Dhallywood Dreams

Laurence Mitchell is a fellow travel writer at Bradt and the author of guides to Serbia, Belgrade, and Kyrgyzstan. He's also a passionate wanderer who takes stunning photographs. To find out more about him, check out his website: I've been following his recent adventures in South Asia. Really, most extraordinary:

Movie-making in the Indian Subcontinent is not restricted to Mumbai and Bollywood: Pakistan has its very own Urdu-language ‘Lallywood’ based in Lahore, and Bangladesh has Dhallywood, the Bengali equivalent, in Dhaka. I took this photograph in Sylhet in Bangladesh’s northeast although really it could have been almost anywhere in the country. It has all the vital ingredients: well-fed moustachioed men, cartoon violence, pretty women with heaving cleavages, expensive cars. Of course, you don’t see any of this on the streets of Bangladesh – it’s an unashamed escapist fantasy world: Bangladeshis don’t want to waste their hard-earned taka on tasteful art-house documentaries that feature modestly veiled women, rickshaws and rice fields.

Sylhet is best known as a pilgrimage centre, being home to the shrine of the 14th-century Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Jalal. It is also the capital of the district where virtually all of the UK’s Indian restaurant staff hail from. So the rich, north Indian tandoori food that we love in the UK and consider to be ‘Indian’ is actually prepared by Bangladeshis who, as a rule, prefer simpler dishes of fish and rice. Some of this foreign-earned ‘curry money’ eventually filters back to Sylhet, as poor a town as any in this impoverished country. For reasons best known to themselves, Sylhet returnees seem to invest their hard-won savings in the property market – in state-of-the art, air-conditioned shopping centres, which no-one other than their fellow curry-wallahs can afford to shop in. Maybe it’s a case of too much Dhallywood fantasizing?

-Laurence Mitchell

June 6, 2008

What I did Am Doing last This Summer

A quick update: wrote up my Paris trip for Intelligent Travel (Paris Sans Agenda) and a host of posh Paris hotel reviews for Business Traveler. I also self-righteously penned this piece on How to Pick the Right Guidebook. Wrote a story on Warsaw and another on Moscow and suddenly want to go back to both.

Alas, time for somewhere warm, so I am headed to fair and sunny Israel. In preparation I am reading Jerusalem: City of Longing by Simon Goldhill and enjoying his traveler's prose with scholarly undertones. Also, can't forget this, I made my early summer pilgrimage to New Jersey and took my first frozen dip of the season. I look forward to doing the same on the other side of the Atlantic next week. Hmmmm, Jersey Shore versus Tel Aviv. I'm looking forward to feeling the difference. Also in the cards this summer is gorgeous Connecticut, cool state Delaware, hot-as-blazes Panama, and then 400-year-old Quebec where I shall be celebrating New France.

Travels aside, what I'm really hoping to do is get away and write, write, write . . . without the interruption of the phone and the construction across the street. A quiet room with a cold glass of water and my new computer.

Yes, I have a new laptop and she's my new best friend. More later.

May 27, 2008

POSTCARD: Playing in the Park

My friend Camille shares my addiction for travel and she's been EVERYWHERE. Here's a bit that she sent me from China--her one last fling before flinging herself off to the emerald city that is Dubai.

On my way to the Temple of Heaven, I was distracted for more than two hours watching individuals and groups engage in various forms of exercise, music, and merriment. Two separate groups of 30 to 50 couples were waltzing, and more than 75 women danced with fans. I saw groups balancing balls on racquets while walking, swaying, and turning around; walkers with ski poles; a group stretching dramatically to an elevator music rendition of Edelweiss, and young people riverdancing to trance music.

I heard loud cracking and realized it was a group of men cracking whips. One man motioned for me to try it, so I grabbed the whip and they all took a step back. A group of old men laughed together as they flew colorful kites. (Have you ever seen anyone over 60 flying a kite in the US?) Following a loud whirring noise, I found about 15 middle-aged men balancing and moving large tops on strings. The most accomplished twirler moved the top across his legs, over his head, and jumped jauntily over the top as it swung under his legs.

Next I discovered the musical section of the park. A harmonica band played while one woman danced; several choirs sang; and a group of about 80 people clapped rhythmically and chanted. The most entertaining sight was an old man with one tooth, a Santa Claus hat, and a frilly apron, lip-synching the high-pitched female part of a Peking opera while batting his eyelashes. Even the Chinese were gathered around laughing at the spectacle.

-Camille Heaton
Photo by Camille Heaton

May 19, 2008

My Book in Polska

The worst kind of mail are bills, followed by junk mail. The best kind of mail is a totally unexpected package and when you open it, you find books. Books that you wrote! But in a different language! The Polish version of "Ukraine" showed up today and my does it look classy. National Geographic did the Polish version, so the layout and photography is top notch and I absolutely love the cover (cool font, huh?) I can't pretend to read Polish, but it's so cognitive with Ukrainian that I can guess my way through it. For all of you authentic Polish-speaking travelers, you can purchase my book by clicking through to National Geographic Poland.

Up next is the Polish version of Iceland, which I am most excited about, given that a huge wave of travelers to Iceland are Poles (go figure). Even the signs in the public library are in Polish. All this after I just submitted an article on the hottest clubs and restaurants in Warsaw. Yes, I'm feeling all things Polish right now. Dzienkuje Bardzo National Geographic!

May 14, 2008

Live at the Smithsonian

So the news is out, I'm doing another talk at the Smithsonian in July, entitled "The Insider's Washington, DC." I always love doing these, both for the audience members who are always so enthusiastic and for the chance I get to research a place in depth. Instead of something exotic, this time I'm covering my own backyard, wonderful Washington, DC! It's one of the most international places I know, so it's only fitting that I should be doing a travel lecture.

Find out more and purchase tickets by clicking here: Andrew Evans@Smithsonian

May 9, 2008


Watched "The Singing Revolution" last night. What started out as a weak, PBS-style documentary swiftly turned into a powerful recounting of a powerful story: the independence movement of the Estonian nation, the annual singing festival Laulupidu, and the peaceful break with the Soviet Union. Very moving and highly recommended.

On a personal note, the film includes lengthy interview from Mart Laar, who I worked with throughout Ukraine. He truly is an inspiring man and it was nice to finally get the back story of the brave work he accomplished in his own country. Watching the film, I discovered that Mart was my age when he became Prime Minister of Estonia (!)

The song festival occurs every summer (July) and I am now keen to make it there one of these years. I love folk songs of any nation, and when song en masse in Estonian the music is neither creepy nor totalitarian--only peaceful and beautiful. In lieu of the film's official trailer, which you can see at, here's a clip from the singing festival itself (thanks to Estonian Television. Ltd.). The song is Ilus Maa which means simply "beautiful land".

P.S. Isn't the Estonian flag fantastic? Blue, black, and white.

May 2, 2008

POSTCARD: James & the Giant Missile

My good friend James is a true traveler and passionate historian, as well as a delicious writer. He just got back from Turkmenistan, so I asked for a snippet.

The twenty-foot torpedo-shaped bombshell in the courtyard, ominously pointing at the chicken coop, admittedly, unnerved me a bit. Somehow I had missed this rather prominent piece of lawn decor while being swept, with effusive Turkmen hospitality, into my host family’s cinder-block home the night I had arrived in Serdar*, Turkmenistan. It was only in the early dawn of the next morning that, bleary-eyed with jetlag and focused on finding the outhouse, I stumbled into the projectile. By the end of the week, however, I was as comfortable propping myself against the cool gray shell to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or to scribble in my journal as I was picking my way through Serdar’s dusty back streets, dodging past the occasional lazy, shaggy camel, on my “commute” to School #34. No one in the neighborhood seemed concerned by the bomb. There were, as I discovered soon enough, many more such relics strewn across the town’s low-level sprawl, remnants of a Soviet-era munitions plant. Empty threats transformed into items of strange, defiant beauty. Turkmenistan, despite the surreal legacies of Turkmenbashi’s megalomania, is not unlike those casings: hard and threatening at first glance, yet beneath the surface you find a surprising warmth and, yes, beauty.

-James Kessler

*Formerly Gyzylarbat, but, like everything else in this most reclusive of the ‘stans, it had been renamed for the former President-for-Life – “serdar”=leader.

May 1, 2008

How To Smuggle Cheese

I'm back from Paris all too quickly and yet everyone knows the best way to make a trip to France linger longer is with a bit of smelly cheese. The kind of cheese that you can't get here. And what kind is that? That would be the unpasteurized (raw milk) kind which the FDA says is bad for our bodies (but keep on drinking those bright blue slurpees). Smuggling food into the US is really easy but for those who've never tried it, here's a few pointers:

1. Buy the stinkiest, rawest Camembert you can, preferably from the town of Camembert in Normandy.
2. Wrap it in foil, but only right before you pack.
3. Bury the foil-wrapped cheese into your smelliest dirty clothes; socks are best. Close up your suitcase and check the bag*
4. Check yes on the customs form when it asks whether you are bringing food into the country.
5. When asked by a United States customs official if you are carrying food, merrily respond: "Why yes, look at these lovely chocolates I got in Duty Free!"
6. Pass through, go home, unwrap your cheese and pop it in the fridge.

OR . . .

7. Hide the cheese in your friend's suitcase and let them deal with it.

*If you've only got a carry on, then get the cheese shrink-wrapped or vacuum-packed. Remember though, don't leave it too long. A good cheese needs air to breathe.

April 22, 2008

Packing Light

After speaking all day at the Smithsonian about Paris, I just got way too excited and have to go back. Now. So I am, tomorrow. I don't care that one Euro is worth a thousand bucks or that all the airlines are folding or merging. The best part of this trip is that I have NO agenda. Paris without any agenda is pure indulgence and I shall indulge. I'm calling it a business trip without any business, though I'm expecting good cheese and at least one day with sunshine. Otherwise there are no expectations whatsoever. Let there be bread.

Last week in Atlanta I gave a lengthy sermon on the joys of packing light, and so I intend to practice what I preach. This trip to Paris is carry-on only, TSA be damned. I'm basically bringing my tiny gym backpack, minus my terrorist deodorant, shaving cream and toothpaste (see . . . Paris is the perfect destination!). I maintain that you really only need three things when you travel: a passport, a ticket, and a big fat credit card.

C'est tout. Bon Voyage to me.

April 15, 2008

One Person to Meet Before You Die

Had to add one more pic of me with Patricia Schultz! It's really nice to talk with someone who understands what it's like to write a strong and factual book about a place or many places. I've already read her books but after hearing her talk so passionately about America's great destinations, I am eager to explore much closer to home. In particular, I've got Quebec and Lake Winnipesaukee on my mind.

April 14, 2008

Atlanta Travel Expo 2008

Back from Atlanta where I had a great time at their inaugural travel event. I spoke on "Iceland and other offbeat destinations" and was flattered by the great turnout. I had the pleasure of meeting Arthur and Pauline Frommer, who are amazing in their breadth of knowledge and travel experience. I'm astounded by how in touch they are with what travelers want. I also had a nice conversation with Patricia Schultz, who's even more inspiring in person than in her books. Among her many wise words was her line that "travel makes you a better person." She also bought a copy of my Iceland guide and I was truly touched.

I always have fun at travel shows for the people who are there, and for all the great destinations featured. Among the lot in Atlanta, I was most fascinated by representation from some of the Caribbean's smaller islands (Montserrat, Nevis, Anguilla), Nicaragua, Tahiti, and Zanzibar. I hope to see all those places soon. Thanks to NaTour Communications for the invitation to Atlanta, and thanks to Borders for selling my books!

April 9, 2008

An Island of My Own

Out of print books are usually the best ones. These are stories that entertained for a time and then were put to rest by a market of attention-deficient readers. When a friend recommended the book "An Island to Oneself" by Tom Neale, I tracked it down on Amazon (with great difficulty) and got it about three weeks later. When it showed up, I started reading around 7 pm and finished at 8 o'clock the next morning. The book tells the true story of Tom's quest to live alone and in peace on a miniscule islet in the South Pacific called Suwarrow (Suvarov).

I think every human has that desire to escape to the quietest, remotest place he or she can find and simply be. It's the very subject of Yeat's poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and a common sentiment among most sentient beings.

Today, Suwarrow is no longer an unknown entity. It's now a target destination for passionate yachties, who can range from a respectable bunch of travelers to an undesirable sort. Luckily it's the former who frequent Suwarrow (seemingly). A quick flickr search reveals dozens of snapshots from the island, including a monument to author Tom Neale with the inscription "Tom Neale lived his dream on this island".

I once spent a week alone on a deserted Caribbean island, though that is another story altogether. It was less idyllic than one might think because surviving is hard work. I especially related to Tom's frustration with husking coconuts. Not an easy task at all.

So now I am doing what everyone must do with out of print books. Passing it on to a friend.

April 3, 2008

Well I Guess That Makes Me an Explorer

It's no secret that Hollywood's adventurous character Indiana Jones was modeled after the real life explorer, paleontologist, naturalist, and taxidermist Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960). I must confess a strong affinity towards a guy who grows up in the Midwest, moves to the big city and in a few years goes from the janitor at the Natural History Museum to their prize collector. Andrews established the popular image of the rugged gentleman "explorer", complete with leather hat and whip, a hyper-masculine demeanor, and an honest to goodness fear of snakes. Nowadays, anyone who gets carried up Mt. Everest or "swims with sharks" at some Caribbean island resort gets tagged as an explorer. Worse yet are all the nonsense expeditions that serve no other purpose than to inflate the ego of the perpetrator (e.g. "Watch me kayak the length of the Mississippi backwards"). Once upon a time I was invited to help sail a boat across the North Atlantic from Scotland to Greenland. 'Twas the adventure that got away as I had to drop out at the last minute--but I had great respect for the salty captain and his rum-soaked world view. His opinion was that all the real explorers were dead and that anyone who called themselves an explorer--in the days of satellite phones, GPS, and travel insurance--was a ponce. Hmmm, a worthy thought.

Roy Chapman Andrews had his own set of standards which he laid out in his book This Business of Exploring (1935):

To meet the popular conception of an explorer a man must have suffered cold, heat, starvation, fever, attacks from wild animals and savage natives and must have been bitten by snakes.

Is that all? Well, let's see then:
  • COLD? Check. Fell through the ice in the Gulf of Finland, air temperature -40°
  • HEAT? Check. Phoenix, Arizona in July; 120° F. Suffered severe nausea from heat exhaustion
  • STARVATION? Check. Ukraine, 1995. Lost a pound per day for 3 weeks straight as there was no food.
  • FEVER? Check. Crimean Peninsula. 104° fever for 3 days.
  • ATTACK (from wild animal)? Check. Bit by wild mongoose in Hwange, Zimbabwe.
  • ATTACK (by savage natives)? Check. Beat up by street hooligans in England.
  • BITTEN by snakes: Check. Bit three times on the wrist by wild garter snakes held captive by my older brother.

March 31, 2008

Celebrating Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe holds a special place in my heart, for a whole bunch of reasons. That's where my thoughts are this morning as the country counts up the votes in this most crucial election and hopefully rids itself of a man who is nigh overdue for retirement. No matter what happens, the next 36 hours will be historic. I snapped this picture more than five years ago high up in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. After showing me their mud hut filled with chickens, this boy and his older brother followed me around for most of the morning. That means he's about 12 years old today. I sincerely hope that when he wakes up tomorrow, he has a new president who's name doesn't rhyme with 'mug me'.

March 24, 2008

Going to Atlanta

FYI, just got confirmation that I am a featured speaker at the Atlanta Travel Expo on April 12, 2008. Despite my status as a totally D-list travel writer I will be speaking right before Arthur and Pauline Frommer of Frommer's travel empire. Followed by Patricia Shultz (of "A Zillion Places To See Before You Die" fame). In my head, I'm pretending that I'm the opening act. I'll be talking mainly about Iceland and how to get lost anywhere in the world and enjoy it. After which I'll be signing books over at Border's. I'm told that discerning Georgians are already lining up to get their autographed copy of Iceland. Meanwhile I'm looking forward to spending some time in this spunky Southern city, meeting all the folks at the show and catching up with some old friends.

March 20, 2008

Ik zie oe geerne België . . . . . . . . . . . . Je t'aime Belgique

Just wanted to let everyone know how relieved I am that Belgium is NOT getting a divorce! Whew. Tiny Belgium is an important country for me as one of the happiest years of my life was spent living in fabulous Brussels. It was my first real job, I was just out of college, and the city was filled with young, exuberant people from all over the world. When Belgians demand to know if I lived in the Flemish or French part of the city, I always reply "Turkish" because my neighborhood of Scharbeek was totally Turkish. Actually, while I was there it became Albanian as the city filled up with Kosovar refugees from the Balkans. But I'm so glad that Belgians all worked it out. Sometimes I feel like the future of human existence lies in the Belgians' ability to stick together. And I'm not being ironic.

March 19, 2008


This week for Gridskipper, I wrote my post on NoMa, Washington DC's attempt to revitalize the no man's land of vacant lots and boring office buildings just north of Massachusetts Avenue, NE. Admittedly, I feel a tad guilty mocking anyone's attempt to improve the city but I really think the trifecta of city planners, real estate moguls, and the federal government is an unholy alliance that definitely deserves a degree of ridicule. I'm more in favor of organic, bottoms-up urban development rather than hype borne from the boardroom.

The upside was that I got to take myself on a field trip into the so-called NoMa corridor, which felt a bit like a totally separate city than the one I live in. Periodically you do get a glimpse of the capitol building, but otherwise, it's all kind of barren and strange. The exception is the awesome brick behemoth that is the United States Office of Printing and Engraving. If only they would go condo! I am tempted to start a campaign to Bring Back Swampoodle, the old Irish shanty town that they are now trying to relabel as NoMa. I think if only they did a survey, they'd find more people in favor of Swampoodle.

March 14, 2008

Pakistani Packaging

What do you get when your friend has to rush off to Islamabad as a last minute observer in Pakistan's presidential elections and you agree to take care of her cat? This gorgeous packet of Halwa, the near eastern sweet that is not only delectable, but wrapped up so prettily that I dare not open it. Thank you Rachel! How I adore festive packaging and how I love food smuggled in from faraway places. It's a close second to actually traveling there.

March 11, 2008

There Are No Cats in Finland

Found this ad in The Economist and had a little moment of wait, huh, what? Finland's trying to get smart, skilled people to move there because I guess their own people have moved elsewhere. In three seconds I imagined a parallel existence of me living in Finland and being ruddy and hip and paying gigantic taxes. Still, it made me dream, not unlike the posters of last century that drew huddling European masses to the free expanses of the Dakotas or Oklahoma. Most likely I will think of Finland for the rest of the day.

To the ad people, one tiny nitpick: my pet peeve as a travel writer is anyone referring to anywhere as a "pearl". Pearls are pearls, sweet old ladies are called Pearl, and a good pal can be called 'a gem'. Still, I can list about 20 countries/cities that claim to be the pearl of such and such. It's tiresome. I'm dying to get to Finland, but not for it's pearl-like qualities. Just because it's Finland, that's all.

March 7, 2008


Music and travel go hand in hand. Musicians travel to live and music travels on its very own. In that same vein, Icelandic wonderband Sigur Rós has recently released their musical documentary Heima. This film means a lot to me because it was shot during the same wonderful summer that I spent touring the whole of Iceland. The band goes to all the same forlorn places in which I wandered and their music is the perfect soundtrack for all the landscapes I experienced. I finally caught up with them in Ásbyrgi, where I sat mesmerized on the grass during the entire transcendent show and then got to meet Jón Birgirsson in person. I recommend the film to anyone who wants to travel to Iceland because despite all the movies and tv shows made about the country none captures the whole of the country like this one. It's exactly what Iceland feels like. You can watch the film in its entirety online or buy the DVD at the band's website. Cheers to Dean Deblois who made the film; and Takk to Sigur Rós for making me homesick for Iceland.

March 4, 2008

Discovering Dahlak

Wrote a blog post on Eritrean culture in Washington, DC and now I wanna go see the real thing, obviously. More important I discovered a group of islands that have somehow escaped my knowledge and years of heavy atlas addiction. The Dahlak Archipelago lies in the Red Sea, betwixt Eritrea and Yemen. It is my dream to get myself there now, now, as they say in Africa. A quick googling also reveals about half a dozen Eritrean restaurants in America called 'Dahlak'. The trend appears to be a subtle territorial claim not unlike that of my Argentinian crewmate on my college rowing team in England who christened our new boat "Las Malvinas Argentinas". Ahem. Anyway, must get myself to the islands of Dahlak and I'm even checking flights for spring break. They say the diving is exceptional.

March 1, 2008

Gŵyl Ddewi

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus! Happy St. David's Day! On March 1st we celebrate the patron saint of Wales and the the national holiday of CYMRU. That means wear a daffodil or a leek and be proud. Will do. Ah, but to speak Welsh well, too! I made a fair attempt when I lived in Britain with two years of language classes and a stint in the Welsh choir. Alas, I am still very much an American poseur with a Welsh last name, but a name that I carry very proudly. It comes from my great-great-great grandfather John Thomas Evans who left his little hamlet in southwest Wales and came to America. He later traveled back to Wales and 'walked and walked' all over the country, converting people to his faith. I have also walked lots in Wales. It is a country made for walking and a most beautiful place to be. What I find most amazing is being only four hours from London and meeting people who have never been to London. Llundain? Wales remains a western frontier.

On this St. David's Day I plan on celebrating with my very own Eisteddfod and doing what Welsh people do best: read, play music, and fight tyranny with fire-breathing dragons. Shall we start with a round of the Welsh national anthem, sung so gallantly by the Welsh Rugby Team and their adoring fans, of which I am one? Ladies and Gentleman, please stand for Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

A day that only happens once every four years is worth a post, eh? Thus I dedicate my Leap Year to a beloved animal that I have yet to meet in person, the Okapi. I recently saw (a dead, stuffed) one at the Natural History Museum and felt so inspired that I got a little choked up. The Okapi looks so gentile; with such awkward gazes, big ears and it's zebra-striped bottom, how can one not be endeared towards this creature? Everyone has their little list of animals they want to see in the wild, and the Okapi is one of my top ten. Alas, it lives in the DRC which is about as dysfunctional home as you can have (if only animals could vote or form militias). If the 15,000 remaining Okapi can hold out until I get to Africa next, I shall be eager to try and spot one. My target destination will be the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. And they even have a blog!

February 28, 2008

I'd Rather Be Diving

Another recap from my last trip; one of the best dives of my life thus far. This is somewhere in Honduras, but I won't say where because it's too perfect: a 10 mile-long reef and only four divers on it, including me. All the coral was alive and happy, with huge barrel sponges and amazing fish life. One giant yellow tailed snapper followed me for the entire 45 minutes, often putting his lips right up to my mask. Wow. Connecting with a fish is one of the most curious and odd feelings I've ever encountered. He followed me as I ascended and was sad to see me go. I was sad to have to resurface. Yeah, I love to dive.

February 26, 2008

The Dumbest Thing I've Ever Done

Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, about a month ago. I've never seen real lava up close so I had to just get that bit closer. Had to see if I could touch it with my walking stick, you know, to "touch lava". Well, in about three seconds the stick burned up and I singed all the hair off the right side of my face just for the sake of this picture. I learned for myself the great primordial lesson that lava is really, really hot. Don't try this at home.