Category Archives: Travel Tales

Scratch That

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I could have been a thousandaire in Detroit.  An extended layover had me pacing down its airport halls, zig-zagging between kiosks to kill time and winding up in front of a lottery ticket vending machine.

Winning money in Detroit seemed cruelly funny to me.  I heard a news story recently – or maybe it was a rumor? – that a house goes for $1 in the most dejected quarters of the city.  Detroit was in a bad way – it was somewhere you just didn’t go. Before I even landed, I assumed that it was my first and last time visiting.  But…what if my numbers matched?  I could own 10,000 houses – or maybe 5 really nice ones.  I could upgrade my flight to first class.  Could I be mayor of Detroit?

I waited until my flight was just about to board and then I scratched.  While everyone else got antsy and gathered up their bags, I dragged a dull penny back and forth across my ticket, brushing away the tiny bits of silver veil that lay between me and fortune.  A matching pair of numbers appeared early on (would I have to stop back on my return flight to collect my riches?)  The line of passengers advanced as I pressed my penny to the last square, scratching even slower this time, prolonging the hope that I just might win.

I bought a losing lottery ticket in Detroit.  I bought a shot glass, too, although I can’t remember the last time I took a shot, let alone at home.  But Detroit is rugged – or at least my notion of it is – and so the Motor City-emblazoned glass seemed fitting.  I imagined a wearied auto worker throwing back a finger of whiskey after stepping off the assembly line. Now we’d drink together in spirit.

I carried the glass in a little bag with my silver-stripped, unlucky ticket as I walked onto the plane.

After all, it wouldn’t have been fair for me to win the lottery in Detroit.  To collect 10 grand in a city I’d regarded with such disdain, so confident I’d never return, without ever setting foot outside the airport.

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Making a Splash in Cologne, Germany

Our decision to visit Cologne, Germany, went something like this:

“There’s a really cheap flight to Cologne.”

“What’s in Cologne?”

“They have a chocolate museum.”

“Sold.”

Up until that point, my friends and I knew of Cologne only as a men’s fragrance, but when the guidebook promises a “Willy Wonka-esque” chocolate fountain,  you heed the call.

We left our home base in Padua, Italy, with visions of candy bars dancing in our heads.  Nine hours of missed bus and train connections later, we arrived starving, exhausted, and about ready to punch a sugar plum fairy.

Emerging from the train station, the ominous shadow of the Kölner Dom immediately enveloped us.  Cologne’s towering cathedral broods over the city, justly earning its title as the largest gothic church in Northern Europe.  Beholding the dark behemoth against the bright blue autumn sky, we couldn’t help but be impressed…and slightly less disgruntled.

The Dom towers over the city of Cologne

From the imposing square of the Dom, Cologne breaks off into smaller cobblestone streets with modern stores that perhaps aim to counter the church’s heavy dose of history (it dates back to 1248!).  Ambling through the city on the way to our hostel, we came across another prevalent feature of Cologne’s landscape: street art.

A graphic series of poster-sized photographs depicted the lives and deaths of struggling drug addicts.  A huge wooden sculpture of rainbow-colored, nesting squares let us climb inside for a picture-framed view of the city.  We were amused, but not appeased, still grumbling over our traveler’s misfortune and regrettably empty stomachs.

Colorful 3-D street art

And then we saw it.  In the middle of a small, tree-lined square, it was unassuming but irresistible.  A man-made puddle, no more than 20 feet wide, with a turquoise plastic cube at its center for one to perch upon.  Along its edges were at least a dozen pairs of white rain boots, beckoning to be worn.

Without hesitation, we threw off our shoes and grabbed a pair of galoshes.  Never mind the dozens of questionable feet that had occupied them before us–we had some splashing to attend to.  For nearly a half-hour we waded around in the Kölsch puddle–almost two feet at its deepest point–laughing and taking pictures and forgetting all about our rough journey there.  It was as if Cologne had anticipated our unhappiness upon arriving, and it knew just the cure.

Kölsch puddle!

Even after our puddle jumping had concluded, Cologne continued to intrigue and delight us.  We ate bratwurst alongside mustachioed old men in a traditional beer garden and danced recklessly to German Top 40 songs at a student nightclub.  Along the banks of the Rhine river, we explored Cologne’s Old Town and finally tasted milk chocolate from the Lindt Museum‘s golden fountains.  We stuffed ourselves with pretzels and potato pancakes and washed them down with the signature Kölsch brew.

When we stepped into that puddle, Cologne had christened us, allowing us brief access to its finest secrets.  A city rife with history, Cologne honors its roots, but somehow manages to stay young at heart.  Both the young and the old gather at the same outdoor restaurants to eat, talk, and listen to a street band honk traditional tunes while the beer flows until the drinker sets the coaster atop her glass.

Cologne is often forgotten alongside the more popular German cities of Berlin and Munich–but it doesn’t mind.  Cologne will wait for you.  When you arrive, you might find–just as we did–that it’s all too easy to dip your toes in…

Fellow puddle jumpers test the waters.


Your trusty boots await!

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Finding Faith in Caimito, Puerto Rico

The building was hardly threatening. Dirty white labeled with a large “Bienvenidos,” and a few hand-painted crossesStill my stomach turned as we entered the Christian Community Center of Caimito, Puerto Rico for Sunday mass.

I have never been a religious person.  My parents chose not to christen me, marking me a heathen child and forever freeing me from the Sunday school obligations that plagued my childhood friends.  I know embarrassingly little about the Bible, and Catholic churches make me nervous.  It always seems painfully obvious that I don’t belong in a church, like a silent alarm warns God of my intrusion.

My intentions for being there were good.  I had joined a group of like-minded students from my university to volunteer at Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in neighboring San Juan.  We were put up in the Christian Community Center’s guesthouse.


Front view of the Christian Community Center.

Driving into Caimito had been my first real introduction to poverty.  Faded houses lined the winding, narrow streets, their laundry lines sagging with worn clothing, backyards piled with junk.  Locals eyed us warily, sitting on plastic chairs outside the corner store, a hub for the local drug dealer.

None of this seemed to faze Reverend Juan.  He left Puerto Rico after high school to study medicine in New York.  Instead, he returned to Caimito and found the power of God.  Forty-one years later, he remains the Christian Community Center’s unshakeable leader.  His smile was magnetic—the wide kind that spreads all across the face and crinkles the eyes. Why is Puerto Rico better than where we came from up north?  Under the yellow warmth of the sun, Juan reminded us, “Here: no snow.”

He told us about his life, his family, his work.  How we didn’t need school to follow our passions—that the answers are in our hearts and not a textbook.  We were all entranced.  As I write down Juan’s advice now, the words seem cliché.  Coming from him, they sounded like truths.  I had listened to sermons before, listened to men of God deliver similar messages. I always thought they were nice—warm and fuzzy ideas that never left an impression.  But here we were with Juan in regular conversation, and I couldn’t tear myself away.

It was decided we would all attend church the next day.  We wanted to pay Juan our respects and thank him for letting us stay, and what better way than by seeing him in his element?  My head agreed that it was the right tribute, but my stomach still tightened anxiously.  Talking with Juan outside, eating pinchos and arepas—it had all been informal.  I knew that, setting foot inside his church, the informality would disappear, replaced by unfamiliar rituals, this time in a language I barely understood.

We filed into the church early, interrupting Juan’s wife as she led the morning lesson.  The room was small, white, sparse.  No more than thirty chairs made up both sides of the aisle, and there was a small platform stage by the lectern with a rainbow mural backdrop.   About five people–and Juan—sat in the rows, all with their books open, sneaking peaks at us as we took our seats. We listened patiently until the lesson concluded, and I shifted in my seat worrying what would come next.

Juan wanted us to each introduce ourselves.  I grasped the microphone. “Hola,” I said and was answered with a chorus of holas. I said something terrible like, “My name is Samantha. I can’t speak Spanish because I speak Italian. But thank you for everything,” and everyone smiled politely and refrained from wincing.

One of the women seated got up and approached the pulpit.  She was small and hunched, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, and she closed her eyes in front of us and began to pray out loud.  Every now and then the doors to the church opened and closed, a couple teenage girls crossing back and forth to the attached Sunday school room.  No one seemed to heed the interruptions.

At one point, the girls settled by the other church members on a nearby bench with two toddlers in tow—a little boy and an older girl, their skin fair with only a hint of underlying pigment, both with wide blue eyes.  Everyone’s focus shifted from the old woman’s prayer to the babies, fidgeting on the girls’ laps.

And all of a sudden there was singing.  The woman stopped praying and broke out into a warbled hymn, and the rest of the church joined in.  The teenage girls smacked tambourines and everyone clapped.  Another woman stood up, lost in the song.  They were out of pitch and off-beat.  I wasn’t even sure they were all singing the same hymn.  The baby boy wriggled free and ran across the room, his shaky steps matching the beat as one of the girls chased after him.  All at once it had become joyful chaos, and we all clapped along.  This was not the calm and ordered mass I was used to—and yet it made perfect sense.  The young and the old, singing to God in loud notes and baby shrieks, sincerity and laughter.  Here in Caimito, a perfectly intimate display of what they were all praying for: life.

The song faded away and Juan finally spoke.  In Spanish and English he thanked us for volunteering our time to help the community.  The baby barreled toward him, and Juan crouched down to let him leap into his arms.  He lifted the boy up and passed him around to us as we prayed for gratitude and kindness and meeting one another.

And just like that, the service was over.  I was not relieved because I had forgotten my anxiety, completely entranced by these people on a regular Sunday in their tiny church.  We went around hugging and kissing the church members, saying “Mucho gusto” and “Muchas Gracias.” I thought about what Juan had said as everyone clasped our hands firmly, looked into our eyes, and held us close: “We are a family.  Our family is your family, our church is your church.”  Blindly and absolutely, I believed him.

Reverend Juan. Photo taken by Amit Persaud.

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It’s Not Me, It’s You: An Open Letter to the Travel Channel

Dear Travel Channel,

You may not know it, but we’re on a break.  Our relationship has been a long one–second only to my lifetime romance with chocolate.  For eight years I’ve watched you religiously, wondering where you’d take me next.  All those countless nights we used to snuggle on the couch together to pass the time… So you might have noticed how I’ve been pretty distant lately.  Sure, I’ll linger for a minute or two to watch Bourdain catch a fish in the Amazon.  But at the first commercial break, I’ll stray, flipping down two channels to TLC where I’ll contentedly watch Say Yes to the Dress for the next half hour.  And when I choose wealthy bridal fittings over you, Travel Channel,  you know it’s bad.

I’ve tried to be reasonable, tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, but my patience is worn through.  I’ve stopped watching because I’ve stopped having a voice.  As a female traveler, I’m simply no longer represented.  You, my dear TC, have gone all-male.

You can try to argue, but I don’t have to look far for the evidence. Man vs. Food, Mancations–the proof is in the promos.  It almost seems that being a middle-aged, slightly overweight man is a requirement to host a show.  But don’t worry! He may be ordinary, but he makes up for it with a fascination for the Extreme or the Bizarre.   So while these Average Joes travel (prove their worth) by testing their physical or intestinal fortitude, your female hosts get to….traipse across the Sexiest Beaches in a bikini?

I know you’ll counter with the obvious: Samantha Brown. God love her, but where is she? Nowadays, the only Samantha Brown I see is from a 2004 rerun at 10 a.m.  While I’ll always respect her quirky sense of humor and genuine interest in travel, there’s a reason why Anthony Bourdain occasionally disses her: she’s safe.  She takes dainty tours in the pretty parts of town and eats the mint from her hotel pillow at night.  Her show is fun and luxurious and escapist, but it’s just not realistic when I’m praying for clean sheets at my 15 € hostel.  Samantha Brown gets a taste of culture without having to get her hands dirty. But let’s be straight, Travel Channel: this Travel Girl knows the value of some soap and water.

You and I both know that your one saving grace is Bourdain.  He gives viewers their own taste of the authentic with each dish he tries and always manages to tap into the heartbeat of a destination.  He’s wise with the years and experience to relate to older travelers but still badass enough to earn a cult following from the young.

But I’m not a chef.  I occasionally wear a leather jacket, but I’m not badass.  I’m just a girl who wants to learn more about this big ol’ world we’re living in.  Ask my girlfriends who have all gone abroad, ask the female editors and writers gracing the pages of magazines like National Geographic and Budget Travel, ask the 80% of women making travel decisions, and they’ll tell you the same.  In fact, they already have–but maybe you just haven’t been listening.

Travel Channel, it’s time for you to bring back the female travel host.  The one who considers immersing herself in another culture both challenging and entertaining in its own right.  The woman who explores the places we female travelers have been longing to go and who inspires us to seek out new adventures.  The one who can out-eat Adam Richman and out-drink Anthony Bourdain–or who’s at least not afraid to try.  The woman who, at the end of the day, is not defined as a woman at all, but as a traveler.

If it means eating octopus tentacles or log-rolling or getting tribal tattoos, bring it on!  I, for one, am up for it.  Any of the above is preferable to feeling like the female traveler is obsolete. Far from it, TC.  She’s out there and she’s more curious than ever.  I hope for the sake of our relationship, Travel Channel, that you can find it in your heart to make things right.  If not, well, I just might leave the country…

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I Can See My House From Here!

I’ll admit it: when it comes to travel, I’m a snob. No, I don’t expect 4-star hotels, exquisite cuisine, or everyone to speak English in the foreign country I’m visiting. I do, however, scoff at the glorified reality that is the “tourist attraction.” One mention of the term, and I immediately picture myself squished between people with visors and fanny packs, waiting in a five hour line to hand over piles of money just so I can glimpse the world’s largest beer can. Although sights like the Great Wall and Machu Picchu are admittedly breathtaking, they only represent one aspect of cultures that are immensely complex. Are they important? Yes. But where’s the travel? When you’re visiting a place that most of the world could recognize and hundreds of thousands of people have seen before, where’s the excitement?

So of course it makes little sense how on a recent trip to New York City, my friends and I wound up at the Empire State Building. It gets worse. I was the one who suggested it. Yes, at 11:00 at night, we found ourselves still awake in the City that Never Sleeps, wondering what to do. Suddenly, I was struck by an idea too strong too ignore. And as much as I resist becoming a “tourist,” I am a sucker for a great view. You know New York too well for this, the Travel Girl part of me whispered. Real New Yorkers don’t go to the Empire State Building. But myself didn’t listen to me, and before I knew it, there I was at 11:30 pm striding into that famous lobby.

As we walked to get our tickets, part of me was groaning at the prospect of standing in line for hours on end so late at night. But to my surprise, there were no such lines to be found. We breezed through the ticket booths, practically galloped down the hallway past the maze of velvet ropes, and sauntered right up to the elevators. In less than five minutes, we arrived at the 86th floor.

The view was more than incredible (and well worth my $18). It was as if someone had shifted the night sky and placed it below us, thousands of lights stretching out across the distance. The dark had made all seem quiet; everyone spoke in whispers and huddled close to fight the nighttime chill. As I marveled at my surroundings, it suddenly made sense. Although we were all aware that millions of people had stood in our places before, on that night, it felt as though we were sharing something secret only to us. Was I suddenly alert to all the mysteries of New York City? No. Not even close. But looking out over the expanse of the city, I felt as though I had glimpsed its essence.

Plenty of people travel to a place, snap some photos to show their friends, and return home without ever appreciating what they have actually seen. I now realize that my aversion to the notion of tourist attractions arose from this fact alone. I didn’t want to seem ignorant. But for a lot of travelers, this just isn’t true. There’s a reason why people walk the Great Wall, why they climb the steps of Machu Picchu, why these destinations are even famous at all. They’re magical. They speak to the history of a place and its people, aging signs of the power of human accomplishment, inspiration, and influence. Nothing but experience will allow you to understand a culture, but for those who appreciate them, tourist attractions can offer a sneak-peak. I didn’t see the magic before. Now I do. To Americans, the Empire State Building may not seem as wondrous as the Parthenon. But it’s New York’s Parthenon, and I can proudly say I’ve been to the top.

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