Category Archives: Everywhere Else

Are You a Travel Snob? Take this quiz and find out.

Camel trekking in Morocco? Ten points!

During one of our recent “What is the world coming to?” discussions spurred by politics and other recent disasters, a friend handed me a book by David Brooks called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. In it, Brooks, who is a columnist for the New York Times, examines a social group that he has labeled bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos. He says a Bobo is a mix of bourgeois establishment square and bohemian artist intellectual.  Like an anthropologist studying an exotic tribe, Brooks looks at Bobo business culture, social, intellectual and spiritual life.  It’s a fun read because he seems like good-natured guy who admits he’s part of this group and doesn’t hesitate to point out its idiosyncrasies in a very humorous way.

What really caught my eye is his description of Bobo travel habits. I have to admit, to some extent, he’s describing me, many of the people I know, and almost all of the people you read about in travel magazines and and on travel blogs.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“There are a certain number of sophisticated travelers who wear their past destinations Unknown-9like little merit badges.”  According to Brooks, these aren’t people who simply name drop about the super luxe hotels and resorts where they stay.  “Their main joy in life comes from dropping whopping hints that everywhere you are just going they went to long ago when it still meant something.”  They’re masters of insufferable questions like “Didn’t the atabeg of Damascus stop there in 1139?” And, says Brooks, “They don’t say, ‘I know such-and-such a language.’  They say, ‘I have a little Portuguese” or ‘I have a few of the romance languages, of course,’ in that faux offhand manner that makes you want to stick the person’s head in a vise and squeeze it until the eyes pop out.”

But, we’re all travel snobs to some extent. For example, I was accused of travel snobbery when I said I didn’t really have a great desire to visit the Wisconsin Dells for vacation.  I also make snide comments about the oddly dressed tourists who pile off cruise ships and tour buses. But it’s a matter of degree. I definitely rate myself lower on the food chain of travel snootiness than the guy who rues the day electrification came to Belize, though I have told people I remember when the streets weren’t paved on Ambergris Caye.

The Quiz

Where do you rate on the travel snob-o-meter? With the help of Brooks analysis,  I’ve developed the following quiz so you can rate yourself. Give yourself 10 points if you answer yes to the following: 1. Have you ever one-upped someone in a travel conversation?

2. Do you avoid places that are “touristy” even though you’re dying to see them?

3. Do you wear outdoorsy travel gear acquired at places such as Eddie Bauer or REI even when you’re not on an expedition? Five extra points if your togs have lots of pockets.

4. Have you ever said you have a language instead of I speak a language? Or, another of  my favorites, do you use a “French” pronunciation for a word when it isn’t a French word?

5. Do you label yourself as “serious” about a travel or sporting pursuit, i.e. a “serious hiker,” or “serious kayaker?” Says Brooks, “The most accomplished are so serious they never have any fun at all.”

6. Do you seek out locales where simple peasants live in abundance farming or creating folk art?

7. Do you frequently mention using alternative modes of transportation, such as camels or tuk-tuks?

8. What’s that you say? You don’t travel because there’s no place that’s better than right where you are? If you say yes, you’re a reverse travel snob. Bam! 10 points.

Finally, does your idea of a great vacation involve pain and exertion– for example biking across a state larger than Rhode Island, or kayaking around Lake Superior or canoeing length of the Amazon? If your answer is yes, award yourself 20 points. “At the tippy top of the leisure status system are those vacations that involve endless amounts of agony and pain,” says Brooks.

Here’s how you stack up.  10 points: not a travel snob, but a little dull. 20-50 points: emerging snob, you just need to add on a few more miles, perhaps while trekking in Nepal. 60-80 points: You’re a snooty pants, and I’m sure those pants are made by Patagonia. And you’re probably a Bobo, too. 90-100 points: You’re an insufferable travel snob. We’d all like to go where you’ve been, but we don’t want you to tell us about it, so go kayak around Lac Superieur.

The Mayan Calendar, 2012

The end of the world, apocalypse, Armagedon… It seems like someone is always predicting global doom. Remember Y2K, or the famous doomsday prophet Nostrodamus?  This fascinates me because there are so many people at the other end of the spectrum looking for ways to extend their lives (or at least look really young into old age), cheat death, or freeze their dead bodies for a return to life at a later date.

The end of the Mayan calendar in December, 2012, is the latest catalyst for apocalyptic forecasting, the idea being that then end of the “long form calendar” of the ancient Mayans predicts the end of the world.  A few of you may have seen the shlocktastic movie, 2012, which is based on the concept and which one reviewer described as “cinematic waterboarding.”

On a recent trip to Guatemala, a country that is home to the world’s largest concentration of Mayan people (more than four million Guatemalans speak a Maya language), I asked a few real Mayans what they thought of the idea. Their responses ranged from bemused to philosophical. Some spoke of a “new age” of greater care for the planet, others said the changes have already happened with environmental degradation and also with our ever-connected world of communications. None thought the planet would implode next year. My general impression is that the Mayans of Guatemala have more immediate concerns like making a living, educating their children, and continuing to recover from a civil war that was truly apocalyptic for Guatemala’s indigenous people.

Robert Sitler’s The Living Maya, Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012, provides one of the best explanations of the whole topic.  One of the points he makes is that the Maya aren’t an extinct culture found only in the ancient heiroglyphics and ruins of ancient cities that range through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.  Instead, Sitler, who is a professor professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida and serves as Director of its Latin American Studies Program, looks at the culture and traditions of real, live Mayan people.  I’d put this book at the top of reading list for anyone traveling to Mexico and Central America. And, for anyone really worried about what will happen in 2012, the folks at NASA offer a down-to-earth look at the 2012 topic from an out-of-this-world perspective.

Miguel Asturias Academy: Growing a Crop of Educated and Socially Concerned Citizens

On our recent trip to Guatemala, we visited Miguel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango. A chance to go behind the scenes at a school is a great way to learn about local culture, what people are teaching their children, what they aspire to, and how kids there interact with each other and with their teachers.  I find this school, named after Guatemala’s Nobel laureate, particularly exciting because its leaders seek to improve life for Guatemalan children, not just through literacy, but also by teaching them about leadership, gender equity, and concern for the environment—concepts that aren’t in the typical curriculum in Guatemala, or sometimes even in the U.S.  Growing a crop of well educated, critically thinking, socially conscious citizens is about the only way I can think of for Guatemala to move beyond the conflict and corruption that has dominated civic life.

This isn’t a fancy private school for elite children. Asturias students are from a range of backgrounds from poor and indigenous to middle class. It was founded by Jorge Chojolan, who was, himself, a poor indigenous kid. Click here to see a video about Jorge and the school’s philosophy.

One of the latest accomplishments at Asturias is the new library, which still has many needs, particularly good science books in Spanish.  Librarians Without Borders (I’ve heard of doctors, but never librarians without borders) has helped them create the library, which will eventually be open to the community.  Public libraries—another of the things we take for granted.

Volcano Follies in Guatemala

Shoe-meltingly hot lava on Volcan Pacaya

One of the most popular activities for visitors to the Guatemalan highlands is hiking up volcanoes.  Some people approach it like collecting merit badges, listing which ones they’ve “done.” That’s a big job because there are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of them very active.

On our last visit to Guatemala, we hiked up Pacaya near Antigua, which is active, to say the least. It always strikes me when I visit developing countries how few safety rules there are.  For example, on Pacaya, there’s nothing stopping you from walking right up to the lava flow, except common sense, which from my own experience, (and judging from the video below) is often in short supply. Standing all too close to the lava flow—which felt like standing in front of a giant hair dryer—our guide suggested that we poke around with our walking sticks (rented from a group of local children who I initially feared wanted to swat us with them) to be sure that the scree underfoot was sturdy enough to stand on.  Oh, and be sure to check the bottoms of your shoes to be sure they’re not melting…  This just would not be allowed in the U.S. where we worry about keeping five- year-olds in car seats and constantly douse ourselves in Purell.

I recently scored my second Guatemalan volcano: Santiaguito, near Quetzaltenango.  Santiaguito is actually a junior version or extension of the much higher Santa Maria volcano, and therefore a shorter trek, which was fine with me.  The big attraction is that it erupts in a giant cloud of ash and steam about as regularly as Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. We started our trek around 6:30 a.m. in order to be in place to see it erupt around 8:30.  “Poco e poco,” and with several banana bread and water stops, we made it to the designated viewing spot, a kilometer or so from the crater, along with a fellow hiker from Hungary and a group from France.  Who knew scampering up a dusty trail in Guatemala could be such a cosmopolitan experience?

As can happen with travel, all did not go according to schedule.  Santiaguito was a little slow that morning.  We ate sandwiches in the company of a particularly persistent little begging dog and waited. The clouds rolled in, then the eruption began, half obscured, but viewable nonetheless.  The sound, even at that distance, was amazing, like a huge roaring jet engine.  Of course, if we had been closer, the clouds wouldn’t have been such a problem but I’ll trade a better view for a modicum of safety.  Here’s a video from a guy who was a little too close to Santiaguito for comfort. 

Poco a Poco: Biking to San Andres Xecul, Guatemala

Xela, Guatemala (a.k.a., Quetzaltenango) lies at 8,000 feet in the heart of the country’s

Biking through the farmland near Xela.

highlands and at the center of its Mayan population. Xela (pronounced shay-lah) is a great base from which to explore a huge array of nearby sites and activities. However, at

that altitude, I’m wary of doing anything that requires more exertion than sampling some of the country’s great coffee in a café or watching others exert themselves in a game of fútbol. Still, the possibility of a trip to a rural village that boasts the most colorful church in all of Central America prompted me to get trade my café chair for a bike to ride to San Andrés Xecul.

Traditional Mayan worship meets Catholicism at San Andres Xecul in Guatemala

Fortunately, there were only a few steep patches, and the friendly people in the village (one little boy kept pointing at us and saying “Gringos, Mama!”), a nice sugary Roja from a local tienda, and the Technicolor church made it worth the occasional gasp for oxygen.  Our guide from Altiplano Tours  was merciful: “Poco a poco. It’s not a race.”  Poco a poco, little by little, became the mantra of our trip and as I think about it, that’s a pretty useful phrase for most of life.

Cuanto Cuesta? Getting Psyched to Bargain in Guatemala

Embroidery for sale in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Who can resist?

In anticipation of traveling to Guatemala, I’m trying to get myself into bargaining mode. I have to do this because I am the world’s worst haggler.  Offer me something for $5, I’ll pay $8 for it. Put a cute kid in front of me and it’s all over. This drives my spouse, the world’s best and most unemotional bargainer, completely nuts.  It doesn’t matter how inexpensive the item the child is selling, he asks for a lower price.

I, on the other hand, offer an amount which is the selling price plus my “empathy quotient,” based on how much I envision the money meaning to the child’s family and how much I would hate having to go out and haggle with tourists if I were that kid.  Then I add more money simply because I’m a wimp.  Any ten-year-old Guatemalan kid holds great power over me. Then the word spreads that he has a “fish on the line.”  His friends show up. They laugh. They give each other high-fives. It doesn’t matter, I can’t say no. Last time I was there, a little girl asked me to buy some dolls.  I said I didn’t need them.  She said, “Buy them for your friends.”  I told her I didn’t have any friends.  She said, “For your enemies.” I told her I’d take two because she was funny.

So, if you see someone walking around Minnesota in winter wearing an embroidered blouse, sandals and carrying dolls, you’ll know it’s me.

Anticipating Travel: Guatemala

We’ll soon be off to Quetzaltenango, in the highlands of Guatemala, to visit our son Mike who teaches science at a school there. One of my favorite things about traveling is the anticipation of the trip.  I stretch out the pleasure by planning it for weeks. I read about where I’m going (in this case Francisco Goldman’s Long Night of the White Chickens, David Grann’s fascinating New Yorker article, Murder Foretold: Unraveling the ultimate political conspiracy, and a New York Times article on trekking the highlands). I talk to people who have been there, check Web sites, think about gifts I want to bring back for friends.

I plan partly because I want to do the best things available during my short time there.  But, I also plan as much as possible to avoid disasters. The more exotic and challenging the destination, the more I like to have some idea of what it will be like so I don’t make mistakes–get lost, get robbed, offend people, have them offend me.  A little planning makes me feel more confident and maybe that way I’ll blend in and avoid looking like a naïve tourist just ripe for fleecing.  Since I have short, stick straight blond hair, blending in poses a particular challenge in most of the places I travel lately.  When I went to Haiti, people regularly reached out to touch my very foreign-looking hair. “Madame Blanche!” On the other hand, how often do you get to feel that remarkable?

Ultimately, though I enjoy the planning and anticipation, some of the best parts of travel are those you don’t plan and can’t control.  These are little Zen lessons of being in the moment, as on our last Guatemala trip when I came upon the interesting Mayan women (pictured above) in Santa Catarina, near Lake Atitlan, or the mother and her adorable baby (below) in the square in Antigua.

Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.

Reading for Those Traveling to Haiti–or Not


Mountains Upon Mountains Near Leogane, Haiti


Haiti isn’t exactly the place I’d recommend for a book club trip, but it’s certainly a place about which book clubs are interested in reading.  My friend Patty, a fellow book clubber, is off to Haiti on a service trip to assist in a Haitian orphanage next month.  She’s among hundreds of Americans who travel to Haiti to work in a multitude of ways to improve conditions there.  Of course, literature is one way to understand the complex history, politics and culture of Haiti for those who go there and for those who simply wish to understand more about the seemingly unending problems of this country that is only 600 miles from the coast of Florida.

I, too, was in Haiti (thankfully before the earthquake) and found Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti books fascinating to read while I was visiting there, particularly around Jacmel. Also check out Danticat’s beautiful writing about the Haitian experience in Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!

In addition, our book club read All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, which is a somewhat horrific, but excellent novel of the Haitian slave rebellion and was a National Book Award finalist. It’s part of Bell’s trilogy of novels about the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803, that includes All Soul’s Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused.  Bell also wrote a biography of the central figure of the rebellion, François Dominique Toussaint Louverture.

Our book club also read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World about less than redressing the inequalities of medical service to the desperately poor.  Also recommended: Paul Farmer’s book, The Uses of Haiti.