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Some Observations We Have Made Traveling Around the World

It is hard to explain how intriguing Asia is. We love travel in Europe but to be able to see the mysteries of Asia is not to be missed. Unfortunately, it is a long flight to get to Asia from either the US or Europe and it's a long flight between many of the countries. During the four years Katherine worked in Asia she averaged nearly one million frequent flyer miles per year flying from Japan to India, Australia, New Zealand and all places in between. However, now that we've been to Africa, we'd have to add Africa to the list of fascinating places.

Still and all, both Katherine and I agree that the most dramatic place we have ever visited was Iguassu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil. There are 275 individual falls stretching over 2 miles wide and 260 feet high, which makes them wider than Victoria, higher than Niagara, and more beautiful than any other falls. You can literally walk over the falls on a set of bridges and walkways and stand right next to a wall of falling water so close you can almost put your hand in it. You can also take a boat ride along the bottom of the falls, and travel by boat out to an island in the middle of the river some 100 feet upriver of the falls; it's a truly electrifying experience. Allow at least two nights there and more if you want to do the local jungle treks. Of course, you must stay in one of the hotels there, either on the Brazil or the Argentine side.

We are invariably asked what our favorite trip has been and we have no simple answer. In the first place, we have never had what you could call a bad trip. Indeed, we have rarely had even bad experiences. On top of that, we have found that the rare bad experience becomes a great topic of conversation after the fact.

Our very first international trip was a three week trip to Europe in 1985 and that trip was near perfect. Our trip to Argentina was also a great trip but for entirely different reasons; it was the scenery and the penguins and the glaciers and, of course, Iguassu Falls that enthralled us there. And our trip to northern Vietnam was a delight because of the charm of Hanoi and the visits to the village people in Sa Pa. And, after this last trip to Africa, we'd have to rank that as one of the best also; but in this case it was for the animals we saw and the totally different scenery and the superb service.

Of all of the places we have visited, our favorite country is Italy and we've been there on vacations maybe a dozen times. The food anywhere in Italy is, in our opinion, the best in the world. The people are friendly, the country beautiful, the cities splendid and the wine is great. The only exception to this would be eating in Venice; the food there is generally acknowledged as being relatively mediocre at best for reasons we don't fully understand; but you can find good food if you get away from the tourist places. The single most memorable city for us used to be Garda, on the eastern shore of Lake Garda in northern Italy, just south of the Austrian border. It was just a delightful place to stay. However, on our last trip there in October, 2004, we were totally disappointed; it seemed to have become totally devoted to cheap, tourist shops and inexpensive hotels. However, we did find Sirmione, at the southern end of the lake, to be everything we had expected Garda to be. We would put it just a bit ahead of Tuscany based primarily on the general ambience of the lake but that's a close call.

Having said that, on our last RTW trip, we ended up in Provence, France. Friends had rented a villa there and we were to stay with them for a week. Unfortunately, they had to cancel after the 9/11 events but fortunately, we decided to go anyway. We stayed in Avignon and did trips around Provence from there. To our surprise, it was a beautiful place. Not as nice as Tuscany, of course, but still quite lovely. Clearly the wines are great, the cheeses magnificent, and the food generally great. However, when I go into a French restaurant I always have to find foods that I will like. When I go into an Italian restaurant, I like virtually everything. That's the difference. It should also be noted that, contrary to popular opinion, the French in the countryside are really very nice people, particularly if you can speak a little French.

Taxi drivers in most places-except Japan-speak English about as well as they do in New York city, which, of course, isn't saying much. However, in Japan they wear white gloves and are the most courteous and honest drivers anywhere we've been. We know personally of several people who have left wallets and other valuable things in taxis and even on buses. These have always been returned with no money missing and usually the driver will refuse any tip. Unfortunately, they usually don't speak a word of English. Even after four years of living there we had difficulty directing a taxi to some out-of-the-way restaurants.

Over the years, we have grown sensitive to American tourists. During the years when we traveled in Europe we found many of them to be loud, obnoxious and typically uninformed about local customs. They would yell at waiters because their salads weren't served at the beginning of the meal or it took too long to get something or the food wasn't what they expected. They always seemed to be complaining about service or how the food was prepared or the price of things or whatever. And they were always loud and obviously American.

We have never heard some non-American tourist make a scene anywhere. If you notice some loud, detestable person yelling at a waiter or arguing with a merchant, you can bet they are American. Most of these people had apparently gone off on their own from some tour group, were totally oblivious to local customs, inappropriately dressed, usually in a warm-up suit, and expecting things to be just as they were back home. We now avoid all conversations with Americans. Actually, we have generally been picked as being from Canada or from Holland. These two groups are always considered to be very friendly and speak good English.

Also be cautious when sitting in a restaurant in Europe, of criticizing the city or the people or the French or Germans or whatever. It is highly probable that the person sitting next to you in a restaurant in Germany or Italy or wherever, speaks excellent English.

It should be noted that Americans taking packaged tours often seem to think that the Germans and the Japanese are the worst tourists but that is based on their meetings at tourist stops. There, the Germans and Japanese ignore tour protocol and just walk to the front of lines while the Americans are politely waiting their turn in lines creating a certain amount of animosity and chaos. Another reason to avoid tours.

Few people, outside of Americans, wear sunglasses. Tourists are almost the only people who wear shorts, even in oppressively hot climates like Bali and Singapore. We used to think that the Americans and the Germans were the worst dressers and loudest travelers but we now think that that title should go to the Aussies. But nobody seems to be having more fun than the Aussies. We have also found out that, by and large, men everywhere are pretty plain, outside of those wearing suits. There is only so much you can do with a button shirt and dark cotton pants. I think that most men view spending time on the selection of clothes like Italian men view foreplay. It's necessary but you sure don't want to waste a lot of time doing it. On the other hand women, particularly in Asia, wear some of the most beautiful outfits you can imagine.

We have not found flies or mosquitoes to be a big problem anywhere we have been, with the exception of the flies in Paro, Bhutan. Of course, malaria, and some other exotic diseases, are still a problem all over parts of Asia and Africa. So, the good news is that as long as you don't travel in the wrong season and to out-of-the-way places, don't worry about flies and mosquitoes. The bad news is that if you do get bitten, you could catch some serious disease and die. Always check with the Internet sources for travel information about diseases. And get the whole package of travel inoculations before going to any exotic countries. And bring along a good bug repellent; one with DEET.

Before starting international travel, I was a very finicky eater. Then, after traveling in Europe for a number of years, I became more adventurous. However, I was unprepared for travel in Asia. I have now tried more foods than I ever thought possible.

Other cultures eat a lot of weird food. I'm talking about eating every conceivable part of the animal and fruits and vegetables you've never heard of. In Asia a fruit called a durian is considered quite exotic and does indeed taste delicious. However, it smells so bad that there are signs by the subway in Singapore prohibiting your bringing one on the subway; it's smell has been likened to that of excrement. Some of the more unusual delicacies we've run into so far include fried frogs, chicken and geese feet, mud snails, eel, and every kind of fish ovum. You are warned that in places like Vietnam and China, dog is commonly served as are chicken tongues and snake. On the other hand, just about every culture has good beer. By and large, I don't ask what I am eating anymore. Try everything; you will be surprised how good some foods taste.

Food in Asia also tends to be on the hot side. Everybody seems to have a culture that they believe has the hottest food; some say it's the Koreans, some say the Indians, some the Thais. In our opinion, outside of Japan where just about everything is bland, you can get too-hot-to-eat food anywhere in Asia. We happen to love such food so we have a tried a lot of it. By contrast, Chinese food is often sweet, very sweet.

Japan's specialty is raw fish. Actually, we, and much of the rest of the world, have grown to like sushi and sashimi. And you get used to seeing the entire fish on your plate, head, tail and all. However, one of the more unusual experiences was at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo where they serve grilled chicken. It was a going-away party for one of Katherine's employees. I generally eat only the white meat and at a yakitori they serve literally all of the chicken. They were serving grilled heart, skin, gizzards, wings, and even feet. So I had to wait until they finally brought out the grilled chicken breast. The catch? It was browned on the outside and quite raw in the center. But it tasted pretty good. Hey, it was eat that or nothing.

Ironically, of all the foods in the world, I probably like Japanese cuisine the least. Fortunately, the Japanese do all the other foods in the world, as good as you can find anywhere in the world. You name it; Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, or whatever, you can get first class food at any number of restaurants as long as you are in Tokyo or a few other big cities. Once you are outside Tokyo, you had better like Japanese cuisine. What most people don't realize is that the Japanese get the best fish in the world. They go everywhere and buy the best fish. And they will pay whatever it takes to get it. Of course, fish in Japan, particularly tuna, is incredibly good and incredibly expensive. But it will be fresh. At the Tsukiji fish market, the biggest fish market in the world, there is not even a hint of fish smell. It is spotless.

Speaking of eating out, eating at an American fast-food place is anathema to us. I think that in the 30 or so years of travel we have had a fast-food meal maybe three times. And one of those places was on Thanksgiving in Madrid. It was Thanksgiving evening around 6 pm and we were exhausted and looking for a restaurant. However, virtually nothing opens until 9 pm at the earliest. So we decided, what the hell, let's have Thanksgiving at a Burger King. So I go in and order the burger delux. And I pronounced it just like you'd think. All I get is a blank stare from the guy behind the counter. I repeated it several times to no avail. Finally, I pointed to the menu on the wall. Enlightenment. I had wanted a burger pronounced "day loose."

In reality, every country has some delightful foods and you'd be making a big mistake not to try the local foods. And, yet, whenever we talk to Americans who have just returned from some travels, they confess to eating many if not most meals in some tourist stop serving American foods or at some fast food place.  And if they are with a tour group, that's all they'll get.  All too often the decision of where to eat is left to the children who often will eat nothing but fast or junk food. What a waste of travel. One of our great pleasures in traveling is to try the local foods and drinks.

Day to day, however, both Katherine's and my favorite food used to be Mexican; we could both eat that anytime. But it has proved to be very difficult to get good Mexican food outside of the southwest US. In Tokyo, for example, four of the most popular foreign foods are Chinese, Thai, Indian and Italian. And they are generally superb cooks of any cuisine. But not Mexican. So we have begun to eat a lot more Indian because you can get good Indian food virtually everywhere except in the US; it's easy to order and easy to eat. When we were in London, one of our favorite places was Lebanese; which is middle eastern and similar to Greek or Turkish dishes. Still and all, given my druthers, I'd prefer Italian for a really good meal.

Most of the non-western world eats rice, a lot of rice. Rice is the basic part of virtually every meal in any part of Asia. On the other hand, potatoes generally and French fries specifically are ubiquitous on the plates just about anywhere in Europe. You also don't see breads in much of Asia, although Japan now has bakeries just about everywhere and they make great breads.

We have discovered that honking a horn has little to no effect on the speed or direction of a farm animal on a road. Short of pushing them out of the way with the car, they will move out of your way as they please. This wisdom, of course, has not been realized by any of our drivers.

You can haul just about anything smaller than a refrigerator on a bicycle; we've seen unbelievable loads being transported on a bike. Old jeeps never die. They will be resuscitated in some third world country somewhere devoid of all of the original comforts. On the other hand, the windshield wipers and the shock absorbers remain the original equipment.

We have seen some truly bizarre looking farm fowl in the villages, apparently due to the proximity forced upon the breeds. However, we believe that the random cross-breeding of ducks or of chickens has not improved upon what nature has given us already.

It rains a lot during the monsoon season. A whole lot. Feet of rain. When it rains, you can at least use an umbrella and stay basically dry. When it's hot and humid, nothing will keep you dry. It is hot and humid, seemingly all of the time, in Asia. In Japan, for the four months just before, during and just after the summer, it is in the high 80's morning, noon and night. And it is humid. You can work up a sweat just standing around in the shade waiting for a bus or a taxi at 8 am in the morning. But compared to a place like Singapore, it's temperate. On the other hand, the Japanese do not seem to sweat no mater what the temperature. Of course, they have virtually no body fat. Nonetheless, the temperatures inside buildings and restaurants or on buses is often unbearably hot for westerners.

Children everywhere are curious and generally friendly, if shy. Actually, just about everybody will smile if you say hello to them. The thumbs-up symbol is universally recognized but the ok sign is to be avoided. Saying "bye-bye" and waving is also fairly universally recognized.

The speed of check-in and the reliability of flight schedules are inversely related to the size of the airport. Probably exponentially so. And your platinum frequent flyer card is likely to be of little value at the Kathmandu airport, Nepal. Be prepared for this and relax. There is little you can do to speed things up.

Another thing we have found to be specific to Americans is yelling at the people at the ticket counters at the airport. Lots of bad things happen when you travel; flights get delayed or canceled and you have to change plans. But the person behind the counter had nothing to do with it. So why yell at them? Flying back from Greece in 2007 our flight got canceled. So, we and 150 other passengers were in line waiting word on what was going to be done about it. And, sure enough, here comes this American who started to make a scene and yelling at the girl behind the counter. So, Katherine finally goes up and tells the guy to get back in line and shut up; which he reluctantly did when I came up behind her. Other people in line then went up to the girl and apologized for his behavior. And the girl behind us said he had made a scene at her hotel chewing out a waiter before coming to the airport. There are obviously many responsible American travelers. Unfortunately, all of the irresponsible travelers seem to be Americans.

Traveling to any third-world country you will see some seriously depressing sights related to poverty and sickness. Adjust to it or it will negatively affect the entire trip. At a train station in India, there were a variety of legless children begging from every tourist. Our guide said that the amputations had been intentionally to facilitate begging and to simply ignore them. Who knows. You must see beyond the poverty and illness to see the real beauty of the country, its people and its culture.

On this last trip to Africa, we went to one of the local villages in Zambia; we always like to visit the local people but are prepared for what we are likely to see. Yes, they are very poor and live in hovels but they are happy people and enjoyed our visit. However, a couple who went on this tour the next day came back quite shaken. How could people live that way? What about the poor children? And so on. It ruined her experience and she never got past the poverty to see the people.

You can take a picture of anybody holding a child by simply indicating that you want to photograph the child. On the other hand, do not violate someone's wish to not be part of your photographs. Always ask first. However, I do view pictures taken in a public place using a telephoto lens, so as not to intrude on them, acceptable. Unless they make it clear that they do not want to be photographed. In most countries, the government does not want you to pay for photographs; it just encourages begging. Usually, we do not bargain for pictures, and we don't often pay money for them; traveling in Egypt was an exception. However, we have even been told not to reward children with candy either.

On that trip to the Zambian village, the couple with us brought along pages of colorful, peel off stickers of stars and animals and whatever. The children were delighted to get these. They are cheap, easy to carry and easy to distribute to the kids.

By and large, we have found shopkeepers to be honest. However, you do need to be vigilant, especially in tourist areas. The most common rouse is to short-change you. You give someone a $20 bill and get change as if you had given them a $10 bill. Pay attention to the transaction; don't be discussing the purchase with your spouse as you are trying to pay for the purchase. Watch your money.

You may get the impression, reading some of our travelogues, that we neither like trekking nor understand the motivation of the trekker; and you'd be entirely correct. Let's see if I understand trekking. You give up the comfort of a nice hotel room to sleep on the ground or maybe in a tent. Unless you do an upscale trek, you will have to carry everything on your back. So for the next one or two weeks you carry what you will wear which basically means you wear the same clothes for a week or two. There are probably no showers and outdoor toilet facilities are, at best, primitive.

Forgetting these discomforts, the reality of a trek is that you spend 95% of your time looking at the heels of the person in front of you so you won't trip on something, step into a hole and twist your ankle, or take a misstep and fall off the cliff. You really spend a minimal amount of time enjoying the view and meeting the local people. Did you notice the flora and fauna as you went? Not likely. God forbid, you decide to stop to try and get some pictures as you go along or photograph the indigenous people, holding up the trek. Your basic objective in a trek is to get to the next camp on time. It's walk, walk, walk, look at the beautiful view, everybody take a picture and then walk, walk and walk. Needless to say, we are not into trekking. We're into seeing the local culture and people, shopping and the ensuing negotiations, drinking the local beers and eating at the local cafes, enjoying the beauty and local ambiance and just getting to know the country. If they called it strolling, we'd have a more favorable view of it.

We also have nothing against backpackers except that we think that they tend to miss the purpose of the whole trip in the first place. If you read the accounts of backpackers, many of which are posted on the Internet and particularly on Lonely Planet websites, their travelogues seem totally focused on the trials and tribulations involved in simply trying to find an affordable meal, getting from point A to point B, finding a decent place to sleep and so on. Rarely in their write-ups are discussions of what the countryside was like? What were the people like? Did they like the food, or heaven forbid, the local wine? Did they like the art? And, of course, everything they see is "overpriced." Go to any major city in Europe and you'll see the backpacking set sitting around on the stairs of buildings or on the fountains eating a MacDonald's burger. And then, of course, they expect to use the toilet facilities at restaurants, which are much better than the public facilities, and they never seem to feel any obligation to buy any food or drink there.

One of the writers that caught my attention, because we had done the same trip, was one posted on a website about Vietnam. The traveler was very upset with the train accommodations he faced in going from Hanoi to Sa Pa, lamenting the fact that some people were able to travel in the air-conditioned sleeper cars but they weren't allowed in them. Well, Duh. These sleeper cars were transporting guests of the Victoria Hotel in Sa Pa and the people had paid to travel in them. Indeed, that's a major draw for the hotel because it's an overnight train ride. It seems that backpackers truly begrudge anybody with money who can afford to do things they can't.

I hate to sound elitist, because we really aren't, but to go on these "coming of age" trips, without some purpose, such as photography or cultural enlightenment, and no money, seems to be such a waste. Sure, when their friends 20 years later talk about the great trip they just took to Paris or Istanbul, these backpackers can forever say that they also visited Turkey or Greece or bummed around Paris when they were 18. But to what end? They can't afford to do anything interesting like go to plays or visit any museums or places of interest that charge admission. But, of course, how could they go to a play when their backpack goes wherever they go because they are afraid to leave it unattended anywhere. Their only experience with the food of the region is at some local dive. They can't afford to buy anything so shopkeepers don't want them around. The only people they get to know are other kids bumming around like them. And, you never see them with any camera, let alone a decent one. Maybe I'm missing something here. Look, if your kid wants to go to Europe or travel around Asia, give them a credit card and tell them to enjoy themselves. How much latitude you give them is up to you but at least eliminate poverty from their ability to enjoy what they will see.

Actually, being lumped in with the backpacking set is a problem for us because we travel with backpacks, albeit expensive leather ones. One of the great hotels of the world is the Oriental in Bangkok and we surely enjoy staying there. However, right by the guard at the entrance is a sign saying backpackers are not welcome. And, every time we returned from touring the city we were stopped by the guard wanting to verify that we were actually staying there.

It seems to us that the vast majority of people who travel casually, and all people on tours, are solely interested in seeing the sights at whatever city they're visiting. Ok, we're in Paris now so we'll do the Eiffel Tower this morning, grab a snack at a MacDonald's, on to the Louvre this afternoon, then a quick tour of the Arch de Triumph and back to the hotel for dinner. Sure you've seen the sights of Paris or London or wherever, but you haven't experienced the city. Paris is a city of cafe's and restaurants and neat shops and people watching. I will never forget the time we are standing on the wall of an old fort behind a restaurant overlooking the Tuscan countryside. It was quite beautiful and it was quite restful to just take it all in. Suddenly a man comes running up the stairs and asked us if this was a typical Tuscan countryside. We said it was and he then pulled out his little camera, took a picture and said, "Thanks, now I have to catch up to the tour."

To most people we know, going to a nice resort and sitting on the beach or by the pool is the epitome of relaxation. We view relaxing times somewhat differently. For example, while traveling in Italy we used to focus on buying jewelry or paintings or leather items or purses and such. Things that they were renowned for. It gave our touring a real purpose. Later on, Michael became focused on photography and we became more interested in art and antiques. But for real relaxation, we just love sitting at a strategically located restaurant, drinking wine, eating local foods and just watching people. One of the most enjoyable afternoons we ever spent was at a cafe' next to the Pantheon, in the Piazza della Rotonda, in Rome. Try this

http://www.skylinewebcams.com/en/webcam/italia/lazio/roma/pantheon.html . The restaurant is just to the left of the Pantheon.

We stopped in for lunch and just watched the ever changing vista in the piazza. A juggler came by, then a wedding party came through and took a lot of pictures, then some musicians wandered by looking for donations. We spent hours just sitting there and drinking wine. Couldn't have been more relaxing. And compared to sitting on a beach? Well, you get the picture.