The Little Burmese Tout in Training

I was an easy target, strolling happily towards the temple outside Inwa, Myanmar. The little Burmese girl chose me as the unwilling object of her relentless sales pitch. Clinging to my side she chanted loudly, “Lady! Lady! You buy my earrings? Buy my earrings! Lucky money! Lucky money!” She recited these words over and over in exactly the same order, a mindless loop of singsong, all the while holding up a selection of cheap handmade jewelry. My polite refusals were completely ignored or perhaps she simply didn’t hear me. She absentmindedly stared off into space while repeating her jingle, daydreaming of being someplace else, any place else. She was clearly bored with her job but needed the money. 

As a seasoned traveler, I’d seen my share of touts. Overly aggressive to say the least, they will do just about anything to make a sale.

I learned long ago to avoid eye contact. Keep walking. Say nothing to encourage them. But from the moment my plane touched down in Burma, I felt no need for such guardedness.

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If Only The Teachers Could See Me Now

I had to step back a few feet to get a glance of the Scott Monument from the ground up to the spire. It was terrifying and made me rather dizzy. (It reminded me of the time back in junior high when I froze at the top of a five-tier bleacher and it took a couple of teachers at least an hour to get me down.)   

I was in my last full day of strolling around the streets of Edinburgh, taking in the remaining major attractions I wanted to see before leaving. For several days since my arrival, I had walked past the awe-inspiring gothic tribute to the famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Located in the Princes Street Gardens, the monument, a cathedral-like structure, towers well above the other buildings on Princes Street and the surrounding area. This stunning piece of art, made from Binny sandstone, stands two hundred feet six inches tall, with a spiral staircase of 287 steps. 

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The Plague Comes Back To Life

The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago. 

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery -- and misery. 

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Samba: From Berkeley to Brazil

I love Sunday mornings.  Often I wake to the smell of coffee and know that the New York Times awaits me on the dining room table, but these enticements don’t get me out of bed. I rise to dance the samba. For no matter what the weather is in Berkeley, California for one hour, I am transported to a warm Brazilian sandy beach, a Carnaval parade line moving in unison, or a spontaneous Latin street party.  

At 11:00 in the morning I take my place in Elisita’s Afro-Brazilian dance class at the downtown Berkeley YMCA.  I rush to get my spot in the dance studio — behind and slightly left of her so I can watch Elisita’s every move. It’s in the second row so that, thankfully, someone blocks my view of the mirror. I am not fond of mirrors in general, and even less so when I wear spandex and no makeup.

I take off my gym shoes. My bare feet, liberated, feel the hardwood floor give as I step from side-to-side. I stretch while waiting for the music to start. I dance to escape my daily concerns and leave my worries behind. I dance rather than remain at home writing. If I arrive at class stressed or frantic, I won’t feel that way when I leave. 

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Would You Eat Your Lunch in a Cathedral?

Musing at Scorhill Stone Circle, England 


We trudged up the bleak hill, brown and barren. My husband, Gary, and I were hiking with a small group in desolate, wild Dartmoor National Park to a place we’d never been, following a faint path through the moor, a track barely visible in the water-logged, peaty soil.  Our guide informed us that people can easily lose their way on the moors—experienced hikers, skilled in reading maps, disappear, their bodies found years later. 

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Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas in Kyoto did not sound promising but the flight was cheap. Having spent the last several Christmases huddled around the small wooden tables of the German Weihnachtsmarken, hands wrapped tightly around steaming ceramic mugs of glühwein, we expected Japan to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of holiday spirit.

There would be no Christmas markets selling roasted sausages or over-sized steins of altbier. There would be no outdoor festival tables to provide the inevitable camaraderie that accompanies the mass consumption of mulled wine in freezing temperatures. Communication would be near impossible as both my wife Lauren and I spoke very little Japanese and could not read kanji or katakana.  

Nonetheless, one evening as we approached the bottom of our second bottle of wine, we decided Kyoto would make for a fine introduction to Japanese culture, with the added bonus of seeing drunken Japanese “salary men” stumbling around in Santa hats.

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PAUL'S PICKS: B-day by the Bay

Editor's Note: This article is part of a new series by writer-photographer Paul Ross featuring field-tested reviews of places, products and services that enhance the travel experience. All are evaluated honestly. If something is just bad, he won’t write about it. If it's really bad, or darn right dangerous, he will warn you. 

Story and photos by Paul Ross

This year I decided to celebrate my birthday early in San Francisco. 

As an AARP-certified senior, it’s years since I’ve been festive about my natal day and even longer since I’ve visited “Baghdad-by-the-bay” (coined in the 1940’s by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen). Growing up in Southern California, I osmotically acquired a slight sense of residual rivalry toward Frisco. We had sun, surf, sand, and they had fog, cold, and business. As an adult, I figured it was time to explore what many locals call “the City” had to offer.

The Golden Gate Bridge. (The only ways to get this particular view are swim, jump or take a bay cruise. I recommend the last.)


I decided to start out with a Bay Area classic: the venerated Mark Hopkins hotel atop elegant Nob Hill via cable-car-carrying California Street. The hotel features a museum of the hotel’s colorful history from its Victorian era founding through its heyday housing of celebrity guests; their favorite watering hole was the Top of the Mark with its almost 360 degree view.

I was fascinated by nostalgia-laced mementos and exhibits, like a video interview with a nonagenarian who was once a nude model and photos of the big bands that had played there. “The City” preserves her majesty in ornate buildings and cable cars, one of which I rode down to Chinatown, while vowing to hike back up the really steep slope to work off Sum of my Dim dumplings. 

When, on a family vacation, I first went to Chinatown as a kid, my grandfather took us all to a restaurant frequented by Danny Kaye, so of course I had a yen to go back. Located on heavily touristic Grant Avenue, the food is so tired that it could’ve been leftovers from Kaye’s days. But when I walked a few blocks from Grant to Jackson Street, I discovered Z & Y, which, despite its bland name, featured hot and spicy Szechuan delights I never dreamed of as an L.A. boy. Z&Y is on the same block as the P&R and the ABC restaurants and is as easy to find as 1,2,3.

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Confessions of a Traveling Author

I’m an author, Nancy King—no relation to Stephen King—but if I were, this story might be different.  As it is, I travel to independent bookstores in nearby cities, each time hoping I will find a room full of people waiting to hear what I have to say about my new novel, Changing Spaces, and wanting to buy my books. 

In one bookstore, a few people wander up to the display, pick up copies of my books and thumb through the pages. This is promising, I think. There aren't many people, but at least looking and thumbing are a prelude to buying.  I grin broadly when a petite, well-dressed woman approaches me.  “Are you the author?”

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Borscht, Blintzes, Ballerinas, and a Near-Death Experience

by Dina Lyuber

     My husband Roman and I were both born in the former Soviet Union. I moved to Canada when I was still in diapers; he spent his childhood in Leningrad before moving to the States. Neither of us had been back since, but after we’d met and married, we decided to go back to the USSR (as the song goes) – though the Soviet Union no longer existed, and neither did Leningrad. We were returning to St. Petersburg in Russia, and name changes aside, that meant a return to our roots, our long-ago home.

My in-laws still had contacts in the country, and we were offered free accommodation in a private medical clinic just off of the Fontanka Canal, across from the Summer Garden and minutes away from the bustling Nevsky Prospect. The clinic was housed in a Baroque-style building decorated with reliefs and statues of winged angels. Inside, the corridor was dim and narrow, permeated by a medicinal smell. A large kindly woman showed us to the spare room in the basement. There was a modest bathroom in the hallway. The water running from the taps had a brownish tint. There was a fold-out couch to sleep on and a good-sized kitchen. It wasn’t a bad space, but it was cold. It was August, and I was freezing. 

We spent the first days of our two-week trip rambling through the city. We never took taxis or buses, but padded down the wet sidewalks and absorbed the fresh-air smell wafting from the Neva river.

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Q&A: Judith Fein, Author Of THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands

This week, our executive editor, Judith Fein, published a book that has already garnered great reviews and word-of-mouth referrals—THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. Writer Caren Osten Gerszberg interviewed Fein in the Q&A below for a exclusive. Read on to discover the story behind the story. 


Q: In your book, you recount your lifelong quest--since learning six facts about your grandmother's life in Russia--to return to her village. Why do you think you were interested to learn of your family roots at such a young age?

JF: I think that some of us were born to be musicians, teachers, writers, social workers, or mathematicians. I was fingered by fate to find out the truth about my ancestors, and to honor all of those who came before me. My grandmother spoke with an accent, believed in unseen forces, and came from an exotic country. She didn’t want to talk about her past life. My mother refused to tell me about the village her mother came from.  And the more they stonewalled me, the more I wanted to know. I was a little kid, but I followed the six paltry clues I had like a sleuth. In fact, I can honestly say that I was living in a detective story. 


Q: Throughout your journey, you were repeatedly "hitting walls" when it came to learning about Minkowitz--such as with your mother and the man on the train in Paris. What provoked your will to continue the search?

JF: I was obsessed. No matter what anyone said or did, I was undaunted. I loved my grandmother. I was on the phone with her right before she died.  It was my secret mission to get to her village and find out what no one would tell me. I wanted to know who she was before she was my grandmother.  And when I grew up, I discovered that a lot of people were just like me. No one in their families spoke about what happened before they came to America. I was absolutely determined to find out, for myself and for others who had never asked the questions, but who cared, who were curious, who wanted or needed to know. 


Q: When you first arrived in the Ukraine, you made connections with older women. How did that bring you closer to your grandmother and your plight to visit Minkowitz?

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Falling in Love with Wells Cathedral

by Elyn Aviva

I never thought I’d fall in love again. And certainly not with a building! Yet there I was, heart pounding, eyes damp at the sight of her. 

Funny how the first few times I’d seen her, I never felt this “hit” of passionate connection. But that’s often how love strikes us, isn’t it? Not much interest at first—but then, Pow! Like a thunderbolt.

The first few times I’d seen her, she was just an object. A place to visit. A Gothic cathedral, begun in 1175, added to over the centuries, still standing more or less intact, which is a miracle in itself.  Described as “the most poetic of the English cathedrals,” she is the central attraction in Wells, Somerset, “the smallest city in England,” or so the tourist brochure proclaims. 

My husband, Gary, and I had visited Wells Cathedral several times, entering her, like so many other casual visitors, without (figuratively) even wiping our shoes. We had admired her carved columns and the delicate, repeating Tree of Life pattern painted on the distant ceilings. We had appreciated the acoustics in her octagonal chapter house and watched the colorful wooden figures on the nearly 700-year old astronomical clock go through their paces on the hour and quarter hours. We had marveled at the graceful scissor arches constructed out of two pointed arches, one facing up, one down, that brace the four sides of the heavy central tower. We had walked around her grounds to get a glimpse of St. Andrew’s Holy Well, framed like a picture postcard in a rectangular opening in a high stone wall. 

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Clowning Around With Burmese Refugees

A Partner Post by contributor, Emma Corcoran. 

The dense, mountainous jungle on the Thai-Burmese  border serves as an inhospitable home to around 14,000 refugees. Over the last three decades, fighting between Burmese hill-tribe militias and government forces has turned the Burmese side of the border into a danger-zone of murder, rape and hunger. As a result, thousands of Burmese refugees have fled into Thailand seeking a stability they can’t find in their homeland.

The refugees are housed in nine ramshackle camps along the rugged border region or live precarious lives as undocumented migrants in towns outside the camps. Many of the children born to Burmese parents in Thailand enter the world as stateless infants, because they´re denied birth certification from either country.

Early Morning in a Thai Refugee Camp

“I think the first time I went to the camps was around eight years ago,” says Andrea Russell, speaking on the phone from her home on the Canadian west-coast.  “I just couldn’t believe how many people there were and how little awareness there was in the rest of the world about their situation.”

Andrea had been a regular visitor to Thailand since studying there at the age of 17 as an exchange-student. In 2005,  a friend who ran an informal circus took her to the Mae Sot region on the Thai-Burmese border to perform for some of the refugee children.

Eight years later, Andrea is the soft-spoken, but passionate “ringmaster” and director of Spark Circus, a nonprofit organisation which brings together circus performers from around the world to perform an annual series of concerts and workshops for the Burmese refugees in the Mae Sot area. The volunteer circus performers use music, dance, games and clowning to bring a day of levity into the lives of thousands of underprivileged children, many of whom don’t own even a single toy.

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Meddling With Medieval Mysteries: Hiking through history in Southern France

by Fyllis Hockman

Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. I could just as easily be entering a medieval castle as a lodging facility -- and then I found out I was, though I suspect our modernized room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.

The experience, near Les Oliviers south of Toulouse, certainly set the tone for our Southern France Walking Through History tour—conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were immersed in history.

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WORLD FESTIVALS: Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi In India

A Partner Post by contributor, Anitha Aravind. 

In Chennai, where I live, there may not be a park or shop for every street in the city, but there definitely will be a temple for Lord Ganesha, the elephant-faced God. Under a tree, outside big houses, in apartment complexes or even right in the middle of the road, these temples are small but revered. Most people begin their day or any venture with a visit to their neighborhood Ganesha temple for a glimpse of their lucky mascot.

Ganesh Chathurthi in Chennai. Photo by Elizabeth Shilpa Abraham via Flickr CCL 

When it’s time to celebrate the birthday of this charming God, usually in the last week of August or the first couple of weeks in September, the entire country bursts into festivities. This festival, called Ganesh Chathurthi or Vinayaka Chathurthi, is a community affair celebrated throughout India, but nowhere is it as grand as it is in Maharashtra, specifically in Mumbai. For thousands of people in Mumbai, this festival is a main source of income.

The Story Behind Ganesh Chathurthi

There are plenty of myths associated with Ganesha, but the most interesting one is the story of his birth and how he got his elephant head. It is said that Goddess Parvathi lovingly carved out a boy out of turmeric paste that she had applied on her body. She instructed the boy to stand guard outside while she took a bath. When her husband Lord Shiva came to meet her, this boy refused to let him in. Known for his temper, Shiva ordered his force to attack the boy, but they failed in their attempt. Then Shiva himself attacked and beheaded this boy.

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Truffle Hunting in Alba, Italy: Tasty, tricky and sometimes tense.

by Fyllis Hockman

The dog's tail wagged impatiently. Lady -- a small, nondescript, white and brown mutt -- raced ahead to the oak tree, sprinted back and forth, nose thrust into the ground, then triumphantly started digging with gusto. Looking up with an air of satisfaction, Lady was handsomely rewarded before her master carefully scraped the loosened dirt with his pick. The five visitors observing the ritual looked on expectantly. Using his fingers to gingerly explore further, the truffle hunter delicately removed his treasure: a large, walnut-size white truffle, one of the epicurean riches of Alba, a gem of a city in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy.

Okay, let me just say that up to now the closest I had come to a truffle was in a Whitman’s Sampler box and it was covered with chocolate. And I’m pretty sure it had never been routed out by a dog. This truffle hunting is a respected art form in Alba, and proper training of the dogs is at its heart. Any breed can aspire to the job, but selection depends upon its resume. It must have a good nose (a trait the dogs presumably share with the region's prestigious wines), and trainers can ascertain that after three days. Once the dogs show promise, they attend the Barot University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, in operation since 1880, for two to three months of specialized training. Graduate school is optional.

Now let's talk truffles. Sure, to the uninitiated, it may just be a foul fungus, but to the gourmand, it represents the ultimate in gastronomic delights. It is judged by size, color, shape, texture, aroma - some would say offensive olfactory onslaught; others, fragrance of the gods -- and its overall perfection. There's a lot to be said for this smelly little mushroom.

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A Musical Journey Through Spain

by Jessica Kitt 

When I moved to Barcelona, my knowledge of Spanish music was as narrow as that of most expats travelling to Spain:  flamenco, castanets, and … flamenco? However, as my two-year journey throughout the country proved, there is a lot more to Spanish music than just flamenco. My first partial relief of ignorance came from a student I was teaching from the region of Asturias in the North of Spain. After about the first year of teaching British English classes in Spain, I developed a certain odd nostalgia for home and my Irish heritage.

Coming from quite a traditional background, with a family of musicians and Irish dancers, I was used to being surrounded by all things Irish. Frequently, I took to listening to my father and uncle’s traditional Irish band on my MP3 player before bed. One day, during a class with my Asturian student, I indulged in a discussion about Irish music and all the “exotic” instruments we had from uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to bodhrans (hand held drums). During this discussion, my student informed me that the music of both Asturias and Galicia in the North is Spain was surprisingly similar to both Irish and Celtic music. I promptly downloaded some of this music and was shocked by how similar it was. 

Traditional Asturian drummers and pipers. Photo by austinevan via flickr ccl.

This similarity between Irish and Northern Spanish music was again proven to me when I travelled to the North of Spain to work on an organic farm for a month.

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Medellin, Colombia: Dance Capitol of My Heart

story and photos by Paul Ross

“I would do anything for love, but I won’t
             dance, don’t ask me.”

                                -Meatloaf & Fred Astaire

I’m an American baby boomer who doesn’t dance. It was an awkward social activity for a lot of guys in my generation and the excuse for not doing so was that I was always playing in bands –for other people’s dancing. The story is plausible because it’s partly true.  But, somehow, there I was, salsa’ing mi cola off at midnight in Medellin, Colombia.

Salsa dancers, Medellin, Colombia.


Flashback ––

         Arriving in the capital city, Bogota, in search of stories with my wife and travel partner Judie, Chef Sofia Samper whisked us like compliant egg whites off to a large local market. There she shopped for select delicacies to be incorporated into a custom lunch at her cooking school/restaurant. Music thumped in the background throughout the marketplace.

         During the subsequent lesson in Colombian cuisine at trendy Casa 95, Chef Sofia danced around her kitchen to an infectious Latin beat. And I began tapping my toe.

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All That Money Can Buy?

story and photos by Paul Ross 

I suppose that, like most people, topping my “What if..?” fantasy list is the question, “What if I had a lot of money?”–So much money, that not only would I not have to worry about it, I would never even have to think about what I spent. What would I do with those kinds of assets? Support charities? Fund politicians? Gamble (and I include the stock market)? Or just buy a lot of stuff? And what form might the purchasing take? I already travel, so-- Cars? Clothes? Jewelry? Boats and planes? Art? 

$9500 bottle of wine.

In this last category, I had a chance to see what that indulgence might look like at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania. Grillionaire Joseph A. Hardy made megabucks through 84 Lumber, his building supply chain store. I didn’t meet the man but, from what I heard, what I saw in images of him scattered throughout the expansive property and the nature of the complex itself, I got an impression: big, brash, determined, impulsive, self-motivated, assured beyond surety, independent and generous; in short, a real American. Let me paint the picture for you from what I experienced. See if you get the same mental image.

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Finding Mario Bollag

story + photos by Michael Housewright

Brunello di Montalcino is perhaps the finest wine produced in Italy. It is made entirely from Sangiovese grapes, grown just outside the hilltop town of Montalcino, in Tuscany. It was the first wine I ever loved.

I met Mario Bollag  at a wine bar I curated in Houston, Texas. He spoke impeccable English, and was easily the most charming winemaker I had met in all my years in the business. In addition, he made outstanding Brunello at his winery, Terrlasole.  We hit it off immediately, talked, and tasted wine for several hours. He invited me to visit him and the winery as soon as I could make my way overseas.

Less than two months after Mario’s visit to Houston, I took him up on his offer, and went to Italy. With my wife in tow, and a rental Volkswagen Golf procured, we set out from Rome airport in search of Mario Bollag.  Being a frequent traveler to Italy I assumed finding Mario in tiny Montalcino would be a cakewalk. I was wrong.

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Standing at the top of the Man-Made World

by Jolandi Steven

The Arabian music and lights are soft and atmospheric, conjuring up wild desert landscapes in my imagination: falcons frozen on invisible air currents, the loping gate of a camel transporting exotic spices in the blazing heat of late summer, rolling rust-red dunes forming an undulating sea of sand, a Bedouin tent shimmering mirage-like in the softening colours of sunset. The music falls squarely in the category of elevator music, appropriately playing in a parcel-sized space that doesn’t seem to be moving, despite the digital numbers on the display screens that are hopping and skipping playfully over entire floors, teasing and tormenting my eyes. Before long, the elevator that makes the longest travel distance in the world, and travels at a speed of up to 10 metres per second, effortlessly glides to a graceful stop. Polished steel doors slide open with what sounds like a barely audible sigh. Twelve people step out on level 124.

It has taken less than a minute to reach our destination, despite the sludge-like queue that imprisoned us at the bottom for over an hour. Only a couple of handfuls of the 28, 261 glass panels that clad this marvel of engineering shield me from empty space and certain death. The sheer glass walls inexplicably negate my usual fear of heights, and I am irresistibly drawn to them. Pressing my palms and nose against the cold glass, I try to imagine the ant-like bodies of the 12,000 workers that scurried around during the height of its six year construction. I feel small and insignificant. A coward cocooned by a glass case. I gaze out towards an imagined city built out of Lego blocks. Nothing feels quite real from this height.

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