Compromise and Companionship on the Road (Vámonos Vol. 18)

A good family movie gets laughs from kids and adults.  The movie shouldn’t soar over the heads of young, or bore the… less young. Easier said than done.  Jokes that adults find tiresome, might be a kids favorite part of the movie, content adults enjoy could be inappropriate for young eyes, or incomprehensible to young minds.  The word “family” signals a wide aim or an inherent compromise.  If you’re traveling with companions, family or otherwise, you’re going to have to compromise.

Some relish the chance to travel alone, they love the independence, but I have always preferred to have a friend along.  Funny experiences or surprises are more fun if you don’t experience them alone.  You want to be able to say “did you see that” to someone.  But a trip with companions, like a family movie, needs to accommodate a wider audience.

Accommodating tastes isn’t something to be worried or disappointed about, but there is an art to it.  First, keep an open mind when thinking about what you’d like to see.  If you’re seeing something new there is always an element of the unknown.  Sites you visit for the first time might match your imagination or they might not.  So try to keep a guarded optimism about the things you’ll see. 

Second, I don’t recommend trying to “hit every site,” in the hopes of pleasing everybody. Yes, you have limited time on your trip.  Yes, it might seem like you don’t risk missing something if you don’t touch base at every recommended site in your guidebook.  But you risk missing a lot more if you don’t give yourself a chance to enjoy the places you visit.  Remember, tourism is not an assignment from a boss you need to impress.  Some of us have to travel for work and that is a beast of a different stripe.  If you’re traveling for your own enjoyment, see the things that engage you, not just some travel writer’s top ten sites.

Too many times the idea of accommodating others sounds like surrender to us, and compromise becomes a dirty word. But remember, the people you travel with by choice or by circumstance are likely to be the most important part of your trip. They can expand your experience improve it. They may take you places you didn’t know you wanted to go. If you can find a way to engage with them you’re both going to enjoy the trip more.

Never Been, But I saw “Hawaii Five-O” One Time (Vámonos Vol. 16)

Do your homework!

I was once a sixth grade math teacher, so I am used to telling people to do things that aren’t fun. I tried to do as little of that as possible when I was a teacher and I try to do the same as the columnist for Vámanos but I want to tell you again that you should do your homework before a trip and it will be more fun.

Generally, I have suggested looking for people to talk about the place you’re going to, reading a guidebook or doing some online research. Basically, finding out as much as you can about the place you go before you get there. I stand by those suggestions (they are fun, not only in themselves but also because they make you more excited about the trip you are about to go on. I should never have called them homework). But there is also something to be said for reading and watching fiction.

I remember when I saw Michigan Avenue in “The Fugitive” as a kid and feeling a great connection to the movie whose plot was beyond my 7-year-old understanding (up to that point, I was just scared of Tommy Lee Jones). I had a similar feeling reading “American Gods” and following the hero all around the Midwest or thinking about rural Nebraska and a trip I took to the Black Hills while paging through Jason Aaron’s, “Scalped.”

If you absolutely refuse to read, you can often get a sense of the place you’re going to visit on the screen. I recently spoke with a friend who said that he watched Hawaii Five-O, for the sole reason that he loved Maui and Kawai. But watch out: screens can be deceiving. For instance, you may find yourself imagining Woodstock in Ground Hog’s Day, which is supposed to take place in Punxsutawney, Pa. or Cadiz in one of the Pierce Brosnon Bond movies, which is supposed to be Havana. There is something about film that is immersive and powerful.

Watching movies is not the same as reading a guide. They won’t give you a tip on where to get cheap booze or give you the phrases you’ll need if you get stuck in the hospital. But screens have the potential to do something the guide can’t. Fiction can wrap you up in a story, a tale can immerse you, and it might be in reruns on cable.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also en Español and English on their website.

The 13-Year-Old Tourist (Vámonos Vol. 14)

I remember feeling trapped at grandma’s house, 13-year-old Casey, trying to figure out how to play Uno by myself. Columbus Nebraska has never been a playground for the rich and famous, but when I was 6 it was great fun. I remember my pre-puberty self digging through dusty crates of old toys, finding my fathers discarded army men or walking around in a “little backyard” that could have fit my house twice over.  But all of the sudden, at 14, this little town wasn’t exciting anymore.

It’s an awkward age. At middle school in the interval between being a kid and a full on teenager, it’s hard to know which childhood things will still be fun and which will feel remedial. Being stuck in the middle can be particularly confusing when traveling.

When you’re a tween, a lot of culture is pointed above or below you. Children’s museums are generally for children a little younger than you, more adult museums can be hard to access, or boring. Historical sites are as interesting as you are interested in them, concerts are often 18 or 21 and over and (in this country) they won’t let you into a bar.

For adults traveling with a kid (or a tween) can have unexpected perks. A kid with a good attitude can lead you to do things you wouldn’t think to do otherwise. Going to a zoo, a carnival or a toy store, but these stops can be the most fun part of a trip.

Adults often forget the things that liked so much as children. And it is during those years between 12-15 that they do that forgetting. As adults, we don’t deal with bullies or peers who would make fun of us.

This week I have the pleasure of hosting my girlfriends little brother who’s in Chicago for Thanksgiving.  He’s staying in an apartment with his mother for most of the trip, but she has a couple of things to do in Chicago and I am the closest thing to a responsible adult that they can find. Trying to think of what to do with him I remembered all the things I loved to do when I was in eighth grade: hanging out at the zoo, the beach, the comic shop, or the conservatory. I was so excited. There are some things I grew out of. I don’t think I will want to sit in the massage chairs at the Sharper Image for an hour like I once did, but for the most part the thought of doing the things I did when I was 14 excited me.

I suppose the trick to traveling as a tween is not getting to caught up with trying to be an adult, the trick to traveling with a tween is to get as caught up as possible with trying to be a tween.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

Finding a Guide (Vámonos Vol. 13)

Experience cuts both ways. People often say they travel to “try something new” or “break out of a routine.” Novel and different things excite us.  Dr. David Eagleman said in an article in Current Opinion in NeuroBiology  “perceived durations can be distorted by… an oddball in a sequence,” put simply, doing something different can change the way we experience time.

On other hand, familiarity can make things easier to understand and enjoy. I once tried to watch cricket on TV, but the complexity of the game befuddled me.  I ended up getting bored trying to figure it out, and turning the TV off in frustration.  This is not because cricket is impossible to understand.  It seems like a lot of people play cricket, someone must understand it. But, without familiarity it is impossible to get a lot of cricket, much less see the nuance of the game (I am sure a European would have the same experience with baseball).

A guide can help short circuit this problem. A good guide is like a teacher with infectious enthusiasm. Their love for and understanding of what is fun about a subject, place, or sport bleeds over into you, the visitor.

A guide doesn’t have to be someone who wears a uniform, or a person that stands at a historic site all day waiting for tour groups. They certainly shouldn’t be a pair of headphones you can rent at a museum. It can be a friend or relative who lives in the place your visiting or even someone who doesn’t currently live there. They don’t have to know when the Louvre was built or how many stones are in the pyramids at Teotihuacan, a guide can be somebody who knows where to eat cheap sushi or what movie theaters let you drink.

When looking for a guide, use social media. Ask friends for tips for your trip. You might think you don’t know anyone who traveled to Korea, but how much do you really know about your 317 Facebook friends?

It’s true that life is short. There is not enough time to read every book, learn every language or play every game. There’s always more prep you could do. There is always someone who knows a little more than you do about whatever it is you hope to learn about.  But that is also the good news. Somebody knows about the place you’re going to and the things you might see. So take the opportunity to find that person and get a couple hints. That way when you get your break from the routine and are experiencing something new you can really enjoy it.


This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

Off Season and Off the Beaten Path: Saving Money and Making Memories (Vámonos Vol. 12)

Steven Levitt, coauthor of “Freakonomics” has a theory on how to be happy. He suggests a person should try to do things other people don’t want to do. He asserts that success is harder to attain in a crowded field than in an open one. You might not get a chance to be the best quarterback at your college but, if you work at it, you have a pretty good shot at being the best amateur lepidopterist in the student body. If you’re successful at something, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

In travel, success has less to do with competition. If you’re looking to enjoy yourself, or to learn about a new place, you don’t necessarily have to beat anyone. But, the laws of supply and demand still exist. Some very popular commodities are finite and their cost is affected by how sought-after they are. In this instance, we are talking about “cost” in a few different senses: the cost of time, money and comfort.

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I visited the beaches in Evanston. It’s a trip I had been avoiding for a couple of reasons. First, I like the downtown beaches. They’re closer to my house, they offer great people watching and they are free. The idea of going to the suburbs to pay for a beach seemed silly to me, even if the cost was negligible. But this beach is near where my girlfriend went in high school, so it’s emotionally significant to her. I wasn’t going to deny the trip forever but I can openly admit that I wasn’t looking forward to it. But this past weekend was improbably beautiful for October and, because it’s the off-season, Evanston has stopped providing lifeguards and stopped charging for the beach. This was no problem for my girlfriend and I because we were not interested in swimming.

We enjoyed the day, in part because we visited when there weren’t a lot of other people there. On the small beach, we had plenty of room to spread out our picnic blanket. The only being that interrupted us from was a particularly persistent seagull.

As a traveler, I feel clever when I find myself in a destination that is normally slammed but, for whatever reason, is calm and empty during my visit. One summer during college, I worked at the John Hancock Observatory. Late afternoons during midsummer, this attraction was not only expensive, it was miserably crowded and you sometimes had to wait in line for an hour to get on an elevator. But early in the morning before the crowds came, you could find yourself at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world three minutes after buying your tickets. Once you were up there you had the place to yourself.

Some popular places deserve their fame, while some others deserve their anonymity. I’m not saying that you need to skip the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris (though come to think of it, I skipped it when I was there on a day trip and still had a pretty great time). Some things can only be done at particular times of the year. You can’t go see the fall colors in spring.

But, I suspect, the parts of trips you remember best and enjoy most are not the ones that include a huge horde of people. Your favorite pictures aren’t the ones of the monuments that have been photographed a million times. And the memories that are important to you are the ones that are really your own, the ones that you don’t have to share with anyone but your friends and family.

Freedom and Bad Food on the Open Road (Vámonos Vol. 10)

These are tough times.  Everyone is being asked to make more from less and stretch dollars further.  Under these circumstances travel plans often get pruned, delayed or just flat out canceled.  One of the oldest ways to save money when traveling is to opt out of train fair and make it a road trip.  Looking for local wonders through a windshield can be an exciting way to see the world, and while gas prices continue to abuse wallets, there are no charges for additional bags, and TSA will not take your deodorant.

More importantly, a car offers a certain amount of personal freedom that a plane can’t compete with.  A roadtripper leaves at her or his own convenience; he/she controls the climate and the music.  The car makes stops and layovers where the driver wants, not where the airline wants to.  And while there is always the chance of a mechanical failure or delay, that delay is something that the roadtripper has some control over(this can be a good or bad thing).

It is considerably slower to travel by car then by air, but this doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Some of the best travel pictures I have ever scene were taken on the side of a small highway or out the passenger window.  I remember once as a young boy, waking up in the back seat of my grandparents Oldsmobile somewhere in South Dakota stopped in the middle of a heard of buffalo.  I can’t remember where we were going that day, but I remember the car trip to this day.

Some consider the Midwest boring country to drive through, sometimes they’re right.  A lot of Illinois “Mile after magnificent miles” are cornfields each identical to the one before.  I would have thought there was nothing of interest in the drive between Chicago and St. Louis.  It is a drive I have done a number of my times and I have always been in a hurry to get home.  But, on a recent trip at my girlfriend’s insistence we stopped in Springfield to see some of the historic site tied to Lincoln’s early political career and eat some of the worst tacos I have had in my entire life.   On balance it was a great little adventure.  And while our dining was imperfect, it was a side trip and an adventure we couldn’t have had traveling any other way.  I loved seeing Springfield, next time I am getting a sandwich.


Trip Tips


Don’t Push Yourself too Hard 

It is easy to become excited about making good time, but remember you’re on vacation this is not the amazing race.  Whoever is driving should be responsible and remember that they’re not being considerate if they keep driving even after they become groggy.  If you need to make distances quickly make sure you can share driving responsibilities.

Bring a Second Driver

See Above.

Be a Good Passenger

When you’re not driving make sure to be a good passenger.  Someone should be talking to and engaging the driver.  It can be difficult to drive for long stretches and its more fun and easier to enjoy the trip if you have someone with you to pass the time with.

Use the trip as an excuse to do general maintenance of your car

The driving you do on your road trip is likely above and beyond what you do on a normal day-to-day basis, the same goes for your car.  Make sure you don’t get caught on the road in something that can’t or shouldn’t handle trip.  Your wheels are your freedom out there and they will treat you as well as you treat them.


This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos Music another Window for Culture

Music another Window for Culture (Vámonos Vol. 9)

Eyes and ears need training.  A photographer can see a beautiful pattern in a heap of scraps; a musician can pick out a subtle difference in pitch that would be impossible for the audience to pick up on.

Travelers are untrained in the sights and sounds of the place they are visiting, especially if they are going for the first time.  The more foreign your surroundings, the harder it is to identify what you’re seeing or hearing.  This unfamiliarity is part of the fun, of course, but just like it is useful to dip your toe in and get familiar with basic vocabulary of the language in the country you’re visiting, a little familiarity with local music can go along way in a new place.

Both foreign and domestic travel offer the chance to explore music that you wouldn’t otherwise seek out.  Some cities, like New Orleans, Seattle and Memphis, are closely associated with the music that was born or grew up within their limits.  But places not necessarily thought of as homes for music scenes, or museums to a musical past, can be that much more exciting to uncover.

For example, if you’re going to St. Louis, a quick Google search might lead you to a song like W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” while a less adventurous traveler might just pick through some old CDs to find a discarded Nelly album.  Omaha was the birthplace of Elliot Smith and is the home of Saddle Creek, the label that Bright Eyes and Cursive are on.  A little music as cultural background can go a long way.

The digital music revolution has made finding the music of whatever place you’re heading to so much easier.  Once you identify a couple tracks that come from or mention the place you’re going to, you can likely hear them on YouTube, iTunes, or Spotify.  It’s easy to sample different styles and find something you like.  Then when you are there you can have a soundtrack to play over the sites.


Trip Tips

Use the Internet

If you knew exactly what you were looking for you already would have found it.  Use the internet to help you find music you wouldn’t normally come in contact with.  Start with a general search about the music of the place you’re going to and let the randomness of the internet lead you to places of interest.  Once you have found something interesting, use a music-streaming site to dig deeper.

Be Adventurous

Don’t let the fact that you generally listen to genre X keep you from trying something from genre Y.  Travel is all about trying new things.  This is your chance.

Check out Smaller Venues

Baseball fans may disagree, but to me a stadium is a stadium.  Huge venues have trouble holding as much local flavor as neighborhood haunts.  If you can find an act or a place that interests you, try and venture off the beaten path.

Do Your Homework

I may have given this tip before, but it is just as applicable now as it was then.  If you can get excited about some music or a venue before, you go you’ll be all the more likely to enjoy it once you’re there.


This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos Being a Good Houseguest

Being a Good Houseguest (Vámonos Vol. 8)

The Spanish say, “After three days, fish and houseguests get old.”  In my experience, sometimes the guests get old faster than the fish.  To quote a more modern phrase, “Don’t be that guy.”  It’s not difficult to be a good houseguest, but it makes all the difference.  The main thing you need to have is common sense.

There are any number of reasons why staying in a house can be preferable to staying in a hotel.  A home is a real environment where people actually live.  You can see firsthand how the people in the city you are visiting interact with their homes in their community.  A lot of what you learn while traveling is not contained in museums; it is witnessed in the lives of others.  It’s also cheaper to stay in a house.

But being a houseguest comes with responsibility.  You need to engage with your hosts.  If invited to a dinner or two, you should definitely go.  Remember, these people are going out of their way to make you happy and comfortable, so you should make every effort to return that favor.  At the same time, you cannot expect too much of your host.  If they offer to be your guide to the city, that is lovely, but it should by no means be expected.  Sometimes as a guest the best thing you can do is take care of your own entertainment.

In a previous article (Beer, Bread and Bananas), we covered food and eating in places where you may not be able to stomach local cuisine.  This problem becomes a little trickier when you are a houseguest. In order to avoid embarrassing or awkward situations, try to inform your hosts of anything you might not be able to eat in advance. If attending a dinner, it may be wise to offer to bring something to share that you know you can eat.

Always respect the place you are staying.  The main thing here is common sense.  You need to be clean, particularly in the bathroom, which you will likely share with your hosts.  Don’t leave the shower curtain open and a puddle of water in the middle of the floor, or something worse.  Keep your sleeping area tidy, even if you’re given your own room.  Take care not to damage any part of the house or apartment.  Generally, try to make the house a nicer place because you’re there.


Trip Tips

What is an appropriate housewarming gift?

Traditional gifts are generally the safest.  Wine, pop, beer, or whatever your hosts drink is fine.  Also, flowers or chocolates are nice.  If you want to be more creative or original, by all means give it a shot.

Can you stay out late?

You will often be on a different schedule from your host, so try to have as a good time as you can without making it unpleasant for them to get up for work in the morning.  If they have an extra key, that can solve this problem.

What can I do to show my thanks at the end of the trip?

It’s always nice to take your host out to dinner towards the end of your trip.  While a host or hostess gift is a good way to acknowledge the favor your host is doing, a dinner is a great final thanks.

Should you expect your hosts to be your tour guides?



This article will appear in Extra September 9.  As soon as it is available I will link the Spanish Translation.


This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos What Words to Learn First When you Can’t Speak the Language

What Words to Learn First When you can’t Speak the Language (Vámonos Vol. 7)

It’s amazing what can be communicated just through facial expressions and gestures. Often a simple transaction, like a purchase, doesn’t need any words at all. It is more difficult to communicate through gestures if you’re trying to explain to a doctor that you have an allergy to penicillin or need direction on the metro.

Learning a language, or some tiny pieces of a language, isn’t just about protecting yourself from horrible situations. Even on a small-scale learning a language can be fun. On a trip that only lasts a couple days it’s still worth the effort to learn a few sentence fragments, because that knowledge of the language creates a deeper experience of the culture, gives more meaningful interactions with the people, and makes you a little more polite. It’s hard to be polite to someone you can’t speak to.

When preparing for a trip start by memorizing a couple words before you even look at phrases or grammar.

Pre-grammar words:

  • Please
  • Thank You
  •  Hello
  • Excuse me
  • Goodbye

A traveler mastering these basic words may have the vocabulary of a one-year-old, but already they are much closer to normal human interactions. Speech is at the center of communication not words alone. Personality, and mood also get expressed through tone and pace of speech. More than that you can now greet and acknowledge the people around you in their own language.

There will inevitably be words that are more important at different times to different travelers. It would be wise to know not just the address and name of your hotel, but also its neighborhood. When I was in Cachuera, Brazil I needed to learn the name for a place that has internet access in Portuguese (an internetchi as it turns out). When in Guadalajara watching Atlas play Chivas in the classico I needed to know how to say offside’s (Fuera de lugar). At the time I thought my Spanish was almost fluent, but I had never needed that phrase before. With these examples in mind, it makes sense to learn the words that best fit your situation.

Learning a language is hard, but it’s important not to be discouraged when the words come out wrong. Half formed beginnings of conversations are progress toward more full experience. A person getting used to a new vocabulary will make mistakes, sometimes they will say something embarrassing by accident. It’s part of learning and traveling. Usually, it makes for a good story.


Trip Tips

Do your homework

Any boning up on a language before you go will pay dividends when you arrive. If you have a plane ride of over two hours there’s no excuse for not learning the basic phrases above while you’re sitting on the plane.

Keep your ego in check

People often comment that they speak another language better when drunk.  This happens not because a bottle of wine is a good French teacher but because without their inhibitions people are more ready to try and speak.  Try not to be embarrassed about your language skills and you won’t need the wine to loosen your tongue

Speak for yourself

People often comment that they speak another language better when drunk. This happens not because a bottle of wine is a good French teacher, but because without their inhibitions people are more ready to try and speak. Try not to be embarrassed about your language skills and you won’t need the wine to loosen your tongue.


Some people think of themselves as having a great talent for languages, it’s a safe bet that you are not one of those people. Whether you have this gift or not there is only one way to improve language skill and that is to practice.


This article is available en Español 

Previous Vámanos Licorice Liquors-from-Around-the-World




Licorice liquors from around the world (Vámonos Vol. 6)

Food from afar can seem strange.  Meats and spices from different countries sometimes appear to come from different worlds.  Some flavors and dishes, however, reach beyond the boundaries of the country or culture that spawned them.  These treats are too popular to remain provincial delicacies.  Among these are licorice-tasting, anise-flavored liquors.

Whether because of cultural exchanges between peoples over vast expanses of land, or due to the general popularity of the licorice flavor, residents all over the Mediterranean have created their own licorice liquors.  Ouzo and mistra are Greek, raki is Turkish, anisette and pastis are French, anesone and sambuca are Italian, anis and ojan are Spanish, and kasra is Libyan.  There is also the Mexican xtabentún, which, in its original Mayan form, did not contain anise, but had the European plant added to it by Spaniards seeking to tame its strong flavor.

Tame is not the word I would use to describe any of these alcohols.  They are generally after-dinner liquors with powerful flavors.  Often they are drunk diluted with water or served on ice.

That plant, anise, or Pimpinella anisum, is the principle flavor component in most of these spirits.  It’s a thin spindly plant that is also used to flavor some foods and candies.  To flavor liquors, the anise is distilled to an essential oil.

One thing that many of these drinks (like ouzo, raki, and anis) share is the ability to perform in one of the great bartender magic tricks.  The liquor, we‘ll say raki in this example, appears clear in a bottle or glass, but as soon as water is added to it, the liquor turns white.  It’s what the Greeks call Lion’s Milk or the Milk of the Strong.  This happens because the essential oil of anise is soluble in alcohol, but not in water. Diluting the liquor with more water causes it to separate.  The oil comes out of solution, creating an emulsion whose tiny parts scatter the light.  This also happens while preparing absinthe, and it’s a fun party gag.

I heartily recommend that any Mediterranean traveler seek out one of these delicious liquors, but even if you can’t afford that Greek vacation, you might be smart to find a bottle of ouzo at a local liquor store and drink some Lion’s Milk.


This article is available en Español 

Previous Vámanos Beer Bread and Bananas

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