October 19, 2012

Montreal-The Paris of North America by Eden June

Montreal, the second largest city in Canada and the largest city in the rogue French-speaking province of Quebec, is often referred to as the Paris of North America. This reputation is well-earned: it is the second largest French speaking city in the Western world after Paris. Its rues (streets) are lined with cafés, shop owners with often greet you with a hearty bonjour, and the city has maintained its own culture despite continuous pressure to become more Anglophone. So, jonesing for Europe and with the memories of holiday disagreements with family members still fresh in our minds, my friend and I hopped a plane headed for Montreal shortly before ringing in the new 2006 year.

Our Travelocity last minute deal included airfare and four days stay in the swank Omni Hotel near Mont-Royal. The deal was amazing considering holiday travel usually more expensive than any other time of the year. Once we arrived in Montreal, we understood why the deal had been so cheap…it was freezing cold! The temperature in December and January in Montreal hovers between -10°C and -5°C (13°F and 21°F). Heavy coats, gloves, hats, scarves, earmuffs, and boots are necessities. I’ve heard that the city is gorgeous and pleasantly Mediterranean-feeling during spring and summer. Ville de Montréal was still stunning in the cold weather. Snow gently covered church roofs, kids sloshed around throwing snowballs at each other, and a steaming cup of espresso or tea was always a welcomed sight.

When we arrived in Montreal, my friend and I agreed we were definitely not in the States anymore. True to the Canadian reputation, Montreal is exceedingly clean. Like any well-conceived city, the core of Montreal is set up as a grid system meaning that most of the streets run parallel and perpendicular according to the cardinal directions. A grid system keeps a city walkable and easy to navigate (or hard to get lost in). The metro system in Montreal rivals any of those in Europe. It’s clean, efficient, and can get you to anywhere you need to go in Montreal proper.

September 19, 2012

A Trip Report from Poland

by Waymon Meeks

Photo of Warsaw curtesy of www.kurma.net.


During my vacation, I was invited to be a special guest at a blues concert in the city of Chorzow. I guy I know who runs a couple of radio stations invited me to the concert. On the bill were Corey Harris, Harmonica Shah, and Ike Coose. One thing I found out, from the various people who felt comfortable enough with their skills in English to speak to me, was that the old Communist government did not allow them to listen to jazz/blues. They were allowed to listen to some western music but jazz and blues had an unsavory element that the government did not want to permeate society.

Chorzow is not a `tourist' stop. It is an old industrial town with a small historical center but a fairly large population. It is about a 20 minute drive north of Katowice. After the concert, a man explained to me that most of the people here do not understand the words you are saying but they could understand the emotion and how those feelings were being conveyed through the rhythms in each song. They could feel the power of the music without understandthe lyrics. The Poles too had `the blues' for many years and they are just being allowed to express them in their art, music, and literature. This was the only city where I met another African-American (or in this case, she would an African-American-Pole) since she was once a nAmerican but now full Polish citizenship. Otherwise the population is pretty homogeneous.

I want to convey my first in a series of vacation reports. I am not going to tell you things that you can read in tour books, but I will share some of the `special' things I encountered while traveling. I just recently returned from spending two weeks in Poland. I visited the cities of Krakow, Chorzow, and Warsaw.


While I was in Krakow, I took the opportunity to visit Auschwitz (1.5 hours outside of Krakow).What I experienced inside this concentration camp made this one of the most special moments of the trip. I will preface this by saying that Poland is made up of 96% Poles so a large black man stumbling around really draws attention. While touring this concentration camp, the older gentleman walked up to me and asks me where I was from. I told him Florida (he was from Tennessee), we exchanged the standard tourist greetings, and I went on my way. About two minutes later, this gentleman approached me again and made a statement. First he told me that his mother and father were killed at Auschwitz in 1941. Before I could respond to that statement he then said that he escaped from the camp and was a survivor. Looking at the gentleman, he looked to be in his mid/late 60's. Then he said that he escaped when he was age 5 and lived on his own during the war for four years on the run. No one dared to help an escaped Jewish kid during those days without fear of being killed by the occupying army.

I still had not muttered a word yet and then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo which consisted of a Star of David and a number. Next he told me something that would stick in my head the rest of my life. He said, "I guess God had other plans for me. You see, twenty years after I escaped Auschwitz, I found myself at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee during the 1960's." Standing there before me was a man who lost both parents in a horrible way, escaped the Nazis, survived four years on his own, immigrated to America after the war to live in an orphanage, and then eventually took the time to help others during the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually we exchanged contact information and parted ways. About an hour later,we met again in the crematorium. We just looked at each other. This was the only way out of the camp for most.

Peasant Food

While I traveled through Poland, I took time out to seek out the`peasant food' for each region. Small family run restaurants were the key in doing this. In central Europe you will usually find a meatdish and lots of starches and lots of uses for cabbages. Being the case, there is not a whole lot to report on this front. One thing to note about Poland are the `milk bars' you will find throughout the country. These are government subsidized places that people can obtain a quick, cheap meal. I was told that these places were set up by the Communist government 40 years ago and they have survived after the fall of the government. Mainly students, pensioners and people down on their luck use these places. This is basic food at bargain prices with the most expensive dish around being 15zl. There is a huge yellow menu on the wall which lists the current prices. These were good places to go if you wanted to meet the `salt of the earth people.' So if you ever get to travel to Poland, stop by one of these places and have a meal and strike up a conversation with the people you will find there.

August 23, 2012

A Black Woman's Tips For Safe Travel in Europe.

BlackTravels.com writer Veronica Hampton in Egypt.

As usual I spend much of my free time scouring the net for anything of interest to Black travelers. This week I ran across this list of great tips at TransitionsAbroad.com. It's a quick read and very insightful.

Other Travel Resource & Web sites for Women Travelers.

JourneyWomen.com - The Premier Travel Rescource for Women.

WanderLust & Lipstick - Inspiring Women Travelers.

Womentraveltips.com - A simple website for women travelers edited by Marybeth Bond, National Geographic Author, and Editor of Travel Girl magazine.

Rick Steve's Graffiti Wall Forums. Read what others have experienced and add your own comments and suggestions.

July 18, 2012

How Not To Be An Obnoxious Tourist.

I just read this very sad but true post by by Kate Sedgwick over at Traveler's Notebook titled: How To Avoid Being an Ugly American Tourist. (Thanks for the link Lola!)

"Tourist telltale sign #452: being a totally disconnected spectator." Photo: Jon Feinstein

Fair enough, there are obnoxious tourists from everywhere on earth, but the article states some darn good examples of ugly tourist behavior that are commonly associated with American travelers.

I especially like Lesson #3: "Be humble. Your country sucks, too."

June 18, 2012

"Slainté!" Interview with Alexandra Sutton.

Alexandra Sutton in Scotland

1. What Countries and Cities you visited. How long was your stay? Was this your first visit to this travel location? Do you speak the local language?

I visited Scotland, United Kingdom in the summer of 2008. I spent two months (May - July) traveling around the country. It was my second trip to the UK, but my first time going there alone! And it was also my first time venturing outside of London. In Scotland, English is, of course, the primary language; however, as you venture farther north, you may more frequently hear Scots (a Saxon dialect very similar to English) and Scottish Gaelic (pronounced "Gallic" by Scots) spoken, neither of which I knew before I traveled to Scotland. However, Irish Gaelic is quite similar, and so sometimes I could squeak by with words like "Slainté!" (pronounced: Slawn-cheh; translation: Cheers!)

2. Was this trip for business or leisure? Did you travel in a group/solo? How did you go about planning your trip? Did you use a travel agent or the internet?

I traveled as part of my master's thesis; I was intending to travel the country, interviewing various wildlife biologists who had worked on the sea eagle reintroduction. Although it was my master's research, I wasn't accompanied by anyone from my university, and although I was funded, I was completely responsible for my budgeting, planning, and everything else. I traveled alone for my entire trip, and did most of the planning online. I googled as much as I could ahead of time - climate, recent politics, culture, history, etc. to try to get a sense of what things were going to be like, but nothing I read could even hold a candle to the experience of being there. I bought my plane tickets online and flew into London because it was much cheaper. From London, I took an EasyJet flight (www.easyjet.co.uk - cost me about $50) into Glasgow Airport, and from Glasgow, I began taking buses. Scotland is so easy to get around by bus and train that it's just ridiculous. I visited almost twenty towns, bussing it all the way. You can buy tickets online (I used CityLink: www.citylink.co.uk, but there are loads of bus companies) or at any bus station, and the buses are super clean, centrally located in every town (Scots use them a lot, too) and generally on time. I also stayed in youth hostels during my entire trip, which was a brilliant idea, especially as a solo traveler. Staying at a youth hostel means you will inevitably meet people, and usually, you will instantly have someone to go out to dinner with, especially if you share rooms. This can be the singularly most comforting experience you could have when you're in a strange country and all alone. All the hostels I stayed in were spectacular experiences - I was a little worried because I'd never stayed in hostels in a foreign country before, but these were just fine. Because I bought most of my bus tickets on arrival at the station, or maybe the day before, I didn't use a travel agent. Also, if you plan to stay in hostels, it may really be better to book the trip yourself, as it can give you a bit more flexibility, and some space to change your mind (which hostels tend to be very cool about).

3. Over all, how would you rate your experience? How would you describe the treatment you received as a Black American or as an American in general? Would you visit again? Would you recommend this country to another Black traveler?

I loved it! I would move back to Scotland in a heartbeat, given the chance and the citizenship. People were friendly, kind, open, and generally a joy to be around. I received great treatment, both as an American and as a Black American. As an American: The UK is a country with whom we have a long, mostly positive relationship, and with whom we also share a very similar culture. This reflects in the relationship and interactions between British citizens and Americans.
I found people to be uniformly polite and interested in what I was doing, although they were open about their feelings on certain political matters. I heard enough bad Bush comments to fill a dump truck. However, the Scots in particular have a great sense of humor about matters of world import, and so I never heard anything cruel or even particularly uncharitable about myself or other Americans.

As a Black American: I got so much attention. Not in an unkind way, just more curiosity or interest, particularly when I traveled into the Highlands or the small towns. People would look, or look with curiosity, or look and glance around to see if it was just me or if I was perhaps part of some student group, etc. But it was always friendly curiosity, and never maliciousness. Extending this trend, while in Scotland I did not lack for dinner partners. Men are a bit bolder in Scotland about expressing interest, and so walking into a bar, I sometimes felt like a lamb amongst wolves. On the plus side, I got a LOT of free drinks!
I had shoulder-length, curly hair when I went, and people would stop me on the street to tell me how beautiful it was and ask about it, particularly young women. In general, people are very communicative--Everybody talks to everybody, no holds barred. It was sometimes fun and sometimes (like at the end of a long day) a little tiring to try to keep up with.

Many people had never seen a Black American before, and were extremely keen to meet me and ask questions. They were particularly curious about where I was from - fewer Americans visit Scotland than some other nationalities (e.g. Australian, New Zealander, Polish), and even fewer Black Americans do it. So there was a lot of curiosity, and people seemed to have a genuine interest in what I was doing, especially once I told them I was a student. In general, Scots would leave the topic of race untouched until I brought it up, which I almost always did, since they generally seemed curious. Once it was on the table, I got all kinds of questions, especially about the upcoming elections and Barack Obama. "Are you going to vote for Senator Obama?" they'd ask. "Certainly." I'd reply, and without fail, they'd heave a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness. That McCain fellow seems like just another Bush to me." Hilarious.

People also wanted to know about my experiences being Black in America: Were Americans really that racist? Why was the media so unkind to Blacks? What kind of house did I grow up in? What was growing up in the city like?---and so forth into the night. It was actually kind of a relief, sometimes, to be able to talk openly and frankly about race and my experiences being Black in America. A lot of Scots seemed able to relate to many of my experiences, many of them identifying as an oppressed people themselves. We compared "talking white" to "talking English" - the practice of hiding one's Scottish accent in order to appear more acceptable in business/school; we compared social issues and talked about being the victim of stereotypes (Prejudice against Scots dictates that they are uncivilized, lazy, drunk, criminal, etc.), discussed identity crises and family structures and just generally what it was like to live in a non-majority ethnic community in a wealthy western country. It was splendid. No one ever said anything even the slightest bit off or rude to me, people were sensitive about how they phrased their questions, and UNLIKE in America, nobody ever came up to me to touch my hair unbidden. In general, I had a great time and would definitely recommend Scotland to other Blacks; it is a unique and spectacular experience.

4. What was your favorite "Must See" location or activity that you would definitely recommend to other Black travelers?

Must-See City: Stirling is absolutely my favorite place in Scotland, although it has a close contender in Inverness. Stirling has so much history. Luckily, it was my first stop in Scotland, and I learned in just one day a full skeleton of the country's history and its heroes. It was invaluable knowledge to have as I traveled, and I even won a trivia game later on in my trip by happening to know what year Robert Burns was born! There's also good shopping, the city is entirely walkable if you don't want to bus, it's close to Edinburgh, Perth, and Glasgow, and the hostels are cheap and clean. Loved it!

Must-See Monument: The William Wallace Memorial absolutely staggers me to this day. Just outside of Stirling (hop a CityTour Bus for £6, and you're there in fifteen minutes.) It rises up like a dagger out of a cliff, and it is enormous. Hike the steps to the top, because the view is totally worth it. You'll look out over half the county and understand the love that Wallace must have had for this place and these people. It's an indescribable moment.

Must-See Natural Stuff: Loch Ness. It's HUGE! 23 miles long and holding more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Go there. The Hebridean Islands. Mull is my favorite and the most popular; for good hiking and crap weather, carry on to Skye. You can hop the ferry from the mainland to all these lovely destinations, and Oban (one of the main embarkation points) is a great place in and of itself to visit. Don't skip over Mallaig! Another port, smaller, but just as love-worthy.

Must-See Castle: Stirling Castle. You can wander around almost the entire thing, it's partly furnished and entirely lit, and it's usually un-crowded enough that it's easy to find a quiet moment alone in a turret, looking out over the green hills of Scotland, imaging who stood in that place before you. Must-See Other Thing: The Honors (Crown Jewels) of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. Find these at Edinburgh Castle. Beautiful, and such fascinating history.

5. What was the biggest cultural difference you experienced during your trip? Did you have any instances of "culture shock"?

The biggest cultural difference was easily the food. Don't get me wrong - I love haggis, and I love deep frying stuff. I just don't love haggis every day, and I don't love deep-frying everything. So having fried toast with refried beans, french fries, pan-fried sausage and haggis, and fried eggs for breakfast....let's just say once was more than enough. However, there are plentiful Kabob shops and Thai restaurants in the bigger cities, and so it's easy enough to escape to a nice vegetarian salad every now and then. Other than that, I didn't really experience much culture shock. I have to say however – that the anti-English graffiti and the experience of radical nationalism was pretty startling at times--although completely understandable.

I did notice that the behavior of young women was sometimes a little different. I'm a city girl, but sometimes the standard fare outfit for a Scots girl going out seemed a little...short...and tight...and low-cut...etc. That was a bit of a shock sometimes. And in some cities, girls will frequent only certain nightclubs. In Edinburgh, a girl friend of mine and I went out, and the first club we walked into, we almost left because there were so many men that we thought it must be Gay Night. Turns out it's just one of the bars that are popular for guys to go to and get smashed with their buddies, especially for Stag Nights (Bachelor Parties), birthdays, I-Just-Got-a-Raise, etc. The guys got pretty rowdy pretty fast and we saw immediately why the girls went elsewhere.

6. How would you describe the treatment/service you received in your hotel, area restaurants, and stores? Were there any places where you were treated especially well? Were there any areas, cities, neighborhoods in which you felt un-safe or threatened?

I stayed in hostels, in which everyone was friendly and I had a great time. I befriended a lot of the staff at my hostel in Inverness, and had a great time seeing the city with them. Restaurants gave reliably good service, and even bartenders in busy nightclubs were patient with me when I couldn't understand their accents. I was treated especially well in Stirling, at every restaurant I went to.

I didn't feel particularly threatened in any neighborhoods, but at one point, I was seeing a guy in Stirling who (I later discovered) dealt not a small amount of drugs. Walking home from his place near the council flats (aka projects) one morning, I did notice a few guys who gave me the shakes. Later, I came to understand that drug addiction is a growing problem in Scotland, and that junkie violence has increased dramatically. So, although I was only a little wary at the time, I became more cautious of venturing too far into the council flats later. But general caution should keep you safe. There are all kinds of rumors swirling about violence in Glasgow, and although it's been increasing, it's still generally a safe place to go. Scotland, in general, is a very safe country, and I never felt like I was in immediate danger.

7. What suggestions or advice about this country would you give to other Black travelers? What do you wish you had known about this country before your visit?

Go! It's fun. Be open minded and talk to people, because they definitely will want to talk to you. And make sure to buy at least one round of drinks, because that is a fast way to make good friends while you're sitting at the bar. I wish I had known a bit more about the weather before I went! I packed jeans and lots of longsleeves and sneakers. However, it got pretty warm some days (77F) and pretty wet on others. Which meant that I alternately sweated out my shirts and soaked my sneakers in rain. A lot of the girls in Scotland wear either flip flops or really cute rubber boots (Wellingtons or Ness boots: www.nessbypost.com) with their outfits, and I ended up following suit.

May 18, 2012

Six Months in Santiago, Chile.

By M.S. DeChelle.

One of the most memorable experiences I had was studying in Santiago, Chile during my sophomore year of college. I was there for six months, taking courses through an international exchange consortium. Although this was not my first time traveling to Chile (I had previously lived 8 hours south of Santiago during high school), this was the first time that I would be all on my own in a foreign country as an adult. I speak Spanish, so I wasn't worried about not knowing the language, but I'd forgotten a lot of "Chilenismos" (Chilean slang) and was worried I wouldn't be able to relate much with Chileans that were my age!

Since I was an undergraduate student, it was really easy for me to find an exchange program that would be place me in Santiago. All I did was a short Google search for exchange programs, and picked the program (USAC) that best suited my needs. Since I only wanted to go for a semester, this program was excellent, as it only lasted six months and ended in the summertime! The program was fairly inexpensive (around 5,000 airfare not included) and I was immediately put into contact with other students who were going on the program.

My experience was tons of fun! We were such a big group of International Students (from Guyana, Australia, China, etc.) that we always stood out, which was a good thing. Everyone wanted to be friends with the "cool international kids", so we were always traveling to different states or going to lots of parties. It wasn't all about partying, though, we also studied a lot and many people who had NO Spanish were able to hold lengthy conversations in the language. I was perceived extremely well as a Black American. Most people were curious about my history and my family, and most wanted to know the history of Black Americans in the US. Of course I got the stereotypical, "can you sing" and "are you related to Whitney Houston" comments, but they were not said out of malice, but genuine curiosity. Another interesting fact about Santiago, was most people assumed that I was not American, but Brazilian. Because Brazil is so close to Chile, many Brazilians in Chile or Chileans who spoke Portuguese would come up to me speaking Portuguese!

I would definitely visit again! Santiago is such a metropolitan city, with various diverse people and sites. Traveling from Santiago to major volcanoes, Easter Island and historic churches is very easy. First class bus tickets that allow full room to lay down run roughly 30-50 dollars with food included, and air plane tickets in country don't get much more expensive. If you're looking to experience a city akin to Europe, but without the expense or touristy feel, that I wholeheartedly recommend traveling to Chile!

My most favorite "must see" attraction was the hot springs located about an hour outside Santiago. Visitors usually spend roughly two days there. I went and shared a cabin with 4 friends. It was a beautiful cabin overlooking the springs and the mountains. After visiting the springs, we took a six hour horse ride through the foothills of the Andes mountains. It was a little scary, but also exhilarating. I could see the entire village down below! One thing to be careful of is the time schedule: buses only run a certain times and dates, so be sure to look up the correct time, we almost got left behind because we thought another bus would be coming! Imagine that! Another "must see" would have to be Volcán Villarica, located about 8 hours south of Santiago. This volcano is active, and takes about 4 hours to climb. Once we got to the top, little bits of molten rock shot up in the air! Don't worry, we were a safe distance away! One of my friends even kept one of the rocks as a memento!

Because I'd lived in Chile before, I didn't have any instances of "culture shock" outside the normal want for certain items from the US. One of the biggest cultural differences that my friends were shocked by was the extreme disparity between rich and poor. You would see Mercedes Benz cars driving past a family of homeless people sitting on the edge of the sidewalk. There would be a man begging in the doorway of a very rich housing complex. It takes a little getting used to. Also, if volunteering is part of your travel plan, there are plenty of organizations that allow foreign volunteers to stop by and help out. I volunteered at a local orphanage a couple times while I was in Chile.

I was treated fairly well. One thing that was a little putting off were the stares that I received. One place where I was treated especially well was in the small town of Siete Tazas, which holds 7 waterfalls. The people there were extremely nice and were genuinely interested in my story and that of my friends. One area that I would suggest staying away from is the giant party district called "Suecia". There were several reports of murders, stabbings and even gunfights in this area while I was in Santiago, Chile. If you want to party, I'd suggest going to local restaurants, hotels or asking around for open invite parties. These events were much more fun and a lot safer! I was also treated very well in the local shopping districts. There were no instances of racism or being denied service.

One thing that I'd wish I'd known before coming to Chile, however, was the proximity and availability of external travel. There are buses that run literally in every direction. If you're able to do a little research before you travel to Chile, you might be able to find easy and cheap trips to Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil or Peru! I believe that Chileans are an honest, open people who have had relatively little experience with Black people. They are keenly interested in hearing of our experiences and learning more about us!

April 18, 2012

The Joy of Paris.

by Claire Garcia

Paris! The city's name has conjured up magical connotations for me ever since I was little and my mother, a painter and sculptor, would entertain me with stories of the fabled city as she massaged Vaseline into my scalp. In 1949, my mother and her sister, along with their two friends, pooled their savings and embarked the long-defunct ocean liner, the Ile de France, to make a pilgrimage to the City of Light. Three of these young black women ended up staying in Europe and marrying European men. Only my mother returned, after her funds were exhausted, to Greenwich Village, where she met and married my father.

Her months in Paris were a liberating time for her, not only because of her artistic interests, but because it had been a world, unlike the U.S. of the 50s, where a Montgomery, Alabama, native could be accepted on her own terms. She only returned to Paris once, a year before she died at age 39. On that trip, she brought my sisters and me on a three-month trip to show us some of the greatest art in the world in museums in Paris, Florence, and Rome. So when I received a small unexpected inheritance the year before my daughter Lola went off to college, I thought that it was a fit tribute to the grandmother she had never known to take her to the city which had shaped my mother's dreams.

Because of our school and work schedules, we found that August, though it is the height of the tourist season and time when most Parisians vacate the city, was the only time we could take ten days away. After researching airfares and hotel prices, we found that the least expensive option for our chosen dates and preferences (a small hotel, centrally located) was an air-hotel package through expedia.com. We chose the charming Hotel Lautrec L'Opera (8-10 rue d?Amboise, 75002 Paris, 01 42 96 67 90), which is located on a quiet side street off of Les Grands Boulevards, 7 blocks from the Louvre, within two blocks of the Metro Richelieu-Drouot, and three blocks from Galleries Lafayette. Lola and I walked almost everywhere, dividing our explorations by neighborhood. This location was perfect for our pedestrian excursions to the Ile de la Cite, St. Germain, Montmartre, Les Halles, the Palais Royales, Place de la Concorde, and the Musee d'Orsay.

The hotel is housed in a former residence of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (famous for his pictures of can-can dancers), and provides a wonderful blend of old-fashioned charm and modern conveniences (including the rare, in lower-priced European hotels, convenience of central air conditioning.) Our double bedroom was a comfortable size and had a very clean, recently renovated private bathroom. But the exposed beams, tall windows, renovated original walls and the minuscule antique elevator which more often than not "ne marche pas" (out of order) added flavor to our few waking hours at the hotel. The hotel staff was integrated and very friendly and helpful, from the front desk to the housecleaning crew. I have recommended this hotel to other African American travelers, who also had good experiences there. A satisfying breakfast with plenty of fresh fruit, yogurt, and croissants was served every morning. Our meal strategy for most days was to eat an early, large breakfast and then dine picnic style on our beds with bread, cheese, and pate from local markets while we read the papers and plotted our next day's adventures. When we did stop for lunch during the day, we ate as many working Parisians do, from bag lunches in the many lovely parks and gardens which grace the city.

We bracketed our 10-day adventure with two panoramic views of the legendary city. On our first night, we took a boat (bateau mouche) ride on the Seine, the river which flows through the center of Paris. The night before our flight back to the U.S., Lola and I waited in the longest line of our trip for a midnight view of the city from the top of the Tour Eiffel. The boat ride gave us an introduction to the layout and major sites and neighborhoods of the city; the view from the top of the tower, with the lighted bridges and monuments appearing like jewels flung across the night, gave us an unforgettable last view of the magnificent city.

We purchased a Paris Museum pass (interMusees, 4 rue Brantome, 75 003 Paris, tel. 33(0)1 44 61 96 60, www.intermusees.com) which was a great bargain, as it allowed us free and unlimited admissions not only to major sights such as Versailles (where pass holders didn't have to wait in line for admittance), the Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon and the Louvre, but also to fascinating smaller museums such as the Rodin and Middle Ages Museums (the latter the home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries). After four trips to the Louvre, the pass had paid for itself. The pass is available at participating museums and monuments, major metro stations, the Paris Tourist Bureau and the department store FNAC's ticket counters.

We found the street life as rich and fascinating as the national monuments and museums. We had never imagined that urban landscapes could be so beautiful! Many times we had the experience of turning a street corner and being surprised by a perfectly proportioned square, a lovely statue, or a carefully designed little park. We spent hours as Parisians do, sitting at a tiny café table, watching the variety of humanity pass by, from elegantly dressed smokers to veiled Muslim women to diplomats who looked crisp even in the August heat to Italian high-school students on holiday. My daughter, born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, particularly enjoyed the richness of a truly multicultural city. We both delighted in the experience of often being mistaken for French by tourists and Parisians alike. Perhaps this was the reason that we, unlike many backpack-toting tourists, didn't have any problems with pickpockets on the few times we took the metro.

My long-dormant, school-girl French revived quickly. Lola thought it was funny that so many Parisians I spoke to had no qualms about giving me impromptu but friendly French lessons: correcting my pronunciation, explaining differences between words, and giving me the correct term when I was at a loss. I must say that Lola and I never experienced the legendary Parisian rudeness toward Americans, though we were unaccustomed to what seemed to be the benign indifference of the waiters in the cafes. We finally decided that it was a different attitude toward time: unlike the American servers, who are trained to inquire after 10 minutes (which would be halfway through an American meal) if "everything is OK", French waiters seem to assume that you will be there for a while, and that if you want something, you'll ask.

We also loved going to mass almost every other day in different historic churches. Since the order of mass is always the same, no matter what country one is celebrating in, we felt we could participate fully in the services. From the nuns, determined mid-day mass performed against the hum of thousands of tourists in Sacre Coeur to the quiet service which seemed to be attended by a handful of regulars at Notre Dame des Victoires, our churchgoing experiences in Paris provided several of the most memorable aspects of the trip. Not only was it spiritually refreshing to worship amidst so much beautiful artwork and historic significance in even the less famous churches and cathedrals, but at every mass we noticed that a significant portion of the worshipers (at least a third) were black, and there was always at least one black priest at the altar. I had never experienced this in the United States.

A special treat was being able to be present, on our last full day in Paris, at the Feast of the Assumption. We joined a procession of the faithful as it made its way behind a large statue of the Virgin Mary through the Ste. Germaine neighborhood. The procession made several stops at local churches and historic sites, where a priest with bombastic rhetorical skills reminded the listeners of the special relationship between France and the Catholic Church, which has lasted for almost 2000 years. The combination of religious fervor and fervent nationalism of his jeremiads amused us even as we were impressed by the deep faith of those around us. Several Parisian churches provide venues for musical concerts as well as religious rituals. Lola and I spent a splendid evening in the famous Eglise de la Madeleine (Madeleine metro stop), soaking in the strains of Schubert and Vivaldi while gazing at the gorgeous artwork which decorates this neo-classical church. Sunday concerts during the academic year here are free.

Paris is a city rich in historical and cultural sights, and ten days didn't give us anywhere near enough time to see all that we wanted to see. My most important tip for first-time visitors to Paris is to walk the streets! Much of central Paris is a marvel of urban design. There were so many little delights we would have missed if we had only metro'd or taxied between tourist sights: the statue commemorating Moliere on a little square near the Bourse, the sugar crepes from a street vendor in the Tuileries, the residence of one of my favorite writers, now commemorated by a small plaque, our favorite boulangerie where we joined working people getting bread and pastries discounted at the end of the day. We felt perfectly comfortable walking around central Paris at all hours of the day and night. I have read stories of African men (and African American men briefly suspected of being African) harassed by the police in Paris recently, but my daughter and I didn't experience anything of the sort.
Our day trip to Versailles was the only low point of the trip, and the only time when there seemed adownside to being in Paris at the height of the tourist season. Although we bypassed the gargantuan lines to get in, thanks to our museum passes, the human crush, mostly, it seemed, people on bus tours, in the poorly ventilated rooms was unbearable, and once you started through the royal rooms escape was impossible. For Lola and me a little bit of Rococo and gilt goes a long, long way. The only part of this excursion which we enjoyed was our lunch at a little café in the village. Instead of spending a day here, we wished we had had time to see the Museum of Romantic Life, a small museum on the pass plan.

After consciously seeking out the historically Black neighborhoods in London the following summer, I've promised myself to explore the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris on my next trip. We also wish we had known that just about everything, including stores and sights, are closed on the Feast of the Assumption. I had put off buying souvenirs and books until our last full day, which was the national holiday, and the entire city was shut down.

Those ten days I spent with Lola in Paris were some of the best in my life, and not just because of the adventure of seeing a great city with my own eyes. Even more than the incomparable artwork, I enjoyed the lovely architecture, and the multicultural richness of this historic city. I treasure the memory of sitting with Lola at a sidewalk café, watching the river traffic as we sipped red wine that was cheaper than Coca Cola. I hadn't felt the intimacy of our hotel bed picnics, dropping crusty French bread crumbs on the bath-towel tablecloth and exchanging sections of the left-wing newspaper, since she had entered adolescence.

The pleasures of trying out fancy skin creams at a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees or browsing the riverside bookstalls were simple but deeply rich for me. In the year and a half since our trip, I have often drifted off to sleep recalling memories of those 10 days. Perhaps one day Lola will share the experience of this city with her own daughter.

photocourtesy of David at A Muchness of Me.

March 19, 2012

Facing Forward and Looking Back—A Trip to Kenya by Marcus A. Ferdinand

My first trip away from the confines of the United States brought me to the African nation of Kenya. I have always desired to visit Kenya, and to this day I am amazed by the idea that I have set foot on the same ancient lands where mankind’s earliest ancestors would evolve into our present form. It’s humbling to think that hundreds of thousands of years have passed since my ancestors have last inhabited this land. In so many ways, going to Kenya was like returning home-- not only as a Black man, but more importantly, as a human being. Since I have always been somewhat disillusioned by American life, visiting Kenya has awakened a dormant portion of my soul.

In Kenya, I was able to forge a connection with my past and that has been immensely beneficial in guiding me to the future.My plane landed in the still darkness of the Kenyan night. As I was driven from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to my hotel, I was amazed by the level of development that Nairobi has reached. For the first time in my life, I saw the modern face of Africa. In many ways, the streets of Nairobi were no different than those of any other city that I have had the pleasure to visit. They were filled with shops, vendors, car dealerships, skyscrapers, hotels and anything else that one would expect to find in a modern capitol. This picture of a vibrant and modernizing Africa is typically not shown in the Western media...(click here to read full trip report)

February 18, 2012

"SEE YOU IN PAMPLONA! " by Lola Akinmade

Those were the last words I heard from some Italians I had befriended in Barcelona the day before I was heading down to Pamplona. The odds of that happening were literally 1 in 1.5 million people expected to be reveling during San Fermin.

The San Fermin Festival (“Running of the Bulls”) is held every year on the exact same dates – July 6th to July 14th – come rain or shine. As I stood in an overcrowded bus from the train station heading down to Plaza Castillo, eager anticipation could be felt in the air. Strangers stealing glances at each other yet sitting quietly on that bus, knowing we were all going to be experiencing something we’d be talking about for years to come.

I was meeting the lady who I was renting a room from in Plaza Castillo. Hotels in Pamplona sold out 6-9 months in advance of the festival, and so, locals opened their homes to strangers, renting out rooms at prices comparable to 3-4 star hotels. I couldn’t have asked for a better location – On the fourth floor along the world-famous Estefeta Street which was the final stretch towards the bullring! My roommates ranged from young Mexican ladies to young Englishmen donning white Elvis suits and white Marilyn Monroe dresses. Later on that night, I ventured out to Plaza Castillo where Pamplona’s infamous nightlife thrived with my camcorder in tow. Needless to say, it was just the precursor to what I was going to be experiencing in the upcoming days... (click here to read full trip report)

January 18, 2012

Seeing Amsterdam: An Interview with Renee James.


Renee James in Amsterdam with new travel friends from the US, Ireland, England, and Morocco.

So tell us a little about about your trip. Was this your first visit to this location? What was your "First Impression"?

It was my second trip to the "Land Of" Amsterdam! It is a fascinating place and the people are really the nicest I've ever encountered. I've traveled a few places abroad prior to this but even when I compare it to Paris (another nice place to visit)-- there is really no comparison. Why do I want to write about Amsterdam vs. Rome, for example? Rome was EXTREMELY prejudiced towards Blacks. There are several races and nationalities that live in Amsterdam and somehow, they all live among each other with very little racism, hate crimes and violence. As a black woman, I found it totally refreshing. In addition, they are among the healthiest people too. A huge population ride bicycles and walk instead of filling the air with emissions from cars.
For people who wish to visit the city, two tidbits of caution-- there appears to be a problem with pick-pocketers (although I never came remotely close to encountering that, but signs are posted throughout the city), and moderately priced hotels are not hotels at all. If you decide to stay at the Marriot (for example) it will be hugely overpriced and the beds are very hard. I opted out of the traditional hotel names we in the U.S. are familiar with and stayed at the other local hotels instead. Those hotels are like bed and breakfast residents, and the stairs are OMINOUS! If you haven't climbed stairs like these, they are breath-taking and the actual steps are very tiny but hold on to the railing and you'll be just fine!

Tell us a bit about how and why you decided to take this trip to Amsterdam. Did you travel in a group or did you decide to travel solo? How did you go about planning your trip?

On this particular 8 day trip, I decided to go alone. I simply wanted a break from my day to day grind, and needed this vacation to be completely stress-free and I got exactly what I wanted. It's funny that I could not think of one place in the U.S. where I could experience that for my important "stress free" vacation. I spontaneously "planned" each day (waking when I wanted and visited where I wanted). There were actually 2 nights that I was out from 1pm, until the following day arriving back at the hotel around 1pm! Every single place I ventured, the people (including the locals) were exceptionally kind. From Anne Frank's House, Van Gogh Museum, The Diamond Museum (yes, there is a diamond museum there) and even Madame Tussaud-- I met new people and made new friends every single place I went.
As mentioned before, I had visited once, but it was just short of 48 hours so I knew I wanted to go back one day. After this current visit, I'm certain that I will make this an annual birthday vacation from here on. I needed a vacation that would be "stress-free" and met people from Lebanon, Israel, Cairo, Ireland, South Africa, America, United Kingdom, Morocco, Finland, Pakistan (yes, Pakistan), China, Japan, Argentina and Sudan. Every single person was incredibly kind, generous and warm. There was no nationality that looked at me as a Black woman from the U.S., I was only HUMAN to them! And oddly, I did very little research prior to this trip and found everything I needed on the internet (without a travel agent).

Over all, how would you rate your experience? How would you describe the treatment you received as a Black American or as an American in general? Would you recommend Amsterdam to other Black travelers?

My overall rating for a trip to Amsterdam would be 10 out of 10! It was one of the greatest examples of a non-racist experience. While it is slightly more expensive than the U.S., you can absolutely budget a week and spend less than $395 U.S. dollars aside from your hotel, (I did have frequent flyer miles to use plus hotel points). But you can visit several museums, including taking a daily canal boat trip too. I really didn't do the "shopping thing", because that's not me. But they do have the finest designer shops too. Gucci was just around the corner from where I stayed. I was very near their fashion district. I would completely recommend this location to any traveler (group or single).
Another interesting fact; at 2am, I ran out of Euro, but I was still having fun. I was directed to an ATM and there were about 3 others that were there to obtain cash. That would never happen in the U.S.! Two of the three were single women. I also walked and took the Tram, Trains and buses everywhere. I really got lucky, because the one time I needed a cab, I asked a waiter at a restaurant about a cab and was charged very little (25 Euro to be exact-- it could have easily have been 45+ Euro had I called a cab on the phone).
One final note; the freedom to smoke marijuana does not dictate drug heads throughout the city. As a matter of fact, they approach it totally different than the U.S. so you won't really find people on any drug soliciting anyone or harassing you for cash. And the "Red Light" district is tamed at best-- it is not on every corner. The people of Amsterdam are just like every hard working person I know... the only difference is that you don't have to fear for your life when just want to have a fun and relaxing time.
What was your favorite "Must See" location or activity that you would definitely recommend to other Black travelers?
This is a hard one to answer definitively, but if I must chose, I'd say the boat rides on the canal. It is a very small location so you really can walk everywhere, but the boat rides on the canal at night was just spectacular! There is also the Square-- they have street performers who are very talented too.

What would you say was the biggest cultural difference you experienced during your trip? Did you have any instances of "culture shock"?

The biggest cultural difference was no racism or discrimination. I mean, literally, I experienced no problems in terms of race or gender. It was the safest I’ve ever felt!

How would you describe the treatment and service you received in your hotel, area restaurants, and stores? Were there any areas where you felt un-safe or threatened? Were there any places where you were treated especially well?

Well, the hotel (an American based name that we all know) was slightly more snotty. The local hotels (or bed and breakfast) was much more friendly. I never had a problem at a store (tourist shops or high end locations either). And it would be difficult for me to name the places were I was treated especially well, because everywhere I went, I was treated so nicely. I assume there would be an exception in the U.S., but I found every public place I went in Amsterdam to be the same which was extremely inviting and warm.

What suggestions or advice about Amsterdam would you give to other Black travelers who will read this? What do you wish you had known about this country before your visit?
As a suggestion to Black Americans who visit this city, don't be loud or abrasive-- they are not that sort of people. The atmosphere is not of that kind. The people (of all races) are very relaxed and attend to their daily activities there. If you approach anyone and need help or directions, a normal tone is most effective. I gained free train and tram fares and people would often help carry my bags for me while walking to each platform. I found that when you need help, a soft tone is best. I did witness only once that an American couple were a little "over the top", and the local people simply walked away from them instead of offering any sort of help or confrontation. And if I had to single out one thing that I wish I'd known prior to my trip there; it would be "shower slippers". The bathroom only had a shower-- I would have preferred to have shower slippers (thongs/flippers) during my daily bathes.
That said, I really had the best time while there so I hope your readers will enjoy my commentary. I'm glad I found your site! We should all travel more to appreciate other places and cultures.