Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: China edition

If you’ve been out of the country, you’ve had this experience. Maybe it was a smell, sight, sound, or perhaps a taste—something caused you to stop and think to yourself “man, that sh*t would not fly back home.” Some travelers may cast judgement on the offending odor, taste, or action, while others acknowledge that a new culture comes with new norms. Either way, it’s why we travel.

Stewed rabbit heads. Yup, you eat the brain.

My wife and I lived in Paris for a year, and after the umpteenth time murmuring this phrase in disbelief, I finally decided to write some of them down. It was fun exercise, one I promised to continue.

Then I booked a trip to China.

Most Westerners don’t need to travel here to know this country will challenge most sensibilities. It seems Western media can’t mention China without showing smog-obscured skyscrapers or street vendors serving stir-fried crickets. It was my third trip to this country so I was ready for the onslaught.

I nearly ate “Man’s Best Friend” in the process. Nearly. And I can’t wait to go back.


“Let Me Clear My Throat”

Once you land in China, it likely won’t take long for you to hear someone violently clear the contents of their bronchial tubes—a sound about as pleasant D.J. Kool’s 1996 release “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Most often the sidewalk will be the end recipient of these mucous expulsions, but handkerchiefs, paper brochures, garbage bins, and planters are all likely receptacles. But, if I had to hazard a guess, the floor of an elevator, restaurant, bus, or plane may test most Western sensibilities.

Brace your ears for the vulgar sound and be sure to check the surface before you set anything down, including your derrière. On a positive note, if the notoriously poor air quality of China negatively affects your lungs, don’t be shy.


Wide Boulevards to Nowhere

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-8175We spent a week in Dandong near the Chinese border with North Korea, an area that has seen massive development in recent years. According to commercials on the English language channel from Chinese Central Television (CCTV), this location is poised to be the next major port to northeast Asia. Large patches of grasslands and mudflats were reclaimed to house factories and office buildings with massive six-lane arterials to connect them all. Unfortunately, the hive of commerce has yet to materialize—buildings lie dormant and the massive arterials remain unused save the periodic scooter. Meridians have become overgrown with weeds and, courtesy of extreme winters, potholes are numerous.


Sharing Plates

When you eat out in a Chinese restaurant, expect that your meal will include a starch (i.e. rice, noodles, or dumplings), a meat dish, and a vegetable dish.  Our Chinese hosts made sure every meal maintained this balance, even though most meat dishes contained vegetables, most vegetable dishes contained meat, and starch dishes included both meat and vegetables. Also expect that aside from a personal bowl of rice, your meal will be served family style without serving utensils. That’s right: everyone eats directly from shared plates with their chopsticks making repeated trips to and from attendee’s mouths.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1146As an only child, it was obvious to me that the Chinese – a country of mostly only children courtesy of the One Child Policy – are remarkably good sharers.

In the United States, it’s considered rude if a diner so much as reaches over someone else’s plate in case a microscopic skin flake should fall from their arm. And if the same tortilla chip makes two trips to the same bowl of salsa – i.e. “double dipping” – you might as well lick your hand and slap it across the face of your host.

Despite the apparent lawlessness that permits this reckless exchange of germs, there are rules that should be followed when sharing plates in China:

  1. If you grasped a morsel with your chopsticks, you’re committed and can’t leave it on the plate, despite the notoriously waxy surfaces of Chinese chopsticks between bumbling American fingers.
  2. If a tablemate is clearly moving towards a specific morsel, it’s been claimed: sticks off.
  3. If you think that a grasped morsel has too much sauce on it, you can gently rub it off on the side of the platter or dip it in your personal bowl of rice but do not shake it off over the plate.

No matter where you fall on communal dining, the large rotating tabletop (“Lazy Susan”) that was born from it is great fun. But be mindful of the poised chopsticks of your tablemates before spinning and, for the sake of glasses of tea and beer, keep an eye on overhanging plates.


Babies with Assless Chaps

I don’t have a picture of this, but you have to take my word for it: it’s commonplace to see babies who, instead of diapers, sport crotchless pants. I applaud the reduction of disposable diapers in our landfills, but it does beg the question, where does a baby “go” when the time comes? It’s hardly a large sample size, but I’ve seen a mother hold her baby over a planter, and another lay out newspaper on the floor of a department store.


All sorts of animals for food

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1101If it has legs, fins, or wings and a pulse, chances are good that it has graced a Chinese dinner plate at one point or another. Cat, dog, turtle, jellyfish, snake, silkworm pupae—the list is darn-near infinite.

Americans prefer our protein choices to be simple: beef, chicken, pork, fish, or seafood. But we don’t like to be reminded of the repercussions of our dining choices (that’s why we don’t call it “pig” and “cow”). Sure, we understand that the animal we just consumed had eyes, but we prefer preparations that keep our blissful ignorance intact. But in China the heads of animals are blatantly served as their own course – eyes and all – with nothing more than a white plate and a pair of chopsticks (I now know the different techniques to crack open the duck and rabbit skulls with one’s teeth).

In fact, it’s difficult to walk into a restaurant in China without looking your potential dinner straight in the face, whether it be a pufferfish, octopus, turtle, or crab. A friend found a civet and two species of heron in the kitchen of a small restaurant in southern China.

I pride myself on being an adventurous eater. Some of the Chinese dining choices may test American palettes and sensibilities, but I recognize that some of my choices are equally offensive to other cultures, e.g. beef to Hindus and pork to Muslims and Jews. If I’m presented with an opportunity to try a new type of meat, and the species isn’t endangered, chances are good that it will wind up in my mouth.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1098Silkworm pupae were offered at many restaurants in northeastern China. “I am definitely trying that at some point,” I casually mentioned to our guide, having decided that it would be a noteworthy stamp in my culinary passport.

“Okay,” he responded, and handed me two of the kumquat-sized brown larvae straight from the refrigerator. I’d expected that they’d be prepared with some flavorful sauce and, well, not served so … raw. But I no longer had an option: the exchange had attracted the attention of the restaurant proprietor and an adjacent table of customers already intrigued by the presence of westerners.

As soon as the cold exoskeleton hit my tongue, I knew that my expectations for how the meal should have been prepared no longer mattered. I positioned it between molars and braced myself; the inevitable “pop” brought forth a rush of cold fluid the viscosity of expired milk. Despite being a consistency that would find most palettes heaving, aside from a slight saltiness, it was quite bland.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1152I gave a “thumbs up” to all the expectant, and now slightly disappointed, onlookers in the room and gave myself a pat on the back for not dousing my tablemates with the contents of my stomach. I finished the second one before my taste buds had the opportunity recover from the shock of the first. Fragments of the exoskeleton remained between my teeth as a reminder of the experience.

The menu at the restaurant in our five-star hotel filled the entire wall with beautiful images of potential entrees, very helpful for the non-literate. I selected a dish that looked similar to pulled pork and, almost immediately, our Chinese guide suggested that I find an alternative.

“You won’t like that,” he presumed. “It’s duck.”

“Oh, really? I love duck,” I replied, slightly offended. I take great pride in being able to enjoy any and all foods around the world, and I’ve enjoyed Peking Duck in both Beijing and Seattle.

“No, dock,” he insisted, in his thickly-accented English. It took a second for it to hit me: “Ohhhh, DOG.”

And that’s when I found my line in the sand.


Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-7972Rules of the Road

This title is misleading because, to Western eyes, there appears to be no rules that guide traffic on the road. It’s not that any of our experiences were particularly chaotic (India takes the dubious “life in hands of driver” trophy for me) but if I had to hazard a guess, I think that whoever honks first, loudest, and most assertively is provided with the right of way. Even on lightly trafficked roads, maneuvers that would’ve prosecutable in the U.S. were as diverse as they were numerous: crossing a double yellow line, cutting off fellow motorists, driving directly between two lanes, driving into oncoming traffic (while honking to alert that they should move out of the way), running a red light, and driving down the wrong side of an arterial, to name a few.

My favorite maneuver was taking a free left from one two-way street to another by going down the wrong side of the street and dodging oncoming traffic one lane at a time, eventually getting to the correct side of the street by, of course, crossing a double yellow line.


Finishing Touches

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1183I don’t consider myself to be very picky when it comes to accommodations but I found some of the finishing touches on our hotels to be a bit surprising. If I pay $10 a night for a hotel, I don’t necessarily expect my pillow to be garnished with a mint every night. Unfinished electrical outlets and a broken shower stall floor that drains straight to the bathroom floor are one thing (my room had both). But I do find it unsettling to have a wall adorned with dried saliva stains, something that could be quickly remedied in two minutes with a damp sponge.

Even the absolutely immaculate rooms in our five-star hotel were accessible via a dark, dank hallway with peeling wallpaper and stained carpets. Just different priorities, I’d assume.


Waiting in Queues

If you are waiting in line, fully expect that someone is going to nonchalantly sneak in front of you. In the U.S., even if people are standing several feet away and facing the opposite direction, most people will ask politely if you are in line. Be assertive, keep close to the people in front of you, and you’ll be fine. Feel free to “mean mug” the back of their heads if it helps you feel better.


Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1088Room-temp Beer

When you order a beer, you should expect that it will be served at room temperature. And if they don’t have cold beer available (some restaurants do) you can take solace in the fact that all beer is cheaper than water. Seriously, stop complaining.


Public Urination

Aside from watching where I step or site wherever horizontal and vertical surfaces meet, as a man I find this social norm to be a relief (literally). I never had to hold it. Sure, others might find it appalling but I imagine that most men could behind this. Especially considering the ubiquity and cheapness of Chinese beer.


Big night.
Flatworms. A decent meal for a shorebird. Or a possibility for dinner in a restaurant down the street.

Nocturnal Tidepooling: Sea Pens on a Friday Night

Tidepooling at night at Golden Gardens, the light of Seattle in the background.

I haven’t posted in a while. It is hard to contribute to a travel blog when you, um, haven’t traveled. But sometimes adventures can be found just around the corner from home.

As a child, I spent many summers down at the beach, searching the area uncovered by the receding tide for a smorgasbord of animals without spines: urchins, anemones, nudibranchs, and tubeworms, to name a few. Tidepooling was a highlight of my summer growing up.

But I’d never been tidepooling during the winter.

Due to some astrophysical energy that is beyond my comprehension, there are roughly two high tides and two low tides every day. In the summer, the most dramatic low tide of the two is during the day—at winter, it’s at night. And so I did what any self-respecting thirty-something would do on a Friday night: strap on some rubber boots, a headlamp, and a couple heavy layers and headed to the beach.

I checked NOAA’s website to find when an especially low tide coincided with a Friday or Saturday night: a minus 1.8 tide at 11:15pm on Friday January 31 jumped out. I selected Golden Gardens off Ballard for the chance to see sea pens, a brilliant orange quill-like anemone that sticks out of the sandy substrate.

Before you judge my sanity, know that a dozen friends – from nudibranch neophytes to anemone experts – joined me on this adventure in to the unknown. No one had been tidepooling at night and, by all accounts, it was time well spent.

Highlights included: several massive Red Rock and Dungeness Crabs, a couple Kelp Crabs, and one Graceful Crab; a couple massive Moon Snails and a Sun Star in the beds of eel grass; a message in a bottle; and, thankfully, several sea pens … one of which, when stroked lovingly, glowed in the dark (courtesy of bioluminescence).





A small Red Rock Crab (Cancer productus)
A massive Dungeness Crab (Metacarcinus magister)


A Kelp Crab (Pugettia producta), liberated of several of its limbs.
Whelks inside a hollow post, with eggs.
An Orange Sea Pen (Ptilosarcus gurneyi)
Message in a bottle. No word on what it said.
A Moon Snail (Polinices lewisii).
A Moon Snail (Polinices lewisii)
The same moon snail, illuminated from underneath.



Chasing Spoonies in South Korea (#4) – Saemangeum Seawall

Chasing Spoonies in South Korea (#2) – Yubu Island

Read all posts from this expedition to South Korea

My footprints interspersed with those of a large shorebird flock, including several Spoon-billed Sandpipers.

“What’s your favorite bird?”

It’s a frequent question posed to birdwatchers and I stumble for an example that people can relate to in North America: American Dipper, Marbled Murrelet, and Harlequin Duck are all a part of my regular rotation.

But as for international birds, the answer is easy: Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And I was looking at one now.

It was the third afternoon of Cornell’s expedition to the Yellow Sea to find this critically endangered species, and only the first hour at our second location: Yubu Island, on the west coast of South Korea about a hundred miles south of Seoul.

The first two days at Nakdong Estuary in the southeast corner of the country yielded only brief, and distant, views of our valuable quarry. This was the first of two locations our partners at Birds Korea had identified as the best opportunities to find migrating Spoon-billed Sandpipers but, as any birder knows, nothing is guaranteed—especially when the total population barely clears three digits.

After participating in a seminar about Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Chonnam University that morning, we drove for over an hour to an improvised boat dock at 2:30pm. Once there, we were met with troubling news: eighteen photographers were already in place on the beach where we were planning to set up.

Photographers, getting ready for high tide.

Birdwatching isn’t popular in South Korea, but bird photography is. Birdwatchers and bird photographers have a contentious history around the world, and while both are equally capable of being irresponsible, bird photography is, generally, more likely to cause disturbance because it requires closer proximity to the subject. A 500mm lens magnifies about as effectively as standard-sized ten power binoculars; a 800mm lens—costing north of $12,000—magnifies sixteen times. The spotting scopes of better equipped birders usually start at twenty and can go as high as seventy-five. Greater magnification allows the viewer to be further away from the subject, plus birders can get satisfying views of birds that are less than the “full frame” images many photographers seek. (To be fair, camouflaged blinds, which serious photographers often utilize, are rarely in a birdwatcher’s field kit).

Let me be clear: I love bird photos, and I have good friends who are bird photographers. The advent of digital photography has fueled an explosion of high quality images from talented hobbyists, many of whom generously donate their art to non-profit organizations like Cornell and Audubon. But areas or species highly impacted by photographers create a conundrum for bird conservationists; compelling images and video are imperative to inspiring people to protect birds and the habitats on which they rely. This internal conflict is further inflamed when the species is at risk of going extinct: the parallel needs to address negative impacts to a species and raise awareness for their plight both become more urgent.

Curlews, flying overhead.

As we departed from the industrial shoreline, several large flocks of curlew—some of the largest shorebirds in the world—flew over our boat. We all silently hoped they hadn’t been startled up from the beach where the Spoon-billed Sandpipers had been reported. They were flying from that direction and surely would have flushed any smaller shorebirds.

As soon as we landed, feeling the pressure of setting up on a narrow beach with a line of other photographers, I grabbed a lens bag, my scope, my personal backpack, and a tripod and walked briskly after Gerrit, trying to keep up with his broad stride in the rising heat and humidity. Within minutes, I could already feel hotspots forming where my feet were rubbing against the sides of my poorly fitted rubber boots.

After fifteen minutes, we received a call on the radio. Dr. Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea, who had opted to wait near the boat dock to scan a flock of roosting shorebirds, had at least three Spoon-billed Sandpipers in his scope.

Approaching sleeping birds is much trickier than setting up a blind and letting the tide push them towards you, but there was no guarantee the rising tide would produce such a rare bird either. We had to go for the sure thing: we walked back.

We slowly approached Dr. Moores. As Gerrit pulled out his camera and sliding dish tripod, Dr. Moores gave us directions to one of the “spoonies.”

Trash on the shorebird roosting beach.

“See that black board next to the sleeping Mongolia Plover? It’s the third bird on the left. It’s sleeping.”

Once again, the beach was smothered in plastic detritus from the ocean: disposable water bottles, wrappers, even a laundry basket.

As Gerrit approached in a crouch, then on his hands and knees, then on his stomach, I quietly extended the legs on my tripod next to Dr. Moores and focused my scope on the black board. The heat haze was thick, and my eyesight shaken by a heart palpitating with excitement, but I found the bird.

It was sleeping with its head facing backward and its bill tucked underneath a wing—anticlimactic for species that is named after such a unique attribute.

For the past three days, I had been studying similar birds in similar positions with great anticipation, only to be crushed once the bird woke up to reveal the pedestrian proboscis of an everyday sandpiper, like a Red-necked Stint and Sanderling.

A “spoony” sleeping with a mixed flock of Dunlin and Red-necked Stint © Jason Loghry (Birds Korea)

But I could tell this bird was promising: a pale forehead, subtly streaked crown, slimmer build, smaller size, and darker auricular hinted at something different.

Then the flock stirred and the bird awoke. BAM! There it was: the sensuous curves that tens of thousands of birders would (and frequently do) travel around the world to see.

The bill doesn’t necessarily resemble a spoon. From its base, the bill dwindles gradually before flaring dramatically to create a flat spatula more than double the bills width. The bill then tapers to a tip to create an almost lobed appearance, like a gingko leaf, or the smoothly webbed foot of a duck. From the side, the “spoon” almost disappears to a subtle spear-shape.

In the gray plumage of wintering adult—not the comparatively crisp and colorful plumage of a juvenile with freshly molted feathers—this species is truly “a birder’s bird,” as Dr. Moores succinctly stated.

Finally, a Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Jason Loghry (Birds Korea)

Sure. But damn it’s cool.

We watched intently as the mixed flock of several hundred birds—mostly Kentish Plovers, Red-necked Stints, and Sanderlings—began to grow restless with Gerrit’s approach. I was lucky to find another sleeping Spoon-billed Sandpiper and watched in delight as a third “spoonie” saddled up next to it. The two rested with their bills behind their wings and one eye open, pivoting quickly from side to side like weathervanes in a mercurial breeze.

These two birds had found each other in a large flock, not surprising for such a gregarious family of birds. But, as the world’s population continues to crash, this behavior, as well as our ability to enjoy this spectacle, will become increasingly less likely.

We found four birds in this small flock and reports back from the other beach were of at least three, maybe four, additional birds. The “spoonies” had settled with another large flock at high tide but, unfortunately, the photographers had flushed them as they loudly packed up their gear.

The sun was setting but fortunately we still had three full days on Yubu Island.

Shorebird footprints in the sand.

The roosting beach.

Reverse Culture Shock: Paris

“The thrill of take off: the burn of reentry.”

Or it could be less of a burn: a mild irritation, perhaps. But if you’ve returned from overseas back to your place of birth after enough time to settle into a daily routine in a foreign country, chances are you’ve experienced reverse culture shock.

What was normal back home before our departure now stands in contrast. That cup of coffee just isn’t the same when you’re not on the edge of a bustling Italian piazza. You may now have to pump your own gas again, not like in Japan where you are fastidiously greeted at the gas station by bowing attendants. Gone too are the washcloths they cheerfully give you to wipe down the dashboard. Or you may complain about the sorry state of public transportation.

Either way, these fruits of cultural passage cause you to pause and reflect on the previously invisible strings that have guided your life to date. Some of it may be good, and some bad.

As Kristi and I integrated back to Seattle after nearly a year in Paris, there were certainly a couple cultural frictions that slapped us back to reality.

The Louvre (Paris, France)


Driving. Everywhere.

If you live in any urban center in Europe, you spend a lot of time walking. If you want groceries, you walk. If you want to go to the local bar, you walk. Gotta go a bit further than your legs can take you? Take a bike, jump on a bus or subway, and then walk. After ten months without a car, I found myself a bit depressed when two errands in Seattle required driving in a triangle, five miles to a side. This relates to the states of public transportation (see next).


The state of public transportation.

Very few people drive in Paris; everyone takes advantage of the widespread Metro system. And, outside New York, practically no one in the United States considers buses or trains as a viable form of transportation.

“It takes too much time” or “it just isn’t safe” are frequent laments.

True, taking the bus does take more time than driving. But the same can be said about getting to and from nearly any location in Paris. Everyone takes the Metro so that’s the widely accepted time it takes to travel between locations. Metros don’t have to compete with cars to get people from Point A to Point B the fastest.

As for public transit in the U.S. not being the safest means of transportation … yeah, well, it’s hard to refute that when your first bus ride home involved a drunken disorderly, assault with a pantomimed weapon, verbal assault, and imported liquid contraband. On our return home from seeing my grandmother, no less.


Fighting resistance to wear scarves.

You better sit down for this one: Parisian men dress better than most Americans do. I had a tough time with the social faux pas of wearing shorts in summer, even when the temperature approached 100 degrees. A salesman almost created an international incident when he scolded me for daring to fight heat exhaustion by baring my legs on an especially hot and muggy afternoon.

But when the weather got a bit cold, the scarf was a sartorial bandwagon I jumped on with alacrity. As a man, I have few opportunities to accessorize and yes, they make me feel pretty. So I bought one. Then I bought eight more. Turns out that was the easy part—finding the appropriate social situation in which to wear them back in Seattle has proven to be a challenge.


Different types of milk.

At our local grocery store in Paris, I thankfully had access to rice milk as an alternative to my “lactose unpleasantness.” But when we returned to the cavernous halls of our American supermarket, I was surprised to find a load of new organisms that had apparently sprouted milk-producing teats: hemp, super grains, almonds, soy, oats…

Pont du Garde, Provence, France
Pont du Gard (Provence, France)


Talking about a trip to Provence … without sounding like a conceited dillweed.

If you are at a dinner party, and someone mentions something—like a favorite cheese or a recent road trip—and it reminds you of your recent experience abroad…


Is your story about a recent weekend in the south of France going to put a cork in the conversation? First, look for the proverbial record player in the corner. If nothing is liable to come to a screeching halt, proceed carefully and, for the love of god, please restrict yourself to the American pronunciation of place names. You can easily suck the wind out of a room as you draw out the last syllable of Provence (proh-VAHN-s-s-s-s-s-s-s) and let it hang in the air like the bubbly applause of a freshly poured glass of Dom Perignon.

Oh, us? Yeah, we went there. I tell you about it the next time I see you.


Portion Sizes:  Big, or for multiple people.

I lost weight in Europe despite already sporting a svelte (read: atrophied) physique before we left. Sure, walking everywhere helped. But having average food portion sizes no bigger than a human thumb certainly trimmed the waistline. I tried to reverse this trend with baguettes—copious in both quantity and girth—and calorically-augmented foods like Andoillette (pork intestine sausage), but to no avail. It’s a “losing” battle considering American portion sizes dwarf their European counterparts, 2-to-1 (minus Germany).


Not having to tip.

Aside from baguettes, food is generally more expensive in Paris—that is a fact. But you don’t tip in French restaurants. Take 20% off the top of the price of your French meal, and this price discrepancy starts to melt like the cheese on top of a croque monsieur. This relates to my next point.


Receiving decent service at restaurants.

If there was an advantage to paying waiters and waitresses pennies on the dollar (which I don’t support), it would be that tips help incentivize exemplary service. This was a welcome change when we sat down to our first meal on this side of the pond. Service in French restaurants is very good, even better when you consider that they have to endure two Americans vomiting out their normally beautiful language in fits and spurts. But the expediency with which American wait staff fill your water and meet your every need is unmatched.

That being said, when all you want to do is sit on a terrace and mull over your glass of Sancerre, it is nice to be removed from a food industry that is focused on flipping tables.


Walking into a store without being seen.

French courtesy dictates that as soon as you walk into a store, you announce your presence with an enthusiastic “bonjour,” and an “au revoir” as you leave. Sometimes, you just want to enter a store anonymously, especially when these are the only two phrases you can say. You’ll find this anonymity in most American stores where employees aren’t paid on commission.

Neuschwanstein Castle in actual Bavaria (Germany)


Weekend trips will never be the same.

Sorry, I just have to say it. Weekend trips just aren’t the same once you live in Europe where there are so many interesting locations so close to each other. Leavenworth, a.k.a. “Little Bavaria” of Washington State, unfortunately doesn’t hold a candle to, um, actual Bavaria. Suck it up. Make the most of it, and—for god’s sakes—don’t confess this fact to your friends. You’ll sound like a conceited dillweed again, and you have yet to tell them about your trip to Provence.


Driving slow in the fast lane.

Like the adrenaline rush of a sedan aggressively flashing their high beams behind you at 70mph? Drive in the far left lane in France. The left lane is the fast lane, and it is only to be used to pass slower traffic. It doesn’t matter if you are going over the speed limit, someone behind you will want to go faster. And chances are they are approaching, quickly. You better get out of the way.

After executing my first triangular errand run after my return to Seattle—half of which included Interstate 5—I found myself behind a blue minivan that had the audacity to drive the speed limit in the fast lane, with a finger hovering over my high beam lever.


A drought of draught.

The French are known for their wines but, if you like beer, expect only a handful of options, namely Kronenburg, Grimbergen, and Leffe. If you find a bar with a wider selection, you’ve found a special place; return often to reward their entrepreneurial spirit.

Needless to day, my eyes moistened like a cold tap handle when they scanned the plump beer lists on menus back in Seattle. Turns out, the lack of variety in Paris may have influenced my aforementioned weight loss.

Poppin’ Bubbly in Reims (France)


Ordering French wines without sounding like that frickin’ guy.

So they don’t have much beer in France, you better take advantage of the incredible selection of wines. Try as many as you can. Take notes. Find your favorites and even bring a couple bottles home to impress your friends. Remember the names of those favorite bottles when you next go out to dinner, but be prepared to sound like “that frickin’ couple” who just took a Frommer’s guide to Europe.

Then be prepared to spend more money on said bottle.

Then be sure to tell your waiter about your recent trip to Provenc-s-s-s-s-s-s-s…



Church Ceilings, Around the World

Grandiose, Ostentatious, Awe-inspriring, Humbling …

Such is the way that religious institutions—churches, synagogues, temples, mosques—are described around the world. Their designers created physical tributes to the deities that guided many lives throughout the centuries. Even today, in an age when our attention is torn from one flashing screen to another, these monuments still stop us in our tracks.

By setting my camera on its back pointing up, I tried to capture the diversity of these structures and the sense of the awe they all convey.


Sagrada Familia: Barcelona, Spain (1882 – current)




Duomo di Messina: Sicily, Italy (1197, 1908, 1947)



Pantheon: Paris, France (1790)



Galleria Umberto: Naples, Italy (1891)

Not a religious institution per se, but some people take shopping very seriously. Even on Sunday mornings.



The Pantheon: Rome, Italy (126AD)



Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See: Sevilla, Spain (1507)



Rumbach Street Synagogue: Budapest, Hungary (1872)

In Hungarian: Rumbach utcai zsinagóga



St Joseph T.M.L. Masjid Mosque: Port of Spain, Trinidad (1954)


Holy Trinity Cathedral: Port of Spain, Trinidad (1816)

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Washington D.C., USA (1959)

Washington National Cathedral: Washington D.C., USA (1990)


Metropolitan Cathedral Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago: Santiago, Chile (1880)


The Non-Cruisers Guide to Cruising

Cruise Ship in Alaska
Cruise Ship in Alaska

Point A and Point B can both be exciting, but often times the best part of traveling between two points is the vehicle. And I’ve experienced a few: an elephant in Nepal; a camel in Morocco; a canoe in the Amazon; the back of a Peruvian truck, for three days, on a pad of burlap sacks laid atop stacks of crates loosely holding empty Coke bottles; severely underpowered Indian rickshaws belching blue smoke with each laughable burst of acceleration.

And a cruise ship.

Adam in the Peruvian Amazon in 2004 © Grant Daniels
Adam in the Peruvian Amazon in 2004 © Grant Daniels

Sure, in my backpacking days, I shunned such forms of transit. A college course on tourism taught me that there are “mass tourists,” who travel en masse on popular itineraries, and “alternative tourists,” who seek the road less traveled. Despite differences in herding behavior, they are both striving for the same goal: authenticity. Whether it’s Chicago’s best deep dish pizza or Thailand’s most pristine beach, all tourists are looking to capture the most authentic experiences abroad, and, tacitly, to have theirs be the best.

I’ve done a majority of my travel as a backpacker and it’s hard to imagine such experiences are possible when one descends by the thousands to a port city for only a handful of hours.

Backpackers, who have felt they’ve earned their destination through the grit of a dusty road, refer to themselves nobly as “travelers,” and pejoratively label any large group as “tourists.” And cruisers, who travel the most carefree—and in the biggest groups—of any tourist are, in the eyes of the backpacker, the worst of this lot.

To inflame the difference, the scant possessions of the archetypal backpacker—a dog-eared travel guide, a tattered collection of international beer T-shirts, and a handful of dollars to spend every day—are antithetical to the cookie cutter excursions, unlimited food, and black-tie formal dinners that await cruisers on board.

Will there be a time in my life for a cruise? Sure, I thought: when I’m older. I tend to pace like a caged lion when I’m confined, so I’ll at least need to wait until both knees are replaced.

My timeline however was accelerated in 2006 when I was generously invited to the wedding ceremony of my future father-in-law. He and his bride-to-be go on frequent cruises so their venue was a special one: a Princess ship from Alaska to Vancouver, B.C.

Adam in Glacier Bay Alaska in 2006
Adam in Glacier Bay Alaska in 2006

As I packed my bags—using, for the first time, a rolling suitcase—I could feel the impending cultural clash breathing down my neck. I was in my mid-twenties, maintained a healthy diet, and just completed my first marathon, so the target audience of the cruise company I was not.

But when I woke up refreshed on the first morning and walked out on to our balcony to hear the deep, resonating sound of glaciers calving, much of my apprehension melted into Glacier Bay several stories below. Setting up my spotting scope to show Kristi her first pair of Horned Puffins was the meringue on the Baked Alaska (conveniently available downstairs in the dessert buffet).

The most important part of this cruise was to be with family, but I found several ways to pay respect to my backpacking history without sticking out like an unused lounge chair on the top deck. Following my experiences on now three cruises—one in the Mediterranean and another on the Pacific coast—I’ve assembled some tips in my “Non-cruisers Guide to Cruising.”


Find the unbeaten path

Every cruise company will push a long menu of shore excursions at every port. They are a great and easy way to capture the quintessential experience of a particular location—cooking class in Tuscany, glacier walk in Alaska—but they are expensive, and attended by the busload. If you still have your traveling wits about you, there are plenty of alternatives—it just requires thinking outside the box.

Cruising_for_Noncruisers_Ketchikan_AKOn our Alaskan cruise in 2006, Kristi and I learned of a trailhead that was near the dock in the port town of Ketchikan. Found within minutes, the beautiful trail followed a moss-encrusted stream to a lake rimmed by mature evergreen forest. Despite the fact that two cruise ships had unloaded nearly ten thousand people at this base of this trail, we only ran into two other hikers. It was a special experience and, best of all, it was free.

Look at your itinerary and purchase the appropriate guidebooks, or search for reputable travel apps. My mother-in-law downloaded Rick Steves’ “Mediterranean Cruise Ports,” which gave detailed instructions on how to get from the mostly unassuming port towns to the main attractions. For example, Carnival Cruises had a “Rome on Your Own” tour that provided a private train car from the port city of Civitavecchia to Rome for $99 per person. With the help of the Rick Steve’s app, we were able to follow the exact same itinerary for $20. Sure, you run the risk of missing the boat—if you are late and not on an official excursion, the ship will leave without you—but who said travel should always be easy?


Get to know the employees. Learn how to say ‘Thank You.’

Cruising_for_Noncruisers_WaitersThe staff on cruise ships represent many, mostly developing, nations around the world: from Croatia to Indonesia, Peru to Romania. Every staff member wears their nationality at the bottom of their name-tag. The service on cruise ships is exemplary; you won’t be able to walk down a hallway without being eagerly greeted with a thickly accented “Hello” or “Good Morning.” Everyone is fluent in English but take a moment to ask them how to say “hello” and “thank you” in their own language. I startled my bar tender one evening when I thanked him in Romanian (“moo-soo-mesk”), a phrase I’d picked up from our waiter the previous night. What resulted was an in-depth and genuine conversation about when I should travel to Romania, and what places shouldn’t be missed. If you’ve been to their country, don’t be shy about sharing your experiences: they will be delighted.


Active? Stay so.

Most boats have state-of-the-art gyms. Don’t have a routine? Ask for a trainer to help set one up for you. But if you want to sign up for the weight loss seminar, do so early: it will fill up very quickly.

Cruising_for_Noncruisers_RunningI’m an avid runner but I strongly dislike treadmills; I’ll run in driving snow before I subject myself to the tedium of the slowly advancing red numbers on an expensive hamster wheel. The Carnival Sunshine featured an outdoor running track on its 11th deck, ten laps of which equaled a mile. Too monotonous? Head for one of the lower decks to see which one extends the circumference of the ship, or at least comes close (some may be closed in the back). If you run for distance (and not time), ask one of the staff about the distance end-to-end. If they don’t know, walk the deck and count the number of strides. Now go upstairs to the treadmill and count how many strides it takes you to walk 0.1 miles. I found that one length of deck three on the Carnival Sunshine was 0.25 miles (and 0.5 miles when you turned around to return to your starting point).

It may seem as if I’m just increasing the size of my treadmill, but I had deck three of the Carnival Sunshine to myself aside from the employees walking to and from work. As an added bonus, I got to see both humpback and killer whales on deck seven of Diamond Princess in Alaska, not scenery frequently experienced by runners.


Mission (Nearly) Impossible: Portion control.

Cruising_for_Noncruisers_Plate_SizeCruise ships are notorious for unfettered access to an excess of food. Indeed, it’s hard to maintain a healthy diet when you have 24-hour access to pizza kitchens and soft serve ice cream machines, and the surface area of buffet plates rival the hubcap of a Kenworth. But if you do watch what you eat, there are healthy options at every turn.

One note of caution: when you confide with the waiter that you are having trouble deciding between two different entrees, don’t be surprised if he just says “OK” and walks away. This delightful conundrum happened to me once and I wound up with both the steak and the lobster, plus all of the respective sides.

The alternative to portion control is to recognize that you’ll gain weight, and have a goddamned great time doing so.


Are you a birder? There are options for you.

Cruising_for_Noncruisers_BirdingI’m an avid birder and no matter where I am, I always have one ear cocked upward. There are several families of birds that spend nearly their entire lives at sea: albatross, petrels, storm-petrels, collectively called “tubenoses.” A cruise is an unparalleled opportunity to see some of these denizens of the sea, depending on time and location. While you can’t stop to “chum” seabirds (the act of throwing out fish oil and suet to attract seabirds), cruise ships offer viewing platforms stable enough for a scope, and high enough to see birds in the troughs between waves.

A repositioning cruise between Los Angeles and Vancouver (when cruise companies move their boats between the winter Mexican cruises and their summer Alaskan routes) provided opportunity to see Cook’s, Murphy’s, Hawaiian, and Mottled Petrel, Black-footed and Laysan Albatross, Cassin’s and Parakeet Auklets, and a handful of cetaceans included Baird’s Beaked Whale. We birded from sunrise to sunset during an exceptional year, but anything is possible under proper conditions. Less intense, and far less productive, early summer birding in the Mediterranean afforded views of Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters, Common Dolphin, and a jumping Swordfish.

If you have a deck, use it. Common areas are perfectly fine, but be prepared to answer questions like “you looking for whales?” and, when you reply that you are looking for birds, to deal with the inexorable look of disappointment. One benefit of the common area, however, is the ease of moving from one side of the ship to the other to avoid the sun’s glare.


Unplug. Or pay the price.

Cruise ships have Wi-Fi, but the exorbitant prices will cause you to think twice before tweeting a picture of your breakfast (be sure to back up to get the entire plate in frame). Considering how digitally entrenched many of us are, a break will do you good. Don’t think it will be a problem? Wait until you need to think of something really important like, say, the name of Cam’s partner on ABC’s Modern Family. Go analog and think really hard. When that doesn’t work, ask people around you; it’ll be a great ice-breaker. If after several days neither you or the people around you still can’t think of the answer, spend $1.50 (for two minutes) to look it up (“Mitchell”? I totally knew that!). Question at what price search engines have enriched our lives.


Are you a non-cruiser who has been on a cruise? Got some tips for the rest of us? Please leave a comment.