The Spirit of a Divided Berlin

guard tower

East Germany, April 1989

When East German border guards tromped through the tight train corridor, stopped my study abroad program director and pantomimed the click of a camera, I knew I had messed up. Big time. Standing enough feet away, I pressed close to the passageway window, and inched my camera down into my coat pocket.

Moments earlier, as the train slowly rolled across the border from West Germany into East Germany and communism, I had snapped a picture of a patrol tower. Really bad move. It was 1989, during the Cold War, and I had left the flash on.

After watching the corridor confrontation, I panicked. Clearly, someone in the tower had seen the flash. Would the guards figure out I took the photo? Would they take my camera? Worse, would they take me? Did East Germans send people to Siberia? Could my parents wire a “border crossing fee” to a checkpoint behind the iron curtain?

Ultimately, nothing resulted from my major lapse in judgment. Since it was just seven months before the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, I’m guessing the East German government had more pressing matters than throwing me in a gulag.

East German flag

Realization in East Germany: The photo faux pas confirmed that it didn’t matter that I was an American and guaranteed unalienable rights in the US. I was an American in a communist country, and border guards in East Germany didn’t have to acknowledge my freedom of expression or any other US First Amendment rights.

However, that moment, along with the idea of traveling to a region that was constantly presented to Americans as threatening, dangerous, and essentially evil, enticed me, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

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A “crazy dog” and roasting marshmallows with chopsticks in Sapa, Vietnam


Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Outside of Sapa, Vietnam, May 2014

Along the 15 kilometer trek to a hilly homestay in Northern Vietnam, our 4’8″ Hmong guide, Li, insisted that 11 other tourists and I did not need to stop for water and that we would slow the whole group down by taking too many photos of the rice terraces.

One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

How could we not take photos? One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

Li was a tad hardcore. After all, she and other Hmong guides probably cruised that route at least twice a day while wearing what amounted to shower slip ons. So when Li told us she had news, and we better gather around to listen, the twelve of us did. Right away.

“There is a crazy dog in the village. It has killed four people,” she announced as she sat cross legged in the traditional Hmong black leg warmers on the cement patio floor of the homestay abode we had finally reached.

“Is she talking about a rabid dog?” I asked my friend Debbie in a hushed tone so I wouldn’t get reprimanded. Seriously? And I had been worried about the mamma water buffalo that seemed irritated when I inadvertently cut off her baby on the rice terrace trail.

“Do not go into the village. If you walk in the village and the dog bites you, it is your fault not mine. I tell you now,” Li said.

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Being Followed by a CaoDai Deputy

Slapping a closed silk fan into his outstretched palm, a slight, elderly CaoDai devotee wearing a white tunic, white trousers and sporting a low, jaunty black turban, fires off loud Vietnamese to Binh, our interpreter and tour guide. The devotee follows us as we pad barefooted through the sanctuary of the largest CaoDai temple in the world, located in Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province.

According to Binh, who occasionally glances up from reading the CaoDai reference book I brought from the US, the old man is with temple security. He wears a yellow, blue and red striped armband (oddly resembling the Colombian flag), which indicates his position. The CaoDai bouncer continues his lecture as he walks with us, making a whapping sound every time he bangs the fan into his hand.

I’m fairly certain my friend, Debbie, and I have upset him. It could have been the photos we took earlier of worshippers kneeling and holding their bent arms in a triangular formation with their hands clasped together at their foreheads.

The trippy temple.

It’s tempting to document everything in the “Holy See,” the headquarters of CaoDai, a blended religion that incorporates primary tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to University of Southern California anthropologist and CaoDai scholar, Janet Hoskins, the syncretistic sect attracts more than six million followers worldwide.

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Signs of the Times: SCARY stuff at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Hey everybody, I’m sorry I’ve been absent from Travel Oops and neglectful of the WordPress community. In May, I traveled to Vietnam to get more material and mishaps (definitely that was a given — just trying to cross the street in Saigon was comedy.) At any rate, to jump back in, I’m sharing some gems from the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. By the way, although I was only in the airport on a layover, I’m sure Taiwan is a lovely place to visit.

Sign at arrival gate at the Taipei Airport.

Sign at arrival gate at the Taipei Airport.


Taipei, Taiwan, May 2014. It’s not like I travel with cocaine in my colon, but there is something VERY disconcerting about the above drug trafficking sign nevertheless.

Then there are the escape contraptions. These signs were not comforting, especially since the day before my friend Debbie and I arrived in Taiwan, a massive stabbing spree had taken place in the Taipei metro. I’m curious as to whether these escape routes have been tested.

Is this an escape laundry chute? Are your travel frocks that stinky??

Is this an escape laundry chute? Are your travel frocks that stinky??

The Escape Sling is definitely intriguing. I wonder what the punishment is for inadvertently using it. Actually, I don’t want to know…..

Escape Sling


Travel Oops: Leaving my beach bag at the Market Lady’s stall in Bali

© R. Stacker (

© R. Stacker

Sanur, Bali, 2010.

After taking another tasty, turmericy bite of Nasi Goreng, Indonesia’s version of fried rice, and sipping a semi warm Bintang, I look up and see her. The Market Lady—she is standing, waiting just at the sandy edge of the beach restaurant where we are eating in Sanur, Bali. As I make eye contact, she smiles and waves. Waving back, I look down at my rice.

“Kurt, the Market Lady is staring at us.” I tell my husband, since, from his plastic patio seat, his back is to her. “She’s following us.”

“Well, you told her we’d come back to her store.”

© Kermitz1 (

© Kermitz1

He is right. Earlier in the day, on our way to play in the Indian Ocean, we walked through a marketplace near the beach in Sanur. Despite the lack of customers, it was full of stalls with proprietors selling items, including wind chimes, kites, scarves, batik sarongs, bags, T-shirts, jewelry, straw hats and beach mats. Most of the shopkeepers were middle-aged women.

Sweating, Kurt and I trundled through with our kids, Eddie and Kasey, and lugged all our beach gear as one of the women approached us and gestured toward her store. She wore a turban-like head wrap, button down blue shirt, a gold and black batik printed sarong, as well as faded red plastic flip flops.

© Cameron Adams (

© Cameron Adams

“Come, I have beautiful things to show you. I will make you a good price,” she announced. Limp tendrils of hair, which had escaped the wrap, stuck to her forehead; her temples glistened. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled and she exuded calm, which wasn’t surprising, really, since the entire island of Bali seemed to project that particular personality trait.

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Scarves, Somali Tea and the Polar Vortex

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso reaches around my neck to reposition a fringed end of the gold trimmed navy scarf that she picked out for me. The scarf, made of soft cotton, feels surprisingly heavy after she wraps, rolls and tucks the material into place just above the collar of my puffy black winter jacket.

Standing back with her hands on her hips to assess, and in her own vibrant fuchsia and gold print headscarf, she squints. It’s not quite right. Shamso leans in and gently tugs at the fabric above my forehead. She nods, smiles and says something in Somali to Maryan, who also seems to approve of my new East African look.

I'm flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

I’m flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

When I suggest a photo with the two women I have just met, Shamso reaches in her pocket, whips out her iPhone, holds it out with one hand and then snaps a few photos while we smile and lean in together with a backdrop of fluorescent light panels and the vibrant inventory of shopping stall 137, which includes hanging scarves, as well as neon animal, striped and floral print gowns, skirts and leggings.

It’s an “I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony” moment, and I’m on a giddy global high. About 30 minutes earlier, I had trudged with my dad through the sloppy, tire-churned-up Uptown snow toward Suuqa Karmel, a Somali market in Minneapolis. The powder blue concrete complex with colorful murals of dessert scenes, including a camel caravan and palm trees, definitely seems out of place since snow banks jut up from the sidewalk leading to the entrance.

Suuga Karmel

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The True Colors of Kiev

I had anticipated gray. Drab gray and maybe some varying hues like ash, charcoal and smoke. How was it that the sun was shining—brightly? Shouldn’t it be overcast and drizzly in a former republic of the Soviet Union?

While wandering through the streets of Kiev in 2006, I marveled at the range of colors: the Easter egg baby blue of the Wedgewood like St. Sophia’s Cathedral; the almost sapphire blue of the sky; the glittering gold of onion shaped spires on the stately Orthodox churches and the Outback orange of Tara Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

Even a little Soviet era car parked haphazardly outside Kiev’s Besarabsky Market sported an electric leprechaun Kelly green paint job.

For some reason the botanical bounty of Ukraine’s capital surprised me, too. The greenery of the many parks, the red flowers that bloomed and lined sidewalks as well as the multi-colored floral arrangements available at several stalls in Besarabsky’s created a stop-and-smell-the-roses vibe. The food I consumed even had electric color like the bright luscious red of the most delicious tomatoes I had ever eaten in my life.

I had anticipated much more asphalt, slate, cement and pavement. Really, walking around Kiev was more like sauntering along Main Street, Disneyland, when you half expected to be hunched over in a bleak and endless breadline out of a grainy newsreel.

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Happy 2014 — Moving Forward

Kite skiing on Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata, MN

Kite skiing on Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata, MN

Wayzata, Minnesota. Ending the year by visiting my parents for the holidays, I was reminded how Minnesotans make the most of what they get — very cold, snowy winters. Instead of resenting the weather (after all, that’s why I moved from my home state to California two different times) I tried to look at all the positives, channel my inner Minnesotan and actually, embrace it.

That’s how I’m approaching 2014. I’m still trying to get my freelance travel writing career off the ground; I was lucky to have a few pieces published in 2013 and I’ve been writing for a new travel site called Maptia.

So Travel Oops took a bit of a hit toward the end of 2013. I found it hard to keep up with teaching, writing, spending time with my family and blogging. Hearing “MOM, you’re always on the computer!” was not reassuring.

That being said, I really want to get back to more regular posting and perusing the blogs I’ve become so fond of on WordPress. Definitely, I want to thank everybody for still tuning in and encouraging me. Really, the WP community is, by far, the most supportive group of writers!

As far as travel goes, I don’t have definite plans. I’m hoping to visit Vietnam to follow up on the story about the Vietnamese nail industry. We’ll see…

Thank you so much and Happy 2014! I’ll close with some more photos of Minnesota.

Motoring on Minnetonka

Motoring on Minnetonka, 2013.

drilling for ice fishing

Getting the ice ready for some fishing — Minnesota style. 2012

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Travel Oops — Memorable New York Moments

© Terabass

The clean version of Times Square. © Terabass

Gaping at the emerging New York cityscape through our smudgy cab window, I lurched to the side when the vehicle careened over into the next lane. Our cab driver leaned out his open window.

“What the hell? Get the FUCK out of my way!” He let go of the steering wheel with his left hand and flung it out the window with his middle finger completely erect. “You gonna CUT me off? (Rhetorical question, I guess.) You gonna cut ME off? We veered back into our lane, and I’m pretty sure there was screeching. I believe we burned rubber.


The cab driver leaned back out the window “You wanna die young?” He finally brought his head back in and to no one in particular, concluded, “Stick it up you ass.”

There was silence for at least a full awkward minute.

“So how long are you guys in New York?”

In the back seat, while my parents shared expressions of sheer shock, I looked over at my sister and our eyes both got wide.

AWESOME. TOTALLY awesome. It was like a scene out of a movie, and we had only been in New York a mere 30 minutes.

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Signs of the Times: Happy Trails?  I think not…

YIkes! I don't think I'll go any further.

YIkes! I don’t think I’ll go any further.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA.

This is one way to keep people from tromping off the path — and, really, ON the path as well. Notice in the photo below that there is a bench right in the poison ivy patch. Good thing poison ivy is a perennial.

I think I stand, from a distance, thank you!

Have a seat? I think I’ll stand, from a distance, thank you!

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