Signs of the Times: Truth in advertising (albeit misspelled)

Trader Tad's

Buena Vista, Colorado, USA, February 2013

When Amy, a dear friend of mine from Australia, and her mum, Irene, came to visit in me rural Colorado, I needed to show them some entertainment — something they couldn’t find in Adelaide, SA. After going to Wal-Mart (which did not disappoint), we headed to BV and Trader Tad’s.

expect the unusual

Mind you we did not go inside — really the outside signs say it all. Actually, I was too scared to go inside. Since enough of my BVHS students had warned me about TT and his questionable state of mind, a quick drive-by was sufficient.

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Travel Scoops: Mongolian yak dung and cheese curds in Denver Colorado

Denver, CO, USA, May 2015

I’m learning to appreciate the smell of yak dung, which, evidently, is bluish in color and quite prevalent in Western Mongolia. After Baja encircles me with one of her arms and passes a receptacle of burning dung dust around my waist three times, she then waves toward my face wafts of the incense-like curling smoke, which actually smell more like pot than poop. It is all part of a Mongolian purifying ritual.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

“We do this every morning,” says Tsogo, Baja’s artist husband whom I have come to interview for a story about his art and the burgeoning Mongolian community living in Denver, Colorado. “Before we go to work — just going to morning,” the affable artist says while gesturing widely with his arms outstretched. “Smile and the whole day is good.” He points to both corners of his broad grin that prompts his deep dimples.

The dung certainly stimulates one’s senses. I enlist my seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, for a cleansing. After all, I brought her along with me to meet the Majids and experience a taste of Mongolian culture in Colorado.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain state is home to more than 2,000 people of Mongolian heritage. Mongolian immigrants chose Denver as one of the first US destinations in which to settle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It started with an engineering student who came to study at Colorado School of Mines in 1989 and now Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, is a sister city to Denver. The two, both classified as “mile high cities” due to their elevations at more than 5,000 ft., share many similarities, including climate and terrain.

Photo by: Sheila Sund;

Denver, Colorado. Photo by: Sheila Sund;

Photo by: Francisco Anzola;

Ulaanbaatar. Photo by: Francisco Anzola;

It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Tsogo and his wife, Baja, decided to leave an economically depressed Mongolia that Colorado registered on their radar. First Tsogo checked out San Francisco, which he did not particularly like, “Too many people in one city,” he maintains. “Then my sister’s son was in Colorado and he said, ‘Tsogo, come to Denver — it’s just like Mongolia.’”

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“We’re with the Princesses”

legong dancers gazing outUbud, Bali, August 2010


Balinese dancers blow Disney princesses out of the water — and I’m not just talking about the Island of the God’s own Indian Ocean. It’s any body of water. No question. I didn’t even have to look at the reaction of my three-year-old daughter Kasey, who before the Legong dance performance began, was partial to the blonde contingency of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel  and Cinderella.

dancers in unison

My own eyes confirmed that Balinese dancers reigned supreme as we watched them flex their fingers backward, snap their fans, jerk their heads to the side and slide their bare feet at 90 degree angles across the stage in slow-mo unison — not to mention, the Balinese “princesses” displayed more gold than the Magic Kingdom’s reserves. 

more gamelanThe striking sound of the gamelan, a collection of Indonesian percussion instruments, amped up the dramatic presentation. It sounded a bit like an ensemble consisting of a hard core heavy metal xylophone, steel drum and reedy flute. The xylophone, or metallophone, when struck by the musicians’ mallets, prompted the hairs to rise on the back of my neck.

Meanwhile, the dancers’ movements transfixed Kasey and my five-year-old son, Eddie, in addition to securing a second wind for them. Even Kurt, my husband who wasn’t always as exuberant about all the cultural activities I dragged him to see, sat ramrod straight with focus. At the very least, the dancers distracted us from the heinous humidity that still hovered in the stagnant August evening air.

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Teacher Oops: Sub on a Wall

Steph’s note: I realize this account isn’t exactly a “Travel Opps” and it’s not about one of my exchange teaching blunders in Australia, but as some of you have read, I have so many mishaps while teaching that I thought I’d post this story. In a sense, making an appearance in the world of middle schoolers or traveling to “tweendom,” definitely qualifies as a misadventure — especially when you are a substitute.  

Buena Vista, Colorado, USA; May 2013

Shouting above the sixth grade buzz in the McGinnis Middle School art room, I tried to get my overactive tween audience’s attention. “Okay, guys, I want to see more texture with your planets.” However, what I really wanted was another adjective to throw around since I was working “texture” hard.

A former English teacher, I was out of my element as an art substitute. I knew what looked pretty or aesthetically pleasing, but how do you explain that to eleven and twelve-year-olds? More texture.

Checking their work, I wandered from table to table in the open room, which had a funky, urban warehouse feel. The art teacher had graffitied the cement walls with robots, faces, and letters in vibrant purples, blues, yellows and greens. The faint smell of spray paint clung to various surfaces. On a clothesline, hooked from one wall to the other, black and white photos hung from clothespins. Dangling from the ceiling, Chinese lanterns and oversized neon cocktail umbrellas provided a nice break from the fluorescent lights.

“Are you an art teacher?” asked Chad. In a skull and crossbones skater hoodie, mohawk and pierced ears, he looked out of place among the boys of Colorado ranchers wearing Carharts and cowboy boots. He also didn’t blend in with kids of outdoor sports enthusiasts who wore North Face fleece and Chaco sandals.

“I teach the art of language,” Did I really just say that?  To me, “Language Arts” always came off as an overdone title for “English.”

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Converting to Celsius While Down Under

Sydney, Australia, January, 2010

sun and 43 version 3Wearing sunglasses and spouting sweat droplets, a bright yellow sun icon panted as it hovered over Adelaide, South Australia on the weather map. Accompanying the sun, a red numeral forty-three pulsated near one of the sweat drops. It was forty-three degrees Celsius to be precise.

“That sounds a bit high, doesn’t it, honey?” I asked my husband, Kurt, as we watched the weather report for Australia in our efficiently air-conditioned Manly Beach hotel room and spotted the high slated for Adelaide, the next day, January 13, the day we would arrive in the city that would be our home for the next year. The temperatures in Sydney for the past few days had been in the mid to high 20s Celsius.

Glasers on the ferry

“Yeah. That does seem pretty high,” Kurt turned down the volume on the TV and looked at me with a furrowed brow. “What is the conversion on that? What did that guy on the Manly ferry tell us? You double the number and add thirty?”

“That can’t be right,” I said, thinking back to an Australian man whom we had met on our way from Manly Beach to the Sydney Harbour. In addition to helpfully telling us how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, he told me he worked at a “flare” shop in Melbourne. It took me a minute, after marveling that an entire shop could be devoted to flares and perhaps it was a somewhat hazardous enterprise, to realize that the guy was really saying “flower shop.”

“That makes 43 degrees turn into,” I closed my eyes and did the math. “116 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s Libya we’re talking about or Death Valley,” I said while trying to shove newly purchased Aussie flag emblazoned souvenirs into our already overflowing suitcases.

Frankly, I was more concerned about how many pounds, or rather, kilos the suitcases weighed than the conversion to what seemed to be an impossible temperature.  “It’s been so perfect here in Sydney. Does it even get that hot in Australia — except maybe in the Outback?”

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Trying to hammer out the details about nails in Vietnam

nail outletHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam; May 2014

“Aren’t the Vietnamese supposed to be completely repulsed by feet?” I asked more myself than my friend Debbie as we wandered down what seemed to be an alley exclusively designated for foot and leg massage outlets in Saigon.

If there was any revulsion, these shopkeepers hid it well with neon signs promoting “foot care,” charts of podiatry pressure points, photos of glistening legs getting the royal oiled treatment and pretty Vietnamese girls in flirty cocktail dresses and stiletto heels handing out discount flyers.

“Well, since they’re not grossed out, do you want to get a foot massage?” Deb asked, shrugging her shoulders.

She clearly wasn’t as upset by the reality that was displayed in front of us on a sign showing a woman’s hand loofahing a customer’s foot, soaking in a golden bowl with lotus flowers floating and swirling around the pampered appendage. lotus flower This bit of news that the Vietnamese not only handle feet, but also that they apparently use their sacred lotus flower petals to caress bunions, corns and fungal colonies was troubling.

I had come, partially, to Vietnam as a travel journalist, exploring stories like American Vietnam War vets who return to Vietnam, propaganda art from the war and the burgeoning nail salon industry.

The nail business angle was a follow up to a story I had done that covered the Vietnamese American domination of the US nail salons. Almost half of all nail technicians in the $7.5 billion dollar American nail salon industry are of Vietnamese heritage. In California, the number is 80 percent. This fascinated me. I thought perhaps tending to toes and fingers was an ancient tradition in Vietnam much like acupuncture in China. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story came straight out of Hollywood or at least it had a Hollywood connection. Continue reading

I’d like to make a toast to a post

Book cover Travelers' TalesAs always, when you attend a conference and fill out various forms, you eventually end up on several e-mail and newsletter lists. I went to a travel writing conference in August 2014, so when I opened an e-mail this past October and first scanned it, I thought it was a solicitation to pre-order The Best Travel Writing vol. 10 published by Travelers’ Tales. But then I read the message again and again. 

Dear Stephanie,

We are interested in including your story in our forthcoming book, The Best Travel Writing Volume 10, edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly, to be published in January of 2015.

Enclosed is a copy of a release. If you agree with the terms, please print two copies, then sign and return both copies to me (via email or snail mail). A countersigned copy will be returned to you with your check upon publication.,,,,,

The published book finally came in the mail this month, and I just held it in my hands for several minutes, looking at the front and back covers before I even cracked it open to find my story. I have to say that I had submitted “I Have a Problem with the Blood of a Woman” to a few different publications both print and online a few years ago. And it was rejected each time. So I posted it on Travel Oops back in April, 2013. The response was positive, and it motivated me to submit the story to Travelers’ Tales.

My story

I’m ecstatic to have the story included in the Best Travel Writing anthology. In fact, I thought I might jinx things by talking about it much before I actually saw my story in print. It’s now in print and I’d like to raise a glass to the Word Press Community, travel and my original post. Thank you!

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Taken down by Toddler

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

January 13, 2015; Chaffee County, Colorado

Steph, MRI looks pretty bad, see attached. We will do referral to ortho. Keep icing, elevated. Might do better on crutches if you are not already as there is a bone contusion.

This is the e-mail message I received recently from my doctor, Matt, who typically makes me feel neurotic during my regular checkups or my kids’ checkups. In his laid back way, he’ll look at me quizzically and say things like:

— “You have constant headaches? Try drinking more water.”

— “This is some type of viral condition, and it really just needs to run its course.”

— “Sometimes kids throw up for no real medical reason.” — “Yeah, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

My MRI results. I still don't really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it's not because it's completely torn.

My MRI results. I still don’t really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it’s not because it’s completely torn.

He’s a very good doctor and has a great sense of humor, but sometimes you feel like a hypochondriac when you leave his office. So the phrase “looks pretty bad,” in his e-mail, indeed, alarmed me. Then I looked at the MRI results of my knee, which stated I had….

  • a complete anterior cruciate ligament tear
  • a tear in the posterior horn of the medial meniscus
  • a bone contusion along the posterior lateral tibial plateau
  • a strain of the lateral collateral ligament

Whoa!! A bone contusion? (which is really just a bruise) That sounds hard core. And all that resulted from a fall on a ski run named…Toddler?

December 2014, Monarch Mountain, Colorado

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting....

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting….

On Toddler: A nine-year-old swooshed past me spraying a little glaze of powder as I laid in the snow on my back with my legs up in the air, boots and skis still attached. The little twinge I felt in my left knee moments earlier after I landed was not a welcome sensation. I had done something to it. And next, I did what most other skiers who had only made one run of the day would do. I got up, skied down leaning on my right leg and went right back into the chair lift line. Continue reading

Travel Scoops — Who wants truth in advertising? Australians: “yes”; Americans: “maybe not so much”

Homebaked, fresh bread -- a must for Vegemite

Concentrated yeast extract: aka. Vegemite.

Steph’s note: I’d like to introduce a new feature, “Travel Scoops,” in which I will highlight travel observations, interviews, news and finds. 


How do cage eggs, scones topped with clotted cream, toast spread with concentrated yeast extract and coffee pressed by a plunger sound for breakfast? To an American, these items sound more like a line-up rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. Many Australians, however, gladly consume these products at “brekkie.” In fact, they may even flashback to childhood while eating some of these comfort foods.

french press with plunger

A French Press.

USA: Glam it up

Americans, instead, go for “farm fresh eggs,” “scones with “Devonshire cream,” and coffee made in a “French Press.” Forget the concentrated yeast extract (Vegemite) altogether. Americans, who, occasionally, are accused of being superficial, want products to have pleasing connotations. Remember, we’re talking about a country where the government has referred to torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and sports organizations admit that athletes use “performance enhancing drugs” rather than steroids. We definitely like things enhanced — or at least glammed up a little. I once worked for a temporary agency that offered me a “paper manipulation” gig. You mean filing?

Dumb ways to Die poster

Australia: Tell it like it is.

Recently, while living in Australia for one year as an exchange teacher, I noticed Australians, on the other hand, are direct and straightforward. They don’t sugar coat anything. After all, this is a nation that labelled Vegemite, its favorite spread, as “concentrated yeast extract;” created boots called “Uggs;” named a popular discount retail outlet, “The Reject Shop;” and promoted train safety with the hugely successful public service campaign dubbed, “Dumb Ways to Die.”

You are what you market.

Essentially, the product names and the marketing messages of a specific country tell us quite a bit about that nation’s personality. In fact, marketing, in general, reflects the tastes, attitudes and values of a nation’s citizens.

For example, since Australians are typically direct and, of course, “no worries,” those character traits influence their marketing strategies. “Australians tell it like it is, and we don’t stand for bullshit,” says my Aussie friend, Amy Frazier, who is a photographer and language arts teacher. “We don’t beat around the bush.” 


Australia: Time to use the “toilet.”

Straightforward communication is just part of life in Australia where, daily, I heard newscasters announcing which streets were hosting active speed cameras. “Take it easy driving on Cheltenham Parade today. The cameras are on.” Public Service Announcements warning about flu season show snot and mucus spraying full on from convulsing noses and contorted mouths. Additionally, in public places, people ask to use the “toilet” rather than the “bathroom” or “restroom.”

USA: “Toilet” = TMI

While Americans appreciate the truth, we also cringe with too much information. When I taught high school in Adelaide, I was somewhat stunned the first time a student said: “Excuse me, Miss, I need to use the toilet.” Whoa, I don’t really need specific details. For Americans, “toilet” already is implied in “bathroom.” On the contrary, according to Scott Hill, another one of my Australian teacher friends, “When some of my kids say, ‘Can I go to the bathroom,’ I say, ‘What? Are you going to have a shower?”

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Thank you for joining me on my misadventures!

steph kayaking in Halong Bay

Wow. It’s been exhilarating and overwhelming to be freshly pressed on WordPress. I’d like to thank everyone who has stopped by to check out Travel Oops as well as the new followers and the loyal followers who keep coming back. I look forward to checking out your blogs, and I’m honored to take you all on my adventures, especially my misadventures. Thanks again for coming along! Let’s all celebrate travel and laugh together.



Steph brushing teeth on China Airlines flight 2