Archive for ‘General Travel’

Rome’s birthday brings back fond — and not so fond — memories of my days in gladiator school

I stand in a sandy pit surrounded by torches in front of three dozen tourists hoping a stiff breeze doesn’t fly under my tunic. It’s way too short, and I weigh the embarrassment of revealing my brand of underwear to strangers against taking a Latin oath from a chunky tie salesman wearing animal skins.

It’s graduation day at Rome’s La Scuola dei Gladiatori (The Gladiator School), and I have just demonstrated how to take a sword and skewer, fillet and behead an opponent in six simple strokes. Two months of training had culminated in this ritual, surfacing in Rome after a 2,000-year absence. Somehow I don’t think when Spartacus took this oath, he was worried about bending over.
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Favignana: “No. 13 Clearest Water in the World” tantalizes sun worshippers off Sicily’s west coast

Yes, there it was, No. 13 on The Weather Channel’s 2016 list: Favignana, more specifically, Cala Azzurra beach. I’d never heard of Favignana, either. It’s a small island off the west coast of Sicily sporting a name it took me a month to remember. My girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, is an ace photographer whose whole profession is based on clarity. She’d been to Favignana (pronounced fa-vin-YAH-nah) before and wanted to take me to another special place for my birthday.
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Si Phan Don: Laos’ land of lotus eaters is 4,000 islands of bliss on the mighty Mekong

I’m sitting on my bungalow’s terrace staring out at the Mekong River. Birds are singing. A lone motor boat slowly buzzes by, its motor more soothing than irritating. Even the lone crowing rooster doesn’t feel so annoying here. Across the water is a long string of palm trees, standing sentry to one of the most soothing corners of Southeast Asia. I’m on Don Det, one of the islands of Si Phan Don. That’s Lao for “4,000 Islands,” a name I didn’t doubt the moment my motor boat maneuvered around dozens of them to arrive here.
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Trekking in Laos: It’s where the Himalayas end and life for the Akha tribe begins

You don’t realize how long a country like Laos is until you go its northern border. Laos is 1,280 miles long. I went from sweltering along a river in Central Laos to freezing my membranes off in the Lao mountains. I sat in my crude hotel room in this quiet, mountain town of 15,000 about 10 miles from the Chinese border. Phongsali is the jump off point for some of the best trekking in Southeast Asia. It felt like it. I sat on the hard bed in my black turtleneck and khakis, very thankful I brought a stocking cap. I’d need it all the next day when I’d try to stay warm in an Akha family’s bamboo shelter.
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An interview with a monk: My time becomes spiritual in Laos’ Buddhism capital

I could hear rhythmic chanting inside, beautiful chanting by young voices. I peered through the narrow windows and could see the temple filled with saffron-robed monks. I stood and listened for a bit then went around to the entrance. About 30 of them, mostly teen-agers, kneeled in front of a huge golden Buddha.
The chanting ended and the monks filed out silently. One came out alone. He was young, thin with a round, kind face.
“Nice singing,” said one of the two other men observing.
“It wasn’t singing,” the young monk said in near perfect English, almost scolding. “It’s chanting. Singing is something else.”
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Vang Vieng: Laos’ one-time party center no longer “Death in Paradise,” thanks to crackdown

In 2011, Vang Vieng’s small hospital recorded 27 deaths in the river. This does not include unreported deaths or people dying after getting emergency transported to Vientiane, the capital. Keep in mind, the Nam Song is not the Colorado. It has no rapids. The Nam Song (“song” means “river” in Lao) is as peaceful as a Swiss summer. The only white water that was ever on the river was the beer foam that splayed a one-kilometer swath from all the bars that lined the banks.
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Laos: My 100th country is slowly emerging from its poverty-stricken communist cocoon

“Why Laos?” I always like that response. It means no one knows anything about it. It’s the capital of one of the few communist countries left in the world. It has emerged from a past so provincial it hardly had any street lights in 1998. The government, following China’s lead, opened its arms to tourism and limited free enterprise in the 1990s under a reform called the New Economic Mechanism. The number of tourists jumped from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.68 million in 2015.
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Bangkok: After 30-year absence, tastes remain the same in Sodom & Gomorrah East

Welcome to the land that morality forget. Bangkok is where visions are blurred, not only through the haze of too many Singha beers but the vast tolerance of a Buddhist culture and tourist industry run amok. It’s where a he is a she and a she can do things I didn’t learn on the streets of Eugene, Ore. When I started traveling in 1978, Bangkok became my gateway to the extremes of Asia travel. It guided me through an education that hardened me on my way to visit 100 countries.
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Ten wild things I didn’t know about Michelangelo

The advancements Michelangelo took art during the Renaissance stood out like the Sistine Chapel when compared with what came before and after him. It’s one of the many things I learned about Michelangelo during Luca’s five-hour Vatican tour. It was part of my new part-time gig: blogging for Through Eternity, one of the top tour companies in Rome. He told me so many things about history’s greatest sculptor that you won’t find in guidebooks or even “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Michelangelo’s biography I devoured in my youth. Here are 10 things I learned that I will never forget:

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