Vancouver: From skid row to Sheraton, a travel tale from hell turns into paradise in smoky Pacific Northwest

The boardwalk along Coal Harbour with Vancouver’s skyline in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — I knew we were in trouble when our Indian Sikh cab driver’s mood suddenly changed. Sikhs don’t believe in worldly things. Material possessions are accepted, not sought. So when a Sikh from India warns you about a poor neighborhood, you listen.

Particularly if he’s talking about your hotel.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!,” he said as he double-checked its address and turned a corner. “Vellie bawd ahreah. Why you stay theyah?”

Bad area? In Vancouver? Vancouver is one of the world’s ideal cities. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked it tops among the “most well-living cities” in the world five straight years. I was born, raised, educated and employed in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver is the place we went to escape reality.

It’s like Sydney with slap shots.

In 2016 Vancouver's homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

In 2016 Vancouver’s homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

But as we drove down Hastings Street, we saw the source of his fears. Homeless, dozens then hundreds, lined both sides of the street. They stood, sat and laid three deep among scattered and battered pup tents, sleeping bags and blankets. It looked like a refugee camp from a border war.

I looked at Marina, my Italian girlfriend who dreamed of seeing Vancouver, the focus of our two-week vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the jetlag, her eyes were open as if she just saw an asteroid destroy a small planet.

“Fa SCHIFO!” she said. That’s one of my favorite Italian phrases. Unfortunately, “It SUCKS!” doesn’t sound good coming from your girlfriend after you introduce her to her dream vacation spot.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

It got worse. We checked into the hotel, the Patricia, and I wondered if it inspired “Psycho.” We walked in past a broken-down piano in the lobby. Marina is deathly afraid of spiders so I didn’t look for cobwebs. The elevator didn’t work. I tried turning on a reading lamp in our tiny fourth-floor room and the knob fell off in my hand. The bathroom’s folding door had no handle. It had no wifi.

As we dropped our bags, Marina immediately took a chair and wedged it under the door handle, as if we were escaping the cast of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Marina's reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

Marina’s reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

“No esco! No esco!” (I don’t go out! I don’t go out!),” she said.

I went to the lobby and asked the manager, a young, pleasant but beaten-down man who looked as if he’s asked every hour about the neighborhood.

“It’s not as dangerous as it seems,” was his endorsement.

Funny, when I booked the room way back in September, its description said the Patricia was next to Chinatown, which I know and enjoy, and Gastown, Vancouver’s hopping nightlife district. The Patricia is in Vancouver’s first neighborhood and built in 1913. Pictures of the rooms looked great. At $80 Canadian ($70 U.S.), it was about the only hotel I found in the city under $150.

Now I know why.

Marina was speechless. I could’ve told her I didn’t have enough time to research the area. After all, I only had 11 months. Instead, I drank.

Frustrated, angry and limping from kicking myself all the way up and down the four flights of stairs we had to climb, I went to the roomy bar and ordered a Patricia Lager. No, the hotel has no working elevator but it does have a craft beer.

Jeff, a smiling, pony-tailed bartender, poured me the beer and said the neighborhood really isn’t dangerous. He walks home from work. The homeless are too stoned, drunk or sleepy to do any damage. But the blight on an otherwise spectacularly beautiful city, with one of the top skyline views in the world, is like vomit on a tuxedo.

I told him, “I’ve been in worse rooms in my life. A hotel in rural Egypt had the shower drain double as the toilet drain. But in 102 countries, I’ve never stayed in a worse neighborhood.”

I told him I remember Hastings Street from the 2010 Winter Olympics. But it hosted a couple blocks of homeless, like any city. It was nothing like this, a post-apocalyptic urban meltdown. I counted five straight blocks with people sleeping on the street. That’s not counting the ones in shelters.

“In the 2010 Olympics they put all the homeless shelters on this street,” Jeff said. “It’s gotten worse ever since. They come from all over Canada because of the moderate weather.”

Yes, if you’re out of work, out of luck and out of money, Vancouver is the place to find a park bench. It’s the warmest Canadian city in winter and coolest in summer. It has never recorded a temperature higher than 95 and never below zero.

As he talked, an elderly homeless man teetered up to the bar with a $10 bill. Jeff went to the back and brought back a big plastic bag of 12 cans of Carling Black Label, a vile swill from British Columbia I couldn’t keep down even in my poorest college days.

“But it has 8.5 percent alcohol,” Jeff said.

A tall, older man heard us and approached. A sympathizer to the homeless, he said before the 1986 World Expo, all the hotels with single-pensioner rooms, such as the Patricia, booted all its tenants onto the street. Many haven’t left.

“I know how to fix it,” the man said before walking away. “Get a gun!”

Apparently, the man comes to the Patricia only for the music. On this night, it was three middle-aged guitarists playing as a half dozen elderly, lumpy Vancouverites rocked awkwardly in the dim light.

Meanwhile, Marina had returned from smoking a cigarette outside. Normally, she smokes only after meals. We lost our appetite long ago.

“John, I saw a couple smoking crack outside,” she said.

I wanted to ask a rude question but fortunately I didn’t know Italian for “Did they share?” Also, Marina didn’t look in the mood for humor. Ever since we entered the hotel, curiously, a raven appeared on her shoulder.

Like Portland in my native Oregon, Vancouver’s homeless situation is reaching a crisis level. According to a CBC report in March, Vancouver has 2,181 homeless. The number went up 2 percent in 2017 after a 16-17 percent jump in 2016. Forty percent were indigenous people, 22 percent were from outside Vancouver and 25 percent surveyed said they were addicted to opioids. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s No. 1 campaign promise in 2015 was to solve the problem.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

However, fear not, bella. I’ve had worse travel stories from hell.

I’m a big fan of Priceline, the United States website where you bid for hotel rooms. You find the city and check off your desired neighborhoods, star rating and price. If Priceline finds a match, it automatically charges your credit card. It’s risky. You must take the hotel it gives you. However, hotels use it to fill empty rooms and the closer you get to your arrival date, the cheaper they become and are way below listed rates on their websites.

I didn’t think Priceline worked in Canada. I was wrong.

I sat, alone, in the lobby which did have wifi and inserted a four-star hotel for $170. Bingo! Priceline gave us the Sheraton Wall Centre for $170. I looked at its website. Its normal price …

… $570.

It’s on the West End near Stanley Park with views of Vancouver’s glorious skyline, an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and huge rooms with giant flat-screen TVs.

And bathroom doors.

We checked in the next morning and Marina hugged me before we reached the elevator. Yes, she said, she will sleep with me again.

Going from Vancouver’s East End, particularly Hastings Street, to the West End is like going from Tijuana to San Diego. They’re that close. In one short cab ride, we found ourselves in an August wonderland filled with water all around, glorious parks, fantastic seafood, liberal politics and safe streets.

Part of Vancouver's glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Part of Vancouver’s glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve written before, the Pacific Northwest is one of the few places on Earth comfortable to travel in August. The others are Scandinavia, Mongolia and, of course, Alaska. In our three days in Vancouver, it never got over 80 degrees. It never rained.

No wonder 10.3 million tourists visited in 2017, raising $4.8 billion for a city that employs 70,000 people in the tourist industry. And, no wonder, housing costs are skyrocketing to where the average two-level home costs about $1 million, nearly three times the national average.

Utopia ain’t cheap folks and if you can handle rain — it rains at least every other day from October to March — this city of 630,000 is as close to urban perfection as you’ll find.

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The place I wanted to take Marina was Vancouver’s crown jewel: Stanley Park. It’s the largest urban park in Canada and my favorite spot in the city. It’s 1,000 acres encompassing a half million trees, some as high as 250 feet and 100 years old. Water surrounds nearly the entire park. A bike/jogging path circumvents the quasi island with a dirt-bike track zigging through the trees. It has a world-famous aquarium, snack stands and a tony cafe. In 2014 TripAdvisor named it the top park in the world.

We rented hybrid street bikes from one of the long line of rental shops along nearby Denman Street and cycled a short way across West Georgia Street from downtown into the park. As we started pedaling, I stopped Marina and told her to turn to her right. There she saw the view that has captivated me my entire life and millions for generations. It’s the view of Vancouver’s glittery skyline. The city has no signature world-renowned building but the collection of downtown skyscrapers and glistening new apartment high rises in the background and a fleet of pleasure boats bobbing on Coal Harbour is a painting few artists can capture. On a clear e day it’s breathtaking. It ranks up there with Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer statue, New York from an airplane and San Francisco from across Golden Gate Bridge as my favorite skylines in the world.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Cycling around Stanley Park is more tour than exercise. We couldn’t go too far without stopping at a site or a view. We stopped at a totem park with totem poles honoring the indigenous people who populated the island
before it was turned into a park in 1886. The paint still looked as if it was applied yesterday. We cruised up the east side, not to say slowly but joggers were passing us. We stopped to gaze at a tiny lighthouse and the long, majestic Lions Gate Bridge. We passed a long sandy beach with clean, clear water that looked inviting except for the inevitable sterility-inducing temperature. After Marina headed back to a cafe for lunch, I launched an assault on a twisty, road up a hill where the summit offered good views of downtown.
One of Stanley Park's many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of Stanley Park’s many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, even now the views could be better. The worst forest fires in British Columbia history, totalling more than 5,000 square miles, has left Vancouver — and much of the Northwest — in a permanent brown haze. For three years I bragged to Marina about my spotless corner of the planet. Then we spent two weeks driving around what looked like L.A. in the ‘60s. Vancouver isn’t as bad as rural Washington, where people have been told in some areas to stay indoors, but the smoke did drop a slight film on one of the world’s best views.

We headed indoors the next day. We took a cute, brightly painted water taxi across False Creek to Granville Island, one of the great public markets in North America. Coming from Rome, littered with public markets sporting Italy’s best natural products, Granville Island was a must stop despite its tourist trappings. Inside a long, red A-framed building are 150 vendors selling everything from $300 hand-crafted knives to apples, from 150 varieties of tea at Granville Island Tea Company to rotisserie chicken and sausages at L’Epicerie Rotisserie and Gourmet Shop. After spending $2.90 for an almond cookie filled with chocolate cream and covered in chocolate, I walked back to the vendor and said, “This is the greatest dessert ever produced by human hands.” She reacted as if she’d heard it before.

Grandville Island's Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Grandville Island’s Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

I bought a small hand-painted carving of an orca made by a local member of the Carrier Nation. To British Columbia’s indigenous people, the orca, or killer whale, is symbolic of communication, intuition and harmony, perfect for my retired life in Rome. The sprawling crafts store is one of more than 100 other businesses outside the market that help Granville Island annually generate $215 million worth of business for the city.

No wonder as we bounced around False Creek, passing 100-foot yachts and towering apartment houses, the Aquabus pilot told us the upper-floor apartments were going for $2 million-$4 million. Hell, if I retired to Vancouver, I might be on Hastings Street, too.

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ironically, we wound up on Hastings Street on our last night. No, I hadn’t run out of money. We had to cross Hastings to get from the bus stop to Gastown. It wasn’t particularly dangerous. We passed some middle-aged men arguing in a slurring speech I couldn’t comprehend. Some older people were too passed out to even open their eyes. I smelled urine.
Vancouver's Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vancouver’s Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But in two blocks we found Gastown. It’s a sprawling string of rollicking bars and restaurants along Water Street, anchored by the famed Steam Clock that toots an obnoxious steam whistle every 15 minutes. On a lovely comfortable night in the high ‘60s, every outdoor seat in every bar was filled. We did find a corner table at a funky split-level bar called Six Acres, billed as Gastown’s “coziest tavern” and maybe the only pub in the world with candlelit corners. At our outdoor table a waitress with a bowling pin tattooed on her thigh served me a Doaus Kolsch, one of BC’s growing number of craft beers, and stared at the ass of Gassy Jack. His statue honors John “Gassy Jack” Deighton who arrived in Vancouver in 1867 and built the first pub in this neighborhood. Vancouver has been toasting ever since. His statue, appropriately, is atop a whiskey barrel.
Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver's first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver’s first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Then a man staggered up to us and tried bumming gas fare. Maybe he was one of the lucky ones. Maybe he was one who’s close to getting off Hastings Street.


Tyrrhenian Sea hard to spell but hard to beat for beaches in steaming Rome

(I’m traveling. Below is a reprint from 2015)

The Tyrrhenian Sea is overshadowed by the Adriatic in Italy but it does have its moments, such as this sunset in Sabaudia.

The Tyrrhenian Sea is overshadowed by the Adriatic in Italy but it does have its moments, such as this sunset in Sabaudia.

SABAUDIA, Italy — On a planet that is two-thirds covered by water, the Tyrrhenian Sea is so far down the list of majestic seas that you’d need Jacques Cousteau to find it. It can’t even hold claim as the most famous sea in a country. On Italy’s east coast is the Adriatic Sea. The Adriatic sparks images of Greeks and goddesses, yachts and islands, myths and legends. To the south is the Mediterranean. It’s mighty in its own right. It borders three continents. Its history dates to the time of the Phoenicians when Rome was more than 1,000 years from its first emperor.

Meanwhile, the Tyrrhenian Sea can’t even be spelled. No, that’s not a typo. It really does have two Rs, one of which should stand for “redundant.” It reads like someone had a key get stuck. Its anonymity doesn’t make much sense, really. It is huge. It stretches from Tuscany all the way along the northern coast of Sicily. Like the Adriatic it has islands. Ever hear of Sardinia? Like the Mediterranean (which also has two R’s but the second one just looks like it belongs), it has history. Monte Circeo, overlooking the beach, is believed to be where the Sirens’ sweet music lured Odysseus’ sailors to their watery deaths in “The Iliad.”

Sabaudia's beach is 60 miles south of Rome and the sea is as clear as the Caribbean.

Sabaudia’s beach is 60 miles south of Rome and the sea is as clear as the Caribbean.

And, like them all, the Tyrrhenian has beaches. That is why this sea is so important to 4 million Romans. It is why it is so important to me. Now. Temperatures here in Rome remain in the mid-90s with 50-percent humidity and the only escape is your shower. The Tiber River is so filthy, I read where a man swam in the river and died from an ear infection produced from — get this — rat urine.

So this month, like a turtle to his nesting ground, I have made numerous trips to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s beaches near Rome. In my world travels, beaches are huge. They symbolize relaxation like thrones symbolize wealth. What comes to mind when you think of words like solitude, languish, bliss, sun, warmth? A beach comes to mind, right?

I have kept a list of my top five beaches and have memorized them better than my family’s birthdays. Feel free to clip and save and pull out when you get the courage to venture away from the safe American confines of Hawaii:

1. Mahe, Seychelles Islands. A perfect half-moon bay filled with water the color of a robin’s egg and lined with leaf to leaf palm trees. I asked a local in a bar why the beach was empty. He said, “Because it’s awful.” Awful? I told him it’s the best beach I’d ever seen. “You should see the outer islands,” he said.

2. Seven-Mile Beach, Palawan, Philippines. Conde Nast magazine picked El Nido, just north of Seven-Mile Beach, as its No.1 beach in the world for 2014. Sorry, Conde. Seven-Mile tops it. It is seven miles long of white sugar sand without a rock on it or in the water.

3. Englishman’s Bay, Tobago. The smaller brother in Trinidad & Tobago, Tobago is lined with individual beaches cut off from each other by outcroppings and jetties. I reached Englishman’s by driving through 100 feet of mud and parking under a clearing of palm trees. The only structure on the 100 yards of curved beach was a small snack shack.

4. Beachcomber Island, Fiji. It’s only about a half mile around the island lined by white sand and encircling thick foliage with a few guesthouses. It’s right out of a Far Side cartoon. All there is to do is lie on the beach, drink and dance.

I rank Sri Lanka's Goyambokka Beach has the No. 5 beach in the world.

I rank Sri Lanka’s Goyambokka Beach has the No. 5 beach in the world.

5. Goyambokka, Sri Lanka. I visited in March and it puts the capital “E” in Exotic. On the southern tip of the island, it’s a stretch of fine white sand, lined with palm trees and a water that is as warm as a birdbath.

No beach on the Tyrrhennian will make this list.

However, it’s what we’ve got. Romans joke about the one neighborhood that is on the sea, Ostia. People don’t realize that Rome’s city center is only 25 miles from the Tyrrhenian and Ostia, which dropped its independence to be part of Rome in 1976, technically means Rome is on the sea. But people joke about Ostia for a reason. The sea at Ostia, just south of the airport, is the color of a rusted battleship. It’s kind of gray-green with the visibility of minestrone. It doesn’t seem as dirty as some say. You don’t see bubbles or beer bottles floating on the surface as I’ve seen in Asia. But it doesn’t inspire images of floating under a brilliant sun or Campari on ice under a little beach umbrella. The beach is lined chock-a-block with restaurants and bars and changing stations. On weekends when Romans flee to the nearest beach, Ostia looks like the Jersey Shore. But the sand has no rocks, the water temperature is good and it’s a 35-minute train ride from Rome. It works. But that’s it. It’s like walking into an artisanal brew pub and ordering a Schlitz.

You're always reminded that you're not too far from Rome as indicated by these ruins of 1st century AD thermal baths.

You’re always reminded that you’re not too far from Rome as indicated by these ruins of 1st century AD thermal baths.

Terme sign
The farther you get from Rome the nicer the beaches. Fregene, north of Ostia about 15 miles, is harder to reach by public transport. Thus, it’s less crowded. The water is more green than gray. But the long line of food establishments gives it a county fair feel.

Maccarese, just north of Fregene, has comfy lanais chairs for the reasonable price of 10 euros and water cleaner and even more void of rocks.

Twice I have been to Santa Severa, a black sand beach 35 miles north of Rome just south of the port city of Civitavecchia. Santa Severa is vastly underrated, underpopulated and underpublicized. Good. I will return. Despite the lack of palm trees and any amenities, it is the one beach that makes you feel away from it all. But you’re reminded you’re in Rome by the 9th century castle that juts out into the sea and the Etruscan temple you walk past to reach the beach.

This lanais chairs on Sabaudia are not cheap.

This lanais chairs on Sabaudia are not cheap.

This week I went farther afield. About 60 miles south of Rome, past the pope’s residence of Castel Gandolfo and apartment house ghetto that is Latina, lies a town where the Tyrrhenian mirrors the Caribbean. It’s where the Tyrrhenian is so clear you see fish swirling around your ankles as you wade endlessly into the gentle blue-green surf. It’s where the sand is the color of gold dust, where the sun is so huge as it sets on the horizon, you feel you can swim to the end of the earth.
Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia.

Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia.

The town of Sabaudia was developed in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini and his band of beach fascists. In one of the positives Mussolini did while in power, he drained the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome and developed industry and communities. One of those was Sabaudia. While Mussolini’s little achievement was overshadowed somewhat by befriending Adolf Hitler, Sabaudia today is one of the nicest beach towns in Italy. Many of the rich and famous come to Sabaudia to work on their tans and drink cool white wine in the shade. Francesco Totti, A.S. Roma’s soccer hero, owns a house here and is often seen playing beach soccer with random children.

I walked along the beach that is long and wide with nary a rock in sight. A huge rock outcropping at one end reminded me of Diamond Head at the end of Waikiki Beach. However, Waikiki doesn’t have the remains of an ancient villa belonging to Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). I eschewed the larcenously priced lanais chairs to lay on my Sri Lankan sarong and read my terrific Roland Merullo book, “Breakfast With Buddha.”

I knew it would be crowded when I picked up the bus in Rome. Three buses left for Sabaudia and points south at 8:45 a.m. All three were packed. I arrived in early afternoon and by 2 p.m., nearly every lanais chair was rented. It no longer looked like the Jersey Shore. Let’s be honest. It looked like Italy in July. Italy in July, as I wrote before, sucks. Children screamed. Teen-agers preened. The elderly baked under umbrellas. They didn’t move except to move their seat with the sun.

Let me amend something I’ve written often in this blog. After several trips to Rome’s beaches, I conclude that not all Romans are beautiful. The collection of fat, rolly pot bellies and cottage-cheesed legs could pass on bodies on any lake in Nebraska. I wondered if some of these people actually undressed in front of their spouses.

However, the sea is never crowded. Shedding temperatures in the mid-90s and 50-percent humidity, I peeled myself off my sarong and walked gingerly over the coal-hot sand into the sea. The water temperature is in the high 70s, the perfect temperature to wipe off the sweat without putting your heart into temporary spasms. Even in the sandy depths I could see the ocean floor. Suddenly, I wondered where I put my scuba diving C-card.

The beach of Sperlonga with the charming old town hovering in the distance.

The beach of Sperlonga with the charming old town hovering in the distance.

The next day I went farther south to Sperlonga, just north of Campania, the region where Naples and the Amalfi Coast tend anchor. Sperlonga was developed well before Mussolini. In fact, Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) had a villa built overlooking the beach. The villa’s remains can be still seen at one end.
Sperlonga's central business district.

Sperlonga’s central business district.

If Tiberius saw all the lanais chairs and umbrellas covering his beach today, this beach would be the site of mass beheadings. From some spots on the road above, sand can barely be seen. However, the Tyrrhenian is even bluer and cleaner and warmer here. My swims were longer. My mind was clearer. For 10-15-minute stretches, the humidity and the crowded buses and the packaged tourists were on another planet as I laid on my back on the cool, clean Tyrrhenian Sea.

L'Ancora's seafood spaghetti special.

L’Ancora’s seafood spaghetti special.

Even pizza by the slice is good in Sabaudia.

Even pizza by the slice is good in Sabaudia.

Italy may not have the beaches, but the beach food may rival anywhere in the world. At L’Ancora, in the nearby town of Formia, I sat on the patio with a distant view of the sea and had its famed seafood pasta: spaghetti packed with a generous tossing of oysters, clams, mussels, crab, hermit crabs, octopus, calamari, olives and basil. Topped with an appetizer of fresh cantaloupe and lean prosciutto and an ice cold beer, few beaches in the Caribbean, Asia or South Pacific could top it.

Your table at Saporetti in Sabaudia.

Your table at Saporetti in Sabaudia.

But I managed to. On my second night I ventured down to Saporetti, a white-table clothed restaurant with a lowbrow bar and tables facing the sea. I had two glasses of the house white, a Chardonnay made right here in Sabaudia, and watched the blood red sun set on the sea. It was 8:30 p.m. Humidity in Italy drops at night. I no longer felt sweaty. My wine tasted like champagne after a day in the desert. I found myself smiling for no apparently reason.

Yes, I'm smiling for a reason. Sperlunga's cool, clean, clear water washes away all the sweat from Rome on another sweltering July day.

Yes, I’m smiling for a reason. Sperlunga’s cool, clean, clear water washes away all the sweat from Rome on another sweltering July day.

No, Rome’s beaches won’t make Islands magazine. I won’t enlarge any of my photos for my wall. But for Rome, a 3,000-year-old city that in July seems to melt like pistachio gelato in the sun, these beaches make me feel like an emperor.

Scambios are ideal way to learn Italian — but careful how you say it

(I’m traveling. Below is a reprint from 2015)

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I've had over the years.

At Eataly with Maria Angela, one of an estimated 50 (language) scambio partners I’ve had over the years.

The sun had long since set in Rome and that dark, crisp period right before dinner time settles into the most romantic city on earth. It’s the time when Romans sit in cozy enotecas, known in North America as wine bars, and warm themselves with good wine and conversation. I was sitting with a gorgeous Italian woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren in her early 30s. Long, curly, coal black hair, olive complexion and eyes right off a new-born doe. We were sitting in Del Frate, a dim enoteca near the Vatican so romantic you could fall in love with a mannequin. We were talking Italian and she was asking me about my former job as a sportswriter. She asked me if I played sports when I was younger. I tried to say, in Italian, “I was a lousy athlete.” But, instead, I screwed up the noun and the tense and instead of saying, “I was a lousy athlete” I said …

… “I’m lousy in bed.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t a date. It’s why I didn’t take offense to her — and every other beautiful woman within earshot of our table — laughing so hard. I kind of wondered how Italian women knew I hit only .236 my senior year in high school, but I wondered more how I messed up the sentence. Athlete in Italian is “atleta.” Bed is “letto.” Atleta. Letto. It’s an easy mistake to make, I lied to myself. (Oh, and to answer your next inevitable question, I did not get a chance to prove to her otherwise.)

I was having a scambio. It is great way to learn a language. It’s educational, fun and free. Scambio is Italian for “exchange.” I meet an Italian who wants to learn English. We talk Italian for an hour and then English for an hour and correct each other along the way. However, one of my first language lessons in Rome was how to ask for said language lesson. Technically, scambio in Italian vernacular usually refers to a sexual swap. I tried calling it a scambio di lingua but while lingua means “language,” it also means “tongue.” That became problematic — and a bit dangerous — when asking Italian women. While I still had my front teeth, I was told the accurate term is scambio linguistica.

When you move to a foreign country, you best learn a language three ways: You live with a family, you work for a local business or you get a girlfriend or boyfriend. You either live it, work it or sleep it. However, when I moved to Rome in January 2014, I did none of those things. I was a retired, unattached journalist whose lone baggage was a roller bag and a backpack.

Language classes? Ha! When I first lived in Rome from 2001-03, I followed the crowd and enrolled in language school. I liked Biology of Blood Clots more. I took two intensive one-month courses. It was awful. It was frustrating. It was humiliating. Navy SEALS training would’ve been less challenging. I was 45 years old taking my first foreign language lesson with 20-something Scandinavians and Latins working on their fourth or fifth language. They became fluent in, oh, about 90 minutes. After two months I still struggled conjugating “To have.” I remember once walking out of class so upset, so hopeless, I ordered a pizza that night in English. I order in the local language even in rural China.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.

Fabio and me at Bar Genny, south east of Termini train station.

But someone tipped me off to a fantastic website called It lists languages from French to Hmong. You list your native language, put in what language you want your partner to speak and fill out a brief bio. You peruse the list of potential partners and send them a message on the website. My bio receives about a dozen requests a week. It helps that I am an American journalist with an alleged solid command of English grammar. It also helps that the Italian economy is in its biggest recession on record and Italians see learning English as a ticket off this sinking peninsula.

The bio is important. But folks, this is not a dating sight. doesn’t even include photos. I made it clear that I am not looking for a relationship other than one for conversation. Many female scambio partners tell me they meet men for a scambio and the men steer the conversation from conjugations of past conditional to sexual fantasies in St. Peter’s Square. Or the men end the first scambio with, “Let’s do this again. How about my place? Say, midnight?” One Italian man left a note on our language school bulletin board requesting scambio partners. He ended it with, “Women only.” I don’t go there. Learning Italian is hard enough not to add a big dose of sexual tension.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I'm eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.

Me and Stefania at the Sicilian cafe, Mizzica. I’m eating a granita, a traditional Sicilian dessert.

In the process, I’ve made numerous friends. In two stints in Rome covering about three years, I have had probably 50 scambio partners. An actor. An economics professor. A cell phone executive. A movie producer. A journalist. An English teacher. A cafe owner. A tour guide. Old. Young. Male. Female. It doesn’t matter. As long as they have a desire to learn English and I have the time, I meet them.

The level isn’t important. I’ve had Italians who can’t put an English sentence together. With them, I’m very basic and speak slowly. I’ve had Italians who are so fluent I wonder why then need help. They say they’re working on pronunciation, slang and finer grammar points.

My Italian is probably intermediate. My comprehension is awful but I can speak it, read it and write it OK, with the expected number of mistakes. And some of the mistakes are legendary. Besides the one above, which I enjoy repeating to expats who are embarrassed by their Italian, there was also the time a partner and I discussed Rome’s current economic crisis. She said she was really stressed and miserable over trying to make ends meet. I tried to say, “Ma sembri molto molto felice.” (“But you seem very, very happy.”) Instead, I said, “Ma sembri molto molto facile.” Facile means “Easy.” Fortunately, she laughed. I did not.

This used to say "Italian-English Dizionario" and was blue. Yes, I've used it a lot.

This used to say “Italian-English Dizionario” and was blue. Yes, I’ve used it a lot.

It may seem redundant to do scambios when I’m already living in Italy and surrounded by the Italian language in a city where English is pretty much confined to the larcenously priced International New York Times. It isn’t. Scambios force me out of my apartment and into conversations with people from different backgrounds, accents and interests. People from Tuscany speak a more pure form of Italian than Romans. Sicilians, when they speak Italian instead of Sicilian, are essentially speaking a second language and are easier to understand. Some Romans teach me Romanaccio, the cruder side of the Romano dialect. I have scored points from waiters and restaurant owners all over Rome for declaring after a meal, “AMAZZA CHE BONO!” That’s Romano for “VERY GOOD!”

Scambios also get me to neighborhoods and places I would never see otherwise. Sicilian diners. Cozy enotecas. Outdoor cafes. Dive bars. I do what we call in the American sports world, a “home and home.” We do one scambio in their neighborhood, then another at Linari, the local cafe in my neighborhood of Testaccio, about a mile south of the Colosseum.

Learning a foreign language is like growing a tree. It takes a long time. It’s real slow. It’s hard to see growth. However, if you’re patient and keep watering your interest, you can eventually branch out to the rest of your adopted country. Scambios are a good tool, but remember one thing.

It isn’t facile.

Colombia has a lot to offer for travelers

The beaches of Cartagena are some of Colombia's many highlights.

The beaches of Cartagena are some of Colombia’s many highlights.

(I’ve never been to Colombia but this guest blog by Gabe Campbell makes me want to go there.)

There aren’t too many countries around the world that have been stigmatized as much as Colombia. Closely associated with a violent cocaine trade for decades – an association no doubt made worse by Hollywood – it was avoided and even put on travel advisory lists for years.

Things have changed, though. While there are still some areas of Colombia that are best avoided, and kidnapping can be an issue, there are plenty of safe areas. So long as you use proper precautions and you’re aware of risks in certain areas, you can make a vacation out of this fascinating South American country.

For those who are intrigued by this idea, we’d note that Colombia isn’t just OK. It actually has a lot to offer the modern tourist, including some of the following highlights.

The Colombian Coffee Region, also known as the Coffee Triangle, is a part of the Colombian Paisa Region in the rural area of Colombia.

The Colombian Coffee Region, also known as the Coffee Triangle, is a part of the Colombian Paisa Region in the rural area of Colombia.

Coffee Plantations

As you may be aware, Colombia produces some of the finest coffee in the world, and you don’t have to be a connoisseur to appreciate this as a sort of attraction. While you can certainly spend time learning how coffee is made and sampling some of the best there is, “coffee tourism” will also take you to some of the more beautiful parts of the country. The coffee region of Colombia, which some refer to as the Coffee Axis, happens to include lush hills, some national park land and incredibly charming venues from which the plantations are run (and shown off).

San Andreas Scuba Diving

While not technically in the Caribbean, Colombia is one of the closer mainland countries to the famously beautiful sea, and as such it has some similar diving and snorkeling opportunities. That is to say, there are places on the coast of Colombia where you can enjoy translucent turquoise water, high visibility, warm temperatures and an all around terrific diving experience. Cartagena is a popular starting point for a lot of people looking to go on diving expeditions, though we’d also point out San Andreas because it actually is in the Caribbean. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a beautiful archipelago located a fair distance offshore, in the Caribbean Sea between Colombia and Nicaragua. You can stay on the islands, and the scuba and snorkel opportunities are wonderful.

Casino Activity

Here again, Colombia doesn’t get quite as much attention as some of its Caribbean neighbors to the north. That is to say, you don’t hear about casino destinations in Colombia the way you might hear about the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas or the Hard Rock Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, there is a thriving gambling industry in Colombia. In fact, it’s doing the country quite a bit of good. A U.S.-based site posting the latest stories and updates about casino culture in the Americas pointed out that Colombia gambling revenue has raised $2.5 billion for healthcare. That implies a thriving industry, and if this is your sort of thing to do on vacation, destinations like CASINO Cosmopolitan, Casino Rio, and Casino Rock’n Jazz are just a few of the venues where you might be able to take a break and enjoy yourself.

Mud Baths

The idea of a mud bath might not typically be on your list of things to look for in a fun or relaxing vacation, unless you have your eye on a specific spa. But in Colombia this is one of the more unique and memorable things you can do. Basically, in the country surrounding Cartagena, there is a very small volcano called El Totumo. And the inside of the volcano (which is in fact an active one) is filled with mud, rather than boiling lava. The mud is naturally heated, and while it’s not piping hot, it’s said to make for a relaxing time. According to some Colombian lore, the volcano used to be far more dangerous before it was blessed by a priest and — perhaps more plausibly — the muddy consistency of the heated pool within carries some mineral health benefits.

Múcura Island is a stunning choral island offering beautiful beaches and sights of stunning mangrove trees.

Múcura Island is a stunning choral island offering beautiful beaches and sights of stunning mangrove trees.

Isla Mucura Swimming

Given what we said before about Colombia resembling a Caribbean paradise in some areas, it follows that there are plenty of great swimming spots around the country. Southwest of Cartagena however, and just a short distance offshore, lies Isla Mucura – which was actually singled out by CNN as one of the top highlights of Colombia, and a particularly nice place to swim. ”Otherworldly bioluminescent plankton” are among the highlights mentioned in the CNN piece, which certainly makes it sound like a charming place to swim to us.

(Gabe Campbell is a photographer, blogger, and artist in Raleigh, North Carolina. He travels whenever he gets the opportunity to, and hopes to combine those interests into an original online travel magazine in the near future.)

Going solo: Traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely or scary if you take these tips

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

Me alone in Vang Vieng, Laos, where the majestic karsts kept me company.

“When you travel alone it’s never crowded.”

I left off the source of that great quote because it didn’t come from Mark Twain or Paul Theroux or any other great travel writer. It came from a guy I had a beer with at my guesthouse in Jamaica way back in 1982. I can’t remember his name or even his country but I found that comment so astute.

Just four years before, I had traveled around the world alone for a year and what he said hit home. I remembered. No matter how crowded a bus was, a street, a museum, a bar, when I was alone I never felt confined. I never felt trapped. I could always break away. The idea of traveling to find freedom and then locking yourself into an itinerary, let alone a tour bus, seemed a complete defeat of purpose. It’s like flying in an airplane and never looking out the window. Traveling with another person means you’re never truly away from home. Home is right next to you. The purpose of solo travel is to find yourself, not your friends.

This is my 40th year of international travel and I’ve traveled alone to most of my 102 countries. I traveled with girlfriends a few times. I traveled once with a platonic female friend and that turned into a travel tale from the Third Circle of Hades. I have never traveled with a guy, nor would I. Why?

I also have professional reasons to travel alone. As a travel writer, I want to write my own views, not those of someone else who browbeats me into veering away from my first impressions. I keep a journal everywhere I go. Try telling a travel partner to wait 90 minutes while you pound out an essay about your ride through an Indonesian jungle the day before.

There are drawbacks, of course. Traveling to beautiful places, inevitably you’ll find yourself in romantic places. Alone. I’ve never felt so lonely than one night on the isle of Crete when every traveler I drank with in the beach bar that night had a girlfriend. I was the 21st wheel.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

Dining out on local cuisine with my B&B hosts in Liechtenstein.

I was once on assignment on Hawaii’s Big Island and walked out to my hotel’s beach-side restaurant for dinner. It was Valentine’s Day. I totally forgot. Every table was filled with cooing couples sipping wine under torchlight while I was speed dialing every friend with no benefits I knew, just so the others didn’t think I was a complete loser. Bringing a girlfriend, you not only never feel lonely but you take your relationship to romantic heights not possible back home.

It’s cheaper to share rooms. Another set of eyes is good for directions. Another brain is good for ideas.

But to travel alone and relying solely on your own eyes, brain and instincts shapes you as an adult. It steels you for future roadblocks in life. It builds confidence you can’t get from how-to books or jobs. I’m terrible with directions. I can get lost in an elevator. But I know I traversed Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range, drove around Iceland, traveled the length of Laos and hitchhiked behind the Iron Curtain. All alone.

With the high tourist season upon us, I thought I’d give some handy tips on solo travel. I hope they all make sense and don’t impede your own personal freedom. Some may not make sense. Use it as a guide, not as a bible. I’ve written 10 for men and 10 for women, based on surfing other websites and talking to female travelers who don’t need company to eat out in the Third World.

Clip it. Put it on your refrigerator while packing and safe travels.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.

My money belts, new (above) and old. I never leave home without it.


1. Money belt. This is for anybody, even those on an American Express tour bus but it’s even more important for solo travelers as you don’t have a partner or group to watch out for you. It’s a long, wide, thin cotton pouch with two zippers where you put all the things you can’t afford to lose: passport, second credit card, ATM card, large amounts of cash. In the old days I put plane tickets in there. It clips around your waist inside the waistline of your pants. The only way you can get robbed is if they knock you out and strip you. Through 40 years, I have yet to be ripped off.

2. Don’t engage people who approach you. Every person who tries starting a conversation with me, especially in poor countries, wants something at the end of the conversation. It’s almost always money. The longer you talk to them, the more they think you’re indebted. However, if you approach a local, no matter where, you’ll likely wind up with a friend. People all over the world love talking about their country, their culture. Once in the Seychelles Islands, I asked a local in a bar about the best beach. He turned out to be one of the island’s top chefs. Shortly into the conversation, a raggedy man asked if he could talk to me. He mumbled something in French then I heard “money” in English. I returned to the chef and we wound up exchanging postcards for years.

3. Sports bars. It’s easier to meet locals when you’re alone. For some reason they take pity on you, mainly because they’d never do it. Every major city has a sports bar where you can catch locals watching local sports they can’t watch in person. Ask them about their sports, their town, whatever. They’ll engage you. Many sports bars are pubs filled almost entirely of expats. Still, it’s not a bad place to get Westerners’ views of the country you’re traveling through. One Brit who’d lived in Mongolia for two years told me in a bar in Ulaanbaatar that domestic violence is so bad there, if you take out a woman and just don’t hit her, she’ll go out with you again.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana's Savor Tropical.

Drinking with Cubans in Havana’s Savor Tropical.

4. Dating sites. I’m not a fan of these. Women lie about their weight; men, women tell me, lie about their age and height. (How do you lie about your height, guys?) But I did it once. Before the 2012 London Olympics, I joined a site and targeted London women telling them I was a traveling food columnist for my Denver Post newspaper and wanted a local guide to find London’s best gastropubs, a big trend at the time. If they wanted a free meal in exchange for some gastronomic insight, write me back. I made a point to say I wasn’t looking to hook up. I wound up meeting three wonderful women, two were sisters (Sorry. Not twins.) and I not only had great meals and wrote a good column but made a couple friends along the way. You don’t have to be a food columnist. Just tell them you want insight into local cuisine. You want food, not romance.

5. Do not ask taxi drivers where to meet local women. That’s a disaster. I did it twice: In 1983 in Mexico City a guy dropped me off at a brothel. And it wasn’t just any brothel. It was a brothel specializing in obese women. Yes, it was targeting chubby chasers. In 1997 a guy in Rio took me to a massage parlor. I was wondering why all these guys were sitting around the lobby in bathrobes. I bolted both times.

6. Don’t read during meals, not even your cell phone. I went to Sri Lanka three years ago and was devastated when my aging cellphone conked out after I landed. I couldn’t text friends. I couldn’t post on Facebook. However, with nothing to engage me, I was able to engage locals. I was in the cool, green hill town of Ella when a Sri Lankan sitting nearby filled me in on the Cricket World Cup playing on the TV above us. Meanwhile, at the next table, I couldn’t help noticing two couples didn’t even exchange words with each other. They were all looking at their cellphones.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

Me and two new Icelander friends in a bar in Reykjavik.

7. Drink. Yes, drink. You’re not driving, or, you’re probably not. Get shitfaced a couple nights. Let the inhibitions fall and clink glasses with locals. As a travel writer, it’s easy for me. The best place to get a pulse on a city is a bar. I often talk to bartenders, people who talk to lots of locals. If you ask one question about a country to a group of people at the bar, you’ll usually start a lively conversation or maybe a debate. The best travel quote I got all last year was in a bar in Reykjavik. Poleaxed by the larcenous prices I’d seen everywhere in Iceland, I asked them, “With fish 35 euros, beer 13 and cocktails 20, how the hell do you guys take out women here?” They all raised their glasses, laughed and simultaneously said, “We don’t!”

8. Sit with a foot or arm around a strap of your bag or backpack. Without another set of eyes, you’re a target for thieves. Stay awake. If you do nod off while sitting in an airport or train station, you should be able to feel someone removing your arm or foot to steal your bag.

9. Don’t swim at empty beaches before asking locals about it. The south coast of Sri Lanka has really underrated beaches. After a couple of days in Goyambokka, with one of the most idyllic beaches I’ve seen in Asia, I decided to explore. I cut through the jungle to the west for 15 minutes and found myself on a deserted, perfectly shaped half-moon beach. I was alone. Why? I found a man working on a house and he said the beach has a bad riptide. He said, “But if you get past that first wave, you won’t feel the current. Then when you return, swim sideways a few hundred meters and …” If I’d gone in alone without asking, I might not be writing this.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

10. If you’re hiking, tell the hotel or guesthouse or a friend at home where you’re going. If you don’t come back, they’ll at least know where you went. I lived in Colorado from 1990-2014 and one day in 1994 a Colorado outdoorsman named Aron Ralston went hiking in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon. A dislodged 800-pound boulder pinned his arm against the wall. He couldn’t get out. He had told no one where he went. He sat there for six days. What did he do? He cut off his own arm. What he wound up with was a well-received book called (what else?) “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and an appreciation of the before-mentioned rule.


1. Carry a whistle. Of all the self-defense devices, this seems the most popular. Mace and pepper spray, in many countries where they’re most needed, are considered concealed weapons and illegal.

2. Dress like an expat. That’s a fine balance. Don’t dress like a tourist. No white fedoras. No Nikes. No souvenir T-shirts. But don’t dress completely like a local, either. Don’t dress head to toe in native garb. You’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Dress conservatively and comfortably, like what you’d wear at home. Thieves and men look for naivete. Expats who’ve lived abroad awhile are street smart.

3. Don’t get drunk. This sounds obvious but living in Rome, I’ve seen some cases where a woman gets too drunk and some “kindly Italian” offers to walk them home. He’s not interested in discussing Dante’s “Inferno” once he gets you there.

4. Day tours. If you want to meet other solo travelers, take a day tour that attracts them. Many major cities have free walking tours, a great way to introduce yourself to a place and make friends. I even take them.

In the High Tatras in Slovakia.

Even I tried yoga, in Varkala, Kerala state, India.

5. Take a yoga class. Yoga is booming all over the world. If you do yoga, or have ever been interested in yoga, find a class where you’re visiting. You’ll find local women who might put you under their wing and show you where the good places to go.

6. Have a Plan B for accommodations. I’ve read stories of women who get to an AirBnB or a CouchSurfing spot and the owner wants to show them more than the city. If you feel uncomfortable, have a second accommodation’s phone number handy to call for a quick change.

7. Cut back on the jewelry. Jewelry is a big fence item. Don’t draw attention to yourself with anything flashy. If you’re rich, don’t show it. This is especially true in Brazil where armed hold-ups are done in broad daylight.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

Meeting a sambar deer in Sri Lanka.

8. Hide extra cash. I read this and didn’t quite understand it, nor did I want to understand it but I’ll trust women will understand it: Put extra cash in a tampon applicator and put it back in its wrapper. I do understand that will definitely hide the money.

9. No earplugs. While walking the streets, don’t wear earplugs. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, of people approaching you from behind. You must hear everything. The U2 tape can wait.

10. Doorstop. Many women carry cheap little doorstops and wedge them under their hotel room door for extra security. Some hotels are so cheap, a well-trained cocker spaniel could break in.