I’m sure nobody wants to hear this, but 2016 wasn’t all bad for me. At times it would be easy to sink into the growing collective despair. Then again, I find it perfectly healthy to reflect and take stock of the good things that happened over the past year. Truth be told, 2016 was not a bad year in terms of the things I care most about, those being travel and hearing and telling stories. Over the course of these 12 months, I covered distances as far as Alaska to Jordan. I learned about indigenous tourism and finally set foot in a corner of the globe that continues to be thoroughly misunderstood by people from my North American background. I personally feel better educated to share the stories I’ve heard to continually do my part, as little as it may be, to make people less terrified of one another.
Below are 10 of my top travel experiences of 2016 complete with a snippet from the article referencing said experience. Yes, it’s a bit like when a TV sitcom assembles a clip show as a cop-out for an episode, but I hope it’s clear that my intentions are noble.
I also hope it’s clear that I’m not sharing these to brag or incite envy. Rather, I’m sharing them in hopes you might feel compelled to either follow in my footsteps to some of these destinations or to simply recount the positive aspects of your year.
CHUGGING ALONG ON THE ALASKA RAILROAD
“Luckily for my travel preferences, this year just so happened to be the centennial celebration of the Alaska Railroad, launched in 1916 in time to fuel the gold rush. Today, it’s still a beauty of a rail line that travels between Fairbanks and Seward, a distance of 470 miles, with Denali National Park in between.
Stops are limited in the winter, but still well-worth the experience, especially if like me you’re going from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Though the train is mostly tourists and local skiers these days, it’s also popular with Alaskans who have built cabins off the road network. They’ll board, let the train engineer know which “whistle-stop” they need, and the train will come to a stop so they can hop off and start their trek to the cabin.
I saw the sun rise and set on that train, yet it hardly felt like a day went by over the nearly 12-hour ride. The experience was mesmerizing throughout (when I wasn’t busy napping off a Great Alaska hangover). I could’ve stared out the window for hours. In fact, I did. I never once got sick of those mountains, forests, and rivers. Who in their right mind could?”
WATCHING BRITISH FOOTBALL LIVE
“On our final full day in England, we took an afternoon train from Newcastle upon Tyne over to Leicester where we had just enough time to drop our bags and start the mile walk to King Power Stadium. For this stadium visit, we were just a tad spoiled with seats at the Legends Lounge.
Our Legends Lounge tickets included a stadium tour much like Stamford Bridge, a three course meal, and all the beer we could handle. But what made it all that much more exciting was the fact that Leicester City were having a cinderella season, sitting at the top of the table in a league criticized for a lack of parity. This all after facing relegation just one year earlier and having been in the second-tier league two years ago. With wins continuing to pile on in the late season, long time Leicester City fans actually felt confident in their chances of winning a Premier title.
(Speaking of feeling things, Leicester City supporters made international news after creating an earthquake of 0.3 on the Richter scale following a last-minute winner earlier in the season.)
A short hallway is all that separated us from the Legends Lounge dining area and our seats. Despite the biting cold, it was a thrilling experience for this American to finally attend a proper British football match. As Fever Pitch advertised to me all those years ago, fans were loud and engaged for all 90 minutes of play. Clappers were clapping, flags were waved, and disparaging insults were yelled at the ref, just like back home.
At the end of the evening, Leicester City walked away with a 1-0 victory over struggling Newcastle United. While some shuffled off to their cars and masochistically subjected themselves to vehicular traffic, the overwhelming majority walked out of the stadium and into the streets of Leicester with the celebratory glow of a fan base who can taste a championship.”
RIDING THE TRAIN IN NORTHERN HONDURAS
“You might not expect to find a running train in Northern Honduras, but you’d be foolish to be so dismissive — although there’s a bit more, let’s say, “character” to the trains in these parts. This is no Japanese bullet train. The ride to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge is an open-air, mostly wooden structure rocking along the rails to the Caribbean coast.
“Where’s the engine?” a fellow traveler asked.
Well, just trust that they know what they’re doing.
This Honduran train is not quite what some of us might be accustomed to from the metropolises of North America or Europe. It runs as needed and gets off to a slow start, so slow that it easily came to a stop at a convenience shop early on in the journey. From thereon out, the road disappeared and the speed picked up as the train darted into the thick of the jungle, forcing any horses or cows relaxing on the tracks to move or be moved.”
“What compares to the marvel that is Petra? Nothing in my mind — and I’ve had the considerable good fortune to travel a bit.
You might recognize this sandstone carving from the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where our bullwhip-archaeologist knelt humbly among booby traps, took a leap of faith, and choose wisely.
Turns out that was all movie magic. I know, I know. I was just as surprised.
Historically this carving, now known as The Treasury, was a Nabataean tomb from as far back as the 5th Century BC. So, y’know, not young.
Now my impression was that you walk up to this new wonder of the world and go home. Turns out there’s an entire ancient city to explore full of ruins from a whole mess of civilizations that came and went. It’s like hiking in a national park, but with 20-plus centuries of history staring you down. Again, there’s absolutely nothing quite like a day or two hiking 20 to 30 miles in Petra’s Nabataean Kingdom.”
DINNER WITH A PIECE OF JORDAN
“The sun had set, so it was difficult to get a full read on the house. But as we walked along the side to a set of stairs that led to the upper floor, Steph pointed to a few different buildings, naming the family members who lived in each one. I got the sense that this was a family compound of sorts.
“It’s very common for everyone to live together or right next to each other in Jordan,” she offered. You hear about the importance of family and hospitality in Jordan, but I got to actually experience it with A Piece Of Jordan.
Steph led me to what a U.S. American would think of as a living room. Except this was no living room as someone Stateside might be accustomed to. Colorful cushioned seats lined the walls of the large open space where I was invited to sit cross-legged. Here I spent more time chatting with the brother-in-law about everything from life in Jordan to U.S. politics as the family’s kids chased each other around the room with the kind of pure joy that makes you think the world isn’t such a gloomy place after all. One of the kids, Steph’s own, had curly blonde locks and jumped back and forth between English and Arabic with an indifferent ease that I will remain eternally jealous of.
Before long it was time for the main event; dinner on the balcony where we again sat cross-legged and dove into a communal plate of seneyah, a Jordanian favorite with marinated chicken and vegetables cooked in the oven and a little yogurt for dipping. I had enjoyed Middle Eastern cuisine numerous times in my life, but never in the proper family setting with hands instead of utensils. Sitting there with this incredibly hospitable family, a pleasant evening breeze, the sparkling lights of Petra, and the general ambiance that permeates throughout Jordan, I decided that life is good and I’m a thoroughly lucky bastard.”
MOVING TO GERMANY
“So, yeah… I’m moving to Germany.
I’ve been sitting around, trying to think of some elegant or exciting way to reveal the news. Instead, I’m going with the direct approach.
Here’s what’s happening.
Trivago is based out of Düsseldorf, which is over in western Germany slightly north of Cologne and just east of the Dutch border. I’ll be relocating there at the end of the month with my wife Melanie and the magnificent Moses Cleaveland of Wall Street Journal fame.
You know how you get hungry, then famished, then time passes and your stomach kinda accepts that food isn’t on the way, so your hunger disappears? My excitement for this move has followed a similar trajectory. At this point, I’m failing to string together the right words that perfectly articulate my excitement. Instead, please enjoy this word vomit of synonyms I looked up online.
ELATION! CHEER! GLEE! SATISFACTION! EXULTATION! GAIETY! FELICITY! MERRIMENT! JUBILANCE! REVELRY! REGALEMENT! REJOICING! MIRTH!”
IBIZA IS NO STEREOTYPE
“I started reading Stephen Armstrong’s The White Island to get an idea of what I was in for. To my great surprise, Ibiza has been a crucial stopping ground in world history. Even more interesting are the orgies once led by priests in honor of the Phoenician goddess Tanit. Then again, perhaps that’s the root of the partying culture?
The fresh, warm October air brought back memories of Central America. Sure, there’s a shared language, but it didn’t necessary make sense that there would be a similar feel. Yet for me it was palpable. Even the billboards (Busta Rhymes, coming soon!), sidewalks, and yellow traffic paint gave me a sense of Costa Rica.
My greatest education, however, came in the form of a scavenger hunt through the city of Ibiza. See, this trip was a work function. Our first objective after setting down our bags was to grab an iPad preloaded with a markers on Google Maps. Walk to the markers and a trivia question popped up about Ibiza. Along the way we got to see Ibiza, and it was unlike any city I had ever seen before.”
EATING AND WALKING IN ROME
“I’m not one for group tours, but Eating Europe Food Tours is the exception. Their shtick is to take a small group of travelers, say six, to lesser-traveled neighborhoods in tourist favorites to get a taste (no pun intended) of local life and the food they actually eat. (Perhaps a drink or two or five gets thrown in, as well.)
Suffice it to say, Eating Europe nails it. After joining them for their Twilight Soho Food Tour in London and now their Testaccio Supper Stroll in Rome, I feel I’m on the verge of becoming a groupie with my eye on their remaining tours in Amsterdam, Florence and Prague.
But first, Testaccio.
You begin, logically enough, at Piazza Testaccio. Unlike any corner I had seen thus far in Rome, it was quiet despite perfectly temperate weather and the elsewhere busy early evening hour. Had there been no tour, the piazza would have been left to some kids running around and the occasional pedestrian passerby. Unlike the many impressive and gallant piazzas scattered around the city, this had a much more modest feel like it belonged in a residential neighborhood.
Our guide, Katie, was a young American transplant to Rome who opted to stay in the city after finishing her college degree. Only her parents seem to have questioned what she’s really doing in Rome.
‘I tell my parents, ‘I give food tours around Rome for a living,’ and they don’t believe me,” she said.
To be fair, it is a pretty envious gig.
“‘Hey! Want to walk around one of the world’s preeminent walking cities, eat arguably the most renowned cuisine and get paid?'”
Read Eating Rome: Dining Like the Locals in Rome’s Testaccio Neighborhood
MEETING ACTIVISTS IN VENICE
“I was able to meet a couple of young activists protesting the cruise ship industry — a Venetian local and his transplant British girlfriend, Cecilia, who has been connected to Italy her entire life. They walked my wife and I around the infinitely lesser-traveled sights on Lido, another Venetian island with little tourism despite being home to the vaunted Venice International Film Festival. Cecilia calmed my concerns of being a tourist in Venice, saying as long as I didn’t come by cruise ship, she and her boyfriend were happy. Otherwise, they get why people would want to see Venice. It really is like stepping into a place written up by a romantic novelist (not the softcore porn your mom reads). But like good house guests, they just want us to come in reasonable numbers and not trash the place.
HISTORY AND CURRENT EVENTS COLLIDE IN DRESDEN
“The chants were growing louder in Dresden. I wondered if they were in relation to the recent deportation of asylum seekers whose applications were denied. Or perhaps it had to do with the ongoing evacuation of Aleppo in Syria. Recent death tolls hover around 450,000. Peace remains a faint hope as the international community continues to sit on their collective hands. Meanwhile, innocent Syrians will continue to die. So it goes.
Recent press for Dresden hadn’t been great. This is Saxony country, a corner of eastern Germany with its fair share of anti-refugee stories. The right-wing populist group Alternative For Germany is considerably more popular here than the rest of the country. Ironically (or not, depending on your philosophy), Dresden was home to as many as 200,000 refugees near the end of World War II and just before the infamous firebombing on February 13, 1945. So it goes.
• • •
Before I could follow the chants, I had a meeting with Sascha and Claudia of the Visit Dresden tourist board and Event Hotels, respectively. Sascha knows Dresden. He visited often before the wall came down in 1989 and later relocated to follow a significant other.
“You needed proof that you knew someone there before you could visit,” he said.
Dresden was firmly East German territory following the end of World War II. So it goes. Soviet philosophy didn’t care much for the past. Much of the remaining rubble from the firebombing was either swiftly removed or left like the collection marble and stone in Athens and Rome. So it goes.”