Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.



Dino Dig in Colorado: Be a Paleontologist for a Day

Digging for dinosaurs at Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The green-and-purple tail of Triceratops disappears over the crest of the mesa, headed west through the desert toward Utah on I-70 with our van driver in hot pursuit. I sit shotgun, and behind me a seat full of kids shouts, “Catch up, catch up!” Bouncing around in a back seat is my brother, David.

Heavily loaded with children and parents, the van chugs up the mesa and we again spot the Triceratops—a.k.a., the Dino Mobile, piloted by ace paleontologist John Foster, who leads our caravan to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry for a day-long Dino Dig. The Dino Mobile, decked out with three horns and trademark bony head-frill, emits occasional bursts of fossil fuel from its tailpipe.

The excavation, sponsored by the Museum of Western Colorado, is wish fulfillment for the prehistoric-reptile obsessed kids in the van—including David and me. Once upon a time, we were fossil-collecting eight-year-olds who used to bicker during road trips about who was tougher: Tyrannosaurus rex or Dimetrodon.

Like these hunters, we two spent our childhood locked in titanic struggle for no reason other than preadolescent rage about family pecking order. I fantasized about being an only child with nearly as much passion as becoming a paleontologist. He wanted to take his know-it-all sister down a peg. There was hair-pulling, arm-twisting, and, yes, even biting at which my brother was the clear champion.

The Dino Mobile, decked out like a Triceratops ©Laurel Kallenbach

But that was ancient history—almost as long ago as the 150 million years we’re traveling back in time today. David and I are going back to the Jurassic. We’ve partnered up for a brother-sister road trip with a prehistoric theme. No longer adversaries, we both agree we have more in common than not—including our love for the outdoors and for dinosaurs. So, we’ve met in Grand Junction, Colorado—he lives in Montana; I’m from Boulder—to commemorate the car-camping treks of our childhood. Luckily for us, nearby western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise some of the world’s best dinosaur country, much of which we can access via the scenic, 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Byway.

Quest for dinosaurs

Paleontologist John Foster demonstrates how to brush away dirt at the dig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As the Dino Mobile and our van pull into Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dexter—who has just graduated from kindergarten summa cum laude—announces he’s going to unearth a dinosaur skull today. The eight-year-old inside me thinks, “No way! I’m going to find it!” After all, I’ve got more than four decades on the kid.

First, though, we paleontologists-in-training learn the ropes. Dr. Foster demonstrates how to use our tools and tells us how to spot dinosaur fossils; they’re darker than the surrounding clay. “Never remove a fossil from the ground until a paleontologist has documented where it’s located,” he says.

David and I pick a spot under the shade awning, strap on knee-pads, arrange old carpet squares to kneel on, and start digging with screwdrivers, using them to delicately lift horizontal layers of the bleached-out clay, which was once mud along an ancient river. We scrutinize every earthen clump, sweep non-interesting pieces into a dustpan with a small paintbrush, and eventually pour the waste into a bucket. We’re hyper-vigilant for anything dark. A piece of bone will have a spongy texture; teeth are shiny black.

Fifteen minutes after we start, young Dexter calls out: “I found something!” Our heads pop up like prairie dogs on alert. Paleontology assistant Tom Temme checks, and then confirms, that Dexter has indeed unearthed a dinosaur bone fragment. David and I exchange determined looks, as if to say, We’ve been upstaged by that pipsqueak? We apply our screwdrivers to the clay with renewed fervor.

When I encounter a blackish vein about a third-inch wide, I slow down and carefully trace its edge. Soon the vein forks to the right. My pulse pounds in my ears at the prospect of digging up the bone of an animal never before seen by humans. I call to Kelsie Abrams, a paleontology grad student who’s in Colorado for a summer of digging. She bends over my find. “Yep, that’s a stem of Equisetum—horsetail.” She touches the dark line. “You can tell because plant matter rubs off on your finger like black charcoal.” My adrenaline rush crashes.

David uses the tools of the trade: screwdriver, brush, dustpan, and a bucket for hauling away empty rock. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Equisetum grows everywhere—even today,” David says. “Pretty common.”

I want to strangle my biology-major brother. “Still, it’s a 150-million-year piece of Equisetum,” I retort, but we both know that horsetail is not paleontology’s holy grail.

We continue digging as the sun grows hotter and our legs cramp. Beside us, Frank and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, hold out a chunk of rock to Tom; there’s something dark in it. Tom carefully breaks off bits of the rock, revealing the tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater. Had the tooth been from an adult, it would have been three inches long.

Ashley’s find—just two feet to our right—ignites in us a frenzy of breaking chunks of hardened clay, but the result is only sore fingers.

At noon, Stephen Senior and his ten-year-old namesake unearth another piece of bone. After Tom has flagged its position in the ground, he removes it and passes it to me for a look. I have a hard time distinguishing “spongy” bone from clay. It takes a practiced eye, this digging for dinosaurs.

Sweaty and deflated, David and I quit for lunch and watch Tom drizzle a mixture of acetone and dissolved plastic on Dexter’s bone fragment to keep it from crumbling. Any doubts I have that this Dino Dig is a tourist gimmick evaporate. We amateurs are helping out with real science—hot, back-straining, exhilarating science.

At the picnic table, we ask Kelsie, who has a Diplodocus skull tattooed on her left forearm, why the kids are making all the good finds. “It’s total luck,” she said, sipping Gatorade from a plastic Dinosaur Journey souvenir cup that reads I’d rather be in the Mesozoic. Then she adds that kids tend to “dig in,” whereas adults can be overly thorough. My brother and I look sheepish. Being meticulous is a family trait.

After lunch, we double our speed, yet each time I empty my dustpan I worry I’m discarding a valuable piece of prehistory. We never hit “pay dirt,” but it’s here at Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Fifty yards from where we’re digging, seasoned volunteers are unearthing the five-foot-long femur of an Apatosaurus.

Now that’s the holy grail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

After the dig, Dr. John Foster gave our group a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology lab to see large fossils and some of the tools scientists use to analyze them. Then my brother and I strolled through Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with reassembled skeletons—including our toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus friend—and robotic recreations of dinosaurs such as the carnivorous Utahraptor and a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Dino Digs is an educational/vacation program by the Museum of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, Colo., that offers paleontology adventures (half-day up to five-day expeditions) in various quarries in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Moab.

Laurel: living the paleontology dream! ©David Kallenbach

The digs let you work with real scientists in quarries and learn skills such as spotting fossils and digging them out of the rock or dirt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes view of how paleontologists clean and study their finds at Dinosaur Journey museum.

Dino Digs are available from mid-May through mid-September. Transportation to the quarry, lunch, water/Gatorade, and tools are provided. The minimum age varies from five to eight, depending on the dig you choose.


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