Category: Destinations

Reminder: All Strangers Are Kin

No, really, this is the last post ever! As most of you know, my book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World is coming June 14, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Throw me your email address, and I’ll deliver you a handful of essential, entertaining bulletins about the book and events surrounding it. (You can bet there’ll be some really good food.)

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Ciao aleikum!

Maltese, you're killing me!
Maltese, you’re killing me!
I just got back from Malta. Maltese, the Semitic language you probably didn’t even know existed, is the most delightful bizarro brand of Arabic I’ve ever heard.

They say “ciao aleikum”! (But…no, they do not reply “waleikum ciao”–alas.)

Aaaaand that’s what I’m just about to say to you now. This blog is so long in the tooth. Twelve years old, which is at least 96 in Internet years. For most of 2015, it was just stashed in the retirement home, off in a corner chair, staring into space.

All last year’s highlights happened mostly off-blog:

  • selling a Talk of the Town to the New Yorker (REAL DEAL! I’m still amazed)
  • finally getting my book accepted and signed off on (pub date THIS JUNE!)
  • and working with refugees in Greece, as this post hinted, and this essay explained a little more

Most everything happening with me these days is over on Facebook (especially the refugees part, which is ongoing), Twitter (itty-bitty travel commentary) and a bit on Instagram.
(And then of course there’s the book…did I mention the book? You can preorder it here and here.)

I’ve scheduled two more posts, totally practical ones where I’m dumping all my hard-earned wisdom about booking airplane tickets and renting cars. (Burning questions? Email me or ask in the comments. I’ll work them in!)

And then I’m going to put this dozy li’l Roving Gastronome to bed.

Thanks for reading along all this time. This blog has been invaluable in helping me develop as a writer, and I wouldn’t have bothered to do it without all your positive feedback along the way.

Three–No, FIVE!–Ways to Help Refugees on Mytilene

For the last two weeks, I was on the island of Mytilene (aka Lesvos or Lesbos) in Greece. Peter and I go every other summer or so–he’s been going since 1992. It just so happened this summer the island is inundated with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more, who are taking boats over from the Turkish coast.

I wrote a lot about the people I met at the refugee camps on my personal Facebook page, and near the end of the trip, I collected donations from friends to redistribute directly to refugees and to give to volunteers on Mytilene for supplies.

Some people missed that window to donate, so I’m posting a few options for helping out here, if you are so moved.

1) See what the Lesvos Volunteers group needs.

This is a kind of umbrella website for all the volunteers on Mytilene (a few are mentioned below). I have met and/or worked with almost all of them, and can vouch for their efficacy. As of now (early October), this website is the best way to figure out what they need.

This is because–fortunately!–the various specific volunteer groups have gotten a lot of press and subsequent donations. So their needs are now quite specific.

One of those needs, it must be said, is people, on the ground helping. If you are at all entertaining thoughts of going to Greece, and you’re a self-starter who can see what needs doing and just do it, they could use you.

2) Send a shipment of supplies via Amazon.

I set up an wish list with basic gear for kids and adults. (Shipping from the UK to Greece is cheaper than from the US.) If you’re based in the US, ideally order with a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee (a lot of cards charge 3%).

The list is now maintained by Philippa and Eric Kempson, a British couple who live in Eftalou, on the north coast near Molyvos, where many refugees arrive. They and their team help people out of the water, feed them, get them warm clothes. I first read about them in this story.

3) Donate to the NGO O Allos Anthropos.

Here is a GoFundMe page I set up with Annia Ciezadlo. [EDITED: We paused donations for now so I could send a chunk of money. If we gather too much at once, it’s a mess to move it all! Bear with us.]

I cooked with them a bit one day, and Annia went a second time, and wrote this great piece about it.

This is a wonderful team of Athens-based volunteers who came to Mytilene to cook at the refugee camps. While many refugees are not poor, they are still traveling on extremely limited funds (who knows when they’ll work again?), so a hot meal from these guys is a balm for the soul. For others who are totally broke, this is the only real food they’ll get.

Super-awesome volunteer Syrian cooks on the first day I was at Kara Tepe, working with the food-solidarity group O Allos Anthropos.
Super-awesome volunteer Syrian cooks on the first day I was at Kara Tepe, working with O Allos Anthropos. These refugees are capable people–they just need some supplies to work with.

4) Wire money to the NGO Angalia. [As of 23 September: HOLD OFF for now! They are swamped with donations and can’t manage it all at once.]

Angalia (it means ‘hug’ in Greek; also spelled Agkalia) is a three-person organization that spends all donations directly. It was started by a Greek priest (he just passed away September 1)–read about him on the UNHCR blog. I met another member of the NGO, Giorgos Tyrikos, in Kalloni and immediately gave him cash. He was off to buy sandwich fixings. They do good work. See the bank-transfer details below.

If wiring money to a random bank account in Greece makes you nervous, or your bank charges terrible fees drop me an email. I’m happy to take cash via PayPal myself, then wire money in a lump sum, to minimize the cost.

You can also use the new service TransferWise, which sends money internationally with very low fees. And if you use this referral link, you get a kickback and so do I–I will donate mine to Angalia.

4) Donate to International Rescue Committee.

This is the most conventional thing to do–it’s tax-deductible and all. Of course there’s some overhead, and not all your cash will go to help people. But I can definitely vouch for the IRC.

In the short time I was on Mytilene, they did two substantially great things at Kara Tepe: laid down gravel to keep the dust down in the camp, and built shower stalls for women. Since then, they’ve done even more, such as running buses to spare refugees the 40-mile walk across the island.

Giorgos of Angalia also had a fantastic story about an IRC rep handing him an envelope full of cash earlier in the summer, on the first day Greece kicked in the capital controls–Giorgos had donated money waiting in the bank, but couldn’t withdraw it. IRC gave him 5K euros to buy food.

Many thanks in advance, and even if you can’t help now, at least keep these refugees in your thoughts.

ADDITIONALLY, for anyone with contacts in Greece: Information is in very short supply for refugees. Here is a Greek-Arabic phrase list–please distribute to anyone you know working with refugees in Greece. Also, please share this map of Mytiline island (PDF, good for printing; JPG, good for viewing on phones), with the various camps marked. And here is a Google map, for online reference.

2014: The High- and Lowlights

This whole past year, I have been considering retiring this blog, and I still am. But…it is a helpful memory bank.

See, I’ve been mentally concocting this post for a couple of weeks. And it was not positive: 2014 felt like Groundhog Year, because I had to massively overhaul my book, despite having made special efforts in 2013 and even earlier to avoid such a thing (gnash, gnash).

But scrolling through this year’s blog posts, I see that some other things happened–and some of them even represented progress, of a sort.

Granted, it’s not a great sign that two of my posts were cranky rebuttals: one telling Marc Maron to lighten up on his cast iron, and another telling a New York Times reporter to lighten up in Mexico.

But then there’s something genuinely good: The new edition of my Moon New Mexico book came out–in fabulous full color! It reminded me that, in eleven years of working on these Moon books, I’ve learned a lot about photography, and I now have a body of photos that I’m proud to see printed in color. The writing ain’t bad either, if I do say so.

This reminded me of a couple of things that didn’t even make it to the blog. I wrote another story for the New York Times, “36 Hours in Santa Fe,” which turned out well. I can even call myself a published poet now, because the entry for Ten Thousand Waves includes a haiku!

And, perhaps my proudest accomplishment of the year, I wrote an article for The Art of Eating on a couple in New Mexico who are making traditional balsamic vinegar. I’ve been thinking this would make a good story since I first heard about the Darlands, at least five years ago; I learned a ton; and The Art of Eating is an excellent magazine. Writing the story was a great experience all around, especially in the editing, which reminded me how helpful and inspiring that process can be.

The majority of my 2014 posts were dedicated to my trip way back in January, when I went to Rwanda and Ethiopia (and then Thailand, for frequent-flier-mile reasons too dull to go into). It was fantastic, and I am so glad I went, but Peter and I came back fried. Too many destinations, not enough time in each and certainly not enough alone time. I still haven’t quite recharged–I have never wanted to travel less in my life, which is unsettling.

[REDACTED. There was some more blerghy complaining here, but we’re all pretty tired of that, aren’t we?]

In 2015, I am taking the advice of a thirteen-year-old friend, who recently said, with the wisdom of an eighty-year-old, “Consider it a hobby, and it will be less troublesome.” He was talking about something else entirely, but still.

Not coincidentally, this is one of my favorite photos of the year, from the Itegue Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa.

rwanda 371

Bad art? Refresh by rotating 90 degrees.

Hello, 2015. May you be different and perspective-altering.

Mexico, Supposedly Corrupt Police, and Rental Car Insurance

Tourist police go electric in Playa del Carmen.
Tourist police go electric in Playa del Carmen.
Last weekend, the New York Times published the essay A Maddening Bargain with a Mexican Police Officer. The writer, Jeremy Peters, recounts getting scammed on his car rental, then shaken down by a cop on the highway near Tulum.

It made me sad to read this, because a) that sucks, and b) it was preventable. Oh, and c) the snide of-course-this-happened-it’s-Mexico tone–but on that topic, I drafted a rather huffy letter, which I’ll spare you.

Everyone should know some really basic facts about the law when driving around the Yucatan (and in Mexico as a whole).

tl;dr: Skip to items #4 and #6.

1. Relax. Corruption just isn’t that prevalent.

I can speak only for the Yucatan, Chiapas and Tabasco, but since 2003, I have driven tens of thousands of miles around that area, and nothing bad has happened.

I have had a grand total of two encounters with police, both positive. In one case, they very sweetly alerted me to the fact that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. In the other, I was in a traffic accident that was probably my fault. I didn’t even get a ticket either time, much less get hassled for a cash payout.

Granted, I’m a woman, which I think makes me less of a target in this case (chivalry lives in Mexico). Also, my first instinct is to apologize rather than get angry, and I speak Spanish, if badly.

The one firsthand bad-cop story I have heard (one! in all these years) was from a man, and he got out of it by playing dumb: not speaking Spanish and not taking the cop’s hint to pay up. And he admitted he had been speeding.

2. You don’t have to pay the cop!

If you do happen to get pulled over–whether you did something wrong or not–and the cop is suggesting you can pay the fine to him directly…you don’t have to, of course.

It’s not like he’s going to shoot you or kidnap you or beat you up! He’s a traffic cop, not a cartel boss. The Mexican system is not so bad that you’ll be tossed in jail to rot. There’s a whole, functioning system for collecting traffic fines, just like in the US.

Call the dude’s bluff. Smile and apologize, and say you’d be happy to pay the ticket as required, at the police station or through your rental-car company (see #4).

Betcha anything this cop will decide he has better things to do than write you a ticket.

3. A traffic fine costs about US$50.

That’s just not very much. And maybe you were speeding. So maybe you should just take the ticket (if the cop bothers to write it), and pipe down.

You also get a discount if you pay within the first 24 (or maybe 48?) hours, or so I’ve read.

(Can I just note that Waters forked over US$120 in bribe money? Ouch!)

4. And you probably don’t even have to pay that fine either!

Here’s the amazing thing! Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum all have laws on the books granting tourists TWO “courtesy infractions”–official warnings–before being ticketed for anything. (Links go to text of the laws; search for “infracción de cortesía.”)*

Technically, car-rental companies should advise renters of the law and provide them with a leaflet that can be shown to police–though that practice fades in and out, in my experience.

If you do burn through your two warnings and receive a ticket, then you have the option of paying it through your car rental company, when you return the car, for a small extra fee. You never even have to go to the police station.

Simply mentioning the law should deter any cop who’s trying to shake you down. Insist on a written record of the infraction, thank him for his “courtesy,” and be on your way.

5. You really, really shouldn’t pay the cop.

I know, you’re still thinking about it. Why give up any of your vacation time to police stuff? And won’t that little brush with third-world corruption make a good story later? (Jeremy Waters got his published in the New York Times!)

C’mon: corruption takes two people. Every tourist who pays up is paving the way for more cops looking to make a buck. You are part of the problem.

I was about to write “end rant,” but then I remembered: Most of the stories I read about corrupt cop situations, the driver starts by saying, “I was speeding down the highway…” or “My husband was peeing on a bush…” (seriously, that was on TripAdvisor).

Dude, they have traffic laws and laws against peeing in public in Mexico too! If you break them, you get a ticket, just like at home. It’s just douchey to think you can buy your way out of trouble.

OK, really, end rant. On to more info, after the chicken-car break.

Alas, it's not for rent.
Alas, it’s not for rent.

6. The car-rental guys aren’t scamming you, although it can look like it.

Peters complained in his essay that a $20/day rental jumped to $40/day at pickup time. I’m almost certain it wasn’t a scam–just the boring old law. Primary liability insurance is required in Mexico, but unlike in the US, almost all of the rental-car companies pass that cost on to the renter, as a separate fee. It’s about $15/day extra, plus taxes.

Most of the major rental companies note this in fine print on the booking page. Go to, for instance, and run a search for pickup and drop-off in Cancun–you’ll see “Primary Liability Insurance” is an option. But only if you click to read more will you see the explanation of the Mexican law, and the fact that the only way out of paying is with very good on-paper evidence that your home car insurance covers liability.**

If you rent through a third-party site, such as Kayak, it’s worse–you see only a blanket “additional fees, taxes and insurance may be required,” which is so vague, it’s easy to think it doesn’t apply to you.

FWIW, Hertz is an exception–it carries its own liability insurance and includes it in the total rate, so you will not be charged extra. (At least last I checked.) [EDITED: This is still true, as of January 2017. Hertz will of course try to sell you more insurance, as rental places always do. Note, though, that Hertz is selling you on “supplemental liability insurance,” as opposed to Alamo’s “primary” coverage.]

So yes, it feels like a scam if you’re not forewarned, but the people to blame are the honchos at Alamo/Thrifty/etc. headquarters, not the Mexican guys at the car desk in Cancun.

Why drive when you can ride a triciclo?
Why drive when you can ride a triciclo?
So, that’s it. Honestly, you barely need a car in the Yucatan, because the bus and taxi (and triciclo!) system is so good. But you shouldn’t be afraid of renting a car because you’re afraid of getting shaken down by the police or car-rental companies. If you have this info before you go, you’ll be fine–just watch the speed limit and keep an eye out for topes. Have a great trip!

*Various websites refer to this law as “Article 152,” but the numbers are different for each city, and they change whenever the traffic laws get tweaked anyway. So you can’t say to the cop, “Dude: Article 152” and expect results.

**I don’t own a car, so I don’t actually know if standard US car insurance will *ever* cover liability on rentals in a foreign country. Does anyone know?

And just to clarify, because it took me a long time to figure this out: There are two kinds of insurance:

  • Liability insurance: This covers the damage you might do to other vehicles/drivers. Liability insurance is required virtually everywhere in the world, and often countries or US states require the car company to provide it, included in the rate, where it’s called primary liability insurance and/or LDW. But if the rental company doesn’t bundle it into the price, then you must buy it. Supplemental liability insurance is optional, and it usually just increases the coverage amount. As I say above, it’s not required–but you have to know what risk you’re comfortable with.
  • Collision insurance: This covers the damage you might do to the rental car itself, and it is usually covered by your home car insurance and/or a good credit card (issued in the US or Canada only; I don’t think European credit cards play this game?). At the rental counter, you *can* opt out of collision insurance (“decline the CDW,” in the lingo). Of course, the agents may try to upsell you–just like they do in the U.S. And of course, if your credit card isn’t covering collision, you have to decide whether you’re OK with the risk of going without it. And if you decline collision, the rental agency will put a hold on your credit card for a lot of money–between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the car–until you return the car in one piece.

I know about insurance firsthand, from that car accident a few years ago. It was a great opportunity to find out how the rental-car-insurance system works.