Foreign Travel 101

I absolutely live to travel. It’s my reason for being. I’ve been to 22 countries, and I suspect that I have many more miles to go before I take that final sleep.

It has never been very far from my mind that I’m really a lot luckier than most people in terms of travel. According to this article, 40% of Americans never leave the country, 10% have never left their home state, and 76% wish they could travel more than they do currently. That’s a crying shame.

Based on those statistics, it’s safe to assume that for many people who are traveling abroad, it’s a trip of a lifetime for which they feel ill-prepared. But never fear. All of the advice I’m about to give you has come from years of trial and error.

First, read my blog post entitled Foreign Travel Advice for Americans. Even if you aren’t American, you’ll find it helpful. This is a very detailed post that discusses all the homework one must do prior to any trip. The more you do ahead of time, the less stressful and more fruitful your travel experience will be. I can’t emphasize this enough. For every hour of legwork you do in advance, you’ll save yourself days of hassle on the voyage.

Next, take a peek at my blog post entitled Packing for Your Trip. This is a master packing list I’ve made over time. Take that list, eliminate those things that don’t apply to you, your trip, or the season in which you are traveling, and what you have left should be a very thorough packing list for any holiday. But do yourself a favor and pack light. You have no idea how much time you’ll spend schlepping your luggage from pillar to post. So if you don’t absolutely need something, leave it home.

But it occurs to me that neither of those two posts actually gets into the nuts and bolts of building your trip. Package deals complete with tour guides are very easy and convenient, but frankly, I find those experiences to be soul-sucking. I’d much rather have a do it yourself trip, so that’s what I’ll describe below. Some of this is pretty basic, but it will come in handy if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Determine how much vacation time you have.

  2. Get a good, up to date guidebook of the country you’d like to visit, and read it cover to cover, highlighting the things you feel you absolutely must see, and, in a different color, the things you’d simply like to see.

  3. Also, talk to friends who have already taken this trip. They will be your best sources to determine what can or should be skipped, and what absolutely should not be missed.

  4. A good guidebook should be able to tell you how many days you need for each location. List your must see destinations, and how many days they should take. As hard as it may be to do, you might have to eliminate some of your must sees based on the time you have available. On the other hand, if you find you have a surplus of days (you lucky devil), you can start adding in your “like to see” destinations as well.

  5. Print out a line drawing of the country in question, and then pencil in the must-see destinations to determine which places are close together, so you can decide what route you should take through the country.

  6. Don’t forget that you’ll likely lose a half a day each time you move from one city to the next, so try to cluster your locations into hubs, and stay in central locations. Believe me when I say that it’s an absolute horror to stay in a different place every single night.

  7. Now that you have a sense of where you’d like to go, and in what order, it’s time to determine when to travel. Most guidebooks will tell you the high, shoulder, and low travel seasons for the country in question. Choose carefully.

    1. In low season, things will be cheaper and there will be fewer crowds, but certain destinations will be closed. Check before you go. It would be very unfortunate to arrive and discover that the one thing you wanted to see the most is shuttered for the next few months.

    2. On the other hand, high season is usually high season for a reason. The weather is optimal and there are a lot of exciting things going on. But the massive wall of humanity, along with their screaming children, can be a misery.

    3. I try to do shoulder season. It’s slightly less expensive and slightly less crowded than high season, and slightly more is open than in low season. If you can’t do that, at least do the very beginning or the very end of high season, especially if it means school is in session and the kiddies are less likely to be chewing on your ankles.

  8. Okay, great. Now you have a basic idea of where you want to go and when, and what you want to see. Let’s find out if it’s even possible. First of all, check into flights to and from home, and see if they’re available on the days in question. I highly recommend that you try to do your international flights on Monday through Thursday, rather than going on the weekends, as those weekday flights are usually much less expensive. But shop around. Visit Kayak.com, for example, and then check the website of the airline in question to see if an even better deal is available. Don’t forget to take advantage of any mileage points you’ve accumulated through credit cards. Don’t put this off until the last minute. The more lead time you have, the more options and price ranges will be available. You’ll find that once you’ve reserved those flights, the trip will seem even more exciting and real.

  9. Once that is done, it’s time to figure out how you’ll get from place to place within the country. Should you travel by train, bus, rental car, or domestic flights? Again, your guidebook will give you great advice along those lines.

  10. Once you have a sense of how you want to get around, and a basic skeleton of your itinerary, now check to be sure that your transportation mode is available on the desired day. No sense in planning to take a ferry to the Isle of Capri on a Sunday if the ferries don’t run on that day. Adjust your itinerary accordingly. (If you’re a museum buff, it’s also important to make sure the museum in question will be open on the day you plan to visit.)

  11. Once you’ve got your itinerary and your transportation nailed down, it’s time to reserve your hotels. Think about your budget. Decide whether you want to stay at 5 star hotels or Airbnbs or hostels or, if you’re really brave and don’t require luxury or privacy, check out couchsurfing.com. Read up on all the possibilities. Visit their websites. Check availability. Then make your reservations.

  12. Now the trip is really shaping up! It’s time to figure out what you’d like to do from day to day. What sites will you visit? How much time will it take? Take your guidebook seriously if it recommends advance reservations for various venues, and plan accordingly.

Don’t overpack your itinerary. Allow for things to go awry. Contrary to popular belief, the trains don’t always run on time. You may wish to linger longer than you anticipated. Who knows? A local might befriend you and invite you to attend a wedding. Experiences like that are priceless. Give yourself a little padding and be flexible.

Above all, remember, this is supposed to be fun! Do the work in advance and then relax and enjoy the trip! Bon voyage!

This spring, we plan to spend a few weeks in Italy! I’m so excited! I’ve wanted to explore Italy in depth for decades. But except for a brief, 12 hour taste of Venice (which was at best a cruel, frustrating tease), life just kept getting in the way. Rest assured I’ll be blogging about the experience in future posts.

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Tragedy Bias

When Notre-Dame Cathedral burned, it seemed like the whole world cried. And rightly so. That beautiful, historic building held a special place in our hearts. Especially if you’ve had the opportunity to visit it in Paris, as I have.

Another beautiful, historic complex of buildings burned to the ground on October 31st (still October 30th here in the US). It was first built in 1429, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And yet this tragedy barely caused a blip on anyone’s radar. I wouldn’t have even heard about it if a friend hadn’t told me. (Thanks, Mor!)

I’m talking about Shuri Castle in Okinawa. Shurijo was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom between 1429 and 1879. It was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, but it was lovingly restored in 1992. Now 5 major buildings, comprising about 4,200 square meters, have been gutted by this blaze, which took 11 hours to put out.

Here is Wikipedia’s descriptions of the buildings that are now in ruins:

  • Bandokoro – located south of the Una, and paired with the Nanden, originally the main reception area, currently housing a museum. The two were built between 1621 and 1627.

  • Hokuden – the “North Hall”, located north of the Una, originally an judicial and administrative center where Sapposhi (Chinese envoys) were also received, currently housing a museum and gift-shop. Originally called the Nishi-no-udun or Giseiden, it was built around 1506–1521.

  • Nanden – the “South Hall”, formerly an entertainment area for Satsuma envoys, currently an exhibition space.

  • Seiden – the “Main Hall”, also called the State Palace, was situated to the east of the Una, but facing west towards China, and contains the throne room and royal living and ceremonial areas. The western facade includes two 4.1 meter high Dai-Ryu Chu (Great Dragon Pillars), crafted of sandstone from Yonaguni Island, and symbols of the king. The left dragon is called Ungyou, and the right is Agyou, and these motifs are replicated throughout the building including the roof. Other decorative elements include botan (peony flowers), shishi (golden dragons), and zuiun (clouds). The Shichagui (first floor) was where the king personally conducted affairs of state and ceremonies. The Usasuka was the lower area in front of where the king sat, with the Hira-usasuka (side-areas) flanking either side. The second floor included the Ufugui, the area for the queen and her attendants, and the Usasuku, the upper main throne room of the king. Behind it are the Osenmikocha, chambers where the king would pray daily. According to historical records, the Seiden was burned down and rebuilt four times (most recently in 1992), and was also used as the prayer hall for a Shinto shrine between 1923-1945.

This is heartbreaking. But I’m also struggling with a little bit of frustration, because it barely caused a ripple in the news cycle. Why is that?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of the place. Obviously that doesn’t help. Okinawa is rather out of the way for your average tourist. And we Americans have an annoying tendency to overlook things that do not pertain to white culture.

We shortchange ourselves by having such a Eurocentric worldview. There are so many amazing places that, as UNESCO correctly points out, are part of our world heritage. When we lose one of these places, we are all the worse for it.

It’s as though non-white tragedies are somehow less significant than white ones are. I’ve written about this before. When the factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,000 underpaid workers instantly, the story disappeared in days. If 1,000 Americans or Northern Europeans died like that, we’d be discussing it for months.

There’s something very wrong when so much history and beauty can collapse into a pile of ash, and so many people can be crushed in a factory, and no one even blinks. We can’t even be bothered to look up from our smart phones and have a moment of silence. Am I the only one who thinks this is the greatest tragedy of all?

Shuri Castle Burning

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March of the Waddling Grey Penguins

On our cruise to Alaska, we were some of the youngest passengers aboard, by decades. I get it. It’s an expensive trip. It’s the trip of a lifetime. But there’s something to be said about doing your major trips while you’re still able-minded and able-bodied.

We often shared a dinner table with strangers, as is often the case on cruise ships. Some were a delight. But most were complaining about being in pain. Or about not liking the food. Or about the ship rocking. Or about their ungrateful grandchildren. Or about feeling trapped. Or about the cost of things. You name it, they complained about it.

We were having a wonderful time, so listening to these people grouse was, to be honest, annoying. It did make us grateful that we are not yet in pain, or plagued with digestive issues or the like. It made us try harder to be patient when caught in the middle of the migration of these waddling grey penguins. Our time will come soon enough.

But jeez. Why take a trip if you know it’s going to make you miserable? Eat your salad during your salad days. Or, if this is your only chance to travel, at the very least, don’t rain on everyone else’s parade.

Okay, so I guess this is me complaining. But you get the point.

Falkland_Islands_Penguins_36

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Goose Creek Tower

While riding a train through the town of Talkeetna, Alaska, I looked toward the horizon to see what is perhaps the most unusual structure on earth. Formally, it’s called the Goose Creek Tower, but most folks call it the Dr. Seuss House, despite the fact that the good doctor never gave his permission for the name. Even so, the name suits it.

Basically, it’s an Alaskan cabin that got out of control. The owner kept building and building and building, ever upward, for an ever better view, and now the tower, according to the website, is 57 meters tall. It would probably have been taller, but right now it’s just 1 meter below federally regulated airspace.

It is said you can see for 300 miles from the topmost balcony, but I wouldn’t recommend it at this point. No railings yet. Also, no windows, no electricity, no heating, and no plumbing. The upper floors lack staircases and are only accessible by ladder. Needless to say, it’s not currently inhabited. Unfortunately it often gets visited by vandals.

I hope that someday this amazing structure is completed by Mr. Paul, the owner, designer, lawyer, poet, and character with a very unique imagination. The world is a much more delightful place with this structure in it. We need whimsy, now more than ever.

Goose-Creek-Tower

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Stamps in My National Parks Passport

I’ve written about my love for this country’s national parks before. Travel is my reason for being, and I adore all things natural and historical, so national parks are right in my wheelhouse. I wish I could see every single one of them at least once.

In light of that, I purchased a National Parks Passport years ago, and have filled it with stamps every time I visit a park. It looks like a thick passport, but it also includes a National Park System Map and Guide, as well as spaces for stamps and stickers divided up by region, and pictures and descriptions of the various parks. I could gaze at this passport for hours.

Each stamp, with its unique design and the date I acquired it, brings me right back in my mind to the park I visited. They remind me of things I’ve learned, and the many stories I have to tell. Because of that, these stamps are more precious to me than any overpriced souvenir.

I remember weaving through the autumn leaves on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I’m still convinced my soul resides. I have traveled back in time in the many national monuments that preserve the buildings of the ancient Anasazi in New Mexico. I have been places where one single word evokes imagery that’s nearly impossible to describe. Yellowstone. Badlands. Canyonlands. Arches. Rushmore. I’ve gloried at the colors of the Painted Desert, cried with joy while gazing at the Grand Canyon, been inspired by the human determination exhibited in both Gold Rush National Parks. I’ve admired the interior of the White House in much less complicated times.

If you love the parks as much as I do, I urge you to get a National Parks Passport and fill it with stamps. They also make great gifts! I gave one to my sister, and now we have a hot and heavy competition going on. (Guess what, Sis! I got a stamp from Glacier Bay, a national park that you can only reach by boat or plane! Neener, neener, neener!)

A word of caution though. NEVER stamp your regular passport with these stamps. It invalidates it. Apparently people have done this to their everlasting regret, so now when you go to the stamp table, which is usually found in the park’s gift shop, you’ll see a big sign warning people not to do that. Sad that that is necessary, but there you have it.

These books are not real passports, but they will transport you to magical places in your mind. That, as far as I’m concerned, is something well worth having in my life.

Stamps in my NPS Passport

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Turkmenistan

I have always been fascinated by repressive, authoritarian regimes, kind of in the same way I slow down to look at traffic accidents and read all I can about serial killers. There’s nothing good about them, but I am curious as to how these things came to be. I want to make sense of them, in hopes that I can avoid them and/or prevent them from replicating themselves. Knowledge is power.

Until recently, I’d have said the worst of the worst of all the countries on earth was North Korea, with its empty cities, famines, indoctrination and buttoned-up-tight borders. I can’t imagine living like that, and I know that that’s simply my good luck for not having been born there. But just recently I heard of a country that is, if anything, even more insane, and the creepy thing is it’s rarely talked about. I’m talking about Turkmenistan.

The only reason this country even popped up on my radar is that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did a hilarious 20 minute segment on its current ruler, Garbanguly Berdimuhamedov because he is so completely and utterly weird. He called him a fierce authoritarian and mentioned that Human Rights Watch World Report 2019 says Turkmenistan is “… one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries.” He went on to call it one of the worst places on earth. There’s no freedom of the press, and no right to voice an opinion. It is known for its arbitrary arrests and detentions, its endemic corruption and its forced labor.

Oliver stated that Berdimuhamedov is truly, deeply and compellingly odd. He showed clips of the man shooting at targets while slowly riding on a bicycle, recording a ridiculous rap video with his grandson, and falling off a horse in 2013 during a race, and then demanding that all footage of the event be destroyed, and locking down the airports until any such footage could be confiscated. (So of course Oliver showed that clip three times.)

Berdimuhamedov is so obsessed with horses that he named himself “The People’s Horse Breeder”. He has ordered beauty contests for horses. He has also written a poem about his latest horse and read it on national television.

All of this had me intrigued. From there, I went on to watch a 48 minute documentary called Undercover in Turkmenistan. This was an older video, about Turkmenbashi, the ruler who started this whole cult of personality business and ruled the country until his death in 2006. If anything, he makes Berdimuhamedov look like your sweet old grandma. This documentary stated that the country is “sealed up tighter than a jar of gherkins.”

Much of the documentary took place in the capital city, which is full of Italian marble and gold. In fact, there used to be a 15 meter tall statue of Turkmenbashi made of gold that revolved throughout the day to face the sun. It’s also ground zero for the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel, which is almost never used.

Turkmenbashi also wrote the Ruhnama, which he treated like a guide for living. You had to answer questions about it to take your driving test. School kids were tested on it. There were crosswords in the newspaper based on it. And Turkmenbashi renamed the month of September for it.

He also banned dogs, cinemas, car radios, ballet, and circuses, because they are apparently not Turkmen enough and unnecessary. He also decreed that all cars must be white. Meanwhile, dissidents disappear, foreign newspapers were banned, the internet didn’t work, and hotel rooms are still bugged to this day.

On the plus side, according to the documentary, child labor was banned, as was the death penalty, and they erected an arch of neutrality to celebrate the decision to never go to war and never join with anyone else who goes to war. Well, those are good things. But they say Mussolini claimed he made the trains run on time, and I wouldn’t want him back in Italy. (Incidentally, that train thing is false, according to this article in Snopes.)

Another interesting video is from a Youtube series called Kinging It, which I highly recommend. Just regular, engaging people, traveling to crazy places. When they went to Turkmenistan, they said a tracker was placed on their car, and there were watch towers everywhere. They were told they couldn’t exit their route, and couldn’t stop. The roads and all the hotels (which are all 5 star) are completely deserted. They went to a big mall, but all it contained was one restaurant, one toilet, and a bunch of empty shops. When they tried to take photos that included soldiers, those soldiers pounded their guns on the ground by way of warning.

According to Wikipedia, Turkmenbashi came to power in 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and immediately became president for life. He closed all hospitals outside of the capital, and all rural libraries. Each broadcast under his rule began with a pledge that the broadcaster’s tongue would shrivel if he slandered the country, flag, or president. (No pressure there.)

Lonely Planet, a travel guide that is never one to mince words, calls this country a “totalitarian theme park”. That made me want to learn more about its tourism aspects. For that I went to Wikitravel.

There, I learned that Turmenbashi had the month of January named after himself, and then he named the month of April and also renamed “bread” after his mother. He also banned lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. He also said, “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it’s what the people want.”

But if you are still interested in visiting this strange place, here is some handy, sometimes chilling advice from wikitravel that was too fascinating for me to avoid quoting at length. It begins with several places to visit.

  • Avaza – a multi-billion dollar construction project near Turkmenbashi aimed at creating a “national touristic zone” of over 60 world-class hotels, shopping, and a new international airport. The government likens the project to Dubai, but there is little foreign investment thus far.

  • Darvaza Flaming Crater — At this spot near the town of Darvaza, an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas in 1971. The rig collapsed into the cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. It was decided to let the fire burn rather than let the poisonous gas escape into the nearby town. The fire, while expected to burn itself out quickly, burns to this day and it is popularly nicknamed The Gateway to Hell. The gas crater is best viewed at night. There are no facilities around the gas crater. Camping in this area is common. Getting to the gas crater with a small personal car can be difficult. The last 7 kilometers from the main road are on desert sand and small cars often get stuck. While a handful of travelers do walk to the flaming crater, the hike is strenuous and not pleasant, especially on a windy day or during the summer time heat. If you are traveling on a transit visa, you may ask a nearby teahouse for transport to the crater, which will cost around 150 TM.

  • Pay a visit to Kow Ata underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in – unless you’re handy with your towel. Kow Ata means Father of the Lakes. The cave is more than 200 meters long, 20 meters high and at some point more than 50 meters wide. The water has a constant temperature of 33 to 37 degrees Celsius.

  • National Museum of Turkmenistan — The National Museum of Turkmenistan is a museum in Asgabat. It is split into three sections: natural history, science, and the current president of Turkmenistan. Entry is $30, and the museum is sparsely visited. Photography is not allowed anywhere in the museum, and during your visit you are accompanied by a museum employee who follows you and ensures you abide by their rules. It is quite an experience, and very entertaining as many items in their collections are not genuine – most obviously photos in the President’s museum. There are a slough of poorly photoshopped images of the president showing his wide variety of skills including teaching, playing tennis, racing, horseback riding, and many many more.

You need a visa to get in which requires a letter of introduction from a Turkmen tourist agency. Sleeping pills are not allowed. You need a long list of vaccinations. Lots of red tape. If the photocopy of your passport is oriented the wrong direction, it could delay you for weeks. There are registration fees. Entry and departure cards. You can’t leave without your departure card and a notice to leave stamped on your passport. You’ll also need travel permits for many regions.

No passenger trains or public transportation cross the border. To get there from Uzbekistan you have to walk 15 minutes across no-mans land.

Some travelers have faced problems attempting to travel to Turkmenistan by boat. Travelers should be aware that some “ferries” are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. Passengers are generally not provided food or water on these ships, and sleeping and sanitary facilities are likely to be rudimentary. Travelers should be aware that ships arriving at the port of Turkmenbashy often wait days offshore for outgoing ships to vacate the dock to allow incoming ships to disembark. Some travelers have spent more than a week offshore while their ship awaited permission to enter the port, and they have run out of stores of food and water, or had their Turkmen visas expire before they could be used.

Most taxis are unofficial. Just hail the first car you see and pay what’s fair.

Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.

Expect distinctly average Turkman or Russian cuisine in restaurants.

Do not criticize, insult or speak badly of the President, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since Turkmenbashi’s death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state. The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Suparmurat Niyazov is still sold, and still taught in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best regarded to not criticize the former President as well.

As a general rule of thumb, keep your opinions about the country’s politics to yourself since speaking out against the government is a crime for which you can be given a prison sentence, or if you are a foreign citizen, the remote possibility of deportation from the country.

If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession.

Turkmen law enforcement are well trained and professional, but be warned that they are very aggressive, especially during the night, so do expect some sort of harassment from them.

Due to their low salaries, bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many locals, given that Turkmenistan was ranked as one of the top twenty corrupt countries in the world.

Many hotels are frequently bugged by the police. Bugging in hotel rooms is common – telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Do not sign any documents provided by the police if it is in a language you do not know, as it may be that they may try to rip you off for some more money. Just be polite with them, and just say that you do not understand it.

Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohibited, each of which is punishable with up to 2 years in prison.

So there you have it. Turkmenistan. It certainly makes me appreciate the life I have even more than I previously did.

Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan

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Haines, Juneau, and Ketchikan

After my visit, via the cruise ship Noordam, to Glacier Bay, we had the opportunity to visit three towns along the Inside Passage, in Southeastern Alaska. It was a great deal of fun.

Our first stop was Haines, Alaska. This place has less than 2000 residents. It’s a sleepy little town, and seems to be rather overwhelmed when a cruise ship docks. Many of their shops are actually owned by the cruise ship companies, which is why a lot of the souvenirs seem identical from store to store. Most of these places shut down completely when the cruise season ends.

Haines experienced a boom during the Klondike Gold Rush, but of course that couldn’t be sustained. It’s just too remote. It was also the home of Fort William H. Seward, which is now a National Historic Landmark, but most of the few remaining buildings are privately owned, and frankly, you would never know it used to be a fort unless you were told. There’s also a Hammer Museum in town, oddly enough, but we didn’t visit. The most interesting thing about Haines is that from October to February, it has the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world. If you are into the great outdoors, Haines is the place.

Here are a few pictures that we took of Haines. Keep scrolling beyond that to learn a little about Juneau.

Juneau is Alaska’s state capitol, and it’s a very unique place. You can only get there by plane or by water, and the Alaskans seem to like it that way. Their politicians are not nearly as pestered by lobbyists as are those in other states, or so they say. The only other state capitol that you can’t get to by highway from other states is, of course, Honolulu.

It’s the second largest city in the US by area, but it only has a population of about 32,000 people. I was shocked about the city’s area size, because I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, for decades, and was always told that it was the largest city by area in the world. In fact, it’s the 5th largest in the country. The other 4 are in Alaska, because, let’s face it, they’ve got nothing but space. But Jacksonville has three times more population than those 4 cities combined. I digress.

While visiting Juneau, we rented a car for a few hours and took a trip to Mendenhall Glacier. It was heartbreakingly stunning. It had retreated so much that the National Park Service had to actually move the visitor’s center so that it would still be visible. But it continues to retreat. Global climate change exists, y’all.

I think the coolest place in all of Juneau is the Red Dog Saloon. You walk in and your feet sink into the sawdust. The place is lousy with Alaska memorabilia, and you really get a sense of what the it must have been like when this was an unregulated frontier town.

The next day, we arrived at my favorite of the three towns: Ketchikan. It is known as the rain capitol of Alaska, as it gets 153 inches a year, and on this day it did not disappoint. It was coming down in buckets. But squelching around, huddled under an umbrella, was so worth it, because this town has a ton of personality.

It has a population of less than 14,000 people. It also has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. Ketchikan Creek runs right through town. One of the most enjoyable things to do in town is a visit to Dolly’s House on Creek Street, which was the infamous red light district back in the town’s heyday. It was said that “both men and salmon came upstream to spawn” in Ketchikan. In Dolly’s house, you can see an 18th century electric vibrator that looks positively dangerous. What’s not to love about that?

I loved Southeast Alaska. I don’t think I could live there, though. The weather, the isolation, and the dark, moist, dreary skies would all have a negative impact on my spirit. But I’m glad I visited, and I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Ketchikan and Glacier Bay again.

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