Confronting Racism During Travel

It’s a fact: most people in Europe don’t interact much with Latin Americans.  Even as multicultural as Europe is today — with sizable immigrant and migrant populations from the Middle East, Africa, even the Far East – there are only tiny communities of people from places like Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica (for cultural and linguistic reasons, Spain is the obvious exception).  Many people in the ex-Communist countries can’t remember the last time they met someone from Latin America; many have never even heard the term “Hispanic.”  So what happens when you’re Latino and want to visit Eastern Europe?  Especially in the middle of Europe’s polarizing refugee crisis?

I was approached last month by Alissa and Alfredo Morales (who let me use their full names in this blog entry).  They’d lived in California since they were children; Alissa was born in El Salvador and Alfredo was from Mexico.  Racially… they looked Middle Eastern.  What would usually be a sensitive topic was laid out very bluntly over Skype.  On their honeymoon this August to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Alissa and Alfredo had repeatedly been mistaken for Syrian refugees, and the result was shameful and humiliating.  They were asked at a Hungarian train station how long they’d been on the road to Germany.  Alissa was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant.  Upon boarding a city bus in Cesky Krumlov, they were asked for their passports — for a journey that lasted five miles.  They’d been detained at a small train station at the Slovakian border for two hours while customs agents went through all their belongings – in “response to increased security concerns.”  They were kicked out of a department store in suburban Prague for a reason they still don’t know (the store manager spoke only Czech and German), but strongly believe had something to do with the fact that they resembled no one around them.

“Our honeymoon was ruined,” Alissa told me tearfully.  “What could we have done differently?”

I had to think about this for awhile.  Finally I told Alissa that there are two truths: 1) people’s natural curiosity about foreigners can often override their bias, and 2) deep down, people often want their worst thoughts about others to be proven wrong.   I had learned this while traveling in rural parts of Russia where, to say the least, people aren’t big fans of Americans.  Alissa and Alfredo were surprised by what I had to share, and I was equally surprised when they told me they wanted to “redo” their honeymoon by going back to Budapest in late October.

“We were so upset and distracted on our first trip that we didn’t get to see or do half the things we wanted to,” Alfredo told me.

Needless to say, it took exceptional bravery to want to go back, and we continued to work together.  I told them that no two individuals are going to change how frustrated Eastern Europeans feel about their tiny countries being “invaded” by migrants.  Alissa and Alfredo admitted that most of the time when they were out and about on their trip, they’d turned angry and bitter, and this probably hadn’t helped how they were perceived.  Alissa, I said, you’re going to have to smile.  Talk with strangers; go out of your way to do it.   They will know soon enough that you are an American.  Those bored train station attendants who look like they want to give you a hard time? Ask them if they can take a picture of you two.  Heck, they are already staring at you.  If you ask for a picture, you are most obviously a tourist, not someone who is there to claim asylum.  Make friends with the people who “have” to like you because you are buying their services: your hotel reception staff.  You can rely on them for help if you get “detained” in the city.  They know you are Hispanics, Americans, tourists.  Even the most biased people will help you in the interest of doing business.

Alissa and Alfredo always took great pride in being independent tourists and exploring on foot, but we agreed that the chance of them being stopped by bigoted police was lower if they were on the Hop-on Hop Off bus — and they agreed.   I told them  to spend a little extra money to take a taxi than a city bus, and to have their American passports ready to show at the train stations rather than having to rummage for them and give some restless Slovakian time to demand what’s in their bags.  The reality is, it’s a lot easier on a short trip to work around and avoid people’s suspicions than try to alter their stereotypes or worst fears.  I told them, You’ve been to Hungary before; you know what to expect.  The worst is over.  Now you just have to do it again – the difference is that this time, you’re going to enjoy it.

They took off on their “new” honeymoon on October 24, and I heard back from them a couple days ago.   They sounded relaxed and excited.  They were staying at a much smaller hotel this time where they had a great relationship with the husband and wife owners,  who gave them some pointers of their own and found them an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.

“We’ve found the only Mexican restaurant in all of Budapest,” Alissa said.

“How is it?”  I asked.

“Well, the manager asked me to cook a dish for him,” she replied.  “I took it as a complement.”

Well done, Alissa.


The Agoraphobe Who Longs to Travel

Fellow travelers,
I’ve taken a couple months off from this blog to do some important work with people who desperately want or need to take a trip, but have been frozen in place by their own travel fears.  I would not call this work “counseling,” but more like exercises in empowerment with anxious travelers who personally sought me out for help.

I worked for several weeks with Tom, a 30-year-old lab technician from Mill Valley (just north of San Francisco) who has taken three trips to London in the past four years only to sit in his hotel room almost every day while his girlfriend went sightseeing.  The only time Tom left his room was to go to the petrol station mini mart across the street for a bite to eat.  He didn’t want to eat at the restaurant hotel because he was worried about food poisoning.  He didn’t want to ride the Tube because he was worried about germs.  He was afraid to dart into the local tourist information centre because he feared the operators were in constant contact with foreigners, and carried nasty viruses.  On the third trip to London, Tom and his girlfriend, Katie, just missed their flight home because Tom spent an hour sanitizing his hotel room before check-out in order to protect the next guests from his own germs.  “I kid you not,” Tom says.  Needless to say, his relationship ended with his girlfriend.

Today, Tom emailed me from Auckland, New Zealand.  He’s been out on the beach for six hours and coming to terms with his travel fears.  London was too much for him to jump into, he says; too many people, too many cramped spaces, too many stimuli that inspired his fears about viruses and hygiene to take on an irrational life of their own.  Auckland was the perfect place for him to take that one large, important step forward.  He has the vacation time saved up at work to come back to Auckland and try something he’s always wanted to do: a sailing trip in a small island chain of the South Pacific.  And he is certainly happy at the idea of being able to eat what he catches, without anyone else touching it.

Tom, it was a privilege to work with you, and I wish you all the best on your upcoming sailing adventure.  I’m so glad you feel free at last of your worst travel anxieties.  London will be there.  And don’t forget… there are some great sailing opportunities down the Thames.


How to Find a Quiet Place to Relax in a Crowded Foreign City

Do you often come back from a trip and feel like you need a “vacation to recover from your vacation?”  You’re not alone.

Many people feel this way because they didn’t let themselves decompress at any time while they were away.  Given the greater emotional and physical energy exerted during a trip, it’s easy to feel drained or overstimulated during and after travel.   Finding a tranquil place to relax and regroup during your trip is one of the most obvious ways to prevent mental or emotional burnout — and keep every day of your vacation feeling (almost) like the first day you arrived.

Unfortunately, traditional “quiet” places may turn into anything but if everyone else decides to go there for their own relaxation.  Think of oceanside cafés that get so loud you can’t hear the waves washing up; well-known churches that sound like malls inside; and parks that put you in the path of an impromptu tag game – hardly anyone’s idea of peace.  Don’t think you have to return to your hotel room mid-day, or wander into an isolated (and potentially dangerous) area in order to “get away from it all.”  Here are a few universal, but often overlooked, places to unwind.

Botanical gardens.  These can sound like a bore to those not interested in plants, but botanical gardens have all of the relaxing characteristics of parks, but because of the (usually) small entrance fee, attract a different crowd; your chances of encountering skateboarding teenagers, drunks, or soccer practice are slim to none.   There is usually no shortage of places to sit down, and you can generally stay as long as you want after paying the day’s admission.

Universities.  Many universities have the look and feel of self-sustaining villages, and you’d have a hard time finding one without some green areas and benches (and often a pond and some wildlife).  Frat and sorority houses are less common outside North America, and while there’s obviously going to be plenty of activity on the main thoroughfares on weekdays, the overall atmosphere – especially on weekends – is subdued.  Another plus is that many universities are easily accessed within metropolitan areas, and even the grounds of most private universities are open to anyone.

Zoos.  You’d be hard pressed to find a zoo without an attractive, natural setting – and interacting with (or just watching) animals can quickly pull you out of your head and back into the moment.  About half of all major world cities have a zoo within three miles of tourist areas.  Try visiting on a weekday evening, or mid-afternoon after school groups have cleared out.

Embassy areas. These neighborhoods are particularly prominent in capital cities, and are often in easily accessible areas.  Although there aren’t many places to sit down, they are certainly a great place for a quiet stroll.  Embassy neighborhoods are rarely crowded, aesthetically pleasing, and you can let your guard down because security is second to none.

Stationed trains.  Particularly in European cities, long-distance trains pull into a station well before departure – by an hour, and sometimes more (especially if your city is the route terminus).  A parked train can be a very peaceful alternative to trying to rest your mind and feet in the chaotic main station hallway.  I’ve done it many times and not been bothered by attendants or conductors (unlike airplanes, which are usually swept and cleaned after every flight, the usual train is only serviced at the end of the day).

Obviously, you need to make sure the train doesn’t roll away taking you someplace you don’t want to go, but the chances of this happening are minimal as you’ll notice people start trickling in about ten minutes before departure.

Off-hours and hideaways in hotels.  After the maids have come through, and before the next round of guests check in, is an ideal time to get some peace in your hotel room, especially if it’s anything but tranquil in the evening and early morning. The ideal time window is usually between noon and three p.m.

If you’ve already checked out of a hotel, don’t feel bad about relaxing in the lobby a few hours after giving up your key.  It’s unlikely that any hotel employee will ask you to leave just because you’re done and paid for; after all, they want you to come back on your next trip, and write a nice online review about your stay.

Finally, a surprising number of hotels – particularly in Europe – have rooftop terraces.  These are often underutilized, because 1) guests aren’t aware of them, or 2) they simply forget to head up there.  The terrace can be a great escape when everyone else on your floor seems to be checking in, or coming in and out of their rooms, at the same time.  An added benefit is that you get to see the city from a bird’s-eye view, which can make it look less intimidating and give you a better perspective of where you are.

Airport quiet spots.  For some peace and space, many people know to head to the waiting area of a deserted gate.  Less commonly sought, but equally quiet places include interdenominational chapels (many international airports have one, and you don’t have to pray in order to use the room), and the lobbies of pre-check-in areas.  Most people automatically rush to the check-in counter and through security when they arrive at the airport, passing by many empty waiting areas adjacent to the airline ticket counters.

It's not always practical to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax if you know where to look. ( Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

It’s not always realistic to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax out there — if you know where to look. (Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

How to Prepare an Emergency Medical Contact Card Before You Go Abroad

If you’ve ever had to visit an ER or doctor in another country, you know how critical it is to have an emergency medical card, and several supplemental documents, with you at all times (or at least in your hotel room).   Some of this medical and personal information seems pointless to write down since you can reel it off the top of your head, but most of it isn’t — and you don’t want to be kicking yourself for not having the contact info you need when you’re ill or injured so far from home.

Your emergency medical card (or page, printout, etc.) and supplemental info should include your critical health and personal data, and definitely not be left to the last minute since it can take surprisingly long (as in, upwards of eight hours!) to gather and list all the information.  Sound boring and tedious to put together?  It is — but hopefully the following can help.

Your card should include the names, phone numbers, and addresses or email addresses for the following:

Ÿ1. Family member or close contact remaining at home;

Ÿ2. Your doctor at home, your pharmacy, and your health care provider;

3. ŸTravel insurance (and any medevac insurance) information;

Ÿ4. Place(s) of lodging at your destination;

Ÿ5. The U.S. Embassy or consulate in your destination country;

Ÿ6. A list of your medications, including generic and brand names, reason for taking each, dosage information, and how often taken;

Ÿ7. All medical conditions or allergies you have; and

Ÿ8. Documentation of any immunizations required by the country you’re visiting.

Items to attach or keep with this card include:

Ÿ1. A copy of your medical insurance card (keep the original in your wallet);

Ÿ2. At least one insurance claim form (note that you shouldn’t have to navigate through the member services department of your HMO to get insurance claim forms; the travel clinic should carry them);

3. ŸA signed letter from your physician describing your general medical condition(s), and all current medications;

4. ŸThe list of urgent care services and doctors that you have researched in each country (or, more likely, had your physician or travel agent research for you); and, if you’re traveling off the beaten tourist track:

5. ŸThe name of any medication conditions, and medications, written in the local languages of the areas you plan to visit.  For translation services, try asking your travel clinic first since your main care practitioner may not know where to send you within your HMO or PPO.  Note that it’s unwise to use a free online translation service since the software may misunderstand (or not understand at all) complex medical and technical terms and any abbreviations.

Keep the card and all supplemental documents somewhere where they won’t get wet or stolen (to be on the safe side, include one copy in your purse or smaller bag, and one in your checked luggage).  Tell anyone traveling with you about the card and supplements, and their location(s).

While you’re busy compiling all this information, don’t forget to fill out the page inside your passport with the name, address, and telephone number of someone to be contacted in an emergency (you’d be amazed at how many people forget to do this).

Finally, before you go, be sure to register your destination countries, visit dates, and hotel addresses in your country’s traveler enrollment program.  For Americans, this would be the U.S Embassy’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) system at  If you do need urgent assistance from an embassy, STEP will already have your basic information on file.

Canadians should go to, U.K. citizens should go to, and Australians should go to .


Prepare your card BEFORE your trip — and not while you’re killing time on the train!

Relaxation Opportunities in the World’s Airports

As many of us can attest to, dozens of modern international airports are like mini-cities, complete with malls, chapels, huge kid’s play areas, two-story food plazas, and sometimes even golf courses and movie theaters.  As travel services have evolved into an art, more and more airports have focused on offering the weary, anxious, or downright cranky traveler the chance to de-stress — to the point that some of us might even forget we’re in an airport.  Spas?  Art galleries?  Gardens?  They’re in many of the world’s largest and most popular hubs — maybe even in the one you call your own.

You don’t have to belong to an airline’s VIP club to access most of these relaxing amenities; you just have to find the right terminal.  So, if you have a choice of where to spend a long layover on your next trip, I offer these observations about some of the best airports out there where you can settle your frazzled nerves instead of dreading the next bout of altitude.  I’m sure you can think of a few other airports where you wouldn’t mind killing some time at all.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia

  • Rainforest
  • Reflexology and massage center

Narita International Airport, Tokyo

  • Silence room
  • Reflexology center
  • Oxygen bar

Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates

  • Two indoor Zen gardens, located on either end of the concourse

San Francisco International Airport

  • Yoga room
  • Library
  • Aquarium
  • Art galleries

Schiphol International, Amsterdam

  • Library
  • Museum

(No offense to Schiphol, but besides the library and museum, this has to be one of the noisiest, most hectic airports on earth… and this is after they ditched the one-terminal concept!)

Beijing International Airport

  • Temples and pond

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

  • The “Backrub Hub,” offering neck and back massages

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

  • Self-service yoga studio

Incheon International Airport, South Korea

  • Spa
  • Indoor gardens
  • Museum
  • Private sleeping rooms

Heathrow, London

  • Art Gallery
  • Be Relax Spa

Taiwan International Airport

  • Library featuring e-books, regular books, and magazines and newspapers

Charles de Gaulle, Paris

  • Be Relax Spa
  • Movie theater

Changi Airport, Singapore

  • Five themed gardens, one of them home to more than a thousand butterflies
  • Free calf-massage stations
  • Designated napping facilities

Vancouver International Airport

  • Sleep pods, complete with noise-canceling earphones

I can think of some airports I’d put on a different list for being the loudest, most irritating, panic attack-inducing places on earth, but alas, one of the best ways to manage stress is to keep things positive.  So, I’ll leave you with this image — wherever you may be right now.


Too bad more of us don’t find laying over in Tallinn, Estonia convenient.  The international airport, Lennart Meri Tallinn, has passenger relaxation at every gate down to an art.

How to Pack a Travel Medical Kit

Yes, a kit will take up quite a bit of room in your luggage, but you could save yourself a lot of stress and misery by having it along — especially if you’ll be traveling to a remote destination.

Many of us automatically buy prepackaged first aid kits and don’t check to make sure that it truly has everything that we need as travelers.  The fact is, many first aid kits are packaged more for sports enthusiasts or in the case of on-the-job accidents.  You can start out with one of those kits, but there will be things you need to add to it.

So here’s what belongs in your travel medical kit:

  • Bandaids of all sizes
  • gauze, and one stretch bandage
  • medical tape
  • an extra bottle of hand sanitizer (in addition to what you should be carrying around with you at all times)
  • antacid
  • anti–motion sickness medication, or ginger root
  • pain medication (of course)
  • a cold compress
  • insect repellant wipes
  • antifungal and antibacterial ointment
  • hydrocortisone cream
  • scissors
  • antidiarrheal medication (bismuth subsalicylate, loperamide)
  • a mild laxative
  • cotton balls


  • lubricating eye drops
  • cough suppressant/expectorant
  • cough drops
  • antihistamine
  • Ziploc bags and Q-Tips
  • rubber gloves

What looks like “overkill” to be shoving in next to your toiletry bag  could save your day abroad — or someone else’s.


Does Jet Lag Impact Your Stress Level?

I’ve asked a lot of travelers this question, and consistently noted that about half of people say yes, and about half say no. Jet lag is one of those things international travelers inevitably have to manage, and something that we either learn to put up with, ignore, or (at the very least) use as a good explanation for our coworkers, family, and friends after we get back from a trip and feel like we’re stumbling through a fourth dimension for a week.

Interestingly, those who admit that jet lag causes them quite a bit of anxiety discover that it’s actually worrying about jet lag that causes them the most stress (how will it affect them physically?  Mentally?  Emotionally?) while those that say jet lag doesn’t bother them often say that while jet lag is irritating, it relaxes them in a certain way — unlike any other physiological phenomenon.   These are people who actually don’t mind having their natural body rhythms thrown off because it is a break from their daily rut of work-eat-sleep-worry-work-eat-sleep-rinse-and-repeat.   In other words, jet lag is just a feature of being on vacation, of doing something different.

Given the varying reactions and all the anecdotes and quick-fix recommendations that abound out there on how to deal with jet lag, it’s worth taking a closer look.

Jet lag results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms caused by trans-meridian (west–east, or east-west) air travel.  When traveling across a number of time zones, your body’s natural pattern is upset as the cycles that govern times for sleeping, eating, and body temperature regulation no longer correspond to your environment.  To the extent that your body cannot immediately realign these rhythms, you are “jet lagged.”  Symptoms can either aggravate anxiety, or be mistaken for intensified side effects of medications.  Some of the most common jet lag symptoms include:

  • Ÿ         Headache and irritability;
  • Ÿ         Balance and coordination problems;
  • Ÿ         Difficulty concentrating;
  • Ÿ         Early awakening (if flying west) or trouble falling asleep (if flying east); and
  • Ÿ         Interrupted sleep (to say the least).

Jet lag usually occurs with a change of three time zones or more, and the extent to which you’re affected depends on the number of time zones crossed.  If you’re unfamiliar with jet lag (or just want to explain it as painlessly as possible to your great-aunt), it’s worth noting that the maximum possible disruption is plus or minus twelve hours.  If the time difference between two locations is greater than twelve hours, subtract that number from 24 to understand the “adjusted” time zone difference.  New Zealand, for example, being nineteen hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, would pose only a five-hour jet lag challenge to a traveler from California.

The recovery time for jet leg is generally one day per time zone crossed, although many people (particularly those who travel more) are able to recover faster.  Women are affected by jet lag more than men, since normal nighttime and daytime body rhythms are connected to estrogen levels.  Recovery will also depend on whether your flight(s) are overnight or scheduled during the day.  You’ll typically experience more jet lag if you begin a long flight mid-morning or early afternoon than if you take a “red eye” flight departing at eight p.m. or later (it helps, of course, if you can actually fall asleep on an airplane).

Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to avoid jet lag altogether.  You can talk to your general care practitioner about where specifically you’re going, and how to strategize flight times and sleep hours, to try to minimize the impacts.  Your doctor may suggest getting only a minimal amount of sleep the night before your flight (so that you’re naturally sleepy when you arrive at your destination) or taking a prescription-strength sleep medication for the first several nights of your trip.


How will you feel after making this trip?!