Railroad Man

The other day when Steve glanced at our tickets for the Bernina Express, his jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Am I really in seat #61?” “Yeah. You’re in 61 and I’m in 63. So what?”

“But that means this morning I will literally be the Man in Seat 61,” he replied.

I grasped his wonderment then. Several years ago I became an ardent fan of a website called The Man in Seat 61. I subsequently read an article about the guy who writes it, and if I were home in front of my desktop computer, I could tell you his name and his background. But as I’m working from my iPad with painfully slow hotel internet, all I will say is: if you’re interested, Google him. What I recall from the article is that he’s a Brit who I think began by writing online about European train travel, with an eye to making it easier for newcomers to navigate. He has since expanded to cover the rest of the world. I think I used his information to take trains in Vietnam. I read him religiously before our trip to India three years ago, and I give him all the credit for enabling me to traverse the subcontinent on rails.

Today his website is a vast repository of information, wonderfully organized and copiously linked. Thanks to him, for this trip I booked seats online for Steve and me from Paris to Bordeaux and back, Paris to Luxembourg, Luxembourg to Zurich, Zurich to Sargans (the gateway to Liechtenstein), Sargans to Chur, Chur to Tirano, Tirano to Milan, Milan to Bologna, Bologna to Rimini (gateway to San Marino), and Rimini to Rome.

It was the Man in Seat 61 who inspired me to route us from Liechtenstein to Italy on the Bernina Express. Poking around on his website I stumbled upon his glowing descriptions of it. The train is one of only three in the world to have been declared a UN World Heritage rail line, and The Man could not praise it highly enough. It was complicated to book online, run by a private Swiss line (the Rhatische Bahn) and requiring two separate tickets. But I did what he said and it all worked.

Steve and I actually have ridden on one of the other two World Heritage railway lines while in India. The “toy train,” as it’s known, runs from Jalpaigur up to Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas, and I can tell you: the Bernina Express is about a million times nicer. Like the Indian train, the Swiss one runs on a narrow-gauge track, but the Swiss cars have huge panoramic windows and comfortable seats. The Indian train arrived at its destination more than three hours late, after tortuous intervals of sitting and not moving. The Swiss one took off at 8:16 instead of 8:15 and arrived in the Italian town of Tirano at 12:51 instead of 12:49. Its roughly 4.5-hour-long route took us over one of the highest rail beds in the world, one constructed more than 100 years ago specifically for tourists. It posed devilish challenges to the Swiss engineers who designed it, but it helped make them into the pre-eminent experts on tunneling that they are today.Lots of tunnels on this run!

People say it’s a strikingly different experience in summer and winter, and that you really should ride it in both seasons. I can tell you it was beautiful in late summer, on a day that began enshrouded in mist……but turned golden long before we crossed the Italian border. We had spiffy headphones that told us (in English) about the line’s history and highlights.The route literally winds through Heidi country — the part of the Alps where the book was set and movies were filmed.Bridges like this and sections of track that corkscrew through the mountains and meadows are among the attractions.In this view, the train is going under a circular bridge that it just traversed.Views of glaciers and glacial lakes also triggered avalanches of camera clicks.And there was a short rest stop that included traditional Alpine entertainment.

Steve and I enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did all our companions in the full car.

Now we’re on our last train trip of the trip, taking us from Rimini on the Adriatic southwest to Rome. Although we have more than two and a half weeks left before we return home, we’ll get around on planes and rental cars from here on. That’s too bad. When it comes to transit preferences, I’m with the Man in Seat 61.

Liechtenstamped

Even now, in this time of pandemics and panic, no one checks and stamps passports when you move around between many countries in Europe. In Andorra, Steve and I asked at the tourist office about getting our books stamped, but all the girl at the counter could offer was something that looked designed for children. (We passed.) Luxembourg appeared to be way too cool for faux passport stamps. But Liechtenstein was into it. In the center of Vaduz (the tidy little capital), we saw signs like this.

Around mid-afternoon last Thursday (9/20), Steve and I walked to the Liechtenstein Center and paid a few Swiss francs to get a postage stamp and this souvenir:

A few minutes later, serious rain finally caught up with us for the first time on this trip. We’d been on the road, moving quite a bit. I was tired, and my umbrella offered only partial protection; my feet got very damp. I felt dispirited. We abandoned any further touristic efforts and retreated to the Airbnb apartment in which we were lodging, not far from the center.

These locals were attending the inauguration of a new piece of public art. Vaduz has a LOT of public art. But the ceremonies were in German, and we were getting soaked.

The next day, the world felt renewed: warm and sunny and inviting. Throughout the morning we stockpiled tantalizing glimpses into the strange but pleasant little country that boasts it’s the last remnant in the world of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s also the only country named after the person who bought the place: Prince Johannes Adam I of Liechtenstein (aka Hans the Rich). For centuries, his descendants didn’t actually live in the land bearing their name, but they’re well-entrenched today. The current prince still actively rules the place, and he and his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandkids live in the ostentatious palace that clings to the hillside high above Vaduz.

There it is in the distance.
Another view of the castle, which is closed to the public, being a private dwelling. Note the grapevines in the foreground. You see a lot of those around town.

Probably my most enduring memory of my 24 hours in Liechtenstein will be our ride on the little “train” that once a day tootles around the town.

The operator had installed protective plastic sheets between each row of seats. It gave the ride a slightly psychedelic feeling, which seemed appropriate.

Through earplugs dialed to English, we listened to some minimal commentary and a whole bunch of bouncy Teutonic music. The musical climax was a rousing rendition of the Liechtensteiner Polka. In the city center, we saw vegetable fields and cows munching emerald grass next to the main highway through town.

We also noted many massive buildings that we assumed house the countless companies from all over the world that set up headquarters here in order to decrease their tax burden. (While lower than what those companies would pay elsewhere, that tax money is a significant contributor to Liechtenstein’s current wealth.) The soulless structures share the streets with old homes that could have informed Walt Disney’s vision of Euroquaint.

We had to tear ourselves away around 2 p.m. to catch the bus back to Switzerland, and the train to the Swiss town of Chur, starting point for our Saturday morning ride on one of the most famous trains in the world. But I left with my stamps and the lingering refrain of that unforgettable polka.

Lux

To those friends (at least 2 of ‘em) who warned we might be bored in Luxembourg, I can only say: no way! Steve and I had some dazzling moments during our stay there (Saturday 9/11 to Wednesday 9/15). They weren’t the kind of offbeat or exciting adventures that make for the most interesting blog posts. But I can say with confidence: if you ever get a chance to visit the Grand Duchy, do not turn it down.

Luxembourg, we learned, is the first country in the world to make all local public transportation free. This is a nice amenity! One of the frictions of traveling in any strange country is figuring out how to pay for the bus or metro or train or whatever. We took a high-speed train from Paris to Luxembourg City, where we walked out the door of the train station and got on a spiffy free tram that took us to the city center. In the center, we stayed in the spare bedroom Airbnb’d by Mohit and Prarabdhe, two Indian Ph.Ds who have permanently moved to Luxembourg. The next day we got on a tram going in the other direction to a transportation hub where we climbed on a free bus that took us out into the countryside. It almost felt like having a private driver at our disposal.

This is a country where people are very good at signs.
On board the free bus to Echternach, a 30-40-minute ride from Luxembourg City.

I can also attest that Luxembourg is a great place for walking and hiking. The center of the capital looks extraordinarily prosperous — no surprise, given that Luxembourg, largest of the 7 microstates on our present tour, is also the country with the highest GDP per capita in Europe. I couldn’t help comparing what it’s like to stroll around Lux City and Antigua, Nicaragua (one of the poorest countries in the world, around which we were strolling just three months ago). In the former, streets and plazas are vacuumed and buffed, not busted up and filthy. Tantalizing shops and restaurants and bars and pastry vendors line the streets instead of tense, hungry looking folks hawking lottery tickets and single cigarettes. On the day of our arrival, well-dressed Luxembourgers jammed the place, ambling, shopping, wining, breakfasting, lunching, and dining.

Built originally as a fortress on a rocky cliff, the city walls command great views of the lower city.

We walked down to the lower part Sunday morning and found postcard views and woodsy paths.

I wanted to visit Luxembourg even before conceiving of our Microstate Tour. What made me think of that was reading Bill Bryson’s hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods). At one point in it, he compares that challenging trek to hiking in Luxembourg, where he reported being able to sleep in cozy inns after days of making one’s way along glorious trails. I was intrigued, and I learned that one of the most famous byways in Luxembourg is the Mullerthal Trail, which consists of three big multi-day loops. I tried but failed to find the sort of arrangement Bryson had described. Maybe Covid caused the outfitters to shut down, at least temporarily. But I still wanted to squeeze in a bit of Luxembourgian hiking, so I booked us into a sweet little hotel in the charming town of Echternach, a trailhead for both Mullerthal and other local pathways.

This was the view from the outdoor restaurant in front of our hotel. In one corner of the plaza a brass band played tunes such as Rocky Mountain High and Sweet Caroline.

On Monday the weather was glorious, so we tackled an 11-mile outing that included part of Mullerthal 2.

In the Middle Ages, local folks quarried grinding stones at this trailside spot, creating a man-made cave.

We took it easier the next day, exploring short sections of Mullerthal 1 and visiting the touristic highlights of Echternach. Most of these I won’t bore you with. But one I should mention. Echternach is home to the ruins of a villa built by Roman conquerors roughly 2,000 years ago. No walls remain, but all of the foundations are intact, and it’s obvious how magnificent the place once was.The Luxembourgers have built a sweet little museum explaining the site. Alas none of the signs were in English. It didn’t really matter. We didn’t need to read placards to understand that this was one of those small but pleasant wonders you sometimes stumble upon, a bit like the country it’s now part of.

Andorran lightning

No electrical bolts struck anywhere within earshot of us Thursday, nor did it rain more than a few sprinkles. The lightning instead was the speed with which we toured Andorra, stop #1 on Steve’s and my Grand European Microstate Tour. Barely 60 hours passed from the time we pulled into the underground parking lot of our hotel in Andorra la Vella (the capital) Wednesday afternoon (9/8) to when we sped out of town shortly before dawn two days later. However, we crammed more interesting activities in it than I had thought would be possible.

Before going to Andorra, I’d never given much thought to why France and Spain are two separate countries. Leaving the broad flat planes of southwestern France, then weaving first through verdant foothills, then into one hairpin turn after another was an aha! moment for me. Thickly wooded, the Pyrenees are beyond rugged — rocky and vertiginous as any mountains I’ve seen anywhere. It was suddenly easy to understand why, once Catalonians had staked out this enclave and gotten recognized as an independent fiefdom (in 839), neither France nor Spain lusted for it enough to fight a war over. Isolation has advantages. The Andorran borders have been more stable over the centuries than any other country in Europe.

Happily, the French tollways and all the Andorran roads we traveled on are in superb condition. From the border it took us less than 45 minutes to reach Andorra la Vella. It fills a narrow valley; the mountains surrounding it rise up high and press in close.

Around 77,000 Andorran citizens inhabit the whole country. They welcome roughly 10 million tourists per year, which makes the ratio between residents and visitors the highest in the world. Mostly the tourists come from two reasons: to take advantage of all the mountains (skiing in winter and hiking in the summertime) and/or shop. Andorra’s like a great big duty-free store. I bought nothing except for a stamp (to stick on my notebook), but window-shopping on Andorra la Vella’s main shopping street was entertaining in itself: a parade of storefronts flaunting pricy watches, perfume and cosmetics, running shoes, guns (and Samurai swords!), jewelry, booze, designer clothes… and, of yes, tobacco products. For some reason, tobacco grows well in Andorra; locals have cultivated and exported the noxious leaves since the 1800s. In the lobby of our hotel, I gaped at the first cigarette-vending machine I’d seen in decades. People vape in Paris, but in Andorra, they smoke the old-fashioned way and sell the old-fashioned brands.

Steve and I rambled through the twisty passages in the old town, and popped into the tourist office down by the river, where a helpful staffer gave us maps and brochures. Thanks to her, we learned that hiking trails overlook the town on both sides of the valley. We originally had wanted to spend the day hiking in the countryside but the stormy forecast made us shelve that plan. It felt like a gift to instead be able to do a mini-hike. We easily ascended from our hotel to one of the paths and followed it for about two miles.

One of the countless community gardens

Among other sights, it led us through the most extensive complex of communal garden plots we’ve ever seen. Roosters crowed and hens clucked while apartment complexes covered the distant hillsides. It was an extraordinary contrast.

Eventually we left the path and descended to one of Andorra la Vella’s tourist wonders: a glass-walled, 18-story structure housing the Caldea spa, said to be one of the largest in Europe.

The glass tower in the distance is part of the Caldea spa.

Sadly, we couldn’t bring in our phones (because we had nothing with which to waterproof them) so we have no photos of the wonders within it. Imagine, if you can, a chlorinated theme park, containing at its heart an enormous lagoon filled with warm, chest-deep water. Several gigantic bowls were set within it: aerial jacuzzis accessible by staircases. Off the central area, we wandered into saunas and steam baths and other piscine variations: one room with jets of water that massaged you, an “Icelandic pool” where you could walk through adjoining basins filled with icy and and very warm water. On one outdoor balcony we paddled in a “panoramic pool” and enjoyed more watery jets. On another we swam into a circular track through which a strong current coursed. We spent almost three hours in the complex, marveling at all the weird aquatic pleasures. (One soggy irritant: the fact that cloth face masks provided by the facility were mandatory throughout.)

Because of all its tourists and duty-free shoppers, Andorra ranks among the more prosperous countries in Europe. Andorrans live longer than the citizens of almost every other place on earth (around 83 years, on average). Crime is almost non-existent, and stress is minimal.

The mellow nature of life here was palpable in the plaza that’s been at the heart of Andorran life for centuries. A large, stone three-story structure dominates one side of it.Built more than 500 years ago as a noble family’s home, it was later acquired to be the seat of Andorra’s government. We toured it and chuckled at its coziness — the large kitchen where the councilors would sit around a large hearth to warm up……the wooden cabinet with seven separate (old-fashioned) locks in which Andorra’s founding document is stored. (Today it still requires an official from each of Andorra’s seven political districts to use his key in order to open it.)

Only in 2011 did the country build a big modern parliament building; this austere concrete edifice stands on another side of the plaza. It’s the equivalent of the US Capitol. “Where are the guys with machine guns?” Steve wondered aloud when we approached it. At the Elysee Palace in Paris, every corner bristles with military muscle. I haven’t been to the White House for a while, but I assume it’s at least as aggressively intimidating. Andorra has no military, but even a watchful policeman would have made this heart of Andorran political life look more governmental. There was none.

We pulled open the front door and walked in, looking for someone who might direct us to the tourist office; braced for being stopped and questioned. Not a soul was in sight. I was too shy to knock on one of the closed office doors, but no one would have stopped me had I tried.

We walked out of the building and gazed at the nearby sculptural installation, a bevy of statues saluting poets.If you want to live long and prosper, they seemed to whisper, moving to Andorra and reading poetry isn’t a bad formula. But we’ve bade goodbye to this and pressed on to Luxembourg, an administrative center for the European Union, where the memory of those statues feels like a dream.

Weather wonderland

I love to travel, in part, because it reminds me how unsophisticated I am about weather. Living in San Diego for as long as I have has dulled my weather wits; made me stupid about preparing for what’s to come. Most of San Diego’s weather ranges from glorious to blah (in cloudy May and June), but it’s all good enough you don’t have to plan your activities around it. Stormy weather rolls in only rarely, but when it does, it’s usually relentless and intense. It can last for days. You cancel outdoor plans.

When I’m in a foreign country and my phone’s weather app shows rain in the upcoming days, I tend to freak out. I assume the rain will screw up my plans. I’m often pleasantly surprised.

Weather didn’t impact the three days we had in Paris. They were archetypally perfect: cool in the early morning with heat building to San Diego levels of balminess by late afternoon, all under powder blue skies adorned with puffy passing clouds.But rain was forecast for Bordeaux on Friday, with heat moving in on the weekend and building to scary sounding levels Monday and Tuesday.

When our train pulled into the Bordeaux rail station early Friday afternoon, Olivia, Steve and I dodged light raindrops on our way to collect our rental car. These soon dried up, however, and by the time we dropped Olivia off at her hotel, the sun was out and the center of the old city felt pleasant and looked splendid. I’d arranged a home-exchange house in the country, very close to where Annabelle’s wedding reception would be held Saturday evening. We found it and settled into those comfortable quarters, then drove to dinner in the little town of Fargues St. Hilaire about 10 minutes away. By the time we arrived at 7:30, a torrential deluge had begun, intense enough to get us very wet as we dashed (under an umbrella) from our car the short distance to the restaurant. After we finished dinner, the downpour had stopped.

Nothing marred the perfection of Annabelle’s wedding the next day, held at 3 pm in a 1000-year-old basilica in the center of Bordeaux.It was sunny and quite warm outside, but all that stone kept out the heat.

There’s Olivia, chatting with the priest, who coincidentally happened to be an American. The interior of the basilica wasn’t air conditioned, but it felt like it was.

By the time we emerged from the church around 4:30, the heat still wasn’t overbearing.

Rose petals did briefly rain down on the bride and groom.

Over the next three days the temperature forecasts for Bordeaux looked worse and worse: around 90 on Sunday. Maybe 95 Monday, and I think I saw 97 at one point predicted for Tuesday. What surprised me, though, was how much of each of those days was lovely: cool and pleasant throughout the morning.

We stayed in the bottom floor of the house in the distance.
Had a delicious walk down the footpath from the house.

Sunday we weren’t uncomfortable at the wedding brunch on the back lawn of the chateau.

It’s possible the amazing setting distracted us.

The grapes in the vineyards surrounding the chateau looked happy!

Monday morning (after Olivia had returned to Paris), Steve and I made the 40-minute drive to St. Emilion, an important wine-making center. The ancient town and its vistas are almost indescribably charming, and we walked and lunched outdoors and felt cool until mid-afternoon, when the heat finally began to be oppressive.For our last full day in Bordeaux (yesterday), we returned to the center for more walking, another lunch, and a visit to the city’s wine museum. The pattern repeated: weather interchangeable with San Diego’s at its best in the morning, only heating up enough to sap our energy late in the day.

It was definitely shorts weather, but not sultry enough to sweat.
When we visited in the morning, it wasn’t even hot enough to lure many tourists into frolicking in Bordeaux’s famous mirror pool.

This morning (Wednesday) we packed up our rented Ford and headed for the first stop on our grand tour of Europe’s seven smallest countries: Andorra. As we drove south, my phone’s forecast looked like this, disconcerting to anyone bound for the rugged Pyrenees for a two-night stay. At one point, we drove under repeated signs warning about the thunderstorms ahead.

But after a few sprinkles in the early morning, the clouds disappeared, and by the time we whizzed through the border (with not a customs or passport or Covid vaccine checker anywhere in sight), Andorra’s Pyrenean splendors could not have looked more stunning had a professional postcard photo producer arranged the scenes.

This appeared to be the border, but everyone just breezed through it.

We drove up all those hairpin turns to get to this amazing viewpoint.

I’m writing these words in our hotel room in Andorra la Vella (the compact capital city). I’ve heard a few distant rumbles out our window, but no rain is pouring yet. The forecast still looks so bad I can’t imagine we’ll be able to hike most of tomorrow, as I had planned. But I’m wising up; amping up my reserves of flexibility. I think I need them at least as much as my umbrella.

Feeling grateful for the good weather.

Hoops

Nothing like heading to Europe on the day the European Union removes the US from its “safe list” of countries whose citizens don’t have to jump through lots of Covid hoops. I think this news broke as we were flying from San Diego to Dallas. Reading the details of what had happened, as reported by the New York Times, I wasn’t too worried, however. It seemed folks who were unvaccinated would be affected — but not Steve and me.

I worried more about getting into France. Up to the minute we departed, the rules were that vaccinated folks could get in if they presented:

1) Their passports

2) Their CDC vaccination cards (completed at least two weeks before entry)

3) A form testifying to the fact that one wasn’t sick and had no signs of Covid (or immediate recent contact with anyone infected)

Steve and I assembled all these things and even fed them into an app called “VeriFLY” that electronically documented our readiness for French travel. In the Dallas airport, the crew at the check-in desk also gave us another complex Passenger Locater Record form to fill out on the plane.

We had all these pieces of paper ready at Charles DeGaulle airport when our plane touched down 10 minutes early Friday morning. After deplaning we hurried to the passport-control booths, where a cute young Frenchman casually thumbed through our passports and stamped each of them in turn. Almost as an afterthought he said, ‘Vaccine, vaccine?” “Sure!” I responded, flashing him my white CDC card tucked into my passport jacket. He waved us on, not even interested in seeing Steve’s card or the Passenger Locator Form or the health testimony forms we had painstakingly prepared. We collected our bags, breezed out of the secure area, and less than 40 minutes after our plane’s wheels hitting the tarmac, we were in an Uber heading for the home of our friend Olivia.

Another more ominous hoop loomed. Around the beginning of August, the French powers-that-be ordered all French people to show an electronic vaccine passport in order to ride on trains, visit museums, or dine in restaurants. Because the EU has standardized digital vaccine records, this passport is easy for French people to get. But for folks vaccinated abroad and armed with proof such as those white CDC cards, it’s been more complicated. At first Americans who were either in France or arriving in France by August 11 were told they could submit an application for a digital pass and three supporting documents (passport, pdf of a white CDC card, and copy of a ticket out of France) to a certain email address. But if you were arriving after that, you were supposed to wait.

On August 12 they opened the admission process for a few more days, then pushed it further down the line every few days after that. Steve and I were overjoyed when on the Thursday before our departure (8/26), the French website said we at last could submit our documents. Within minutes we had uploaded them, but we heard nothing for days, up to and including the morning we arrived at Olivia’s. This was worrisome; we had tickets to a couple of museums on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a Friday morning train for Bordeaux.

We did have a backup plan in case our passes failed to show up. Testing stations like this are all over town, and if you get a negative test result, you can receive a 72-hour pass. But we wanted to avoid this particular hoop, if possible.

Exhausted from the flight, we took a nap Tuesday afternoon. When we awoke, the electronic vaccine passes were in our inboxes!

We loaded them into our Apple wallets, and Olivia helped us get them printed on paper as a backup. We had to use them for the first time Wednesday afternoon when the three of us made our way to the Place de la Concorde to visit the brand-new Hotel de la Marine museum (which reminded me more of the Palace at Versailles than anything else I’ve ever seen in Paris.) Attendants at the door demanded to scan our electronics passports, and the QR codes worked. We used them again Thursday afternoon when Steve and I went to the brand-new (Pinault Foundation) contemporary art museum that just opened in the renovated former stock exchange building.

Steve getting his digital vaccine pass checked in order to enter the Hotel de la Marine.

We showed them again them this morning and got blue wrist bands confirming our vaccinated status to get on the TGV. But we didn’t need them to get on the metro. Or city buses. Or into grocery stores or pharmacies or Monoprix or the sidewalk cafe where we had coffee and croissants yesterday morning. We did have to don a mask to enter all those places, and Olivia says technically everyone is supposed to mask up outdoors too. But only half the folks we see on the street are masked.

I feel confident that at least in France, any additional Covid hoops will be trivial — and probably non-existent at the wedding this weekend. Down the road there could be more. But the reality of what we’re seeing on the ground in France makes me think I shouldn’t worry much.

Two weddings and a tour of the teeny-tiny countries

If you’re reading this, it means Steve and I have managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, enter France, and make our way to the apartment of our friend Olivia in Neuilly, just outside the Paris city limits. We will have begun an adventure I began planning two years ago, inspired by an invitation to the wedding of Olivia’s older daughter, Annabelle. Originally, we expected to fly to Europe in May of 2020, but the Covid lockdowns forced everyone to cancel all their plans. When the wedding was rescheduled and a second wedding (of Annabelle’s sister, Marguerite) was set for May/June 2021, I rebooked everything. But a surge in case levels led the sisters to postpone their celebrations again.

Now we’ve made it into the country and are just four days from the first nuptials, which will take place in Bordeaux. The second event takes place October 9 in the south of France. In between Steve and I have planned a wide-ranging tour through some of the smallest countries on earth: Andorra, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, and Monaco.

We’ve both been to Vatican City before, and Steve made a lightning visit to Liechtenstein in 1974, but the rest will be new to us. The micro states stand out in other ways beyond their limited size. They rank among the wealthiest countries on Earth, and their citizens live longer than almost anywhere else (because prosperity and physical well-being go hand in hand?) They have oddball forms of government. Three are principalities, one’s a Grand Duchy, Vatican City is a city-state (Malta and San Marino are humdrum republics.)

We have to fly into and out of Malta (an island). But mostly we expect to get around on trains and buses and in a couple of rented cars. We smile at how this trip reminds us of our honeymoon 47 years ago. Then we tore around Europe’s Big Bruisers — France, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy. How different will it be to visit the pipsqueaks? We don’t know. But we are optimistic it will be interesting.

Cost of Living — at home

Yesterday I reported on Steve’s and my half-baked effort to compare the cost of living abroad in four countries — Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, all which we visited in May and June. My friend Anne read the post and emailed me an excellent question: What would a similar basket of goods cost here?

I didn’t know. Curiosity thus drove me this morning to my local Vons, where I was reminded again what a messy, imprecise experiment we had cobbled up. Still, I was intrigued by what I found. It was cheaper to buy the overall basket of goods in Pacific Beach ($24.04) than in any of the four Latin American countries except Guatemala, where it had been $21.94, as compared to $25.20 in Panama; $27.42 in Costa Rica; and $32.76 in Nicaragua. The booze made the Nicaraguan basket cost so much, but when I removed that from all the baskets, the total for the other American products ($11.83) still came to just a bit more than that for Guatemala ($10.85) and Nicaragua ($10.90) and was cheaper than Costa Rica ($14.88) and Panama ($15.70).

I found it even more interesting to focus on some of the individual items. The Colgate toothpaste from my Vons was cheaper than that we found in any of the other countries, $1.50 for a 113-gram tube versus between $1.68 to $2.90 for quantities between 90 and 100 grams. Coke cost the least here too, if not by a big margin.

On the road, Steve and I heard more than one complaint about how expensive life was. Our little comparisons sure confirm that and make it tangible. The gross domestic product per person in Guatemala is $4,619.99. It’s less than $2,000 per capita in Nicaragua — versus more than $65,000 per person in the US. Yet it costs almost as much to buy those eight products in all three places.

On the other hand, nowhere in the four Central American supermarkets did I find the range of products that confronted me in my Vons. Should I include the Optic White variety in my basket? The Baking Soda and Peroxide? The Cavity Protection? One of the dizzying array of other choices? If time is money, should I have added the decision-making into the cost?

It almost makes me want to stay out of supermarkets when I travel — or at least not to think so much about what I find there.

The cost of living

I thought I was done with blogging about our trip to Central America but then I remembered our cost-of-living experiment. I want to share that.

Early on, it struck me that Steve and I would be making lots of comparisons among the four countries we would be visiting (Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua). We expected the costs of traveling in them to vary. But would we get a good sense of how much it costs to live in each? We decided to be Scientific.

Our idea was to create a theoretical “market basket” of common grocery items. We would record the prices starting in Antigua (Guatemala) and later at supermarkets in the three countries to follow, then compare them. Would this give us insight into the daily challenge of keeping a Panamanian household versus a Nicaraguan one? We would see!

We had the most fun the first time we did it. Strolling up and down the aisles of a big supermercado we found near Antigua’s artisanal market, we scanned for essentials of modern living. The selection we came up with was:

  1. Toothpaste
  2. A bar of soap
  3. Toilet paper
  4. Powdered laundry detergent
  5. A can of Coke
  6. A bottle of vodka
  7. Bananas
  8. Kellogg’s cornflakes

Please note I’m NOT saying Steve and I are daily consumers of all those things. (I personally only indulge in Coke on the rarest of occasions.) But they seemed like reasonable representations of stuff folks everywhere buy often. And note that we did not actually buy these items — just wrote down what they cost.

The minute we started recording the prices, it became obvious we needed to be at least somewhat specific if we expected to make comparisons down the road. So we noted that 90 grams of Colgate toothpaste in the Guatemalan store cost 13 quetzals (roughly $1.68). We picked a brand-name bar soap (Dove, 135 grams for 14.5 quetzals/$1.87) and vodka (Skyy, .75 liter for 85.95 quetzals/$11.09), Coke (4.45 quetzals/57 cents for a 354 ml can) and Kellogg’s cornflakes (19 quetzals/$2.45 for a 530-gram box). But we decided to go with generic-looking toilet paper and detergent. Oh yeah, and bananas. How complicated could bananas be?

More than you might think — at least in Central America, where bananas come in multiple incarnations. For our Guatemalan “basket,” we recorded that the price of “criollo” bananas was 1.95 quetzals per pound.

A few days later, when we got to Panama and (eventually) found a large, modern supermarket, we saw that bananas (just one type, thank God) were priced both per pound (45 cents) and per kilo (.99 cents). But the Costa Rican supermercado we later visited in San Juan offered its customers a choice of banana types and, even worse, the prices were per banana. One for 40 colones/6.5 cents or 15 bananas for 350/56 cents) were the prices for the variety we arbitrarily selected. In Granada, Nicaragua, the price was 2.5 cordobas (7 cents) — again per banana.

Other challenges soon were making me feel grateful I don’t make my living collecting data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its Consumer Price Index. For example in Panama we found 530-gram boxes of Kellogg’s Cornflakes on the shelf — but ONLY packaged with 67-gram cans of Pringles potato chips! If you hated Pringles but loved your flakes, you were out of luck. Skyy vodka could be swigged all over Guatemala and Panama, but it was absent from the shelves of the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan markets we targeted, so we settled on Smirnoff. That only came in liter (versus three-quarter-liter) bottles, and it was labeled 35% (a lower alcohol content than the 40% of Skyy). While we could price a 354 ml can of Coke in Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua, in our Costa Rican market it exclusively came in 600mm plastic bottles.

Despite this jumble, I finally (last week) added up the prices in each “basket” and converted the total to US dollars. I can report that (including their admitted inconsistencies), the Guatemalan basket came to $21.94, the Panamanian to $25.20, the Costa Rican one to $27.42, and the Nicaraguan to $32.76. That shocked us given the fact that Nicaragua is so much poorer than the other three, even Guatemala. But then we realized that the Nicaraguan liter of Smirnoff’s was a whopping $21.86 (compared to $12.54 for the very same bottle in Costa Rica and less for the smaller bottles of Skyy). Subtracting the alcohol put the basket totals more in line with the economic stature of the countries (Guatemala $10.85, Panama $15.70, Costa Rica $14.88, and Nicaragua $10.90).

For me the bottom line is that these numbers aren’t very interesting — certainly not enough to justify the work involved in collecting them. That’s not to say I regret doing it. The whole exercise forced Steve and me to interact with supermarkets in a more focused way than we normally do while traveling. It also probably made me a bit more skeptical of the BLS’s Consumer Price Index (just because I’ve seen how daunting it is to try and make such comparisons.) Still, I have no intention of trying to duplicate our experiment on our next trip that takes us across the borders of many diverse countries. We’re scheduled to depart on that one August 30.

But that’s another story.

Traveling internationally in the time of Covid — some Qs and As

So why would you choose to travel around Central America during the pandemic?

Both Steve and I have confidence in the efficacy of the vaccines we received (Pfizer and Moderna) months ago. We had never been to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua before and were curious about all of them. And they were all welcoming visitors.

You’ve traveled a lot (to approximately 65 other countries, before these). How different was this trip?

In many ways, it felt like all our trips. We enjoyed it all, some things immensely. But some aspects were different — some better, some worse, and some just… different.

What was better?

Fewer crowds! In Guatemala’s spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal, we had the place almost to ourselves. We never had to think about making a restaurant reservation anywhere. That was pleasant.

What was worse?

Having to be tested over and over to prove we didn’t have Covid. These tests aren’t cheap. The two of us spent almost $200 for the antigen tests required by Panama and the United States. The PCR test demanded by Nicaragua was almost $100 apiece. Guatemala was the only place that let us in with no hoop-jumping other than showing our vaccination cards. (Gracias, Guatemalans!) Costa Rica required neither testing nor proof of vaccination, but it made us get certain insurance coverage in addition to filling out a complicated electronic form.

What fell into the Just Different category?

Seeing almost everyone wearing masks outdoors, virtually all the time, at least in Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, maybe 60% of people on the street were masked. Steve and I almost never wore masks outdoors, and the only time we were ever chastised for this was by a bossy American lady tourist in the central park in Antigua.

We couldn’t discern whether the almost-universal mask-wearing was required by law or simply driven by people’s fear of getting Covid. Vaccination rates are low everywhere we visited, and we sensed that many people are scared.

We were fascinated by the requirement in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama that businesses take the temperature of everyone entering their premises and make them wash their hands. This has spawned an entire industry of automatic temperature-taking and hand-washing stations, though many places instead had a worker aim a temperature-taking instrument at every entering arm. In most places, no one seemed to be paying attention to the numbers displayed by the alleged thermometers. But it may have made some folks feel safer.

One version of a hand-sanitation station. There were hundreds of variations.

Did anything surprise you?

Over and over we asked hotel workers and tour guides and other people in the travel industry what they did when their governments closed the borders and tourism evaporated overnight. One hotel manager started going out to work with his fisherman father. A tour guide at Lake Atitlan started picking coffee beans. Another dusted off his carpentry skills and made furniture. Almost everyone tried to adapt. They sounded shell-shocked.

The artesanal handicrafts market in Masaya, Nicaragua. In normal times it is jammed with tourists. Now the vendors have a haunted look in their eyes. We felt a bit like ghosts, an apparition from happier times.

Did you ever come close to dying?

Maybe. It happened when we were being driven to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. We had a good driver (Alfredo) and made good time from the cloud-forest where we spotted the quetzal. Only once did we encounter bad traffic, passing through a market town.

We were less than an hour from Rio Dulce when the cars in front of us stopped abruptly. Uh-oh. After a while, we got out of our air-conditioned vehicle; it felt like a muggy 100 degrees outside.We realized that a six-car crash had just occurred about three cars in front of us; people were still being extracted from the wreckage. Steve and Alfredo and I all shook our heads and cringed at the thought of how long we would likely be stuck in it.But minutes passed, and no police or emergency vehicles arrived, and cars in both directions began creeping past it.

We sneaked by too and arrived in Rio Dulce having been delayed by less than a half hour. At some point it occurred to me that we missed being in that terrible accident by less than a minute — probably closer than I’ve ever come to dying in a car accident in a foreign country. That’s a risk that scares me. But I’m not willing to stay home to avoid it.