25 Years of Fun and Adventure at Travel Essentials

When Bob and I rolled into Ashland, Oregon in our orange Volkswagen bus 25 years ago, at the end of a five month honeymoon odyssey around the United States, it would be pretty safe to say that we didn’t think we’d soon move to Ashland and open up a retail travel store. In fact, it would be pretty safe to say that Bob and I had no idea what we might do in the future. We didn’t have jobs, didn’t have a place to call our own (outside of the awesome camper van), and hadn’t really thought much past our honeymoon. Oh youth, I miss you. We did know that we didn’t want to live in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area, and didn’t want to work for “the man.”

With no market research, and nary a thought about how one goes about opening and running a retail store, we decided to move to Ashland and open and run a retail store. Because, why not? We saw a tiny travel store on our big road trip, and knowing that we both loved to travel we thought, “hey, this looks easy and fun. We should do this.” So we pulled up the few stakes we had left in the Bay Area, rented a U-haul for the free furniture our families had gifted us, and moved on up to the quaint Shakespearean town of Ashland.

We leased a storefront in the old Anderson Pharmacy – across the street from our current location – complete with a soda fountain counter and stools in the back. I wish I had a photo of us from the first day we opened, but we were too busy making sales. Yep, we brought in $64.48 that day. So you’ll have to be satisfied with these photos of our honeymoon, because that’s what ultimately brought us to Ashland in the first place.

We quickly learned how to buy merchandise, and bought a seemingly huge amount of books and maps, which in hindsight filled about a quarter of the store. And we learned that when you own a small business, you are the buyer, you’re the salesperson, you’re the janitor, the seamstress, the decorator, the painter, the accountant, the clothes steamer, the newsletter writer, etc., etc. Easy and fun? – Fun definitely, but not always easy. But never too hard.

Amazingly, here it is 25 years later. We’re still the buyer, the salesperson, the janitor, the seamstress…..you get the idea. But we have a wonderful staff helping us out, so thankfully we’re not doing it all on our own. And I daresay, it has gotten easier and even more fun. Everyday we get to visit with great customers who recount their fascinating adventures. And we’re fortunate that we occasionally get to take outstanding trips of our own.

Buck Owens sang, “It takes people like you to make people like me.” And that’s the truth. What we do only works because of people like you who offer a remarkable combination of loyalty to their city and its inhabitants, and a passion for visiting and experiencing people and cultures around the world. And that’s quite a mix. Hats off to you all.

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Don’t Let Your TSA PreCheck Expire!

I am a busy woman, okay? I’ve got books piled up on my nightstand, waiting to be read. I’ve got a stack of New Yorker magazines gathering dust on the living room end table. There are recipes I want to try, hikes I want to take, and then there’s that pesky job waiting for me too. I tell you all this to offer up an excuse for why I didn’t realize until last Friday that my five year Global Entry membership expires in three weeks. Whoops.

I do vaguely remember getting an email about this some time ago, and I’m sure I told myself that there was plenty of time to renew. Well, time is now clearly running out for me to get my handy dandy TSA Pre-Check on each flight I take in the next few months.

Once I realized that my procrastination had gotten out of hand, I hastily got into my account on the Trusted Traveler website and filled out my online renewal. Among other things, I had to list every country I have visited since 2014. (Note to self: keep better records.) It’s possible I may have forgotten one country. Will this throw a wrench into my renewal? To be determined. After several screens of questions, I was able to pay my renewal fee of $100, and send in my renewal application. It’s unclear if I’ll have to do another in-person interview at a Global Entry office. It’s also unclear how long the renewal process will take. Some take a few weeks, others longer. It appears I might be able to keep my Global Entry membership while my application is under review, even after my current one expires. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

So if you’ve got TSA PreCheck or Global Entry – and if you’re a frequent traveler, why don’t you? – do yourself a favor and check the expiration date of your membership. Don’t wait until the last minute to renew. Let us hope the TSA gods shine favorably upon me.

Red Light District Tours Banned in Amsterdam

On our trip to Amsterdam last winter, Bob and I walked on more than one occasion through its “notorious” Red Light District. It’s so notorious that the first time, I didn’t even realize we’d entered it until we walked past a glass door lit up with red lights. I’ll admit, I still didn’t get it. Until we walked by a second door lit the same way. Then I clued in to what was going on. Quick on the uptake, eh?

Amsterdam is proud of its liberal attitude towards prostitution and soft drugs. Marijuana shops and prostitution legally take place right in the historic downtown area, with no shame or disgrace. From our Rick Steves guidebook, we learned that Amsterdam employs nearly a thousand prostitutes. Prostitution was legalized in 2000, and there are rules and even taxes.

On our second and third walks that included the Red Light District, I tried to pay a little more attention to my surroundings, and without staring, noticed that women of all ages work in the trade, and in most cases, appeared a little bored while waiting for work. Most were on their phones, texting or perhaps perusing social media or the news. It was way more mundane than I expected it to be. Granted, we were there in the middle of the day or early evening each time, and it was also the dead of winter. I’m guessing things get busier later in the evening, and when the weather is warmer as well. But most people passing through seemed to pay little attention to the workers.

Apparently, that’s not always the case, because as of January 1, 2019, Amsterdam has banned guided tours of the Red Light District. This should come as a surprise to no one, but gawking tourists are apparently bad for business. And an Amsterdam city council member says it is no longer acceptable to see sex workers as a tourist attraction. Overall, Amsterdam is struggling with the number of tourists in its city. Residents say it is increasingly harder to live and work there. Organized tours for the rest of the city have changed as of January 1 as well, with the maximum number of people on a tour being limited to 15, when previously the maximum was 20.

It’s A Nice Day for a White Wedding

When Bob and I got married 26 years ago, we had a very traditional wedding. I wore a beaded white gown with a long train, Bob wore a tuxedo, we had about 175 people in attendance, sitting respectively on the side of the bride and of the groom. We had the typical flower bouquets, wedding guest book with plume pen, first dance, and more.

I look back on that time, and although I wouldn’t say I have regrets (really Bob, I’m not saying that), I can say that if I had to do it all over again, I would likely do things a little differently. I’m not a beaded white gown with a long train kind of gal. Bob is not a tuxedo kind of guy. We’re really more of the backyard barbecue party throwing kind of people. But we—really I, because Bob seriously talked about a backyard barbecue at the time—felt like I had to follow along with how things are “supposed to be” rather than how I might have preferred them to be.

Thus when Bob and I were in San Miguel de Allende recently, and we came upon a wedding procession, being led by a mariachi band and a donkey, and with everyone dressed in decidedly non-traditional wedding garb, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous. Granted the soon to be newlyweds were about the age Bob and I are now, not the 20-somethings we were then. But I was still a little jealous.

We caught the parade as they ambled through Juarez Park early in the evening, with the band leading the way. In addition to the musicians and the donkey, the procession also included two Mojigangas, the giant puppets that accompany nearly every San Miguel de Allende procession, dancing along with the party. Once the group left the park and started walking along the narrow, cobblestone streets, car traffic stopped as the revelers danced their way towards a downtown restaurant. With the beautiful streetlights of San Miguel and its stunning architecture all around, it was quite a scene. We didn’t appear to be the only hangers on to the party. And I’m only a tiny bit disappointed that the family didn’t invite us in once they arrived. We did however, get to hear one final mariachi tune as the bride and groom and their families stood at the door of the restaurant dancing and swaying to the music. When we waved goodbye to them as they went inside, I wasn’t crying, my eyes were just watering because the procession kicked up a lot of dust into the air.

When Weather Delays Force a Change of Mind and a Change of Plans

Late last year, United Airlines offered a deal where you could book a winter trip to Europe for greatly discounted miles. As we didn’t have a trip organized yet, Bob and I jumped at the chance to fly round trip to Paris for 46,000 miles each (instead of the usual 80,000) last month. We figured we’d spend just under two weeks abroad, dividing our time between Paris and London. We bought round trip EuroStar “Chunnel” tickets to get us back and forth between the two cities. We also booked, and paid for, our lodging: a hotel in Paris and an Airbnb in London. And we were ready to go.

Unfortunately, however, weather conditions here on the West Coast threw a small wrench into our plans. Our departure coincided with the beginning of Snowpocalypse 2019, where much of the West received very wintery weather, including snow in Seattle and Los Angeles, and rain, wind and flooding in San Francisco, where we were connecting from Medford to Paris. We woke up on the day of our departure to a text from United informing us that our Medford/San Francisco flight had been cancelled, due to weather in SF. When I tried to rebook online, the United site said “we can’t find any flights to Paris for you, please call the United Help Desk.”  Uh-oh.

We called United, and they rebooked us on a flight out of Medford later that day, still through San Francisco. This meant we would miss the connection to our Paris flight, but we’d get onto another flight late in the evening, and arrive in Paris at 5pm the next day, instead of 10am. Not too bad, we thought. We’d still make our 8pm dinner reservations in Paris.

Well when we got to the Medford airport, about 50 minutes before our flight, we were informed, via text once again, that our second flight had been cancelled as well. We went for help to the United desk, and learned that the San Francisco airport had cancelled more than 100 flights that day, most of them the small planes from little airports like Medford. According to the agent, who was actually a really nice guy, only international flights were getting in and out. The cancellations were all “due to weather,” although the United agent told us that one runway was closed at SFO, which had nothing to do with the weather.

So what were our options? Ideally, we didn’t want to book another flight through San Francisco later that day, figuring it would likely be cancelled. United wasn’t willing to book us on another airline, as our tickets were “economy frequent flier.” Bob confirmed that if we had purchased tickets with cold hard cash, United would have been more willing to help us, even though, as he kindly pointed out to the agent, if we had enough United miles to book tickets to Europe, arguably, we are good United customers, and United should want to take care of their good customers. Unsurprisingly, Bob got nowhere with that observation.

Long story long, we were re-booked through Denver, for a flight five long hours later, where we had to spend the night (on our dime of course, as our cancellations were due to “weather”). We then flew out the next day to Paris, arriving 24 hours later, and losing one night of our pre-booked and pre-paid hotel.

It was disappointing to lose a day of our 12-day trip, and of course, it cost us money. But the truth is, there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We couldn’t get out of Medford any sooner than we did. We weren’t going to cancel our trip, and lose out on all the money we had paid for lodging in Paris and London, as opposed to just the one night. So we mentally recalibrated and decided that “it is what it is”. We stayed a night in Denver, and walked to a nearby bar & restaurant for a beer and nachos (not perhaps the French food we were expecting to eat), and were treated to a so-horribly-bad-it-was-good karaoke performance of “The Sound of Silence.” Oh, the irony. We wouldn’t have gotten that in a fancy Paris restaurant, that is for damn sure.

Money Does NOT Make the World Go Round – Food Does

There are so many things I love about travel, but as most of you already know, one of my favorites is food. I love to eat (no matter where I am), and if I can eat food from a different culture, I am a happy woman. Whenever Bob and I travel in different cities around the world, one of our first stops is always a local market. In my opinion, local markets have the best people watching, the most interesting stalls to browse, and, of course, the best food. I feel more like a local when I’m eating in a market, and the food never fails to delight me. Here’s a great example.

Last fall Bob and I spent time in four cities in Mexico; Mexico City, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Queretaro. In each, we sought out the local market to browse, people watch and eat delicious food. In many cases, we were the only non locals in the market. Although the prepared food stall workers didn’t speak much (if any) English, and we speak very little Spanish, we were able to communicate via pointing and gesturing as to what we wanted to eat. With little mistake, we received exactly what we wanted. We ate enchiladas verde, chile rellenos, huaraches, tortas, fish tacos, churros, and so much more. We sat with workers on their lunch breaks, kids out from school, families, business people on lunch, and very few tourists. In some cases, we could look at a menu that wasn’t written in English, but did have pictures. In other cases, we just pointed at whatever was being cooked, carved or served up, and said por favor. We used our Google Translate a few times too, hovering Bob’s phone over the Spanish words on a menu, and seeing the English-ish translation.

Another favorite was the Mercado de La Boqueria, a food market just off the famous La Rambla in Barcelona. Bob and I ate at the Kiosko Universal in the Boqueria several times during our week-long stay in this great city. I remember a delicious sautéed mushroom plate, as well as great octopus and french fries too. We watched locals bellied up to the bar and drinking cups of espresso, right next to others drinking small beers. Stopping in a market for a snack or drink appears to be a part of everyday life. If I had a local market with food stalls, I would certainly try to make it a part of my everyday life.

And then there’s Bangkok. Sigh. My completely unscientific survey suggests that Bangkok might have the most food markets of any city. All should be visited with a camera in hand and an empty stomach in tow. It felt like there was a food market on every corner in Bangkok, whether we were in the Chinatown district, on the river, or at larger markets where everything from kitchen appliances to shoes and clothing is sold alongside terrific food stalls. We tried hard to pace ourselves in Bangkok. We’d eat a little snack – or a big snack – then walk around a market or neighborhood trying to make room in our stomachs. Then we’d find another delecatible food stall and eat another little or big snack. This included everything from whole fish cooked over an open fire inside banana leaves to barbecued ribs. And everything in between. One day we took a break from our market meals and ventured down a different aisle where we ended up getting 30-minute long foot and leg massages. My idea was the food could travel from our stomachs, and be spread via massage all the way down to our toes, making room for more food. I really am a scientist at heart.

I also have deliciously fond memories of paella from a busy market vendor in the Dordogne region of France, Iberian ham and mozzarella on skewers at the 100 year old Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, fresh pineapple on a stick from a floating market on the Mekong River in Vietnam, and barbecued chicken at a beach market in Caye Caulker, Belize. If you wonder whether my travel memories are based strictly on the dining we’ve done in markets, you wouldn’t be far from wrong. The only time this makes me sad is when I’m writing this story in my cold office in Ashland, Oregon, while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread. Not, mind you, a bad lunch, but not really in the same category. Thankfully, Bob and I are on our way to France at the beginning of February, where we’ll be sure to seek our more food market stalls to enjoy.

Bellying Up to a Cozy Brown Bar in Amsterdam

by Robert Bestor

Think about those establishments that you have encountered over the years that have left you with fond memories. Perhaps they were warm and cozy. Maybe they were fun and friendly. Or maybe they were just simply comfortable, homey and efficient, and without fuss or anything faux. Amsterdam has lots of places that tick all the boxes above, and each has a very high likelihood of leaving with you with just such memories – the locals know them as brown bars.

Amsterdam’s brown bars have a long history (the oldest, In Het Aepjen, dates back to 1519!) and there must be hundreds of them, as on our recent visit to the Venice of the North, every time we decided it was time for a beer and a bite, there was one nearby.

Brown bars get their generic nickname from their wooden interiors. And in almost all cases that wood has developed a warm patina from years and years of daily cleaning and polishing, constant use and, until recently, lots of cigarette smoke. Thankfully indoor smoking was banned more than ten years ago – long enough that there isn’t even any residual tobacco odor remaining.

On a chilly night last January, Nancy and I found a couple of stools at the bar of Café De Dokter. While tiny in size, Café De Dokter is big in atmosphere. With about eight stools at its low bar and perhaps five small tables against the wall, there’s room for about 20 if everyone on hand doesn’t mind cramming in, or a little bump now and then when a fellow patron wants to move about the place. Opened in 1798 and known as Het Dokterjte (the Doctor) this brown bar is small enough for a single barkeep to keep everyone happy with beer, whiskey, wine, and snacks. The bar enhances its atmosphere with old jazz records played on an old record player, stuffed into a nook behind the bar. Also stuffed into a nook behind the bar is a small work area that houses a couple small wheels of cheese and some smoked meats that the barman slices and serves to order. He barely has room to move himself. 

We also checked out Café Hoppe, which we were introduced to by Zosia, the leader of our Hungry Birds food tour. Hoppe is larger than Dokter, but on our late afternoon visit, was just as crowded and vibrant with a clientele that ranged from a table of retirees who appeared perfectly at home, to business folk enjoying an after work tipple, and everything in between – even a couple of tourists (us!). Here we sampled jevener, which is Dutch gin. There are two types, oude (old) and jonge (young). We preferred the oude, but both are tasty and go great with a snack of olives and cheese. 

Brown bars, in a way, feel a little like a neighborhood clubhouse, and seem to cater to all its characters. And with their casual and unpretentious feel, they make a perfect spot to meet friends after work, or for a pre-dinner aperitif, or that final warm, languid nightcap at the end of an already memorable evening.

So when in Amsterdam, after you’ve marveled at the beautiful canals, houseboats and crooked buildings, and when you’ve finished strolling through the surprisingly tame red light district, and when you’ve dodged a few bicycles and made it to the dazzling Van Gogh Museum and the sobering Anne Frank House, you might just slip into a brown bar. It’ll be warm, cozy and friendly. And there’s sure to be one nearby.