A Travellerspoint blog

August 2019

France Opens 'Travel Eyes' of 18-Year-Old Backpacker

I finally start to understand travel is sometimes about meeting people

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It was getting on towards dusk when the ferry set me on the docks at Boulougne. So far, my high school friend Brian and I had been misfiring on our travel adventure in the summer of 1981. Three days ago, we'd left the United States as high school graduates eager to backpack across the world. We'd given our mothers gray hairs by declaring we weren't sure WHEN we were coming home.

Our foray into England had been a mess. Rain and dismal camping weather had driven us to abandon that country without seeing much. Brian was all for "rushing through Europe" and heading towards the third world. I felt as long as we were there, we should take some time to see Europe. The split came on the docks with me walking to the youth hostel alone while Brian searched for another thicket to spread his sleeping bag in. Sleeping under the stars every once in awhile is nice, I'd said, but sleeping with the bugs every night was too much.

It was in France, traveling alone, that my travel eyes really began to open. The next day, after purchasing an obligatory bottle of wine, loaf of bread and some cheese, I marched off along the coast. I spent a few afternoon hours on a beach in Ambleteuse deciding the French looked an awful lot like us. Still in my "sleep cheap" mode, I shuffled off to find accommodations as evening approached. The priest of the church pointed me towards a door, where I explained my "plight."

Within an hour, I was at a house eating a free dinner alongside a bunch of volunteer health care workers. Their building, which sheltered handicapped French men, had a spare bedroom and took me in. A Scotsman who worked there befriended me and suggested an evening cafe excursion. A night of wine and new friends made traveling look less bleak than it had a few days ago.

The next morning, with a free breakfast to add to my lodging, I was off down the road again. I fell in with an Algerian girl, both of us hitchhiking to Dunkirk. She was going to visit her brother and I wanted to see the famous beach from World War II. We got along well, so once we arrived, she invited me to spend the night at her brother's. It was a fun night. There was a music festival in the square. After listening for awhile, we decided (of all things) to go bowling. Her and her brother were up early the next morning. He was off to school, she was headed home and I walked to the Dunkirk Youth Hostel, where I'd spend the next evening. Knowing we'd never meet again, we hugged, and said our goodbyes.

That day I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of mementos of the famous evacuation of the British army during World War II. It was a nice beach, though, so I wasn't TOO disappointed. Tomorrow, my road would take me to Belgium. I was happy with my tiny slice of France. Hopefully, the road would continue to bring new friends, new sights, and new experiences.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:54 Archived in France Comments (0)

Pleasant (and One Scary) Memories of Luxembourg

Early taste of Roman ruins and animal encounters

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I visited this small, European country as part of my "hitchhiking across Europe" tour in 1981. Memories fade, but I remember the capital city where I spent my first night as a pleasant, clean place. I dined in an outdoor cafe with a Welsh guy I'd met when checking in at the youth hostel. We discussed each other's traveling plans and walked around, admiring different views the city. Luxembourg seemed like a very "livable" place.

The next morning I got a ride to Grevenmacher, a town near the German border. I believe its name comes from the number of ancient, I think Roman, graves and their markers on the site. I walked around and studied them, puzzling through the German descriptions as best I could. Strangely, one thing I do recall quite clearly is that the youth hostel owners had a cat. I remember awaking in the night to the sound of its purring -- like an engine in its throat -- getting louder and softer as it explored the roomful of sleeping travelers. I can still hear that weird sound as it slipped past my pillow in the stillness of the night.

I had a different sort of animal encounter the next day. I was hiking across the border to Trier, Germany. The road ran through a thick section of woods that gradually constricted to an almost tunnel-like passage. Just as I began to think how dim it was getting and how long it had been since a car passed, I heard rustling among the trees to my right. Some animal was moving through the dried leaves and underbrush. From the noise of its progress, it appeared to be going parallel to me. Was it stalking me? My first thought was, "Oh shit, wolf!" The rational part of my brain told me it was doubtless a squirrel. Alone, and on a dark road through the woods, is not where people are their most rational, though.

However, I never found out what it was. A car appeared behind me, going in my direction. I stuck my thumb out and it stopped. I hopped in and escaped the forest wolves and the country of Luxembourg altogether.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:50 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (0)

Friendly German Schoolkids Brighten Visit

Youth hostels in Germany were cozy & inexpensive places to stay

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The thing I remember most about Germany in the summer of 1981 was the friendliness of the school kids. Groups of them seemed to be in all the youth hostels I stayed in during my backpack across Europe.

The friendliest batch were the schoolgirls I met in Trier. They saw me inking in my sign for the next day's hitchhike and descended upon me. They peppered me with questions about the United States, eager to practice their English. Then, they decided they each wanted an American pen pal. To my friends back home eventual dismay, I described each of them in detail, offering them up. As one of the girls picked each one, I duly gave away their addresses. A girl from Hamburg became my pen pal and we wrote for quite a few years.

Besides Trier with its Roman ruins, I spent nights in Saarbrucken, Mannheim, Weinheim, Karlsruhe, Ulm and Memminghem. I think the best was the three nights (the max you're supposed to stay in a hostel) in Weinheim. The Rhine-Neckar valley around Weinheim was dotted with castles. I picked up a regional map at the tourist office that showed each's location. I hiked to them all, exploring their grounds, reveling in their stark, weathered look. These were the first castles I'd seen. As a military history buff, I was captivated.

The youth hostel itself was nice, too. There were only four bunk beds per room. Each pair of rooms shared a shower, although both had sinks for washing up. There were ping pong tables, a "walk on" chessboard and numerous other amenities. The cost in deutsche marks translated to $5 a night, which included breakfast.

On a less positive note, I remember a hungry Sunday in Memminghem, in Bavaria. I'd lost track of the day of the week and didn't exchange enough for the weekend. So, I had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my last few marks. I walked to all the grocery stores, checking prices and figuring out how to get the most food for my money. Lunch and dinner were bread, butter and water. Some may laugh and say "what kind of vacation is that?" However, I feel that inside each of us there is a soul that determines what kind of person we are. Privation, hunger and hard times can HONE this soul, make it sharper, clearer. The medieval monks felt the same way and fasted regularly. Anyway, I awoke the next morning eager to break my fast at the hostel's breakfast. Despite having plenty of food left over, they would not let me have "seconds." Each guest was given his strictly prescribed portion. The knot of hunger would not be untied until that afternoon, in Austria, when the banks opened and I could exchange money and gorge myself.

The strict and precise character of the Germans and their penchant for following the rules to the letter left a sharp memory. It impressed on me that, though we may look the same, there are distinct cultural differences between ourselves and people of different countries. That said, I can add that it reminds me of a joke I heard in the youth hostels. If a driver comes to a red light at an intersection in the middle of the countryside, and no one is around for miles, does he wait for it turn green? The answer: An Irishmen will never wait, an Englishmen will half the time, and a German will ALWAYS wait.

That joke, and the memory of the friendly school kids and castles of Germany, has stayed with me forever.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:39 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Bumps on the Road in Austria

Running out of Austrian schillings in the pre-Euro, pre-ATM days

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So far on my backpacking adventure, I had visited England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. I was on my way to Switzerland and decided to cut through the panhandle part of Austria. So, I spent two nights in Bregenz, Austria. Why? Well, you have to understand I really didn't know how to travel back then. I was 18, and never been out of the country before I graduated high school a few months earlier. I was simply following the Youth Hostel map, and making my way from city to city across Europe. To me, Austria was simply another country to tick off my list.

I was not in the habit of writing travelogues, yet. And I skipped composing one for Austria a decade-plus later when I created my Worldwidemike website. But now that I am transferring all those website entries over to my Travellerspoint blog, I decided to finally do one for Austria -- 38 years after the fact! So, what do I remember about Austria? I remember climbing a mountain (probably a hill) on the outskirts of town. I remember halfway up being passed up rapidly by an elderly Austrian man. I clearly remember thinking, "What the heck? I am young and this old dude goes chugging up past me like I am standing still!"

I also remember gorging myself in a McDonalds upon arrival in Austria. This was in pre-ATM days. You had to visit a bank to exchange money. As I was on my way out of Germany, I was budgeting my deutsche marks, but ended up cutting it too close and running out of cash. I spent a last hungry day in Germany, and then hitch-hiked to Austria the next morning. As soon as the banks opened in Bregenz, I exchanged my American dollar travelers cheques for Austrian schillings and took my new-found wealth to a local McDonalds. I was SO hungry! Travel was MUCH tougher back in the days before ATM and credit cards...ha, ha!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:26 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Switzerland the Final Stop on My Backpacking Adventure

Chance encounter with a friend I'd met earlier in Europe

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The final European stop on my post-high school, backpacking trip was Switzerland. I never wrote a travelogue back then, nor years later when I created my first website. So, the memories have dimmed over the years. What I do remember is running into a friend I had made at a youth hostel in Luxembourg. Our travels brought us together, again, and we went out celebrating. He was Welsh, and a Kiwi (New Zealander) went along with us. We explored different bars - one being an exotic dancer bar (much to our surprise). After wondering why the beers were so expensive, the "show" began. Three embarrassed teens absconded quickly. We also walked into a bar just as they broke out yodeling. We tried our best, but couldn't stop laughing, and turned around and fled, again.

Switzerland was also when I decided to cut short my European travels. It was Fall, and getting chilly. I had not packed any winter clothes. It was time, I decided, to begin phase two of my big, post-graduation adventure. I bought a one-way ticket on SwissAiir to Tel Aviv, Israel. I would spend the winter working on a kibbutz. I had read about them before leaving, and was eager to experience life in one. They were communities sent out to reclaim the land, living together communally, dining in a central dining facility, etc. The most important part was that they accepted foreign volunteers. Living there, all your food, lodging, work clothes, laundry, etc., were provided.

So, it was goodbye Europe, and on to new adventures!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:09 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Daydreaming on a Kibbutz in Israel

Self-feature article written in Journalism school ponders why I travel

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(Note: Instead of one of my normal travelogues, I am putting in an article I wrote about my stay in Kibbutz Shoval in Israel. I spent several months there, working among the kibbutniks along with a dozen or so other foreign volunteers. It was an excellent way to get to know the Israelis and to see the country -- I took trips to Jerusalem, the Red Sea, Masada, Dead Sea, and other places. I like this article, even though it is less travelogue than "mood piece," so thought I would "reprint" it for you.)

The desert glowed with orange as the sun sank towards the hills. It was winter, so the normally bare, sand-colored slopes were sprouting a five o'clock shadow of thick grass.

Where I come from, the land turns green in summer, not winter. The difference intrigued me for awhile and I set my foot up on the slick, marble bench. I had wandered here after spending Autumn traveling from one European country to the next. Many lands that I once thought only my imagination would soar to, my feet had now tread.

From the top of the rise, I watched the red sun. Out here in the barren lands, it seemed to move quicker. Maybe that was because it had so much more sky to cover.

It was supper time and I was waiting outside the kibbutz's central dining hall. A few residents drifted up the walkways. I nodded to those I recognized and mumbled, "Shalom." I had told a Finnish friend that I'd wait for her. She was a foreign volunteer on the kibbutz, like me. As I thought of her country, a new set of pictures flashed into my mind. I saw snow setting beneath a canopy of dark green pines. The stretches of sparkling lakes, the wide cheerful faces of the Finns and the stiflingly-hot but cozy saunas -- I pictured them all. I had never been to Finland, but fueled by Sari's stories, my imagination had.

My imagination had been to many places. As a matter of fact, it had driven me to take this trip. I remembered what I told a friend at home in Columbus, Ohio, as he asked me why I'd want to backpack across Europe by myself. "I want to be able to spin a globe and stick out my finger," I had said. "Where it lands, I want to be able to look at and say, 'I've been there.'"

Leaning my head back and staring at the pink sky, I realized I had already covered part of that imaginary globe. If my finger were to land in England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria or Switzerland, I could say I'd been there. And now, Israel. A grin spread across my face as I smoothed my hands over my "Arab shirt." White, yellow and orange spirals ran down the front of the brown shirt, from the V-neck to the untucked edges. The intricate threadwork shone in the red sunlight. Jerusalem, and the face of the portly Arab shopkeeper who had sold it to me, floated back. "You my friend," he had stuttered. "You kibbutz, you student, I give to you for 30 shekels."

Red sandstone crusader castles, swaying palms on the shore of the blue, crystalline sea and the scrubby thorns and view from the Mount of Olives were all images I would cherish of Israel.

Strangely, as I stared into the sunset, the strands of a song echoed in my head.

"Nights in white satin,
never reaching the end...
Letters I've written,
Never meaning to send."

I had heard the song last night in our improvised dance club. However, the pictures it had created were not of a love-torn man -- which I think the song is about -- but of something completely different. I had seen the wide, lonely desert and one figure moving across it. The white surcoat, gleaming steel helm and red cross on the shield stood out clearly. It was a knight in white satin. He was galloping across the sands searching for something.

Last night, I had attributed the dreamlike thoughts to the Maccabee beers and chill night breeze. The image came back with the song, though, and it seemed etched upon my mind. I could not shake it. The sheer romanticism of it struck me and I took a deep breath. Looking out over the reds and purples of the horizon, I felt myself searching for the knight

I sank into daydreaming. Why had my knight left Europe and wandered into the Holy Land? My fertile imagination began to film the story in my mind. I viewed his horse carrying him past pyramids down amongst the black-skinned people of Sudan.

Smiling, I thought of the pyramids. They were only a few hundred miles from here and it would be a shame to come this far and miss them. However, I had planned on going to Greece, first. Then, I hoped to go to Egypt and down south into Africa. Images of the Serenghetti Plains panned before my eyes. Lions stalking, giraffes loping across the hot ground, antelopes...all there for me to see.

The words of the song floated back, but now they had been changed slightly.

"Knights in white satin,
Never reaching the end..."

I felt my chest expand. Perhaps, that was it. I was the knight. Like him, I was fated to roam the wide expanses, searching. The thing I was looking for was less tangible, though. As a matter of fact, I don't know what it is. What made me want to see every place that to others was only a name on a map?

My thoughts shifted to my adventurous knight. Maybe there was a clue there. What eventually happened to him? I rested my chin on a tanned fist and scanned the panorama below me. The story unrolled in my head like a yellowed scroll stored away in a windswept abbey in the Alps.

I want to be able to spin a globe and...

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:47 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

High School Friends on a Weekend Idyll in Canada

A cabin on a lake in Ontario plus my best friends equals priceless memories

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The lake at sunrise

Want to see a motley crew? Well, when five high school friends and I spent a week in a cabin on an island in the middle of a lake in northern Ontario, things were bound to get pretty ugly. The scenery was gorgeous, though, as this view of the lake at sunrise shows.

The cabin was a cool little place to stay. There were several rooms, so with some creativity in sleeping arrangements, and with the liberal use of sleeping bags, we made do. Some of my better memories of the place were stargazing with a friend's telescope at night, pointing out Saturn, Jupiter and Mars to my friends, the daily games of frisbee golf, back and forth across the island, lounging in the lake on intertubes (with a separate intertube for the beer cooler, of course!), and simply spending time with my best friends.

The cabin on the lake

We did take time out from being lake bums a couple of times during the week -- once for dinner at the lodge across the lake, and another time for a trip into town to the Japanese steak house. Believe it or not, I am the short guy with hair on the right. Notice the oh-so-stylish pale blue pants and tinted glasses. Too cool. And hair! Contrast that with my picture on the home page for a laugh.

My high school friends all dressed up for our night in town

In case you're curious, from left to right, it is Todd Dove (whose Dad owned the island and cabin), Dan Stephens frowning in back (he didn't want his picture taken), Doug Lockhart posing in center, John Blum next to him (our Moms all LOVED John), Dave Hawkins behind John (the prototypical "Gentle Giant"), and of course, me. Yeesh! I can't believe I put this picture on my web page...

However, it was a week that will live in my memories forever. Sadly, I've lost touch with the gang. We still run into each other maybe once every couple years, but we don't all hang out like we used to. Hey, come to think of it, perhaps I'll see them all at our next High School Reunion...

The lake at sunset

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:26 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Scotland Serves Up a Feast for the Eyes

Remembering this as my most amazing trip, after all these years!

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Sunset on the Isle of Arran

What can I say about something which, a decade and a half later, still remains the most magnificent journey I've ever taken? "Trip" or "vacation" are too mild of words for the five weeks I traveled across Scotland. It was simply a feast for the eyes and heart. My favorite ingredients in a destination, History and Scenery, Scotland serves up in platters.

Russell, Tom and I left Columbus in late summer, splitting up or recombining during the five weeks as we each sought out corners of the country that enticed us. Our first stop was the Isle of Arran, off Scotland's southwest coast. We then hitched our way past Glasgow to the bonnie (and rainy) banks of Loch Lomond, to the port city of Oban, then on to the Isle of Mull. This stark, gorgeous island was my favorite. We rented mopeds, which, though not glamorous, are an excellent way to see the countryside. You can pull over at any time, whether to clamber across the rocks to a waterfall or hike to some ruins -- without having to find a parking space, like with a car. You are still close to nature, hearing the crash of the waves, smelling the flowers -- but you aren't exhausted when you finally arrive at your destination, like you might on a bicycle. It is a great combination of speed and experiencing the land.

Isle of Mull

On Mull, we saw castles, brilliantly-colored double rainbows, deep blue lochs and green, sheep-dotted hillsides. Side trips to the isles of Iona and Staffa brought somber images of ruined, windblown monastaries, Scotland's graveyard of its kings, and oddly-shaped caves on islets tossed amidst the cold, majestic sea. Back on the mainland, I lingered beneath the green slopes of Ben Nevis (Scotland's highest mountain), and ferried to misty Lismore and its shrouded Viking castle.

From there, it was across the water again to scenic Skye. Gorgeous panoramas greeted us there, especially hiking in the Quirang, which for all the world looked like a a mountain range trying to poke up through a billiard table. The hillsides were a closely-cropped olive color, with brownish rock peeking through. Low areas were covered with still, silvery lakes that reflected the hazy sky. Waterfalls plunged down the cliffsides to rocky beaches. We also hiked cairn-topped hills that gave oil painting-like glimpses of the dragon-backed Cuillen Mountains.

The Quirang, Isle of Skye

Another ferry from Skye took us further west to the remote Outer Hebrides and the isle of Harris and Lewis. We were drenched on our bicycle ride to the Standing Stones of Callanish. On the way, we roared at the sight of me "frothing at the knees," as old soap was worked into a lather in my soaked jeans by my pumping legs. We grew silent, though, as we approached the majestic stone circle. The spindly, 15-feet tall, grayish-white stones were arranged in the shape of a Celtic cross. The historical kicker is that it was built thousands of years before Christ. Callanish is every bit as impressive as the more famous Stonehenge, perhaps more so, because you can walk amongst the stones in relative solitude. As the sun came out, and we stood contemplating it, we were alone. Just the haunting landscape, an occasional gull, and the ever-present wind. Nothing further than the crowds on Stonehenge's Salisbury Plain could be imagined.

Standing Stones of Callanish

We made landfall at mainland Ullapool, splitting up again. Tom was off to the Orkney Islands, me to Strathpeffer, and then Inverness. I met Russell there, again. Together, we saw the city's sights, toured Culloden Battlefield, and then rented mopeds again for a day-long circuit of Loch Ness. The skies were sunny and the views beautiful: Ruined Castle Urquhart; mountain-clad Fort William at the loch's southern end; and late-summer greenery blooming on the hillsides.

I decided to hang on to the moped the next day, while cost-conscious Russell returned his. When I drove off, I didn't realize it'd be the last I'd see that trip of my companions. My sights were on a grand circuit of the Grampian Mountains. It was a fitting finale to my journey -- scooting through heather-clad hills ablaze with pink blossoms, exploring castles of different shapes and styles, and enjoying a day of Highland Games (caber tossing, bagpipes, highland dancing). I even spent a day with a Scottish Territorial Army unit, photographing and interviewing them for an article for my Army Reserve magazine back home.

Highland scenery, Grampians

When my grand tour ended back in Inverness, I hopped a train to Pitlochry, where I'd hoped to meet Tom and Russell. I arrived late to find them not there, and the hostel and bed and breakfasts all full. I was tired, and took the last train to Edinburgh, instead. When we pulled in, though, I made the decision to stay on board. It was an express that terminated in London. I was spent -- mentally, physically and monetarily. The last gasp through the Grampians had worn me out. I was ready for home, despite the fact our scheduled departure wasn't for another several days.

It was probably not a fitting end to such a magnificent feast of sights that Scotland had served up to me. Sometimes, though, the meal is so filling that you simply cannot stomach dessert. And oh, what a feast it was! A decade and a half later, I still remember it as my most sumptuous ever.

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:57 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

Deployment to Korea an Eye Opener for Young Soldier

A trip to the DMZ and neon Itaewon are highlights

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To be honest, I never wrote a travelogue for South Korea. I visited the country as part of my two-week annual training with the U.S. Army Reserve. We were taking part in an exercise to cover the yearly deployment of American troops to the Korean peninsula. Part training, part deterrent for the North Koreans. Though it was summer, I remember it being freezing cold at night and in the morning. Our large, multi-person tent that we slept in was heated by a diesel-fueled heater. We took turns filling up the diesel can and emptying it into the heater, and generally in the process ruining our gloves. Maybe that is where my hatred of all things diesel began!

It was a busy time, with little chance for sightseeing. However, we did get to visit Panmunjom - the armistice village in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) where North and South Koreans meet to hold talks. A line is painted down the village demarcating North from South Korea. The room where they meet even has a line painted down it. Armed guards watch your every move while you're there. You are warned beforehand it is not the place to joke around. You will be shot if you pretend you're going to cross the line. It was pretty awesome to see it, and hear about the History behind the place. The U.S. soldiers killed by North Koreans while trimming a tree near the line. The North Korean defectors that have sprinted across to freedom, sparking a gun battle as the North attempted to shoot and kill them.

We also got a chance to spend one evening in Itaewon, which was kind of a neon, bar district in the capital, Seoul. For a young man from Ohio, it was quite the eye opener. I had always thought the campus district of Ohio State University was crazy -- especially on a football Saturday night. This made campus look tame. The other thing I remember most about Korea was how beautiful the countryside was in the mornings. The mist cloaking the hills, the temples -- it looked just like a Japanese painting. As interesting as I found South Korea, it is crazy to think that I have not been back in the intervening three decades. Maybe one day. I am sure much has changed, but so, too, have the memories faded.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:17 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Deployment to Panama Interesting Trip for Young Ohioan

Squeezing in some sights and fun in down time

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Barracks, Camp Henderson

This trip hardly qualifies as a vacation. While in the Army Reserve, I spent two weeks in Panama and Honduras for annual training, or "summer camp." It was hard work -- long days, and not a lot of free time. Here is a picture of what our "camp cabins" looked like -- barracks at Camp Henderson.

However, it was wonderful for the memories. I still remember walking through downtown Panama City, when an Panamanian police truck screeched to a halt next to me and another unit member who were sightseeing. They ordered us in. We were thinking, oh great, kidnapped! But no, they were concerned we were in what they felt was a bad neighborhood, and simply giving us a lift to a nicer shopping area. And on the way to the nicer area, my irrepressible friend Van Kalvakis was trying to find something talk to the Panamanian soldiers about. Neither of us spoke much Spanish and they spoke little English. Van hit on, "Roberto Duran" (a Panamanian heavyweight boxer popular at the time), and the truckload of soldiers perked up, repeating the name. Ah, the memories...and the unintentionally funny things that happen during travel, whether it is as a civilian or military!

Beach near Panama City

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:13 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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