How to Have Vacations That Are Epic and Fun!

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Several years ago, I bought some books on the “Greatest” places to visit in the world and “The Top 100 Places You Must See Before You Die.”  It was somewhat disheartening to realize that I would never get to all these places or the 185 countries in the world that I would like to see before the Grim Reaper gained on me.  To date, Karen and I have been to 35 countries, 49 States and every Canadian Province.

We both love to travel and when we were working time was a major factor in our vacation planning.  Now that we are retired, money is a limiting factor in how often we embark on an adventure to some new place.  Just like matter and energy being interchangeable, time and money are also interchangeable.  For most “average” folks, (average meaning that you are not in the billionaire category), you will appreciate the tradeoff and accept that a daily balance between money and time are facts of life.

These factors lead us to a very important question.  How can you maximize the enjoyment of a vacation given limits on time and money?  Over the years, I have learned two “secrets” that I am going to share with you.  I won’t charge you a single penny for them.  Both secrets have resulted in a fact that I am very proud of.  Every one of our twenty or more vacations to other places has been better than the last one.  Our first trip was about a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10.  We hit 10 on our next one and after that every vacation has been even more fun, more interesting, and more meaningful.  We are now up to a 30 on our scale of 1 to 10.

The First Secret:  Be a Pilgrim as well as a Tourist.

Most people who take a trip to another country are tourists.  Tourists are people who go to see famous sights and famous landmarks.  They may indulge in some cultural pursuits but generally they stay on the beaten path that is well worn by other sightseers.  You can find tourists coming off tour buses or cruise ships in crowds of 50 or more.  Someone may be leading them with a bright red umbrella, or a bright yellow flag hoisted high overhead.

Tourist+or+PilgrimThere is nothing wrong with being a tourist.  I would not think of going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or London without seeing Buckminster Palace.  Every country has famous places that are “must see” for anyone.  However, there is more to “seeing” a country than simply visiting Machu Picchu or The Little Mermaid.  That is where being a Pilgrim comes in.

A pilgrim insinuates themselves in the culture.  They become friends with local people.  They cook and/or eat some of the local foods.  They visit events and places that are not in the tourist guides.  For instance, when we went to Greece, we spent two weeks on the island of Naxos.  This was not a tourist destination for Americans at the time and was mostly regarded as a summer hot spot for students from the Scandinavian Countries.

We arrived on Naxos shortly after most students had returned to school at the end of September.  We rented motorbikes and a small apartment owned by the local taverna owner just a block or so off the beach.  In the day, we took our motorbikes all over the island visiting the numerous villages on the island.  In the evening, we sat outside the taverna and had fresh fried squid with a local brew and watched the sunset.  We got to know the owner quite well and each evening she would ask us to tell her about the places we had visited that day.  We were surprised to find that she had not ventured very far from home during her life.

After our appetizers at the taverna, we would go back to our apartment and cook some local foods that we had bought.  Much of the meat we purchased was from a nearby meat market. We often could not tell what it was we were buying.  We would point at a carcass hanging up and say ‘kilo” and show 1 finger.  We would then go back “home” and fry the meat and try to figure out what it was that we were eating.

We did not speak any Greek and most people we encountered did not speak any English.  Many Americans assume that “everyone” speaks English.  First, that is very arrogant and second, in rural areas of the countries that we have visited, it is simply not true.  We always take a dictionary with us wherever we are visiting.  In our last trip to Spain, we uploaded a translator app that sometimes worked quite well on our phones but often did not.  You should not assume that people will know your language.  Best to be prepared and try to speak the language where you are visiting.  Most people will appreciate your effort and respect.

Bottom line is you will have a more fun and interesting trip if you can balance some tourist activities with some pilgrim activities or events.  The key is the willingness to try something different and to go off the beaten bath.

The Second Secret:  Plan Events as Well as Places to Visit.

There are dozens of books regaling you with titles like:

  • The Ten Best Places to See in the World
  • 100 Places to Visit Before You Die
  • The Greatest Tourist Sites of All Time

All these books have one thing in common.  They are all guides to places.  Over the years, Karen and I have started thinking not only of places we want to visit but also events.  We went to the Tetbury Music Festival in Tetbury, England.  Karen sang in the choir during this event.  We participated in a Chinese New Year Dinner in Taiwan, the year that I taught there.  While visiting Quadrelle, Italy, we joined a birthday party to the Isle of Capris.  We went to Madeira for their fireworks display the year of the millennium in 2000.  We had read someplace that Madeira had the greatest fireworks display in the world.  The year of 2000 also was the year that people worried about “planes falling out of the sky.”  Obviously, our plane did not.

We have been to “dangerous” places and events.  One of my general rules of travel is to visit places where “Americans are NOT hated.”  I can take some dislike and I do not expect everyone to love Americans, but outright hatred as sponsored by some governments, forget it.  I can spend my money and time elsewhere.  By the way, two of our other travel rules are:

  • Visit someplace interesting and unique.
  • Look for a good exchange rate.

Visiting events is fun and informative.  You can learn a great deal about people from events and traditions that are practiced.  Many of the events that we go to have been in the USA and we have enjoyed them so much that we have been back several times.  Local events take less preparation and less money.

Following are a few of the events that we have attended.  Most are in the USA, but some take place in other countries as well as the USA.  For instance, I have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I would love to go to the one in Brazil.  It is on my bucket list of events.

I have organized some of our favorite events by month.  Unlike places, events are time sensitive.  One of my best loved events is the Iwo Jima parade celebrating the American victory over Japan on the island of Iwo Jima.  Every year in Sacaton, Arizona they have a parade and dinner commemorating this event.  One of the flag raisers in the famous picture was Sgt. Ira Hayes who was from Sacaton.  Because of Covid Iwo Jima days has been cancelled for the past three years.  It is a very moving experience and I am hoping to attend a few more times before I leave this planet.

January 

Chinese New YearChinese New Year.  Chinese New Year celebrates the beginning of a new year.  Chinese New Year is a feast of foods that will make Dim Sum pale in comparison.  It is held in January each year and the actual date varies from year to year.  Most Chinese communities will have some festivities around this date.

We have attended a Chinese New Year with friends in San Francisco and in Taiwan.  The Chinese Cultural Center nearby in Tucson, Arizona is having a New Year celebration this month which is open to the public.

Each Chinese New Year features a figure from the Chinese Zodiac.  This year the figure is the rabbit.  In Chinese culture, the rabbit is a symbol of longevity, peace, and prosperity.  2023 is predicted to be a year of hope.

Feb

fValentine’s Day:  The day we remember our sweethearts.  Forget getting a good restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  I have foolishly waited until the last minute to book reservations only to find that the best restaurants are usually all booked up.  If you wait until after Valentine’s Day, boxes of chocolates and the price of roses will go down.  One of our favorite venues for Valentine’s Day was the Glensheen mansion in Duluth.  They used to host a wonderful Valentine’s Day Dinner and tour there.  Not too often have do we get to eat a wonderful dinner in a famous mansion.  You may or may not know why the mansion is so famous.  The story is quite intriguing.

vMardi Gras:  Crayfish, Jambalaya, Cajun Music, Dancing, and of course purple and gold beads are all symbols of Mardi Gras.  The French name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, from the custom of using all the fats in the home in preparation for the fasting and abstinence that Lent traditionally would bring.  I say traditionally since I doubt many Christians pay much attention to the strictures that historically accompanied Lent.

Most large cities and even small cities in the USA will have some kind of Mardi Gras event.  A local pub in Frederic, Wisconsin has a large Mardi Gras event each year and is well attended by friends and neighbors who probably have no clue what they are celebrating.  The beer and alcohol flows freely at this event.

March 

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St. Patrick’s Day:  The day we celebrate the Saint who rid Ireland of snakes.  I wonder why he did not do the rest of the world.  I suppose some ecologically oriented people will put me on their hate list for that last comment.  But truthfully, how many people do you know that like snakes?  Anyway, the great thing about St. Patty’s Day is that you do not have to be Irish to celebrate.  People who don’t even know where Ireland is will be out in green underwear drinking green beer and saying, “Erin Go Wherever.”

Many large cities with a sizable Irish population will have an Irish parade.  These are always fun to go to.  Karen and I used to go to the parade and then to the Half-Time Rec in St. Paul, MN for Irish music, and some Irish food.  My favorite Irish foods are Irish Stew, Soda Bread, and Colcannon.  Washed down with a Black and Tan draft or a few Black and Tan drafts.  Where is my designated driver?

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April

Go Fly a Kite DayRemember the song from Mary Poppins.

“Let’s Go Fly a Kite” by David Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke, and The Londoners

Oh-oh-oh

Let’s go fly a kite

Up to the highest height

Let’s go fly a kite

And send it soaring

Up through the atmosphere

Up where the air is clear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite

 The third Sunday in April is “Go Fly a Kite Day.”  The spring breezes make it a great time to fly a kite.  Something there is about flying a kite that makes us all children again.  Even if you do not have a child to fly it with, it is a great way to loosen up; and forget the cares of the world.  “Go Fly a Kite” was once a way of telling someone to go away or get lost.  It is much more fun to fly a kite than to tell someone off.

If you don’t have a kite, buy one or make your own. You could make a box kite, or a traditional diamond shaped.  If you are not very creative, any large store will have kites on their shelves.  If you are not into physical activities, look for some kite festivals or events in your area.  I am sure that these will inspire and motivate you to fly your own.  Remember what Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

May

dKentucky Derby:  Louisville Kentucky is the home of the most famous horserace in the world.  Every year, thousands of people go to the Derby to watch the “Running for the Roses.”  Women dress up in their fancy hats and everyone has a bourbon drink called a Mint Julep.  The grounds have seen the likes of Secretariat and Seattle Slew.

If you do not have the opportunity to visit the actual Derby, there are many venues (Local restaurants and bars) that host the running of the race and offer the opportunity to bet on your favorite horse.  Neither Karen or I are gamblers, but we still manage to find a horse that we like and put down two dollars on it to Win.  Placing a bet makes it more fun to watch the running which takes about two minutes.  It is also great fun to watch all the people.

June

debDemontreville Retreat:  Every year now for 39 years I have attended a silent retreat at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat Center in Lake Elmo Minnesota.  What started as a weekend to vacation ended up being one of the most important events in my life.  You do not have to be a Catholic to attend this event.  The retreat house has been hosting three-day silent retreats for over seventy years now.  They host 50 of these retreats every year and they are men only events.  They start on Thursday night and end on Sunday night.  No one who attends will deny that they are a life changing event.  I do not care if you are Muslim, Baptist, Mormon, or even an Atheist, you will find that this event will have a profound impact on your life.  It should be one of the World’s Greatest Events.

July

ffff4th of July Celebration:  My good friend Dr. Hana Tomasek and her husband Yara escaped in 1964 from the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia (Now Czech Republic) to the USA.  No one in America was prouder of becoming a US citizen.  Each year Hana and Yara celebrated the 4th of July with a picnic, barbecue, and a hired music band.  The highlight of the ceremony was a speech by Hana on how glad she was to be in America and how much she loved the life and freedoms that this country had given her.

Hana died a few years ago.  Yara many years before that.  I miss Hana and I miss her speeches and her 4th of July ceremony.  I have never been a staunch patriot.  I like the quote that “The last refuge of a scoundrel is patriotism.”  Nevertheless, no one could call Hana and Yara scoundrels.  She lived in a country where the freedoms that we take for granted were practically nonexistent.  Sometimes you must go through difficulties before you can appreciate what you have.  I wish everyone shooting off their fireworks would go to a 4th of July celebration where the real meaning of America was evident.  It does not lie in firecrackers or the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner but in a realization that “Freedom Is Not Free” and that freedom has responsibilities as well as rights.

August

MBOTMA:  This funny looking and funny sounding acronym stands for Minnesota Blue Grass and Old-Time Music festival.  Held each year in rural Minnesota, nearly 5000 people spend four days camping and playing blue grass and old-time music.  A wide assortment of acoustic and sometimes not acoustic instruments is used by bands and individuals in their playing.

mbotma rrrr

The festival has several bandstands with live performances all day long by some of the best musicians in the country.  There are also tents for dancing, jamming, music classes and activities for younger kids.  It is a family-oriented event.  The musical performances continue well into the late evening when the jams typically start.  About sixty percent or more of the people who attend this event play some type of instrument.  What is truly unique about this event is that for most of the attendees it is more about the chance to play with other musicians during numerous day and night time jams.  A jam is an informal group of musicians playing together. Musicians would rather play than watch and some people never attend the stage events because they are so busy playing with friends and others at the festival.

Sept

20211010_191356John and Karen’s Anniversary:  It is probably narcissistic to list our anniversary as one of my favorite events.  Karen and I were married on September 5th, 1989.  We did our “honeymoon” earlier that year by going to mainland China for three weeks.  We left China a few days before the Tiananmen Square massacre which occurred on June 4, 1989.  The protests had already started when we landed in Shanghai three weeks earlier.  They closed the airport the day after we left.  It was very interesting being in China during this upheaval.

Every year we try to do something unique and interesting on our anniversary.  We have had several parties, taken many trips, and gone to numerous other events as a way of celebrating.  This year will be our 34th anniversary and we are going to South Africa to be both tourists and we hope pilgrims.  If you would like to celebrate our anniversary with us, simply find and friend us on Facebook.  Karen has become our trip photographer and posts a sort of running commentary on our vacations.  I am sure that this trip will be special since she selected the destination.

Oct

deaDía De Los Muertos:  When we first came down to Arizona in 2008, I had never heard of Día De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead.  Upon seeing more of the trappings of this Mexican celebration of the dead, I fall in love with the festival.  Unlike Halloween, which is about witches, warlocks, zombies and other hideous symbols of death, Día De Los Muertos is a festival to remember the loved ones in our lives who have passed away.  It is a joyous remembrance of death and not something to fear.  Traditionally, an altar is created, mementos and pictures of loved ones are placed on the altar.  In addition, breads and some pastries are arranged on the altar so that the deceased has something to eat.

There is a four-day Day of the Dead festival in Tucson culminating in a parade on the first Sunday of November that everyone is invited to join in.  Karen and I have been several times to watch the parade and join some of the festivities following the parade.  Over the years, the Day of the Dead has grown in popularity.  What was mostly a Southwestern Mexican festival has almost become a national festival.  It really took off in the USA due to the recognition when Disney made the animated film Coco about a little boy looking for his ancestors.  One of these days I would like to go to Mexico City for the festival.

Nov

Macy’s Day Parade:  Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I used to watch the Macy’s day parade every Thanksgiving without fail.  Of course, we never ever considered going there.  If you lived in Brooklyn, you would not ask “Why not?”  Years later, I suddenly decided I wanted to go to this event.  But I wanted to go as a pilgrim not just a tourist.

macysffffI thought about the situation and realized that there must be tickets for the parade as some people got to sit in the review grandstands where the performers stopped and put on a little show.  Most parade goers simply observe the parade as it passes down the avenues and streets of Manhattan.  I wrote to Macy’s and inquired whether I could buy tickets.  I was willing to pay almost any amount for a ticket.  They informed me that tickets were not sold but given out to “special” people.

I then went down to the local Macy’s in Bloomington at the Mall of America and asked to speak to the store manager.  I inquired whether any employees in the store had received a ticket and offered to buy any that they might want to sell.  They only had to name the price.  He informed me that he did not get any tickets and did not know of any employees in the store who did get a ticket.

I was not ready to give up.  I went on Craigs list and made known my desire for tickets to the Macy’s Day parade for the upcoming Thanksgiving.  A few weeks went by and I was about to give up.  Then one day I received an email.  A buyer for Macy’s (Lauren Telep) had two tickets.  I contacted her and asked her “how much.”  She replied, “I will give them to you no charge.  You can sit with me and my mom.”  She explained that as a buyer for Macys she was given a number of tickets every year and this year, a few of the people she regularly gifted with tickets could not go.  I accepted her very generous offer and we have become friends and been communicating for many years.  She is a wonderfully generous person.  But that as Paul Harvey might say is not the end of the story.

Karen and I flew into New York from Minneapolis two days before the Macy’s Day parade.  We booked reservations at the New Yorker.  We spent some time in NYC just sightseeing.  The morning of the parade, I went out to run.  The hotel lobby was full of people in some type of uniform.  I ignored the people and did my morning run.  Upon returning, I grabbed a coffee and decided to see where all the people were headed.  I walked up the stairs to a large ballroom with a table and security guard outside.

Now I am sure that you have heard the saying that there are three types of people.

  1. The first type does not even know that there is a parade.
  2. The second type watches the parade.
  3. The third type is in the parade.

The people in the lobby and in the ballroom were the third type.  I was only type 2.  The lobby people were volunteers to perform various functions in the parade like holding balloons or carrying signs.  As I approached the ballroom, the security guard stopped me.  He informed me that without a pass, I could not get into the ballroom.  The people in there were getting the costumes that corresponded with their various assignments.  I asked him how I could get a pass and he referred me to the table with the people sitting behind it.  I went up to the table and inquired about getting into the ballroom.  They told me that I would have to be on their volunteer list.  They explained that if I was interested in being a volunteer for the parade, I had to send in a request several months before the parade and generally most people would be accepted.

So, there you have it.  If you want to be in the parade and not just watching the parade, you must go that extra mile or so.  Nobody is going to find you unless you are seeking.  However, not all those who seek will find but no one who does not seek will find.  That is for sure.

December

massMessiah Sing Along:  I do not sing.  In third grade, I was in a group of children who were assigned to sing for some reason which I no longer remember.  What I vividly remember is being with the other kids and merrily singing out when the “conductor” or teacher who was guiding us suddenly screamed out “Who is making that awful sound?”  She pointed directly at me and said “You, don’t sing.  Just open and shut you mouth, but I don’t want to hear anything coming out of it.”  I have not sung a note since that day.  The feeling still gives me goose bumps and shivers.  I have never been so humiliated in my entire life.  Please don’t tell me to get over it.  It is much easier to just keep my mouth shut and let others do the singing.  Which brings us to the Messiah.

I am sure you know the Messiah.  It is an oratorio by Handel covering the birth of Jesus.  It ends with the famous Hallelujah Chorus.  Every year some church or community group will organize a Messiah singalong during the Holiday Season.  My wife Karen has been singing in choirs since high school.  She has a lovely voice and enjoys attending these singalongs.  I go along with her.  I do not sing but I love the music.  Perhaps I enjoy music more than some people because for much of my life, it has seemed off-limits.

If you have made it to the end of this blog, I want to thank you for your patience.  I owe you a denouement.  It is simply this.

  • Be a pilgrim as well as a tourist. You will get more out of life.
  • Don’t go through life with only with a bucket of list of places to visit.  Make a bucket list of events as well.

If you have another minute or two, I would enjoy hearing about a few of the events that you love or that you would recommend for others.  Type them in the comments section. 

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