Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A story about kindness

Travel can be challenging under the best of circumstances, so kindness to others is paramount. While I always try to smile and be pleasant--the least I can do--I've been the recipient of someone else's kindness many times, including this incident from several years ago. 

Sometimes we don’t even realize that we need help. Then an angel appears in the most unlikely of places. For me it was Miami International Airport, a huge complex of terminals filled with masses of humanity from many nations, all trying to navigate through unfamiliar territory.
Familiar views in Old Havana
After the embargo on travel from the United States to Cuba was lifted, we embarked on a people-to-people tour to better understand a country that had been off limits for more than half a century. During nine days on the island our organized group traveled more than 1100 miles, learning about life in Cuba through various conversations and activities.

The trip was educational and enjoyable—until our arrival in Havana, our last stop before returning to the United States. There, my husband Larry was hit with a horrible bout of food poisoning. By the next day, half of our travel group had succumbed to the same malady.

A trip to a Cuban hospital confirmed that he had no serious medical problems, so he was dismissed without receiving any antibiotics or intravenous fluids that might have hastened his recovery. His stomach eventually settled, but he remained extremely weak, sleeping in our hotel room until departure day.

Square in Old Havana, Cuba
When we arrived at the Havana airport, I requested a wheelchair, but the only two available had already been given to other passengers. Our guide managed to move us to the front of the check-in line, and a couple of compassionate American tourists let us move ahead in the security line.
Getting through the required procedures was still an ordeal. The wait was long—flights originating in Cuba can be unpredictable—and the plane ride to Miami was noisy, stuffy, and bumpy.

As I watched Larry’s stamina evaporate, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to walk through the Miami airport, stand in a long line for immigration, and then fly back to Austin. I envisioned him passing out on the floor of the busy terminal and me hovering over him--useless.
So when the plane landed in Miami, I asked the flight attendant if we could get a wheelchair. Because I had not requested it prior to landing, we had to wait awhile. We disembarked and sat on an empty bench in the hallway.

Eventually a small, thin man arrived pushing an empty wheelchair. Although I expected him to drop it off and for us to take over, he had no intention of leaving. Quickly and expertly he positioned my husband and our small suitcases on the mobile chair and said, “Follow me.”

Tired and bedraggled, I did as told. Then we walked…and walked.

It’s a long way,” said the man I named Angel in my mind. That was an understatement, but fortunately he knew exactly which corridors to take and where the elevators were located. Even though he knew how to avoid long lines, the process was still arduous.

Maneuvering a wheelchair through an airport can be challenging.
Once through immigration, another ordeal began. Dehydrated and limp, it was clear that Larry simply couldn’t manage another flight that day, so we needed to change our return flight. Angel took us up and down elevators, helped us claim our baggage and wander through more terminals, and finally led us to the appropriate ticket counter. More waiting and checking schedules, but yes, there was a flight available the next day.

Our relief was short-lived as Angel then mentioned that it was Spring Break and a big concert was scheduled in Miami that evening. “Make sure you can get a room before changing your flight,” he warned.  Accommodations are really booked up.”

“Oh, really? How do we accomplish that?” I asked as a twitch worked its way across my face. Spending the night in the airport was simply unthinkable.

We went back to the baggage area where a kiosk was set up with phones and hotel numbers, so passengers could make reservations directly. At least that’s how it usually works.

I punched all the numbers, receiving one frustrating “Sorry, we’re filled,” response after another. When I finally found an available room—at a stiff price I’d never pay under other circumstances--I just said “Thank you” and sighed heavily. Even better, the hotel had a shuttle, so we didn’t have to search for transportation.

Miami International Airport is one of the busiest in the world.
And it is very large. 
But the flight change we inquired about earlier was never actually booked. Tired and thirsty, we trekked upstairs again to the ticket counter, hoping the original agent, who had offered to rebook without charge on medical basis, was still there.

By this time Angel had been maneuvering the wheelchair and our bags around the airport for more than two hours. Although I attempted to help, he took charge. Humbly, I followed.
Finally, with the new flight booked, we headed back downstairs, called for the hotel’s shuttle, and waited for the van to arrive.

During those few minutes of relative calm I realized how necessary Angel had been during this difficult situation. I was exhausted physically and emotionally and could never have managed without his help and patience, not to mention his knowledge of the airport’s layout and procedures. Angel’s capable, guiding presence was a kindness I’ll never forget.

Photos from Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Another way to see Antelope Canyon

In addition to walking through Upperand Lower Antelope Canyon, which must be done on separate tours, visitors to Page, Arizona can take a pontoon boat ride on Lake Powell that goes through above-ground portions of the canyon.

Canyon walls on boat tour of Lake Powell
 Panoramic scenes of red rocks and white limestone fill the senses as the boat navigates deeper into the canyon, gliding between jagged sandstone and limestone precipices, outcroppings, and domes. It’s another way to appreciate the area’s fascinating geology.

Antelope Canyon widens as it approaches Lake Powell, the largest man-made lake in the United States, which was created when Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1966.

Rock formations are a study in geology on the water.
As the boat follows the lake, it eventually turns into numerous side canyons. Actually there are 94 canyons along the lake, which can be further explored by boat (your own or rental), kayak, or a tour such as we took. 

Most boat tours start at Antelope Point Marina, a destination filled with rental houseboats and surrounded by stunning scenery. You can ride a golf cart from the Visitor Center to the dock or walk a long ramp if you want more exercise. Most tours last about an hour and go to a turn-around point, which varies depending on water level.

Sheer cliffs reveal clear strata of rock from the ages.
In addition to a pleasant boat ride, you’ll experience Antelope Canyon from a different perspective—the water side. From the Marina, the boat goes down lake along the Colorado River’s original channel to the canyon opening surrounded by sheer red rock cliffs. In contrast to light streaming through narrow slots of Upper and Lower Canyons, you’ll enjoy the soaring Navajo sandstone rock walls on either side of Lake Powell.

A beautiful starting point for additional discovery of Antelope Canyon
While this can be a stand-alone tour, it’s possible to purchase a triple ticket that bundles both slot canyons and the boat ride—and, if you plan well, you can do it all in one day. This will certainly be a memorable visit to one of the most photographed places in the Southwest.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The magic of Antelope Canyon

Page, Arizona is known as home of the Navajo reservation, gateway to Grand Canyon National Park, and a houseboat haven with a variety of water activities on Lake Powell.  In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the region as people who love and appreciate nature’s magnificence have discovered Antelope Canyon.

Magnificent colors of Antelope Canyon 
A slot canyon located on Navajo land just a few miles east of Page, Antelope Canyon includes two separate, photogenic sections—Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. As a popular destination for sightseers, it has become a source of tourism business for the Navajo Nation. In fact, Antelope Canyon can only be visited on tours guided by Navajo-licensed guides.

A canyon is formed
Carved from the same sand and waters that flowed into the Colorado River and created the Grand Canyon, the walls of Antelope Canyon have been sculpted into clearly defined strata and graceful curves. These undulating formations provide the canvas where streaks of sunlight glow in kaleidoscopic patterns on the rocks.

Wave formations on rocks in Antelope Canyon
Erosion has worn the rock walls into beautiful and diverse sculptures, and every season offers different views according to the angle of the sun in the sky. When the sun is high in the sky—mostly during summer months--light beams shine through the narrow slots and radiate in brilliant colors. Yellow, orange, pink, blue, and purple hues gleam on canyon walls creating magnificent spectacles of varying shapes, textures, and colors. It looks as though a magician waved his magic wand around the canyon and splashed the walls with vibrant paint.

Upper Antelope Canyon
Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon

Jagged slot formations in the Upper Canyon
A jeep ride through Antelope Basin, a dry creek bed that typically floods at least two times a year during monsoon season (June to late October) limiting access to the canyon, takes visitors to the canyon’s entrance. Of the two canyons, Upper Antelope is shorter and wider.

It seemed dark inside until our eyes adjusted to light filtering through the slots and illuminating geometric designs on the canyon’s walls. As we walked through many of these slots, the patterns changed constantly, almost overloading our senses with vibrant colors and shapes I would never have thought possible in such a canyon.

Horizontal and vertical layers of rock absorbed the sun’s rays and reflected them back in nature’s artistic handiwork. Our guide shared specific names given to certain rock formations. Blue-streaked rock walls curved against glimmering orange and yellow outcroppings begging for photos, and we obliged.

Walking through the Upper Canyon is a magical experience.
Because the Upper Canyon is so popular—and crowded--special photography tours that required a tripod were discontinued in December, 2019. But it is possible to take remarkable pictures with a hand-held DSLR or point-and-shoot camera, or even a smart phone.  Although we did the photography tour on our first visit, when we returned a few years later, I primarily used my phone to take pictures.

Lower Antelope Canyon

Visitors walk down ladders to enter Lower Antelope Canyon.
We also toured Lower Antelope Canyon, whose underground recesses are accessed by climbing down a ladder.  During the tour, five ladders enabled us to explore different levels of the canyon, which was filled with more natural light than the Upper Canyon. While it's slightly more difficult to maneuver in the Lower Canyon, it is still very accessible for most people.
Light illuminates the rock walls in
mysterious ways.

Numerous narrow passages required squeezing between canyon walls, but I did not feel any claustrophobia. We were also allowed to touch, even sit on the Navajo sandstone, either for picture ops or just curiosity. Many tours left a spaced-out intervals, so we had to keep a good pace, but we still had enough time to marvel at the sights and take hundreds of photos.

Exquisite beauty of the Lower Canyon 
Rock formations seemed even more craggy and light displays on canyon walls more vivid in the Lower Canyon. Every step was a “wow” moment as curves, lines, angles, and waves of rock created constantly changing backdrops.

Change where you stand, and the light-filled scene at a given spot changes as the sun moves. We had to remind ourselves often to turn around and look behind us as well as to look up. 

Be sure to book tours online in advance of your visit as they sell out quickly.
Beverly exiting the Lower Canyon

Antelope Canyon is a place you can visit many times—each bringing a new experience. And that's what makes it so magical.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, June 12, 2020

On being kind when traveling

Travel can be fraught with all kinds of unfortunate happenings, maybe as simple as needing directions back to your hotel or as traumatic as needing help navigating a foreign medical system during a serious illness.

I’ve been the beneficiary of several travel angels during decades of hop-scotching across the planet and will share a few of my stories in future posts. In the meantime, here are ways others have shared good will, which might inspire you to look for opportunities to be someone else’s angel.

The science behind random acts of kindness

A recent survey by Dignity Health, one of the largest health systems in the United States, found two out of three Americans say that a smile or greeting from another traveler would make them feel less stressed while traveling. A majority of travelers (75%) say they've done something kind to make another traveler's day better.

"Kindness also eases anxiety, which is usually already elevated when we travel during busy times like the summer season," says Sara Whatley-Dustin, a physician from Camarillo, Calif.

And that's particularly true for this summer, when there's so much uncertainty and fear. Travel angels are a much-needed part of flying, driving and cruising.

It isn't just travelers who are committing random acts of kindness as the stressful summer travel season gets underway. Travel industry employees are also showing their charitable side. Maybe it's time to recognize these unexpected acts of humanity.

Employees are travel angels, too

Jess Ekstrom, a professional speaker from Raleigh, N.C., remembers arriving in Philadelphia late one night. She waited for the car rental shuttle outside the terminal. "It was dark, the waiting area wasn't well lit, and I was standing by myself," she recalls. She felt unsafe.

"An Enterprise shuttle came by, and the driver parked his shuttle and waited until the right shuttle pulled up so I wouldn't be standing out there alone," she says. She says she'll always rent from Enterprise.
Sometimes the travel angels work in the lost-and-found department. They did at the Staybridge Suites Rapid City when one young guest lost a beloved stuffed giraffe. The hotel's general manager, Patricia Redder, says her team went to great lengths to find the owner. 

"We posted the information to Facebook, hoping that the owner had liked our page or that someone who knew the owner would see our post," she says. "Within an hour or so, someone saw the post who knew someone who knew the owners." And the hotel reunited the giraffe with its young guest, who was delighted. 

Have you met an angel during your travels?

Silvana Frappier recently offered to help a fellow passenger on a flight from Boston to São Paulo by way of Miami. The woman was overwhelmed by the stress of travel and quickly handed her three-month-old to Frappier, the owner of a video production company in Boston. She promised to help the woman when they changed planes in Miami.
Crew members noticed her random act of kindness. She received a boarding pass in Miami with a free upgrade to business class. "A flight attendant told me that they'd noticed my kindness and that they wanted to pay it back with kindness," she remembers.

Random acts of kindness 

I met a travel angel, too. She owned the Vrbo apartment I rented in Nice, France, last March. When the pandemic struck, Luisa canceled all of her upcoming reservations so that my kids and I had a safe place to wait out the lockdown. She checked up on us regularly to the point where my kids started to call her Aunt Luisa. She was the best.

Mollie Krengel, a frequent traveler who curates a travel guide website, says in today's world, random acts of kindness are contrarian and even surprising. 

"It reminds us that humanity does exist," she says. "It proves the exact opposite of what is reported on the news each day. When you travel, you realize how wonderful people truly are."

You can be a travel angel

Spread the love. If you have elite status, consider giving other passengers some of the riches. It happened to Jamie O'Donnell, an event planner from Orlando, on one of her first flights after graduating from college. Out of the blue, a ticket agent handed her a first-class ticket. Turns out a stranger had quietly redeemed on her behalf an upgrade that was about to expire. She'll never forget the kind gesture. "I had never flown in first class in my life, it always seemed so out of reach, like something I would never be able to do," she says.

Pay it forward. One easy way to do good is to pay for a stranger's food or beverage. That's what Nicole Sunderland, an Instagrammer from Washington, D.C., does. "When I get a coffee, I always pay for the person behind me without them knowing," she says. "Someone did it for me years ago and I never forgot how it made me feel." 

Go above and beyond. If someone asks for help, consider going the extra mile. Catherine Gregory remembers flying into Lima, Peru, a few years ago. "I asked the Peruvian couple next to me on the plane for advice on how to navigate the taxi situation," recalls Gregory, a writer from Portland, Ore. "To my surprise, they didn't just give me instructions. They brought me through customs and rode with me in the taxi, making sure I got inside the hotel before they continued home. I'll never forget their kindness in going above and beyond."

Article by Christopher Elliott, whose latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

Images from free sources

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Post-pandemic travel planning

Study shows U.S. travelers are dreaming about the Maldives, Greece, and Fiji.

With coronavirus travel restrictions still in full swing, vacations are starting to feel like a distant memory.

Airlines and global travel companies continue to postpone tourism activities amid the pandemic. However, many people (including me!) are still dreaming about their next big getaway.

The experts at InsureMyTrip have reviewed data using Google search trends to find out which destinations U.S. citizens are planning to visit once restrictions have been lifted. The data was collected for each state and the country as a whole from Google Keyword Planner .
Sandy beaches, turquoise water, and warm weather
made the Maldives a dream vacation spot. 
Of the top ten nearly half of the destinations are in the Caribbean (Aruba, Bahamas, Costa Rica, and Jamaica).  With North America accounting for 53% of its visitors in 2019, it’s clear the islands are still a favorite with the U.S. population.

Interestingly, the Dominican Republic does not make the top ten, even though 29% of the recorded U.S. visitors traveled to the island last year. It is rated the 20th most desired country to visit during this time of decreased travel.
White buildings topped by blue domes are prevalent in Mykonos, a
favorite Greek island for visitors.

Jamaica was the second most visited Caribbean island in 2019, accounting for 12% of U.S. visitors and seems to have held onto its popularity. It is in the seventh position for the most Googled.

The most dreamed about destination in the U.S. overall is the Maldives, which received 18,100 searches during the stay-at-home order. The archipelago of over 1,000 islands is renowned for its remoteness, tranquil beaches, and luxury properties.

Costa Rica

While it remains an expensive option, it is reasonable to assume that social distancing has influenced travel daydreams to include indulging in luxury and tropical islands with pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters.    
Snorkeling and diving reveal beautiful coral around Fiji.
It’s also well-known that tourism is the largest sector of the Maldives' economy, providing for more than 28% of its GDP. No doubt the island will be pleased about increased potential interest from U.S. visitors once it is safe to travel again.

The state with the highest contribution of searches for the Maldives is California, followed by Georgia, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Greece is second on the list with 14,800 searches during April, which was influenced by a high contribution of searches by Texans. Additionally, there were eleven states in total that picked Greece as their top choice for a post-pandemic visit.
In fourth place, Costa Rica is relatively near to U.S. and offers
outstanding natural settings with beaches and mountains.
Because Greece has become so popular with tourists, some of its islands put a daily cap on cruise passengers last year to prevent overcrowding and traffic issues. With its pleasant weather, strong cultural heritage, and unique cuisine, it is not surprising Greece is the European destination with the biggest increase in visitors in a decade.

Fiji is in position three and had 9,900 Google searches over this period. It was recently listed as one of the top thirty islands to visit in 2019, due to its biodiversity, remarkable reefs, and infamous Orchid collection at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. The states with the highest contribution of searches for Fiji are Idaho and Arizona.

Dunns River Falls is a prime attraction in Jamaica. Water seems to be
a primary attraction for vacations post-pandemic.
California and Texas show the largest contribution of searches for foreign destinations over the lockdown period. Wyoming has the lowest number during this timeframe, followed by Alaska and Delaware.

It seems Americans are not just interested in sunny climes once travel restrictions are lifted either. Delving further down the list Iceland, Switzerland, Ireland, and Japan also make the top twenty.
Mountains and lakes accentuate beautiful scenery in Switzerland.
Commenting on the findingsRonni Kenoian from InsureMyTrip says:

“This data clearly suggests a strong desire to travel again when the timing is right. During these unprecedented times, travelers are dreaming about these “wishlist” destinations, and it’s exciting to see where the imagination is taking us.”

To view the full data for each state please visit InsureMyTrip’s dedicated webpage here. Note: For the study, they submitted the top 50 most visited countries in the world, according to The World Tourism Rankings, into Google Keyword Planner with “vacation” following each country. To assess “international travel” the United States was removed from this list, leaving 49 countries. 

This post is used courtesy of  Mairead Folan and InsureMyTrip.