Riding the Amtrak Rails

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

I’ve ridden trains around the world–Europe on a rail pass too many times to count (especially while working on Frommer’s Europe by Train), Shinkansen bullet and commuter trains throughout Japan, in India through the desert to Jaisalmer, on old-fashioned steam-engine trains in Switzerland and Japan, and many other trips–but I recently took my very first long-distance train ride in my own country. I don’t know why it took me so long.

I boarded the Southwest Chief in my hometown of Lawrence KS for the nine-hour trip to Chicago for a family reunion. The

One of many small-town stations on the way

One of many small-town stations on the way

train was more than two hours late, which would cause apoplectic fits in Japan and Germany. But the good thing is that I could follow the actual status of my train on a mobile app, which meant I could enjoy another cup of coffee from the comfort of my home instead of waiting fitfully at the station before dawn.

Although there are assigned seats, I spent almost the entire day in the light-filled observation car, where large windows provided panoramic views of Midwestern fields and tidy small towns, many with diminutive  and quaint depots. One of the best things about traveling by train is the mobility it provides, especially if you’re traveling with a group. I played Yahtzee with my nieces at one of the tables in the observation car, shared a lunch with my mother at our seats, and visited with my cousin, who had boarded the same train in Flagstaff and had reserved her own sleeper compartment.


My mother and nieces

A highlight was the dining car, where we had the choice of everything from steak and salmon to chicken and pasta. Diners are assigned tables with strangers, which makes for an enjoyable way to pass the time, especially for solo travelers.

What surprised me was how crowded the train was, filled with students traveling between their hometown and university, grandparents on their way to visit family, and a variety of people who find trains the most effective and economical way to travel in the U.S. And of course there are train fanatics, those who ride trains just for the love of it. One of those self-professed fanatics is Allan Labrozzi, whom I met on Southwest Chief traveling with his wife. Since taking his first train trip in 1975, followed a few years later traveling with an Amtrak rail pass, Labrozzi takes multiple trips every year, meticulously keeping track of each journey in notebook after notebook.

“No two trips are alike,” he told me. “Traveling by train allows you to relax and get away from the stress of life, and there’s always something to see. But the real plus are the people you meet. Everyone has a story. And the memories stay with you.”

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

There are numerous train trips Labrozzi recommends for the novice or for international travelers wishing to see North America, including runs between Schenectady and Montreal, Seattle and Los Angeles, the California Zephyr between San Francisco and Chicago and the four-night Toronto-Vancouver trip on Rail Canada.

Though we can’t compete with the extensive train networks of other countries, there are many more lines than I’d imagined, and now I’m interested in exploring more of them. Traveling by train is also inexpensive ($112 round trip between Lawrence and Chicago), with discounts given to seniors, children, students, military personnel, veterans and AAA members. For people with time, a USA Rail Pass is available for 15, 30 or 45 days.


My cousin in her private sleeper

Although there are many freight trains that rumble through Kansas, my international friends are amused to hear that only two passenger trains stop daily in my hometown, one going east and the other going west.

One of the most long-lasting affects of taking the Southwest Chief is that I now hear the whistles of trains passing through, something I had grown too used to since childhood. If I happen to be awake early in the morning (5:47am if it happens to be on time), I listen for the Chief’s plaintive short and long whistles as it comes into town and approaches the station. Pausing just one minute to unload and board passengers, it’s whistle sounds again as it continues on its journey, first loud, then dimmer, dim and gone.

The dining car

The dining car



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Falling for Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

I’ve seen numerous waterfalls, but nothing prepared me for Iguazu Falls. In fact, I was totally blown away. Describing the experience doesn’t come close to conveying what it was like to actually be there.

View from the plane

View from the plane

Iguazu Falls isn’t just one waterfall but rather a series of many spanning about 1.6 miles, so huge and overpowering that gazing at them made me feel as insignificant as when I look upon the stars. The Iguazu River, which flows about 820 miles mostly through Brazil before hooking up with the Parana River, flows over numerous falls–about 275 of them, some as high as 240 feet. Iguazu gets its name, in fact, comes from the Guarani native language meaning “great waters.” That seems like an understatement.

IMG_0756The most magnificent viewpoint is via a relaxing open-car train ride and then a series of catwalks to Devil’s Throat, where you can peer over a massive U-shaped cascade that roars with fury and shoots up so much white mist that you can’t see the bottom of the abyss, though the mist is a great canvas for many colorful rainbows. Certainly nature at its most glorious and a reminder of how powerful nature can be.

No wonder Iguazu Falls is a World Heritage Site. For a more detailed explanation of my trip and impressions of Iguazu National Park, see my article, A Detour to the Jaw-Dropping Iguazu Falls, published in goNOMAD Travel.


A series of catwalks hopscotch across islands on its way to Devil’s Throat


The approach to Devil’s Throat









Doing the tourist thing at Devil's Throat

Doing the tourist thing at Devil’s Throat

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Walking Tours through Macau’s Historic Districts


A-Ma Temple has good feng shui

I feel sorry for day-trippers arriving in Macau by ferry from Hong Kong without a clue what to do. True, there was a time when Macau was smaller (literally so, before reclamation filled in the Outer Harbour and created Cotai with its many resorts and casinos) and just striking out toward the old town would bring you to its historic center with its slow pace of life and cafes. There was only one museum (The Maritime Museum), and the dozen or so casinos in town were hidden away in hotels.

IMG_3532Nowadays traffic congests streets, there’s continual construction of new hotels, casinos and shopping malls, and there are so many different destinations vying for your time that you have to be very focused to concentrate on the places or subjects that interest you. My interest lies in history, as well as neighborhoods, food and other aspects of travel that root me in the here and now, so my favorite haunts are the older neighborhoods in the historic center of Macau, concentrated mostly on Penha Peninsula and around the ruins of St. Paul.

This article I wrote for travel2next, Macau Map and Walking Tour of Penha

Lilau Square

Lilau Square

Peninsula, takes in Macau’s oldest temple, a Chinese mansion that I consider an absolute must-see, churches, historic squares and other favorite spots on a walk from A-Ma Temple to Senado Square. My second walking tour for travel2next, A Walk Around St. Paul’s Ruins, takes readers from Senado Square to the Ruins of St. Paul’s and Camoes Garden, with many stops in between.


Portuguese folkdancing in front of St. Paul’s Ruins


Rua Felicidad


St. Augustine’s Square

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Osaka is No Tokyo, and Doesn’t Want to Be

Osaka Castle is the city's most iconic landmark

Osaka Castle is the city’s most iconic landmark

It’s no secret that there’s a long-standing rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. In fact, after hearing people debate which city is better, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Rather, I like to think both cities and their inhabitants have their unique selling points. It’s like comparing New York to LA. What’s the point?

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

In recent years, Osaka has been spiffing up its image and its urban landscape, most notably around Osaka Station and the Tennoji/Abeno districts. This article I wrote for Global Traveler, Discover the Hip Business Ambience of Modern Osaka, describes some of these recent developments, as well as some of the most notable differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Most peculiar: Tokyoites stand on the left side of a moving escalator while Osakans queue on the right. In fact, so much is this difference ingrained in the national psyche, that The Japan Times ran an article on April 1, 2015, about a new city ordinance that would require all Osakans to stand on the left to avoid confusion.

It was, of course, an April Fool’s Joke. Osakans wouldn’t stand for it.

Japan's tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

Japan’s tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

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Hokkaido Ad in New Yorker


Sounkyo in Daisetsuzan National Park

Sounkyo in Daisetsuzan National Park (photo by Beth Reiber)

Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest island and takes up about 22% of the country’s landmass, and yet it has less than 5% of its population. It’s considered Japan’s last frontier, having been settled by Japanese only after 1868 (though it did have an indigenous people called Ainu, who, like American Indians, were discriminated against and assimilated).

A photo of Lake Akan taken on one of my solo hikes

A photo of Lake Akan taken on one of my solo hikes

In other words, Hokkaido has what the rest of Japan doesn’t have: space. With its dairy farms, expansive fields planted with corn and potatoes, crystal-clear lakes and majestic mountain ranges preserved in national parks, Hokkaido is the place to get away from it all. After all, from what I’ve experienced, foreigners flock to Kyoto and other cultural hotspots in Honshu, while Japanese tend to stick to the tried and true, whether it’s a popular hiking trail or a famous scenic mountain top. For that reason, getting off the beaten trail is easy in Japan, and I’ve had some wonderful day hikes all over the country without ever meeting another soul, but nowhere is that easier than in Hokkaido.

This ad I wrote, appearing in the August 10/17 2015 edition of the New Yorker, extols some of Hokkaido’s virtues, though it doesn’t cover nearly enough. For that, you’ll just have to buy a guide book (like my Frommer’s Japan) or go to the Japan National Tourist Organization website.

Hokkaido Advertorial 1


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Oklahoma is Oil Country

It’s easy to rave against oil in today’s world–it pollutes, our dependency on it keeps us from developing more environmentally friendly resources, etc.–but the simple fact is that we largely depend on it. While I am hopeful that we can eventually be weaned off oil, it’s useful to remember how it was in the beginning, long before we knew what we know now. It is, after all, a part of our history.

The story of oil in Oklahoma is a good place to start, for it was oil that literally put the region on the map and helped gain OK its statehood. This article I wrote, The Oil Legacy: Oklahoma’s Oil History and Wealth,  for www.gonomad.com is about the northeastern region of the state, where two big names in oil–Frank Phillips and E.W. Marland–struck it rich and built unimaginably huge empires. But as the article shows, success stories don’t always end in happiness.


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Austria–Transportation and Lodging



My paternal grandmother was born in Schwaz, not far from Innsbruck, and I’ve always been proud of the fact that I am one-fourth Austrian. In fact, it was from my grandparents, both of whom spoke German, that I was inspired to learn languages and ultimately to travel. I first visited Schwaz as a college student while studying in Erlangen and met my father’s cousin, Otto. In subsequent years I returned often, bringing along my mother, boyfriend, sister Kristin, and my two sons. Luckily, my work updating Austria for Frommer’s Europe on $$ a Day and then Frommer’s Europe by Rail brought me often to the country of my grandmother; ironically, that work included the Swarovski Kristallwelten just outside Schwaz. When I was a little girl listening to my grandmother talk about Austria, neither of us could have imagined that I would grow up writing about a place so near where she was born.




Otto died some years back and I haven’t been to Schwaz for more than five years, but I will always return to Austria every chance I get, especially to Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck where I have friends.

I wrote two articles about Austria for the website Independent Traveler, one covering various transportation modes throughout the country and the other about different kinds of lodging, from rustic mountain huts to chalets and hostels. You can see them here:

Getting Around Austria

Austria Lodging: Castles, Mountain Huts, Spa Hotels and More

But even though I’ve traveled to Austria more times than I can remember since my college days, there is so much I’d still like to explore. It’s that urge, that curiosity, that makes life worth living.

Me traveling by train

Me traveling by train

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Rocheport–1950s Times Capsule

Rocheport's one-block downtown

Rocheport’s one-block downtown

It was 10 years ago that I first visited Rocheport, a sleepy town on the Missouri River, and was astounded to find myself transported to the days of my childhood. As I walked Rocheport’s wide and mostly deserted streets lined with modest clapboard homes, images of carefree summer days floated up from the murky depths of my memory, calling forth summers filled with kickball, bike rides, novels and lemonade on the front porch. I was entirely smitten.

I recently returned for a third visit, for yet another weekend getaway. With relief IIMG_5188 noticed that Rocheport looked much the same as I remembered it, with a one-block commercial street offering a post office and a handful of businesses ranging from restaurants to antique shops. Scattered in the town of 240 residents are also galleries and about a half-dozen B&Bs and other lodgings. Since my last visit more homes were renovated and spruced up, with flower gardens gracing many front yards. Conspicuously absent from Rocheport, however, are gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, or any other businesses integral to most communities. For baby boomers, visiting Rocheport is like walking onto the set of Mayberry, the fictional town of The Andy Griffith Show. Only cars give clue that this is the 21st century.

Katy Trail

Katy Trail

Most visitors come to Rocheport because of the excellent Katy Trail, the longest developed rail-to-trail pathway in the country, which passes right beside the town as it winds its way 264 miles across Missouri. Most cyclists are on a day’s outing–you can rent bicycles in Rocheport and other places along the trail–but there are also those traversing the entire length. I’ve cycled only portions of the Katy Trail, but the limestone bluffs and wide Missouri River just outside Rocheport must account for one of its most impressive segments.

It’s obvious the Katy Trail has had a positive economic impact on Rocheport, but equally obvious is that Rocheport, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, must have strict zoning laws to keep it looking like the time capsule it seems. But what is it like to live here, with no place to shop for necessities? And how has the town changed over the years?

“Oh, no, I just work here,” answered an elderly clerk in an antique shop when I asked whether she had grown up in Rocheport. “I live in Columbia.”

Turns out, most people I met working or owning shops in Rocheport seem to live elsewhere, mostly Columbia, a university town about 15 miles away. And conversely, many Rocheport residents commute to Columbia to work. In other words, Rocheport has become a bedroom community, though retirees are also finding it an attractive place to settle down.


View from Bourgeois Vineyards A-Frame

Curtis Bourgeois moved to the riverside bluffs outside Rocheport as a child in the early 1970s, when his parents bought a rustic A-frame without electricity or running water and started making wine. Through the years, Les Bourgeois Vineyards has expanded into Missouri’s third-largest winery, with a bistro overlooking the river and a tasting room just off I-70. The A-frame now offers snacks, wine and outdoor seating.

“When we moved here, this was way off the map,” Bourgeois said. “Rocheport had lots of trailers and was run down.”

Although he agrees Rocheport has changed for the better, he’s also disappointed that the town has become a bedroom community for Columbia. And because Rocheport is hemmed in on three sides–by the river, a creek and bluffs—it’s confined to a peninsula-like space.

“There’s no place to expand, so real estate has become more valuable,” Bourgeois said, adding that he’s disappointed Rocheport hasn’t developed more retail. Yet with high property prices and limited housing stock, young entrepreneurs find it difficult to live here.

To learn about Rocheport’s history, I dropped by the small Friends of Rocheport Historical Museum, manned that day by volunteer Sherry Moreau, who grew up in Rocheport and now lives in Columbia, though her parents still live here. First settled in the 1820s, Rocheport thrived as a river town. By 1835 it had eight stores, a steam mill, brickyards and other businesses, and by 1870, it had about 800 residents. But the coming of the railway was the beginning of the end for Rocheport.

“When the steamboats were here, Rocheport was thriving,” Moreau explained. “But the trains reduced the boats and cut jobs. I-70 was the killer.”

Not only did Interstate 70, completed in the 1960s, bypass the town, it also cut down onIMG_5206 the number of trains passing through. After floods damaged tracks in 1986, the route was abandoned. That turned out to be ultimately good news for Rocheport, with the Katy Trail opening in 1996. But the town’s subsequent gentrification has brought mixed feelings.

“Kids can get part-time jobs,” Moreau conceded, noting an improvement from when she attended elementary school in Rocheport, now the Schoolhouse B&B, and there wasn’t much for young people to do. “Older people are not so happy. It’s frightening to see changes.”

The former elementary school is now a bed-and-breakfast

The former elementary school is now a bed-and-breakfast

My own opinion is that the older we get, the more change we see–and we almost never think it’s for the better. Now when I think about Rocheport, I no longer see a rosy picture of a town that miraculously survived intact from my childhood, guided by locals who grew up here with a fierce pride for preservation of their hometown. But like most things, it’s complicated. Rocheport’s newcomers chose restoration over dilapidation, gentrification over low-income living. Although that choice is why I came here, it’s also why children growing up here might someday have to leave.

“In all the places I’ve been, I never felt it was like home,” said William J. Williams, a sculptor who moved to Rocheport in 1992. “This feels like home.”

An old house awaits renovation 10 years ago

On my first visit 10 years ago, this house awaited renovation


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Tokyo Woos Tourists, Business Entrepreneurs

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

Tokyo’s working climate has changed dramatically since Debbie Howard came to Japan in 1985 and subsequently set up her own market research company. Japan was on top of the world back then, and most Japanese seemed content with their own products and way of doing business. But the 1992 economic bubble burst made it painfully clear that Japan could no longer live without joining the global market. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown was a wake-up call that Japan also needed international tourists.


The Ginza

After launching an aggressive campaign to increase the number of international tourists to Japan, 2014 brought the largest number of foreign visitors ever, 13 million compared to 8.6 million in 2010. Japan’s goal is to have 20 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic summer games.

Tokyo is also opening itself to foreign investors by creating economic incentives and providing assistance with complicated paperwork. All this and more is in my article Tokyo Focuses On A Successful Future appearing in the June issue of Global Traveler.

Young girl in New Otani Hotel's garden

Young girl in New Otani Hotel’s garden

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Buenos Aires–Europe with a Latin Beat

The Plaza de Mayo with its Casa Rosada government house.

The Plaza de Mayo with its Casa Rosada government house.

My first inkling that Buenos Aires would be a friendly sort of place came while I was still in Dallas, waiting for my connecting flight. A man sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and when he discovered it was my first trip to his hometown he started listing all the places I had to see. He then interrupted an Argentinian couple sitting across from us to ask them their recommendations. Soon they were all discussing the highlights of Buenos Aires. I felt welcome before even stepping foot in Argentina.

And so it was throughout my week’s stay. Taxi drivers were talkative and animated, especially upon discovering that my travel companion spoke fluent Spanish; it was the first place I’ve ever visited where taxi drivers shook our hands at the end of the ride.

Buenos Aires has a population of about 2.89 million, yet the people I met were considerate and happy to help wayward visitors find their way. Porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are called) patiently and politely wait in queues, whether it’s for a taxi, the bus or the checkout line at the store. They apologize if they accidentally bump into you, even on crowded streets, which caught me by surprise after the bodily assault that happens in Hong Kong. Store clerks are friendly and unruffled even if you try on ten shirts and end up buying nothing, as though that were the most normal thing in the world. Restaurants let you sit for as long as you like. In the subway I saw younger people proffer their seats to the elderly.

Tango dancers entertain at an outdoor restaurant in La Boca

Tango dancers entertain at an outdoor restaurant in La Boca

Certainly the laid-back demeanor of its people is one reason Buenos Aires is easy to love, but I also admire the stately central district full of portly buildings and wide avenues that remind me of Madrid. Palermo is clearly the most hip neighborhood, with sidewalk cafes, clothing boutiques selling funky fashions, lively bars, plazas with weekend markets and cool restaurants offering waffles, Mexican fare and the ubiquitous steaks and pasta. Trees everywhere give the city a soft edge to its jumble of architecture, especially the shaggy sycamores that stretch past balconied apartments toward the sky. Where else might you hear an owl hooting every night, right in the middle of a metropolis?


La Boca district with its colorful buildings and statues

In a week I think I saw pretty much everything you could possibly hope to see, including the contemporary Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Art, the botanical and Japanese gardens, the rather sterile Puerto Madero with its modern architecture and restored brick warehouses filled with restaurants, and La Boca district with its artisan street stalls, colorfully painted storefronts and tango dancers.

Among my favorite places was the Recoleta Cemetery, one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. More than 4,000 vaults topped with imposing mausoleums and memorials crowd a labyrinth of tiny streets. Many presidents and other important Argentinians are buried

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

here, including Eva Peron, whose mausoleum is adorned with flowers left by adoring fans and plaques put up by various organizations. Many of the mausoleums have glass doors showing photos of the deceased, urns for the cremated and caskets. But others are decrepit and unkempt, lined with decaying coffins and woven throughout with cobwebs. I noticed that many mausoleums have stairways leading below ground, but it wasn’t until I found one with its glass doors and windows missing that I could peer into the crypt and discern rows of old wooden coffins stacked on shelves and descending into the dark bowels of the earth. Every vault has a story, but it was a sobering reminder that even the moneyed who could afford to be buried here are edging ever closer toward oblivion.

Of course I visited markets, always my favorite thing to do in any city, including the never-ending Sunday market of San Telmo with its crafts, clothing and antiques and the weekend markets in Palermo’s Plaza Cortazar and Plaza Viejo Palermo. But my favorite was the Feria de Mataderos, a festive affair held astoundingly every single Sunday with a market selling folk crafts and local foods, gauchos with their horses, a musty but interesting gaucho museum and, best of all, a stage with folk singers and dancers; even the audience joined in traditional dances. It was very much a family affair and worth the hour’s bus ride to reach it.


A gaucho at Feria de Mataderos


Audience participation at Feria de Maderos

Audience participation at Feria de Maderos

Dog walkers are popular for owners who can't or don't have time to walk their own dogs

Dog walkers are popular for owners who can’t or don’t have time to walk their own dogs

Among many observations from my week of walking the streets of Buenos Aires is that Porteños love their dogs, but they don’t like cleaning up after them. The tiled sidewalks are also minefields because of crumbling or missing pieces, inexplicable deep holes and buckling surfaces due to all those sycamores.

Argentinian bidets are sadistic, at least the ones I encountered, shooting straight up and with no discernible way to control temperature or pressure. The overriding women’s fashion is leggings, regardless of whether it’s a teenager or grandmother, and the very popular platform shoes make traversing the sidewalks even more of a hazard. It’s not a look I’m likely to adopt any time soon, but there are many other aspects of life in Buenos Aires that make me wish I were a porteña. A bonus: my Spanish also improved.

Weekend market at Plaza

Weekend market at Plaza Cortazar in Palermo

Of course I couldn't resist buying a necklace made by this artisan at the market at Plaza Cortazar

Of course I couldn’t resist buying a necklace made by this artisan at the market at Plaza Cortazar

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