I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: Herat, Afghanistan

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I explore Herat, the leading city in western Afghanistan.

 

Sunday, July 30, 1978: Herat 

A dream woke me at 7:30 and by 8:15 I gave up trying to fall back to sleep. Down at the restaurant I enjoyed two fried eggs, yogurt, and a pot of black chai. After cleaning my camera lenses, Gene and I set out to see Herat. 

First, we had two pieces of business — change money and get bus tickets. The bank was really something. It took nearly an hour to change my $100, but just sitting there watching the Afghani banking process was interesting. I saw suitcases of tattered afghanis, tribesmen coming in with five or six $100 bills (I’m afraid to imagine where they got them), a uniformed guard with a bayonet long enough for five or six bank robbers, and a rag-tag building and atmosphere. I had 3,858 afghanis coming to me. First the guy gave me 3,000. I said “more,” and he gave me 800. “More,” and I got 50 more afghanis, and then I asked for and got the last 8 afghanis. 

Next, Gene and I booked a bus ride to Kabul on the highly recommended Qaderi bus company. The 800-kilometer ride cost only $5 or 200 afghanis. Hopefully, we will get our seats and there will be no hanky-panky.  

We were free to ramble. I had a Fanta, put on the zoom lens, and went into action on a dreamy side street full of colorful flowery horse-drawn taxis, busy craftsmen, fruit stands, and dust. Each man who passed looked like something straight out of a travel poster. Strong powerful eyes behind leathery weather-beaten faces. Poetic wind-blown beards, long and scraggily, and turbans like snakes wrapping protectively around their heads. Old women totally covered by bag-like outfits carried children and called out, strangely enough, for pictures. I shot off nearly a whole roll and, with any luck, I should have some wonderful shots. 

We wandered away from the main center coming to a dusty residential area churning with activity. The people are so proud and there’s no one not very worthy to have their picture taken. Everyone was motioning us to come over, except for those who were too proud to acknowledge us. I didn’t really know how people accepted us strange, short-panted, pale-skinned, weak-stomached, finnicky people who came into their world to gawk, take pictures, and buy junk to bring home and tell everyone how cheap it was. I couldn’t help but feel like us curious tourists got old to these hardy, proud people who work so hard and live so simply. 

There were countless moments and scenes that blazed forever in my mind, a picture of Afghanistan. We worked up a mean thirst and we shared a watermelon in the shade before moving on. 

A bit tired, we headed back to our lovely hotel, had a plate of potatoes, a bowl of soup, and some chai (tea) and went up for a shower and a short snooze. We are really living well now for a change. I cashed that $100 and it feels so good to just spend money when you want to and not worry. 

Now we went back into the sun. The afternoon temperature was still cooking and every once in a while we’d soak our heads under a faucet. After mailing our postcards, we checked out a row of the cloth weavers. Hard-working men ran these ingeniously primitive looms tirelessly. Quite interesting to witness. Then, making a wide circle, we came to the big mosque, checked it out, and found ourselves in a neighborhood of very hard-sell shops.  

One pseudo-friendly guy took me by the hand and walked me into his shop, and before I knew it, I was wearing the wonderful white baggy pants and shirt and turban of the local people and bargaining madly. I was determined to work him down from 500 to my ceiling of 152 afghanis. I almost made it, but I was surprised when he let me walk away empty handed, a bit sad too. I want those cool, baggy, low-profile clothes and maybe, if I can swallow my pride, I’ll go back tomorrow and get them. 

Like running the gauntlet, we made our way in and out of shops back to our hotel. I tried and failed to get a lovely mink skin cheap. I did offer 200 afghanis for an exciting Afghan fox hat and ended up buying it and I proudly worked a guy down from 600 afghanis to 40 each for three little nicely embroidered pouches. I haven’t bought any souvenirs to speak of in two months of travel — now I’m afraid I’ve opened the floodgates. 

Back at the hotel, Gene pulled out the hunk of hashish that he bought and this, I decided, would be the time and place that’s I’d lose my “marijuana virginity.” I’ve never even smoked a cigarette and smoking pot has always turned me off, so to speak, because it’s always an object of social pressure and I would never feel comfortable doing it because everyone at a party was doing it and I was the only “square” one. That kind of pressure and the usual scene surrounding pot smoking reinforced my determination to stay away from the evil weed. But this was different. 

In Afghanistan, hashish is an integral part of the culture. It’s as innocent as wine with dinner is in America. If ever I was to experience this high, it wouldn’t be in a dark dorm room at the UW with a bunch of people I didn’t respect. I could never feel good about that.  

Gene and I talked about marijuana and hash for about three hours on the bus after we left Istanbul. I decided that, if I felt good about the whole situation, I’d like to smoke some hash in Afghanistan. Well, here I am in Herat, I feel great, and I love this town. We got about half a domino worth of pure hashish for 40 afghanis ($1). It was so smooth it had to be sliced with a knife. 

Up in the room, Gene mixed it with some tobacco and piled the product into a funny old straight wood pipe we picked up. He took a drag — immediately remarking, “Good stuff”. I sucked in not knowing what to expect and hoping not to get a mouth full of ashes. I don’t like smoke, but besides that, there was nothing repulsive about it. It didn’t even smell bad like marijuana. The only problem was nothing happened. I had smoked enough, but virgin runs are generally unproductive. It felt good anyways — I had done it. 

We went out for a walk. Going from shop to shop very casually. Mixing with people, nosing into shops, and just poking around. This place is small, but it really doesn’t matter because no street is ever the same if you walk through it a second or third time. 

For dinner we sat outside of our restaurant since there was a special wedding tonight in the big room. We had a plate of lots of different vegetables with lots of meat washed down by tea for $1.50 each. 

Upstairs we smoked a bit more and took a cold shower. This time I sensed a bit of a change. Certain colors and objects were more tangy. Things had a vibrant edge that I didn’t realize was an option. I was very relaxed and the light fixture on our ceiling looked like a big candle breathing in and out. But I still wasn’t really high. 

Downstairs the big wedding had begun, and the bride’s father proudly shook my hand welcoming Gene and me and we sat next to the little Afghan band listening to the exciting music and watching the women dance. Everyone was quite formal, the men were in one room, the women in the other, and the decorated car waited parked outside. 

Now we took a nighttime walk. Chariots with torches charged through the darkness, men carried lanterns, shopkeepers and the work boys squatted around soup and bread, many Afghans were high or getting there, it was cool, and, like always, the wind howled. The night was a great experience and we wandered. 

After a small melon, checking out the wedding once more, a cold shower with our sheets and making a nice wet bed, we commented on what a good day today was and, looking forward to tomorrow and wrapped in wet sheets, we went to sleep. 

 

(This is journal entry #2 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me ventures deeper into Herat.)   

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: From Mashhad, Iran, to Herat, Afghanistan


With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating.  

In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me on the bus from Mashhad, Iran, to Herat, the leading city in western Afghanistan. 

 

Saturday, July 29, 1978: Mashhad to Herat 

My Spanish friend woke me at 5:45. I think I would have slept all morning if he hadn’t have come in. We caught a ride down to the station and, weakly, I searched for breakfast. Half a liter of milk and a small cake did quite nicely and we were on our way. 

Here was the beginning of a new world. Afghanis look Asian and Mongolian compared to Iranians and Afghanis and their twine-wrapped bundles of belongings filled the bus station. Our bus left at 7:20 and was pretty full of Western travelers — the most we had seen since the Istanbul-Tehran bus. 

Gene and I were quiet and weak. I kind of sat there, hot wind blowing in my face with my hair whipping around, hoping the kilometers would tick by and knowing I was plunging farther and farther away from Europe. 

At 10:30 we came to the desolate Iran-Afghanistan border. What a place! Just stuck in the middle of nowhere. We gave up our passports and walked into the building. An interesting museum with a message greeted us. In several glass cases were the stories and hiding places of many ill-fated drug smugglers. It made for interesting reading — who smuggled what in where and was sent to prison. I have this terrible fear that someone will plant some dope in my rucksack and I’ll get framed. That would be no fun at all. 

We got through the Iranian customs rather easily and then we walked across a windy desert no man’s land to a place bordered by abandoned, disassembled VW vans and full of local people piling into small orange busses. We just stood around. The wind and heat were fierce. The barren plain stretched out in every direction and I said to Gene, “So this is Afghanistan”. We found shade in one of the wrecked VW vans and peeled a small apple. Then a bus came and we piled in. Stopping for a quick passport check, I couldn’t believe it was so easy. It wasn’t. 

A few minutes later our bus pulled into the search yard and we unloaded to sit and wait for the bank and doctor’s office to open up. 

And here I sit. The time is good for nothing but catching up in the journal, which I finally did, and thinking. As I brush big ants off me and shield my eyes from sand and blowing things, I wonder about all the fun things I could be doing. I think of friends back home, of my parents at leisure in their yacht up in cool, green, refreshing British Columbia, and the fun I could be having in Europe. I am glad I’m finally doing this but I’m really looking forward to the end of it all. I’m hoping for health, no hassles, and a good flight back to Europe. 

The funny little bank opened up and to change my 100 francs note I had to make three signatures, write down the serial number of the bill and ask several times for the correct change. I came away with 775 afghanis. 

The next few hours tried my patience as we bounced from one dusty office to the next getting everything taken care of so we could enter Afghanistan. The luggage “search” was little more than a glance, our shot certificates were checked, the police and the customs officers checked us out, we had Fanta and then finally everyone packed back onto the orange bus and we were on our way — or so we thought. 

About 100 yards later there was a police check and most of the Polish travelers on the bus flunked it and had to go through more red tape. Then we headed into the dusty vastness of the Afghanistan wasteland. 

The countryside was dry and barren, backed by stark brown mountains and broken every once in a while by a cluster of mud huts, some old ruins or a herd of goats or sheep. It always feels good to enter a new country. So far this summer I’ve only explored two new ones. But everything that lies ahead is as new as can be. 

Just when it looked like we were getting somewhere, a dispute broke out in the front of the bus. The Afghanis decided to double the price of the ride from 50 to 100 afghani. Us tourists were stubborn and we refused. One rugged looking Afghan pulled a knife while the driver turned around and headed back for the Iranian border. You could say they had us over a barrel. 

There was an uproar, and everyone was trying to solve the problem. One soft-spoken but commanding Pakistani urged us to pay but we all believed if we paid there was nothing stopping them from pulling the same trick again. We compromised — giving them 60 afghanis now and paying the rest upon arrival in Herat. After that episode we were all on edge and I think if they tried to get any more money, they would have had a lot of trouble from their worldly bus load of hardened travelers. 

We stopped at a desolate tea shop with a well and a bunch of locals skinning a still warm goat. There was a sign reading “hotel” and I expected the worst. Lots of people are notorious for “highly recommending” certain hotels. This was just an innocent tea stop, however, and it provided Gene and me with our first good look at Afghanistan. The leaky well provided everyone with cold, filthy water. I wallowed in it, really cooling down nicely. We shared a 25-cent melon and my weak, starving body gobbled it down. I felt like I’ve really abused myself by not eating much. For two days I’ve forgone any real meals and just drank pop and sucked on melons. I decided from now on I’d eat well and stay in good hotels for both my mental and physical health and to keep my spirits high. 

The tea house was exactly the image I had for an Afghanistan tea house. Old traditionally clad men, who looked like they worked hard but who never seem to do anything but lazily sit around, sitting on rugs on the floor drinking tea and smoking hashish. The room filled with smoke and their glassy dark eyes smiled. A few of us tourists joined them and I just stood over my melon rinds looking in the window like I was watching a documentary on TV. The word spread — our driver was high and the crew would be quite mellowed out. What a bizarre society. I guess when materially you’re so far behind you just give up — sit in the shade eating melons, drinking tea, and smoking hash. 

Back in the hot bus we made it to Herat and it dawned on us, “You know, this place looks quite nice.” We were definitely in a new and different culture and both Gene and I perked up. I punched him on the shoulder and said, “Ok, now our trip begins!” 

Herat was, like our minimal guidebook info said, “hard not to like.” Very green, as far as towns in this part of the world go, and with lots of parks, I liked Herat right away. Sick of cheap, scuzzy holes, I lobbied for a first-class hotel. We found a dilly. 

Hotel Mowafaq, the fanciest hotel in downtown Herat, was just what we needed. Centrally located, showers, swimming pool, clean restaurants, and free of all the con men who plague cheaper hotels, this would make us feel human again. I feel like a bit of a softy, but I love a place that I can leave my stuff in without worrying and walk around in barefoot and get easy peace when I need it. Our double cost only 200 afghanis ($5) and we were prepared to spend more. 

We had a Sprite and walked around this central square of Herat stopping in a small clothing shop where Gene and I might get some local clothes so we can go “native” for the rest of the trip. The local baggy clothes make a lot more sense, and they’d be fun souvenirs too. Gene ended up buying a chunk of hashish for about $1 from the guy. We’ll wait and see what we’ll do with it. 

Now we were ready to clean up and have a feast. A lovely cold shower and an enjoyable and highly successful stint on the real sit down toilet (you don’t appreciate life’s little things like a toilet to sit on until you don’t have them). Stepping out of the bathroom I thought, “Nice, the diarrhea I had yesterday was just a quick little punishment for bragging how I’d been travelling with solid stools for two months, and now I am a new man.”  

Downstairs we ordered the two local specialties that they served on Saturdays and we noticed that the menu had a little note on each page. Since the People’s Revolution, all prices are lowered by 10 afghanis. That made each meal cost only 50 afghanis ($1.25) for soup, bread, rice, meat, and cold water. We were both thirsty and the cold water attacked our self-discipline like the forbidden fruit. We succumbed to it and it was good. I couldn’t help feeling “iffy” about it like I always do when I drink questionable water but that didn’t cut down on its initial goodness. Black and green tea in good sized pots finished the meal nicely and I can’t believe how everything has turned around so wonderfully. 

The people here are wonderful, soldiers and police are present on the streets in the wake of the recent revolution. Horse-drawn chariot-like flower-decorated taxis charge down the streets. We stood on the breezy balcony under the stars thinking the only thing not different about this place is the constellations. 

My hair is fluffy, there’s air conditioning in the hall, and a bug screen on our open window. The light has a fixture, my teeth are clean, my stomach is full, I feel healthy (and hopefully expect to be tomorrow) and I think I’ll go to bed early tonight. It’s so important to live good and enjoy oneself and, without going through periods of misery and discomfort, you can’t really know what it is to enjoy.

 

(This is journal entry #1 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt later today, as 23-year-old me explores Herat, the leading city in western Afghanistan.)    

Afghanistan: Reflections from a “Trip of a Lifetime” (Literally) in 1978

 

While I know otherwise, I often find myself wondering if the name “Afghanistan” comes from some ancient word for “tragedy.”

Afghanistan is in the headlines yet again — swiftly, and with almost no resistance, taken over by Taliban overlords, who envision a medieval-style caliphate. To someone of my generation, this weekend’s events feel like déjà vu from a lifetime of watching that troubled corner of the world. First, in a decade of warfare that spanned nearly the entire 1980s, Afghanistan hobbled the USSR. And now — after spending two decades, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives — the USA is learning the same lesson: This feisty land is reluctant to be ruled.

It’s easy to point fingers: Should George W. Bush have invaded the country in 2001? Should Donald Trump have made a deal with the Taliban in early 2020? Should Joe Biden have withdrawn American troops so quickly? But ultimately, nobody has the answers…which is exactly why we keep finding ourselves in this same place.

One thing is clear: The repeated failures of mighty nations to force our will on the Afghan people is a reflection of our ethnocentrism…our inability to understand what motivates them. And using Afghanistan to score political points with the American electorate ignores the horrifying human cost of the instability that has wracked the lives of everyday Afghans for generations.

In my case, that tragedy is even harder to observe because I’ve been so moved by people-to-people contacts I’ve enjoyed in Afghanistan. Watching the news unfold, I find myself swimming through memories of my trip there in 1978, as a 23-year-old, on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. It was the trip of a lifetime — one that simply couldn’t be done now. Each border crossing was a drama, and every rest stop was a lifelong memory.

At the Iran-Afghanistan border — surrounded by abandoned VW vans that had been picked apart by guards looking for drugs, and gazing at dusty glass displays telling stories of European, Aussie, and American backpackers that were caught with drugs and doing time in Afghan jails — we kept our packs on our laps (so no one could plant anything illegal in them) and awaited the doctor to check our vaccinations. My travel partner, Gene, needed a shot, and I still remember the dull needle bending as it struggled to break his skin.

Once on the road in Afghanistan, heading for Herat in our packed minibus, the driver stopped, pulled out a knife that sparkled in the hot sun, and said, “Your tickets just became more expensive.” An Indian traveler calmed the righteous uproar from us Americans, and we all paid the welcome-to-Afghanistan supplement.

In Herat, the urban and cultural center of western Afghanistan, we stood on our hotel’s rooftop watching torchlit chariots charging through the night. Every day was an odyssey — not of sightseeing attractions as such, but simply wandering through markets and gardens and random neighborhoods. This was shortly after a communist coup backed by the USSR. A Soviet tank was parked on the main square, and restaurants had menus with prices literally marked down, and a note: “Thanks to Soviet liberation.”

Our bus ride across Afghanistan followed what must have been the only paved road across the country (a foreign aid project). The terrain looked like an arid wasteland. I remember the monotony of a roadside broken by cemeteries, dusty forests of higgledy-piggledy tombstones in the desert. Even with 50 passengers, toilet breaks lasted just a few minutes: The bus would stop in the middle of nowhere, the men would go to the left side of the road, and the women would gather on the right side of the road. Tenting out their big black robes, they would squat en masse.

Truck stops seemed designed to give the bus driver a chance to smoke hashish. At one, I remember a circle of men sitting on their haunches and passing around whatever they were smoking as they all watched a goat being skinned.

Kabul was the only real city in the country. It seemed like it existed only because a county must have one urban center to be ruled from — a sort of urban necessity in a land that didn’t really know what to do with a city. I eyed people in uniform who looked like, until today, they’d only ever worn a tribal robe.

As I sat eating at a backpackers’ cafeteria, a man appeared at my table. He said, “May I join you?” I said, “You already have.” He asked, “Are you an American?” I said, “Yes.”

And then he went into a well-worn spiel: “I’m a professor here in Afghanistan. And I want you to know that in this world, a third of the people eat with a spoon and fork like you. A third of the people eat with chopsticks. And a third of the people eat with their fingers. And we are all civilized just the same.”

This encounter turned out to be one of the most impactful in my life — like the entire rest of my visit to Afghanistan, it walloped my ethnocentricity and rearranged my cultural furniture.

A highlight of any overland trip to India was leaving Afghanistan by crossing the fabled Khyber Pass. We were scared little Westerners, sitting on the bus, luggage dutifully on our laps, understanding that we were nearly to India — which would seem, strangely, like coming home. Our bus ticket came with a “security supplement” to guarantee safe passage. This fee was paid to the autonomous tribes who “ruled” the region between the capital city and its border with Pakistan. Rolling under their stony fortresses, with wind-tattered flags (that had nothing to do with Afghanistan) and bearded sentries toting vintage rifles, I was more than happy to have paid that little extra fee.

Coming out of the harsh and arid mountains of Afghanistan, a wide-open and humid plain opened up. The stoniness of Iran and Afghanistan was behind us. And ahead stretched a billion people in Pakistan and India.

With this post, I’m kicking off a seven-day series featuring photos from my trip and excerpts from my 1978 journal through Afghanistan. (I wrote this essay from fuzzy memories; upcoming entries were diligently written each night, recounting that day’s adventures in this fascinating land.) Stay tuned, and let’s keep the Afghan people in our thoughts and prayers.

Flabbergasted in a Haarlem B&B

 

I believe a regular does of travel memories can be good for the sou. Here’s one of my favorites and I’d love to hear some of your most memorable travel tales, as well. 

It’s the summer of 2008, and I’m hanging out in the living room of my B&B in the Amsterdam suburb of Haarlem with my hosts Hans and Marjet. Reaching for my Heineken, I notice it sits on a handbook the Dutch government produces to teach prostitutes about safe sex. Thumbing through it, I say to Hans, “It’s both artistic and explicit.” 

“It’s Victoria without the secret,” he whispers playfully. 

“Isn’t this shocking to a lot of people?” I ask. 

“Only to the English and the Americans,” he replies. “Remember, this is Holland. Last night we saw a local TV documentary. It was about body piercing, in full graphic detail — tits, penises, everything. Last week there was a special on the Kama Sutra. Sexual gymnastics like I had never seen. To us Dutch, these were only two more documentaries . . . no big deal. Perhaps these would have been big hits on American TV.”  

“I don’t know,” I say, realizing that I was finding the handbook more interesting than Hans. “But you know what the most-visited page on my website is? A goofy little article comparing Amsterdam’s two sex museums.” 

“Sex is not clickbait here. It’s not a taboo in Holland,” says Marjet. “But we are not reckless with sex, either. The Dutch teen pregnancy rate is one-half the American rate.” 

Staying in a B&B saves money. As a bonus, I find that B&B hosts are often great students of intercultural human nature and love to share their findings. They give me an intimate glimpse of a culture I couldn’t get from the front desk of a hotel. 

This is certainly true of Hans and Marjet, who encourage guests to make themselves thoroughly at home. And in their living room, with its well-worn chairs, crowded books, funky near-antiques, and an upright piano littered with tattered music, it’s easy to feel at home. 

Hans and Marjet live in three rooms and rent out five. Hans would like a little more living space. Like his neighbors, he could glass-in his tiny backyard, but he couldn’t bear trading away his lush but pint-sized garden. Bringing me another beer, he asks, “How long do you stay here this time?” 

“Not long enough” is my regular response. I’m Hans’ pet Yankee. He’s on a personal crusade to get me to relax, to slow down. To Hans, I am the quintessential schedule-driven, goal-oriented American. 

Hans provides more insight into the cultural differences of their guests. “We Dutch are in the middle,” he says. “We are efficient like the Germans — that’s why there are many American companies here in Holland. But we want to live like the French.” 

“And crack jokes like the English,” adds Marjet. “Everybody here admires the British sense of humor. We watch BBC for the comedies.” 

Hans sees cultural differences in their guests’ breakfast manners, too. “Americans like hard advice and to be directed. Europeans — especially the Germans — they know what they want. The French take three days to defrost. But Americans talk and make friends quickly. Europeans, even with no language differences, keep their private formal island at the breakfast table.” 

Pointing to their two kitchen tables, he continues. “If there are Germans sitting here and Americans there, I break the ice. Introducing the Americans to the Germans, I say, ‘It’s okay, they left their guns in the States.’ We Dutch are like the Germans — but with a sense of humor.” 

Getting back to our talk about how different cultures approach sex, Marjet says to Hans, “Tell Rick the ‘Dutch boys on the English beach’ story. This body stuff may be stressful to Americans, but it sends the English under their pillows.” 

“As a schoolboy I traveled with a buddy to England,” Hans begins. “We changed our pants on the beach without the towel hassle — no problem. We’re good Dutch boys. As usual, the beach had an audience: bench-loads of retired Brits enjoying the fresh air, suffering through their soggy sandwiches. When my friend began changing into his swimsuit, all the people turned their heads away. Amused by our power to move the English masses, we repeated the move. I pulled my trousers down and all the heads turned away again.” 

Marjet, laughing like she’s hearing the story for the first time, says, “We don’t see many English on our beaches.” 

“We get mostly Americans,” says Hans. 

“We’d be happy to fill our house with only Americans,” says Marjet. “Americans are easy to communicate with. They’re open. They taught me to express myself, to say what I really think.” 

Hans breaks in with a Tony the Tiger tourist imitation, “Oh wow, this is grrreat! What a grrreat house you have here!” 

“Americans get flabbergasted,” Marjet adds. 

“The English don’t know how to be flabbergasted,” says Hans.“ 

I think you nearly flabbergasted them on that beach,” Marjet says. “When we visited Colorado, my trip went better when I learned to say ‘wow’ a couple of times a day.” 

Curling comfortably in the corner of the sofa, tucking her legs under her small body, Marjet explains, “When an American asks, ‘How are you?’ we say, ‘Okay,’ to mean ‘good.’ The American says, ‘That doesn’t sound very good.’ We explain, ‘We’re European.’” 

Hans says, “Then the American replies, ‘Oh, yes — you’re honest.’” 

Fascinated by the smiley-face insincerity of America, Marjet says, “In the US, even supermarket shopping bags have big ‘smile and be a winner’ signs.” 

“It’s true,” I agree. “Only in America could you find a bank that fines tellers if they don’t tell every client to ‘Have a nice day.’” 

Hans says, “Did you know that the Dutch are the most wanted workers at Disneyland Paris? This is because most Dutch are open-minded. We can smile all day. And we speak our languages.” 

Marjet explains, “In Holland when someone asks, ‘Do you speak your languages?’ they mean: Do you speak French, German, and English, along with Dutch?” 

Hans continues. “And for us, acting friendly is maybe less exhausting than for the French. Can you imagine a French person having to smile all day long?” 

Hans tops off my glass of Heineken. “God created all the world. It was marvelous. But France . . . it was just too perfect. So he put in the French to balance things out.” 

“And Canada could have had it all: British culture, French cuisine, American know-how,” says Marjet.  

“But they messed up and got British food, French know-how, and American culture.” 

As I climb the steep Dutch stairs to my bedroom in the loft, I ponder the value of friends on the road. The most memorable moments of this day came after I was done sightseeing. 

“COVID and the Anti-Vaxxers”

“COVID and the Anti-Vaxxers”  

JK, it’s a 13th-century image of hell from the Florence Baptistery. Europe has suffered through many plagues and pandemics over the centuries — and in the Middle Ages (before they had the miracle of vaccines), they thought it was God’s anger or the devil that was making their lives miserable. They had no science to ignore — unlike today, when many in our society insist on bringing this avoidable misery upon our community. 

Back then, life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” leaving medieval people obsessed with what came after: Will I go to heaven or hell? And this mosaic made it crystal clear what the fate of the wicked would be. You’d be sent to hell, where souls were devoured by horned ogres, chomped on by snakes, harassed by Spock-eared demons, and roasted in eternal flames.  

Florence’s Baptistery is even older than this 13th-century mosaic. Built atop Roman foundations, it’s the city’s oldest surviving building — nearly 1,000 years old. The Baptistery is best known for its bronze Renaissance doors (including Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”), but its interior still retains the medieval mood. It’s dark and mysterious, topped with an octagonal dome of golden mosaics of angels and Bible scenes. 

Dominating it all is the mosaic of Judgment Day. Christ sits on a throne, spreads his arms wide, and gives the ultimate thumbs-up and thumbs-down. The righteous go to heaven, the others to hell. 

Of course, no one in medieval times knew exactly what hell was. Even the Bible lacked specifics, describing only a place that’s dark, underground, fiery, unpleasant, everlasting, and segregated from the realm of the blessed. 

The mission of the artists who did this mosaic: to bring hell to life. It’s a chaotic tangle of mangled bodies, slithering snakes, and licking flames. In the center squats a bull-headed monster, with his arms outstretched like Christ’s demonic doppelgänger. He gorges on one poor soul, grabs the next course with his hands, and stomps on two more souls, while snakes sprout from his ears and tail to grab more victims. 

Graphic details like these were groundbreaking in pre-Renaissance times. We see the beast’s six-pack abs, braided beard, and wrinkled red robe that echoes the flickering flames. The damned have naturalistic poses — crouching, twisting, gesturing — and their anguished faces tell a sad story of eternal torment.  

This mosaic’s realism proved to be hugely influential for proto-Renaissance artists like Giotto, and the building itself inspired Renaissance architects like Brunelleschi. And shortly after this mosaic was completed, a little baby named Dante Alighieri was dipped into the baptismal font just beneath it. Dante grew up well aware of this hellish scene. When he wrote his epic poem, Inferno (“Hell”), he described it with the same vivid imagery: craggy landscapes, mobs of naked wretches, a Minotaur in the center, and so on. Dante’s motifs inspired other artists over the centuries (such as Giotto and Signorelli) who created Europe’s altarpieces, paintings, novels, and illustrations. These shaped the imaginations of people around the world. And much of it can be traced to Florence’s Baptistery, and to those anonymous artists who labored here in the 13th century, determined to give ’em hell.