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Sydney’s Best Bites: is the West best?

Sydney Food

The battle over Sydney’s good food scene sparks up as foodie culture is on the rise, but has the West done enough to seize the title off the East? Georgia Appleby investigates whether the West lives up to the hype.

Georgia: Move over Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo and the Sydney CBD. Sydney’s Outer West is rising up and challenging the East’s reputation as the home of good food and wine.

Places like Parramatta, Cabramatta and Granville were once thought of as distant suburbs whose streets were lined with greasy fish and chip shops, gaudy pizzerias and run-down Chinese takeaways.

But the West has undergone a makeover, and its food scene promises not to disappoint.

Cr. Scott Lloyd: Parramatta is not too far away from Sydney at all. It’s a very short train trip now with all the express trains. But Parramatta has so many diverse places to go and eat at- no matter if you love your Italian, Japanese, your Greek, your Malaysian, your Chinese. The variety is here and the choice is massive here in Parramatta.

Georgia: Parramatta’s “Eat Street” now boasts not only major food chains like Oliver Brown and Crinitis, but is also home to a growing number of typically inner-city trendy eats.

Declan Lee: We wanted to be out West and it seemed like the epi-centre of that area.

Georgia: Gelato Messina was one of the first to move to Eat Street.

Declan: We had a lot of customers that would come from out West – Parramatta, Castle Hill which is North West I think. A lot of people out that way were coming to our stores, even as far as Liverpool and they asked us a lot. So we had a pretty good idea that it would work out there.

Georgia: But what makes these places so good, and how can you spot a gem? According to blogger and food enthusiast Sam Low, a good restaurant or café will do more than just serve good food.

Sam: I think what really makes a good café is a really nice interior that people can be comfortable in, food of course has to be good! But it is mainly the service and the interior. It’s the whole experience.”

Georgia: This is supported by Lee who says that Messina does much more than just sell gelato.

Declan: What we do is we create an experience with good product. We also create a good experience in store. So when people come into our stores there is always music playing quite loudly, the stores are dimly lit. We create an atmosphere. And I like to think that our staff are fantastic as well so that the experience you get, we hope, is always a joyful one.”

Georgia: Helen Fraser, Director of Ultimately Sydney says that more Aussies need to fight criticism of our cuisine and embrace its diversity.

Helen: You’ll find that spaghetti bolognese and stir fries and fish – everyone is very adventurous. You go to Coles and the local supermarkets and you’ll find so many different exotic aisles. So, we are probably very blessed to have a multicultural cuisine. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what the Australian cuisine is. We love the meat pies. We love the fish. We love the steak and the chips. Yeah okay, that can be it if you had to pick a traditional dish, but we have one! It’s super, dynamic, multicultural, brilliant!

Georgia: And, perhaps, it is this very diversity that is allowing the West to gain ground against the East in the battle over Sydney’s good food scene.

So why not be a tourist in your own backyard, escape the city for night and take a stroll down Eat Street.

Enjoying The Range Of Britain’s Cities


For most people who think about the attractions and the places to visit in the UK, the vast majority of people will usually think about London, but this is only one place in the country, and there are plenty of other places that have a lot to offer visitors. Going exploring beyond the usual confines of the south east really will impress those who take the time to do so, and seeing some of the best of what the UK can deliver.

There are many people who enjoy the cultural side of the UK, and especially the comedy that is produced in the country every year, and one of the best cities to visit will be Edinburgh during the comedy festival. There are so many funny people who perform shows throughout the festival that people will find it difficult to choose from the comedy on offer.

Another great city to visit in the UK is Manchester, which is not only a musical hotbed, but home to two excellent football teams competing in the prestigious Premier League. Anyone visiting can enjoy the wide range of venues which offer live music throughout the week, and then enjoy the weekend seeing some high quality football.

For people who are looking for some of the best nightlife the UK has to offer should consider going to Newcastle, which is famed for the enthusiastic revelers that are in the city center every weekend whatever the weather.

When it comes to the cities across Britain, there are many which offer cosmopolitan destinations, but when it comes to history, the UK’s smallest city St David’s is exceptionally beautiful, and has a historic cathedral that is the envy of many larger cities.

There is no doubt that London is a wonderful city that offers visitors so many wonderful entertainments and places to go, but only going to London is really depriving visitors of all the rest that Britain has to offer. Whatever visitors are looking for from their holiday in Britain, there is a city which can really offer an excellent place to go, and some of the best of what the UK can give tourists.

Using the Train to Get Around the UK


When it comes to transport around the UK, getting off the roads is something that many experienced travelers will want to do, and the most popular alternative in this vein is to choose to travel around on the train. However, there are a number of things to do to ensure the trip will be truly successful, and to avoid some of the pitfalls that can occur when booking journeys and traveling on the train.

The best tip in order to travel on trains for the best price is to book in advance, as this will make it much easier to know the times of the journey and to plan accordingly, and to make sure the journey can be achieved and transport to and from the station is in place if necessary.

One of the important things when booking train journeys is to consider whether the route of the journey actually makes sense, especially when booking tickets online, as the systems that are in place can often make illogical stops or changes on the journey in order to offer the best price for the ticket.

Another thing to make sure of when booking train tickets is to try and avoid using the rush hour trains if possible, as these do tend to be quite crowded and will often only have space for those standing up, which is not good for those traveling with cases or a rucksack. It is also wise to leave a buffer of time if going from one train to another at the station, in case the first train is running slightly late.

The train system in Britain is a great way to get around and to see the country, and there will usually be a ticket that will not only be suitable for the journey being made, but can also be bought at a competitive price when booked well in advance.

Train travel has been a key part of the transport infrastructure within the UK since the nineteenth century, and is still an important and enjoyable mode of transport today.

Dimitroulas Odyssey: The Quest to Find a Long Lost Greek Family

Magoula Greece

An undeciphered envelope and the bastardized version of my Greek family name were all that remained. It had been nearly one-hundred years since Eppocratis Dimitroulas left his Greek homeland, never to return again. The cultural connections disintegrated; the family relationships waned. Three generations had passed since he left his family behind, long enough ago that his memory surely had faded into antiquity. But perhaps they still knew of him… Perhaps they knew of us?

I couldn’t wait any longer; I had to know… I had to go… I had to find my ancestral home.

Throughout my life people have enquired about my apparent Greek ethnicity; I’ve always embraced the perception with pride, but could never move beyond the unsettling  guilt that the connections to my ancestral heritage had been lost. I never felt worthy of “being Greek,” yet I adored the cultural associations and historical accolades, such as Socratic philosophy, Olympic heroism, and the enquiring connection to Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility, and the harvest, affiliated with my family name while growing up in the transient city of Washington, D.C. The time had come to earn that distinction and restore my family’s Greek roots.

We knew very little about my great-grandfather’s past. As the story goes, he left his village during his teenage years with one of his cousins, arriving in The Bronx in America. Immigration and customs officials butchered his name to Sam Dimetres, the spelling of our family surname remaining relatively unique to this day. Eventually settling in Springfield, MA, he adapted to American customs while effectively pressing the reset button on our family’s Greek heritage. We believed that his parents were named Petros and Georgia, and we knew that he had numerous siblings at the time of his departure.

An empty envelope sent from Greece and adorned with Greek writing had been found a few years earlier in my grandmother’s basement; it was the sole relic remaining with any direct connection from my great-grandfather to his family. The envelope revealed the name of a village Magoula, which we learned was located in the Peloponnesian countryside near Pyrgos, Elias. With the envelope in hand and a micro-fraction of our family tree at the ready, my immediate family (my parents Patty & Wayne, sisters Kara & Jac, and myself) embarked on our long awaited journey to Greece.

We knew the likelihood of finding anyone who would have any recollection of Eppocratis Dimitroulas or knowledge of their direct ancestry to his parents, Petros & Georgia, was akin to a blindfolded, spun-out game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Even if we met a distant relative, who knew if we’d get along, or if we’d even be welcomed?

The odds were stacked against us, but we didn’t care; despite the negligible evidence and limited knowledge of the town beyond its location on a map, our optimism grew as large as the chances were slim, like a candle-blowing birthday cake wish that just might come true if wished hard enough.

This expedition to seek out my Greek family and ancestral homeland was three generations in the making, and the time was now. No amount of hope could be spared.

I woke up in Athens in an exhausted stupor; my excitement had not allowed me to sleep. George, our wonderful bilingual driver-for-hire, waited patiently for us outside our hotel. He had been well versed in our family’s quest to connect with our Greek heritage and honorably embraced the role of guide and interpreter.

The four-hour journey through the Peloponnese to Magoula was decorated with endless landscapes of olive groves and grapevines and was punctuated with dreamy conversations of a storybook reunification with our Greek family fit for a Disney movie. We were determined to knock on as many doors as possible for clues and agreed to embrace any hospitality should it be offered.

Magoula is a small village with an agrarian lifestyle that has not changed much since my great-grandfather left. A single main road slices through the town, with side roads leading up and down the bountiful hills and valleys of the countryside. A small cafe and its neighboring hardware store seemed to be the most active places of business, so we parked our van nearby and prepared to explore Magoula.

I eagerly waved my hands with childlike excitement as I greeted the onlookers; however the enthusiasm was not returned. We were met with confused, apprehensive glares as we approached the handful of locals who sat reading their newspapers outside of the cafe. No one spoke English and the novelty of foreign travelers in their town apparently meant nothing at all.

George took charge, asking the crowd if anyone’s last name was Dimitroulas, and my eyes lit up as a few people began to nod their heads. We quickly learned quite a few families in the village shared that same last name or something phonetically similar; in this part of the world, Dimitroulas seemed about as common as Johnson or Jones back in the States. None of them, unsurprisingly, had any recollection of Eppocratis or his parents. Finding a direct descendent of Petros and Georgia Dimitroulas with knowledge of their family tree was like a real life game of finding a needle in a haystack, hidden within the unknown homes of Magoula.

We continued on, searching the graveyards of the local churches for the burial site of my great-great-grandparents, hoping to find clues about the rest of their immediate family in order to complete our genealogy tree. Unfortunately, the plethora of similar, if not identical, family names on tombstones scattered throughout the graveyards made any type of progress impossible.

An empty soccer field, a stone’s throw from the church, teased us with it’s lack of activity; there didn’t appear to be a main square or central meeting point anywhere in town. The side roads were quiet minus the single car that sauntered by, uninterested in the bewildered flock of out-of-towners. A market remained open in the distance, never a customer in sight. The silhouette of a couple, sitting together on a balcony farther up the hill, was slightly visible in between the passing clouds; surely, they must have seen us, but I could never tell if they ever did extend a wave.

The sun began to feel hotter as we continued on, drifting along the main road with our faces decorated in the hesitant smiles of fractured optimism, hoping our relatives would make like a fairy godmother and magically appear in a flash of harmonious white light to complete the fairy tail. We were losing something much more than momentum; we weren’t making a connection, and we couldn’t help but start to lose hope.

While contemplating a return back to Athens as the number of streets to explore and doors to knock on continued to dwindle, a twenty-something guy wearing a disheveled, red Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt walked towards us with the kind of stroll that suggested he had spent the previous night out. His eyes grew wider as he got closer, his curiosity seemingly matching our own. Inquisitive, jovial, positively aberrant and rollickingly enamored with the random pack of foreigners wandering through his hometown, he introduced himself to us as Alkis.

Alkis was born and raised in the village, but currently lived and worked in Athens. He had returned home for the weekend to visit his mother, and had just left his house to buy a pack of cigarettes.

As George explained our ambitions to find our ancestral family, Alkis excitedly volunteered to help lead the way, delighted to help us on our excursion.

Alkis, blessed with the affability and infinite wit of a Hollywood TV show host, was a godsend if there ever was one. He knocked on doors, called friends and family from his cell phone and seemingly put the town on alert that an American family had returned “home” to Magoula.

He led us to different homes and plots of land that belonged to people that shared our last name, but none of them knew anything about any distant American relatives. Even his efforts were unsuccessful however. When all else failed, he invited us back to his home to share some coffee, local wine and good conversation; a wonderful gesture which would have made the journey worth it unto itself.

The countryside seemed to glow as we gazed at the endless grape vines rippling in the distance from the deck of Alkis’ home. As I enjoyed my wine, I began to come to terms with the idea that my Greek family would most likely remain a mystery forever. Nevertheless, even if I had left Magoula with nothing more than a new friend, a taste for the local wine and a memory of the town, I would have considered the journey a success.

At that exact moment, Alkis’ mother, on a whim, suggested that we speak with Diamanto, the elderly lady who lived directly across the street.

Diamanto, an exuberant woman nearing her 88th birthday and blessed with the type of smile that could melt Medusa’s heart, had been born and raised in Magoula. Draped in an aura of old-school wisdom with a balanced display of wonder in her eyes, she enjoyed relaxing on her outdoor balcony, taking in the timeless views of her ancestral homeland. She lived in her beige and reddish-brown home, perched on a hill whose land had once been collectively owned and divided among her ancestors, with her daughter Mary and Mary’s husband Dimos, a retired police chief from Athens. Mary and Dimos split their time between Athens and Magoula, and they happened to be home for the weekend.

There was the highly unlikely but not impossible chance that Diamanto had known of my great-grandfather, or perhaps known other members of his immediate family. It seemed nearly certain that she was our last hope.

Alkis and I, guardedly optimistic that good fortune lay within reach, trotted over while the rest of my family enjoyed their wine and coffee. A moment after we knocked on Diamanto’s door, I was greeted by Mary, whose stunningly familiar face stared back at me with an improbable set of blue eyes identical to my own.

As Alkis explained the reason for our visit, Mary signaled for Diamanto and Dimos to join us. Inside her living room, a large, antique portrait of Diamanto’s father hung ominously from the wall above the couch. Set in a dark wood frame wrapped around a weathered, off-white rectangular border, the black and white photo featured a man dressed in formal attire with a bushy mustache, slightly offset eyes, and a haircut parted directly down the middle.

The picture on the wall was an image of Nikos Dimitroulas, father to Diamanto and grandfather to Mary. Baffled yet fascinated, Mary quickly confirmed that her mother’s maiden name was, in fact, Dimitroulas.

The five of us quickly took a seat in the living room as Alkis, gushing with renewed anticipation, began to ask all the right questions. “Diamanto, your maiden name is Dimitroulas, right?”

“Yes, it is…” she replied, her eyebrows raising slowly above the circular rim of her sunglasses as her voice quivered with curiosity.

“Do you remember the name of your grandparents?”

“Well, I believe their names were Petros and Georgia…”

I was on the edge of my seat… I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as Alkis translated the conversation back to me after each question.

“Your father, did he have any siblings? Did he have a brother named Eppocratis?”

I could see the wheels turning inside her head as Diamanto recalled images of her family from generations long ago. She glanced constantly at the image of her father mounted directly above us.

“Well… yes, he had six siblings… and I believe he had a brother named Eppocratis…  But he was the one that left for America before I was born. I don’t know what happened to him. He never came home, so I never got to meet him.”

My mind became numb amidst a surreal haze. Tears filled my eyes as my lips began to tremble. Alkis beamed as he pulled me closer to Diamanto.

“Diamanto, I want you to meet my good friend Kevin Dimetres. This is Eppocratis Dimitroulas’ great-grandson. He finally came home, and he came here to meet you and your family.”

We looked around at each other, astonished and speechless, all of us knowing deep down that words could never do the moment justice. The silence was deafening; no one knew what to do or say next, and for an instant, I couldn’t remember how to breath.

Diamanto stood up, extended her arms in my direction and giggled with joy as she embraced me with the kindest words I thought I’d never hear, “Welcome home, Kevin.”

We did it. We actually did it. We found our family. The wish had been granted. The dream had come true.

But this was not the end of our journey.


Within moments, my family rushed over from across the street, showering Diamanto and her family with an onslaught of smiles and hugs. The similarities between Mary’s eyes and my own had given us a hint of a possible relation, but it was the picture of Diamanto’s father that removed any doubt; the image was nearly identical to my father, like he had traveled back in time.

Mary and Dimos immediately called their relatives to come meet their long lost American cousins. Their son, Vassilis, introduced himself to me as if he had known me forever. Nearly the same age as myself, he exuded a distinct sense of poise and humility with a sage demeanor, provoking a clear resemblance to Diamanta and her recurringly uplifting grins. Standing just over 6’ feet, Vassilis donned an orange polo shirt and the perpetual stubble of so many Greek men our age, which had clearly been passed on to myself. The unlikely family reunion that none of us ever expected began to materialize right before our eyes.

George and Alkis’ acted as translators while we began to exchange stories. Diamanto recalled receiving gift packages as a child from her uncle in America, confirming his mythical existence. The packages came with less frequency as time went on, until they stopped coming altogether. No one else had left Greece before or since.

Remarkably, they had always recognized the likelihood of distant cousins living in America, but no one had any idea exactly who we were or where we might be. They understood that our family name had probably been changed, which made it impossible for them to seek us out. But they never gave up hope; one-hundred years and three generations later, our Greek family had not forgotten us.

Vassilis, who had been educated in Athens and earned a degree in computer sciences, pulled out his laptop to show us perhaps the most stunning and unexpected image of all: the Dimitroulas genealogical family tree. We traced our lineage directly back to Petros and Georgia, the great-great-grandparents shared by both Vassilis and myself.  The branches beneath their names listed their seven children, including a single branch for Eppocratis. The space below his name was blank.

It was astonishing; the tiny fraction of our American family tree was the missing link that Vassilis had been seeking for years. As we exchanged information, both our genealogical trees became nearly complete; our families had officially been reunited.

Just as I was about to exhale and reflect on the serendipitousness of the day, Dimos stood at the table, his eyes glistening with a proud smile, proclaimed in a baritone voice, “Come, let us go pick grapes.”


I didn’t ask any questions as we piled into the van and drove down the dusty dirt roads deep into the countryside. We parked near an old cabin amidst rows of tomato plants, grape vines and olive branches.

Vassilis handed me a bag to pick fruits and vegetables as he led me around the farmland.

“This farm has been in our family for hundreds of years. We have grown our food here for generations. We even use the grapes to make our own wine; everyone in Magoula makes their own wine.”

I felt like I was living in a movie; like the scene was cut directly from the film Godfather Part II, when Michael Corleone returns to his ancestral homeland in Sicily. I had nearly run out of emotions at this point; my wildest dreams had officially come true.

“Our great-grandfathers were brothers who worked on this farm together,” Vassilis continued, “That cabin was probably built by both of them.”

I paused for a second, savoring the taste of the freshly picked grapes while allowing the warmth of the sun to saturate the moment.

I could picture my great-grandfather one-hundred years earlier, working diligently in the hot sun, with a barrel full of olives ready to be pressed into olive oil. I imagined him sitting in that cabin, tired from a long day’s work, relaxing amid the backdrop of flickering candlelight as dusk turned to night. I couldn’t help thinking of him working in these fields, at the brink of exhaustion, driven by a glimmer of hope that a better life awaited him in America if he could find a way to make the journey. I pictured him fleeing the farm life of Magoula and never looking back.

I took a deep breath of the dry Greek air, sipped the homemade wine from its empty plastic soda bottle container, and finally exhaled. It all had all come full circle.

I was home.


In the United States, most everyone has their ancestral roots from somewhere else; an integral part of being an American is having pride in an individual ethnic background. My Greek family name projects an intimate connection to my Greek roots, and I’ve embraced it my entire life.

Before we said our goodbyes, I confided in Vassilis how I had always yearned to truly “be Greek”- that is, whenever I’m asked if I’m Greek, I want to say “yes” without feeling guilty or unworthy. I hoped that I had earned that privilege, but I couldn’t move forward without his blessing.

“My brother,” Vassilis said to me with a smile as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder, “Of course you are Greek. In your heart you have always been Greek, and you always will be. This is your home in Greece. We are family.”

The odyssey was officially complete.

I gave him a hug with my promise to return to Greece again and invited them to visit us in America. Our families are Facebook friends, and we will not lose touch again.

Whether Greek or American, Dimitroulas or Dimetres, this journey has taught me that no matter how far a family is flung, it endures and remains strong.

Cruising Costa Rica

Costarica Sugarcane

As a recent visitor of the ridiculously friendly and ecologically diverse country of Costa Rica, I have to say that I was continuously amazed by how much everyone worked to conserve the environment. I went in knowing that Costa Rica has been the poster child for sustainability and conservation over the last several years, but I was floored by the level of commitment citizens had to the rain forest as well as their own living environments. From having more recycle and compost bins available than trash cans, to keeping toilet paper out of the sewers, to preserving 52,000 hectares (200 square miles) of rain forest and planting more trees than are cut down, Costa Rica’s top priority is sustainability.

Another priority that comes in at a close second is tourism. Travelers from developed countries all over the world feel right at home in the myriad hotels that offer air-conditioning, insect-free rooms, and menus complete with turkey club wraps and chocolate cake. While these hip-and-happening spots are nice every now and then, I’m a fan of diving into local culture and down-home digs.

Costarica Stadium
Costa Rica’s brand new soccer stadium, compliments of China

The Evergreen Lodge in Tortuguero came much closer to my comfort zone with metal-roofed huts snuggled in the rainforest alongside a canal. Each morning, we were greeted by the ominous calls of male howler monkeys, who sounded not unlike the Hulk on a bad day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of fresh plantains, watermelon, papaya, and pineapple as well as the country’s staple of rice, beans, tomatoes, and a protein of your choice. Activities included kayaking down the protected canals that stretched through thick forested areas. River otters, capuchin monkeys, caimans, spider monkeys, and hundreds of species of birds could be seen from the waterways. Besides taking in the incredible wildlife, visitors could hitch a ride on a boat to the small village of Tortuguero and browse the shops, stick a straw in a fresh coconut, or visit the sea turtle conservatory.The conservatory was one of my favorite places as they would tell you everything you could ever want to know about the local turtle populations. During the egg-laying season, you can join a handful of other visitors to carefully and respectfully witness a turtle lay her eggs in the sand. If you are lucky and patient and have lots of bug spray to ward off the hoard of mosquitos that will inevitably eat you alive, you will see a giant turtle drop dozens of ping-pong-sized eggs into a small hole, then cover them with her tired flippers before creating a decoy nest to confuse predators. After she has worked for two hours, she will haul herself back out to the ocean and you will cheer as the first refreshing wave splashes her in the face.

Costarica Bird


Other locations around Costa Rica that are popular among tourists are the volcanic region of Arenal, the mountainous Quaker-settled villages of Monte Verde, and the crammed white-sand beaches along the Pacific side of the country. I was able to visit Arenal and Monte Verde, which offered spectacular views that few cameras can capture, even in the rainy season, (I spent just enough time taking panoramas that people around me started to think I was going crazy). These areas truly are touristy and while many of the lodges are clean and comfortable and equipped with WiFi, I would love to explore other areas that are a little more rugged.

One of the first things I learned about Costa Rica is that they have a favorite saying: Pura Vida. Pura Vida or “Pure Life” can mean anything from “how are you doing?” to “I’m doing great!” to a sarcastic version of “everything’s peachy… not.” It all depends on how it is used. From my experience, if you happen to catch on quick and use the phrase in the right context, you’ll be received with big smiles and a thumbs-up. If you have an American accent, you’ll get a smile and look that translates to, “thanks for trying.”

While this excursion was a personal trip of my own, Immersion Travel will feature Costa Rica’s incredible and diverse regions in upcoming issues. We will showcase many more details about the country including cultural nuances and the best places to get a mouthwatering plate of rice, beans, and chicken tacos. We would love to hear your Costa Rican experiences or help you answer any questions you may have. Drop us a line with Twitter or send us an e-mail.

Pura Vida!

The Five Wise Men of the Voodoo Trail

Benin Vodoo Men

The feeling was unfamiliar. Alone, I sat on the splintered wooden bench while the passersby sized me up with skeptical curiosity. Their skin glistened with sweat, accentuating the slash marks lacing both sides of their faces. The slash marks had been deliberately crafted into their visage, haunting me with wonder. Images of celestial snakes and sword-wielding gods decorated the decrepit dwellings surrounding me. This was a faraway world, and for the first time in as long as I could remember as a traveler, I felt the fear of the unknown begin to surge in my veins.

I was in the center of Ouidah, the spiritual mecca of Vodun, immersed in the shadowy culture of voodoo lore. The slash marks were the results of ritual scarification, a tradition in which emblematic scars are etched into the skin as symbolic protection from evil spirits. To an uninitiated outsider like myself, the tattoo-like scars were a bone-chilling ritual from an ancient religion cloaked in mystery and misconceptions.

Understanding its essence had become my travel Holy Grail du jour, and I was willing to explore the depths of its holiest places to discover its truths.

Vodoo Trail

It is known as “voodoo” back home in the States, and its pop-culture perception is saturated with notions of wickedness and awe. It was the native religion of the slaves transported to the Americas from West Africa’s Slave Coast, and it’s been subject to outlaw, demonization, and dogmatic reconstruction since it set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Voodoo’s associations to witchcraft and evil sorcery were a calculated product of propaganda, a Hollywood production of delusion designed to influence the cultural assimilation/cultural destruction of Africans adapting to life in the New World. Its truths have remained obscure, clouded by apprehensions of fear, hidden behind perceptions of “the other.”

Voodoo exists today in the Americas as a syncretic belief set, producing evolutionary branches of the African religion in Louisiana, Brazil and Haiti. Its roots can be traced to the Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, particularly the Fon people in modern day Benin. In fact, the term “voodoo” is derived from the Fon word “Vodun (Vodoun/Voudoun),” which translates to “spirit” in the local language.

Traditional African Vodun remains a mystery to a majority of the outside world. It has survived virtually untouched in Benin, where nearly half of the population practices the animistic spirituality in its purest form. As one of only two countries today (along with Haiti) to recognize Vodun as an official religion. Benin proudly considers itself the birthplace the “Birthplace of Voodoo.”

I wanted to see life through their perspective, and to discover the realities of their spiritual approach to life. A dance alongside the spirits and superstitions of Vodun lore inevitably began in Ouidah.

As one of Africa’s largest slave trade trading ports during the 18th and 19th centuries, Ouidah prospered as an extension of the ruthless Dahomey Kingdom. Following the abolition of slavery and the collapse of Dahomey rule, Ouidah remained a spiritual epicenter for native African religions, specifically Vodun.

Today Ouidah is home to a variety of mystical landmarks honoring its cultural past, such as the Temple of Pythons and the Sacred Forest of King Kpasse. Vodun is not a religion practiced casually; in this part of the world, Vodun is a way of life.

The depth of Vodun spirituality is massive and variations exist within the different ethnic, regional and historical practices, but I’ll briefly explain the basics – as I can best understand them – for the sake of clarity.

Vodun considers itself to be a monotheistic faith, whose primary creator goddess is called Mawu. The existence of a vast pantheon of lesser gods is recognized, each associated with natural forces in a similar structure to the religious pantheons of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These lesser gods interact with Mawu on behalf of the spirits on earth, whose relationship with the divine Supreme Being is akin to the heavenly saints and angels of Christianity.

While practitioners of Vodun, known as Vodounci, recognize the entire Vodun pantheon, individuals usually focus their energies toward a select few of their favored deities. Some examples of prominent Vodun deities and the realms of their natural powers include Sakpata (earth/health), Heviosso (sky), Egou (metals/craftsmanship), Legba (masculinity/crossroads), and Dan (prosperity/communication).

Each deity is associated with a signature dance and drumbeat, and veneration to the gods is expressed by dancing and drumming to these unique rhythms.

Vodoo Journey Africa

Worship is conducted through ritual interaction with fetiches (consecrated shrines dedicated to the living spirits of Vodun deities and ancestral family members). Fetiches are often makeshift memorials located inside the homes and villages of their adherents, as well as anthropomorphized sculptures of Vodun deities- the historical root of the fabled “voodoo doll.”

Communication with the fetiches usually begins by waking up the spirits through offerings of gin and communal sips of sodabi- a traditional West African moonshine type of liquor made from fermented palm tree sap. Prayers are recited simultaneously accompanied by communication with the spirit world via cowry shells; the shells are rolled like dice and their landing positions are interpreted as direct messages from the Vodun spirits.

These spiritual consultations are orchestrated by a Vodun priest or priestess, referred to as a Vodounon, respectively, whose role is similar to a shaman. These mystical gurus play an important role in their communities for their healing powers and spiritual wisdom, providing insight on health, relationships, justice and the connections to the metaphysical world around them.

The perspective boundaries separating “intensely spiritual” and “obsessively superstitious” can fade into gray at times, but Vodon pulsates with an undeniable reality that everything in life has meaning; every moment is alive.

I had no formal plans beyond finding a seat on that bench that first day alone in Ouidah; I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was approached. I was playing dice with the universe choosing to traverse this continent without prior connections, but like most parts of the developing world, they tend to find you before you find them.

Dressed in a traditional shirt and trousers, known as a Beninese bomba, Odjo walked toward me with a muscular gait and the confident swagger of a man in his physical prime. A local shop owner and proud father of two twin baby boys, Odjo sensed an opportunity. He spoke a decent amount of English – a rarity in that part of the world – and offered to show me around town in exchange for a small fee.

The good fortune of connecting with an English-speaking local with a good pulse on the community cannot be understated; navigating rural Africa would have been impossible without someone like Odjo. I doubled down on his offer, asking Odjo to be my personal guide exploring Benin’s Vodun culture in exchange for a higher price tag. We both recognized the auspiciousness of our chance encounter, and we happily shook hands. Our friendship began in a spark of fortuity and intrigue.

Odjo introduced me to countless Vodun priests and practitioners throughout Ouidah over the next several days. He acted as my guide and translator, mediating conversations between myself and the major players of the Vodun communities. I was less concerned with the dogmatic minutia and more interested in understanding the overarching philosophies of Vodun. I was prepared to start each conversation with a simple two-part question: what is Vodun, and how could it be used to live a better life?

The ethereal world of Vodun would welcome me with open arms.

Agaja came from a village a few miles outside of Ouidah. He wore a traditional blue bomba accented with red and black patches and a cap above his head. His beaded necklaces hung low near his waist, swaying to the slow pace of his strut as he approached me with an ironclad demeanor, seemingly impervious to the highs of delight and the lows of fear. His calmness was contagious as he sat down on the wooden chair in front of me.

“What you must understand,” he spoke in a baritone voice while his eyes looked through me, “is that what goes around, comes around.”

I inquired about the similarities to the concept of karma, but he was unfamiliar with the term.

“What you give, you will receive. What you do to others, will be done to you.”

His hands shot back and forth through the air as he spoke, like a conductor leading an orchestra in slow motion.

“Violence brings more violence. If you use Vodun as a weapon against your enemies, then your enemies, in this life or the next, will use violence against you. You cannot achieve peace through violence. If you want peace, then you must first ask for peace, and then give peace.”

I prodded Agaja with more questions about his subtle reference to the notion of reincarnation and Vodun’s concept of the cycle of life.

“Death is like a comma, not a period. Nature exists in a state of duality, the cycle of life. The sun rises, the sun sets and rises again. The flowers die, become food for the earth and come to life again. Such is life here on earth and in the spirit world. It is the cycle of life, ongoing and eternal. What goes around comes around, so you must live your life accordingly.”

I nicknamed Agaja the Voodoo Buddha, but neither he nor Odjo got the joke. We departed the village and headed further outside of Ouidah, seemingly treading farther back into time.

A grotesque fetiche featuring a pair of horns and a prominent phallus marked the entrance to Glele’s village. This was Legba, the trickster Vodun deity of the crossroads, and similar fetiches placed at the gateways of rural villages were ubiquitous throughout Benin.

Glele was thickly built with broad shoulders, a bulging neck and the bald head of a battering-ram. He liked to wear a live python around his neck like a collar, though his intimidating guise was offset by a jovial demeanor and a hair-trigger smile.

His home featured a large fetiche dedicated to his patron deity Dan, the serpent god associated with communication to the spirit world and believed to endow its adherents with prosperity. My admission was determined by his snake’s reaction to being placed on my shoulders; after Glele had laid its body against the back of my neck, the snake coiled around me until it silently found a position of comfort. I was allowed to proceed.

“The snake alerts me to negative energy; but he seems to like you,” he chuckled as he prepared our shots of Sodabi. He handed me a cup, then took the snake from around my neck and placed it gently back around his.

“Vodun is very powerful, but it is neither good nor bad. It has no intention. It is like a knife, or a spear. It sits still, without emotion. It is you who stabs the knife or throws the spear, who determines its energy.”

The concept of using Vodun as a weapon captivated me. I encouraged him to elaborate. He spoke of an ancient system of justice that predates the legal systems of the modern world.

“Vodun may be used for justice, yes. If another man kills your wife, what do you do? Revenge by your hand would continue in a cycle of violence, so instead, you may pray to Heaviosso, the Vodun sky god and purveyor of justice. Perhaps he strikes down your enemy in a rage of thunder and lightning.”

In a land which has historically lacked the luxuries of an effective criminal justice system, I could understand the practicality of Vodun justice.

“But you must understand, Vodun is not a toy. You must use wisdom. You must have responsibility. You could hurt yourself and hurt others. Just like the blade of a sword, it is sharp, do not play with it like a toy.”

The more he spoke of Vodun, the more he appeared like a Jedi master elucidating on The Force from Star Wars.

“You want to make this girl fall in love with you, Vodun will make it happen. You want to heal this sickness, Vodun will make it happen. You want to grow crops for food, Vodun will make it happen. Whatever you want, the Vodun spirit will give… But you must first ask… And you must use Vodun for positivity only. If you use Vodun for negativity, in a bad way, it will come back to you.”

Glele put the snake back around my neck as I contemplated his words. The snake snuggled up in a comfortable position, and he proceeded with an unexpected question for me.

“So… what is it that you want from Vodun?”

I momentarily went blank, sensing the weight of karma and personal responsibility on my conscious similar to the way the snake had coiled itself around my neck.

“I want to understand… To be able to see the world the way you do, through the eyes of a Vodounon.”

He paused for a moment, silently reflecting on his thoughts, looking at the snake wrapped around my neck. He rolled the cowry shells, mumbled something in an unfamiliar language, then turned back toward me.

“Okay my friend. Vodun shall reveal itself to you.”

Egou (at a Vodun festival)

I took a break from Ouidah for a few days while Odjo returned to his business and family. In the meantime, I explored the side streets of Benin’s coastal highway when Tessi and I first crossed paths. He wore a collared orange and black shirt with shorts and sandals, striding with a hop to his step like he was jamming to a song playing inside his head. He spoke five different languages, including English, much to my delight and conveyed an infectious friendliness about him that was rare in Benin.

He took an interest in my Vodun curiosity upon our introduction, and he offered to help me along my journey simply for the sake of helping.

Tessi was an old soul in a young man’s body. He liked to sit back with one foot resting over his knee, with a habit of extended pauses of contemplation before jolting upright with vigor as his stream of consciousness flowed into spoken words.

Born of a Christian mother and Vodun father, Tessi was considered a Christian at birth. His original name was David. At the age of four, he fell seriously ill, falling into a coma for multiple days before being pronounced dead.

It was at that moment that his aunt, a Vodun priestess, called on the spirit of his deceased grandfather to help bring him back to life. As the story goes, his grandfather reincarnated into David’s body, helping maintain his lifeforce, while his body began to heal. David miraculously survived with a full memory of the ordeal. Later, he formally converted to Vodun, choosing to be called Tessi as his native African name.

Tessi sitting next to a fetiche

His home had individual rooms for fetiches dedicated to Egou, the warrior god of metals and craftsmanship; Dan, the rainbow-colored snake god, who also served as the patron deity of his grandfather; and Sakpata, the god of the earth with associations to health and wellness.

Tessi’s concept of Vodun was holistic and harmonious.

“We are all connected. We call it the spirit of Africa; the spirit of Vodun, which is the connection. The earth, nature, the living beings, the spirit world; everything is connected. This is Vodun.”

His convictions were strong, and his energetic sense of spirit overflowed as he spoke. In his eyes, there was a sense of meaning to the occurrences of everyday life.

“Everything happens for a reason. It is the way of Vodun. That is why our individual character is so important. How we handle adversity and opportunity; they happen for a reason, and we must embrace the path presented to us. Like when I first met you wandering alone on that street… You may have appeared lost, but no, I knew that you were there for a reason. We are connected, you see…”

I had to give him credit; in a land where corruption is rampant, opportunities are scarce and trust is rare, Tessi was overflowing with enthusiasm and integrity.

But I needed more clarification on the nature of Vodun. Was it an abstract natural force, or did it have a deeper meaning? What was the underlying point of it all?

“My brother, think of it this way… what is the point of music? What is the point of dancing? You see, we are all connected, like the individual notes in the symphony of life. We are all one. So, my brother, go make beautiful music. Everyone that crosses your path is a musical note in the song that is life. Everyone and everything, the plants and animals, the earth, we all must create the melodies to make life on earth like beautiful music. That, my brother, is Vodun.”

Tessi had been born in a hut in a small African village, yet he possessed the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes. He called it “L’espirit d’afrique.” If he does not one day end up as a leader of his country, the world will be a lesser place for it.

Tessi agreed to take me to a rural African market farther inland and far off the beaten path. We ventured out on his motorbike, following the bumpy dirt roads, which diverged into narrowing footpaths, to a primeval part of the world trapped in an ancient way of life.

The cinderblock walls were decorated with images of an obscure crocodile god; the lone doorway was guarded by a white sheet of linen dancing against the breeze. Otherworldly chanting could be heard from within the the roofless structure. We parked the bike and began to explore, forgetting about the market at which we would never arrive.

Tessi clapped his hands twice, upon which an elderly woman draped in a royal blue shawl appeared at the doorway. Other individuals in similar garb looked on from behind her, fixated on the unusual foreigner, who was clearly in a time and place that he did not belong.

It was an unparalleled moment of serendipity; we had accidentally wandered into a ceremonial gathering of priests and priestesses partaking in a sacred ritual in a rural tobossi-houe- otherwise known as a Vodun “trance house.”

Tessi negotiated our entrance based on his Vodun connections, but not before I rid myself of my western attire and draped a white linen around my waist in a similar fashion to the others. They wore robes of white and royal blue with matching beaded necklaces. Silent feet bearing scars from a lifetime of shoeless labor poked out from under the robes.

The tobossi-houe was dedicated to the spirit of a locally venerated crocodile deity (whose name I never knew). The chief Vodounon was identifiable by his flawless white tunic and a matching cap. He went by the name of Azangli. His presence was commanding, as he stood in silence with a penetrating, unshakable glare.

Azangli lifted his arm in our direction pointing his finger at the ground. It was a signal for Tessi and I to kneel before entering. A woman knelt alongside us and rolled the cowry shells while she spoke to the spirit world. She tapped my shoulder to observe; the cowry shells indicated a positive sign from the Vodun gods. Azangli gave us a dubious nod, allowing us to proceed.

The outer room hosted two life-sized crocodile figures, each dyed green with their jaws stretched open wide. The heads of the crocodiles were freshly covered in blood, remnants of a goat sacrifice from earlier that day. A wooden throne, shaped in the traditional design of the Dahomey kings, sat between them.

Azangli had moved behind the entrance to the inner room, his piercing eyes tracing each of our steps with an apprehensive glare.


The inner room was a sacred chamber featuring a stunning Vodun fetiche unlike anything I had ever seen. A large rectangular altar was positioned in the middle of the room, roughly three feet high and maybe twice as wide. Layers of the skulls, skins, carved wooden objects, ornamented figures, offerings and other fetiche objects sloped like pyramid walls from its sides. Offerings of palm oil and bottles of gin lay close by. Atop the altar sat six crocodile heads; three life-sized carvings crafted from single blocks of wood, alongside three genuine crocodile skulls. Each of the crocodile jaws was open, with a large egg the size of a fist placed neatly at the end of its snout, between the upper and lower front two teeth.

This was the rural community’s holiest of holy sites, their sacred Vodun cathedral, and we had unintentionally interrupted a moment of ritual worship that my eyes were never meant to have seen.

Azangli pointed to the ground with the commanding presence of an emperor, and we quickly kneeled along with the other dozen or so Vodounons in front of the altar of crocodile skulls. He recited a prayer while our foreheads kissed the ground. The rest of the group remained silent.

A silver-haired woman wearing only a blue shawl around her waist handed me the bottle of sodabi. She moved about with the aging grace of royalty, appearing to be the high priestess of the sect; the spiritual queen to Azangli’s king. Tessi and I each took two sips, the first for ourselves, and the second to be spit out directly at the foot of the skulls.

She knelt before the altar and rolled the cowry shells to determine the fate of our visit. Azangli sat on his throne in silence while he anticipated the message of the gods.

She gave him a nod while she recited a prayer of gratitude in the Fon language. He returned the nod in our direction, speaking directly to us for the first time.

“You have no negative energy, and the Vodun spirits have welcomed you,” he said in a sonorous voice that echoed with a charismatic gravitas fit for a king.

I was overcome with a mix of euphoria and relief. I looked back at Tessi to see his face lit up with a confident “I told you so” shine in his eye.

“What is it that you want?” Azangli continued. “Answer me, and we shall pray together.”

Azangli’s question was literal, and he expected a precise answer. The Vodounons stared back at me in silent curiosity as soldiers of Azangli’s spiritual realm.

For a moment in time, all energies possessed by the Vodounons in the tobossi-house would be focused on the subject of my request. That my wish would be granted was taken as an absolute certainty.

It was the law of attraction; ask and you shall receive. Azangli sensed my ignorance, switching roles from monarchical sorcerer to Jedi philosopher; he was the human incarnate of Yoda crossed with Professor X.

“If you want money, you will receive it, but you must help others who are poor. If you want food, you will receive it, but you must feed others who are hungry. If you want health, you will obtain it, but you must help others who are suffering. You must return to Benin to pay your respects, so you can share the blessings with the Vodun spirits.”

Vodun manifests itself like esoteric magnetism; it rewards humility and punishes hubris. Pay it forward, show gratitude, and the positive energies of Vodun would guide me to prosperity. Act selfishly or wish harm to others, and I would be punished to the identical degree.

The Vodounons circled around the room and knelt before Azangli, their hands held together solidifying an impenetrable ring around the altar. I knelt alone at the foot of the crocodile skulls with Azangli directly to my side. He sat on his throne and bellowed a prayer to the spirit world while the high priestess showered the crocodile altar with offerings of gin and palm oil.

The Vodounons were synchronized in rhythmic chanting in between deliberate pauses from Azangli. I kept my eyes tightly shut with my forehead buried in the dirt floor, internally balancing the flooding sensations of gratitude and awe. I tried to breath slowly and soak in vitality of the moment. Time and space stood still as my ego momentarily vanished, only to return instantaneously with the unmistakable feeling of deja vu.

I raised my head to wipe the dirt from my face. The high priestess handed me a communal cup of sodabi, formally ending the ceremony. Azangli granted me a silent nod of approval while I stood on my knees, eye to eye with the jaws of a crocodile skull. I was offered a bowl of cassava and goat innards, and I politely chomped away at the rubbery flesh. Azangli appreciated my efforts, finally cracking a smile.

He offered me a single photo upon my exit, a solo portrait of himself on his throne. Then Tessi and I began our slow journey back towards the modern world.


Odjo had been awaiting my return to Ouidah. He had arranged for me to meet a highly revered Vodounon, assuring me that all of my questions about Vodun would be answered.

Zomadonou’s home was located down a dirt road extending inland from the outskirts of town. He was tall with a sinewy frame and gumby-like arms and legs, topped by a white cap similar to a Muslim taqiyah. He moved about with bolts of energy from the base of his spine, constantly veering in roundabout directions as his attention shuffled between thoughts like a mad scientist.

He welcomed Odjo and I with a toothy smile and a handful of cowry shells; a few rolls of the shells eliminated any further hesitations: Odjo and I were meant to be there.

“The power of Vodun is like the power of the sun,” he spoke with his palms open and arms spread outward, strategically tweaking his voice to emphasize his points.

“Just as the sun gives energy to life on earth, Vodun gives life to energy on earth. It is the connection of life and energy, the duality.”

I asked about the similarity to Yin and Yang, but was met with a blank stare. The abstract philosophy was enchanting, but I wanted to understand its practical application.

“All living things consist of energy; this energy comes from the same source. Like sun rays that come from the sun; separate, but at their essence, the same. Vodun is like the sun, and we are the light… So, we must shine.”

This prehistoric animistic religion sounded remarkably like new age philosophy. I began to wonder if humanity’s approach to spirituality may be coming full circle from the time of the ancients.

I wanted to know more. Could an outsider like myself harness the powers of Vodun?

“Vodun… You cannot touch it… Like light, it has no shape…” His hands maneuvered through the air as if he were sculpting his thoughts from an unseen block of clay.

“It begins with the state of your mind. Your mind creates your thoughts. Your thoughts become your behaviors. Your behaviors create the state of life on earth. So, the state of earth is a reflection of your mind. When the earth is suffering, it is a reflection of the mind of the people.”

The emphasis on the connection with the energies of the universe was evident, the role of positivity undeniable. But, the stigma of malicious evil spirits remained. The ritual scarification only seemed to intensify this fear, and I could not understand its practicality. I began to point to the scars and ask, but Zomadonou remained one step ahead.

“You do not understand the forces of evil spirits, because you cannot see them. The Vodun scars help us to see them; they know that we are watching. We defeat them with our mind.”

I had ventured too far into the deep end, and was no longer able to keep up. My face must have reflected my confusion, as Zomadonou sensed my optimistic curiosity beginning to sour. He slyly turned his attention to a handful of cowry shells. Lighting a candle while he had a word with the spirits, he rolled the shells two times, then looked back at me.

“I can cleanse you of the evil spirits, if you want, but first, you must ask for it yourself. Your Vodun power will be revealed to you.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant… But how could I say no?

I looked at Odjo, who gave me a nod; I returned the nod to Zomadonou.

“We will have a Vodun ceremony for you. To cleanse you of negative energy and evil spirits. The Vodun spirits give you protection, show you Vodun powers, now and in the future.”

I could feel the universe laughing at me once again. I had wanted to learn about Vodun from the perspective of its most spiritual adherents, and here I was, in the back alleys of Ouidah, with the opportunity to have a powerful Vodun priest perform a ritual ceremony to conquer evil energy and reveal the Vodun powers of my own inner spirit.

I was ready to go all the way.

I wore a white linen cloth over my teal Beninese trousers, no shoes or shirts allowed. The outdoor courtyard behind Zomadonou’s home featured conglomeration of peculiar fetiches laid out on a mat. The fetiches were covered in a messy blend of dust and dried blood. Their specific purpose remained unknown.

Zomadonou and I kneeled in front of the fetiche while he rolled the cowry shells and recited a prayer. Odjo and other locals had gathered around us as spectators, their eyes dancing with fervor at the site of a foreigner, who they began referring to as their brother.

A young girl handed Zomadonou two live chickens.

He held the chickens upside down, as if their legs were handles. A groundswell of fear consumed me once again; suddenly I knew what was coming. I had yet to witness ritual sacrifice as part of a Vodun ceremony, and I had never ever expected to be an active participant. The feeling was unnerving, but I had to respect the cultural norms; I was a guest in his home, and they were not my rules to reform. I looked into the chicken’s eyes and apologized from within.

Zomadonou traced the chickens over my body like a metal detecting wand, reciting a prayer in the Fon language throughout the process. Using a sanctified knife designated strictly for ritual sacrifice, he cut their throats one at a time and dripped the blood over the fetiche in absolute silence.

It is during these moments that the Vodun spirits manifest on earth, deriving strength from the blood of the sacrifice, and performing the divine miracles of Vodun lore.

In my case, that meant a spiritual cleanse of evil and negative energy, with the hope that my so-called Vodun powers would become actualized. Zomadonou again began to speak aloud to the spirits, while the chickens ceased to suffer no more.

The next step was a purification bath. Across the courtyard was a barrel filled with sanctified water and freshly gathered plants, whose mixture had been specifically formulated for my individual ceremony. I was instructed to drench myself completely in holy water using the vines that had been soaked inside the barrel. It was a cleansing in the most literal sense, and I was given my privacy behind a white curtain hanging from clothesline in the courtyard.

I returned to the fetiche mat and slowly took a seat on a stool placed near a circle drawn from flammable black powder. Zomadonou crouched next to me and placed a cup of dark powder on the ground.

He opened the palm of his hand to reveal an unopened razor. Zomadonou slowly unwrapped the razor’s packaging while giving me a nod. My jaw clenched to a petrified state. My voice failed me as my hand defensively shielded my face.

Ritual scarification on my face was a line I would not cross.

Zomadonou laughed at the weight of my trepidation and turned his attention to the village children, who looked on as eager spectators just a few yards away.

“We no longer cut our faces; look at the children.” He said in a confident tone.

It was an observation that I had missed entirely. The faces of the children were clear and unblemished.

“Now we make the cuts very small… around the body,” he said as he waved his hand in a circular motion to my chest and shoulders.​

I stared at the razor blade as my heart began to beat with the intensity of an African bongo drum. I took a deep breath and accepted the unknown outcome of my fate… there would be no going back.

He cut me twelve times; six pairs of small incisions on both shoulders, both sides of my torso, my chest and my back. The small slash marks were painless, the trails of blood were minimal.

Zomadonou quickly rubbed the chalky mixture of soot-like powder deep into the open wounds, chanting to the gods. The powder instantly transformed the cuts into tattoos, solidifying their permanence and enhancing the visceral effects of scarification.

I felt no pain.

The cleansing ceremony with Zomadonou

We broke from the formality of the festivities to share an evening meal with the local community. The growing darkness of night consumed Ouidah as we broke bread together.

We returned to the outdoor courtyard and immediately consulted with the spirits. Situated before us was a fetiche-sack crowned with the heart of a chicken and soaked in scented oils and sacrificial blood.

I positioned myself directly inside the flammable black circle while Zomadonou called out to Sogbho, a potent sky god of the Vodun pantheon associated with the power of explosives. I cradled the fetiche-sack in my hand and balanced the chicken heart on the surface. I extended my arm outward toward the stars.

Zomadonou put a match to the base of the circle, its outer edge igniting in both directions. He shouted at the nighttime sky as I held the fetiche steady with the focus of a sniper.

The onlookers were spellbound by the blazing circle of firecracker powder and booming Vodun oratory. Zomadonou’s arms thrashed through the smoke and shadows like an inflatable tubular air dancer, enhancing his grandiloquence in a cinematic fashion.

The fire burned out as Zomadonou’s words tapered off. The fetiche remained steady; the heart did not fall. The audience roared with approval. Zomadonou confirmed that Sogbho triumphantly cleansed all negative energies and evil spirits from within me.

He took the fetiche from my hand and led me into a shadowy crypt-like chamber at the far end of the courtyard for one final task.

He lit the chamber with scented candles, illuminating the carved wooden figures of Vodun gods and the sacrificial offerings of past ceremonies. We knelt before a small altar positioned against the center of the far wall.

Zomadonou tactically moved the candles and fetiches along the edge alter. He rolled the cowry shells, crooning with the spirits one last time. He handed me a cup filled with dark powder, mixed it with soda, and instructed me to drink it all.

I had never come across any information regarding this type of ritual during my pre-trip research, and thoughts of its potentially harmful effects swirled through my head with the uprooting force of a tornado.

When I asked what it was, the only answer I could get was “Vodun drink… so the Vodun stays with you.” Hey pointed to his gut before extending his finger in a circular wave around his body.

I wrapped both hands around the cup, held it to my lips and contemplated my fate. This was uncharted territory.

The Holy Grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flashed in my mind; his quest for knowledge of the divine had taken him through the depths of legends, until he held the cup of Christ in the palms of his hands.

The stakes were a far cry from the fate of mankind, but nevertheless my moment had come. I had asked for knowledge of Vodun, and the final challenge now similarly rested within my own two hands. The allure of this ancient knowledge was irresistible.

I took a deep breath as I took one last look around the room, the shadows of Zomadonou and the fetiche statues waving in the flickering candlelight of the crypt-like room. I shut my eyes, tilted the bottom of the cup to the pitch black ceiling, and let the Vodun drink flow deep inside of me until every last drop was gone.

It was surprisingly smooth, and it tasted like candy. I gradually opened my eyes, letting it all settle, slowly breathing in the tranquil fragrance of the scented candles.

I felt great.

I looked around the room, momentarily fixated on the reflections of light dancing against the scars and the smile adorning Zomadonou’s face. My own smile reflected his, and we started to laugh alongside each other.

My hands no longer trembled. The muscles around my neck loosened up. The tightness in my back relaxed.

The fear that had consumed me since that first moment in Ouidah began to melt away, until it evaporated completely. I was quickly seduced by a feeling of illumination, swept up in a profound moment of clarity.

The concept of evil was symbolic; the evil spirits had been a metaphor for fear.

The scarification served as an esoteric vaccination against the malaise of fear. The ring of fire signified its metaphysical crematorium, incinerating the clutches of fear in a grandiose public execution.  The ritual cleansing was a metaphorical polishing of our inner shine.

It all clicked.

Fear, particularly fear of “the other,” has divided humanity since the beginning. Fear prevents us from connecting. The evil spirits that have plagued the unity of the human race were never an external force to be battled with swords and superstitions; they were a force from within, an individual blemish on the universal consciousness of the human spirit.

United we stand. Divided we fall. It all became perfectly clear.

Zomadonou’s sacred chamber turned to complete darkness as he blew the candles out, but only then could I finally see the light.

So, what is Vodun?

Vodun is a dazzling expression of ancient superstition and new age spirituality, which sees all life in the universe as a connected natural force.

It is Buddhist karma crossed with The Force from Star Wars; an impartial power of the Law of Attraction traveling a circular path through the cycle of life.

It is the prehistoric science of the natural world; a polytheistic system of divinity, reason, and justice; an omniscient answer to the mysteries of life.

It is the sound of music; the harmonious vibrations that flow from the rhythms of our mind.

It is the spiritual companion, the Yin to the Yang, of the life giving energy of the sun.

It is the organic energy which connects the physical and metaphysical realms, and it exists within us all. It can be influenced at will, by those keen enough to understand the nuances of its vitality; it is “the vibe.”

It is the universal divine spirit, known by many different names in many different cultures across the globe and throughout history; whatever you want to call it is ultimately up to you.

I had one final question for Zomadonou about the nature of my soul and the spirit of Vodun; I had been exposed to so much on this crusade, and I was trying to sort it all out.

“I want to know – this adventure to Africa and my whole experience with Vodun – Did I choose Vodun and create this journey myself, or did Vodun create this journey and chose to take me along for the ride?”

He sprang up from his seat in a eureka-kind of moment, put both hands on my shoulders, and flashed his omniscient grin. Looking me straight in the eye, he began to answer. I should have seen it coming.

“… Yes.”

The following day I hitched a ride down West Africa’s coastal highway, en route to Farafina’s seaside Rasta beach in Grand Popo. I wanted a place to relax and reflect on it all, and sure enough, I found an empty hammock hanging from a palm tree waiting for me on the beach. The lyrics of Bob Marley echoed from a bar in the distance…“one love, one life…” As they say in Benin, “la vie est belle.”

Immersion Trave…

Timeless Pleasures in Sicily

Sicily Town

Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea and a true open air museum showcasing more than 260 ancient archeological sites such as temples, amphitheaters, fortresses, towers and churches. To add to the splendor, a crystal clear sea frames the island and its treasures.

In December 2015, I accompanied my parents on a week-long trip to the eastern part of Sicily. We wanted to spend the holidays away from our surprisingly foggy home in Florence, Tuscany, and Sicily turned out to be the perfect escape.

Even though we had already traveled to Sicily a few years before, this trip was intended for us to discover a completely different side of Italy. Due to the invasions of Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Norman, Catalan and Spanish armies since the 8th century BC, the region now reflects the cultural nuances that each group left behind. In just one city, you can find Arabian palaces, Baroque churches, Roman amphitheaters and Grecian theaters.

Caption: The Greek theatre of Taormina

This timeless fusion of culture can best be seen in the town of Taormina, where we decided to begin our Sicily adventure. Here we got lost in the boutique-lined main streets and medieval narrow alleys, where the branches of orange trees and oleanders leaned out from private residences. When we arrived at the town’s main vista covered in cactus and surrounded by jagged cliffs, the balcony of the Piazza IX Aprile offered a stunning view of the sea and Mt. Etna. White puffs of smoke rose from the volcano’s snowcapped edges and into the blue sky. In the square, we were surrounded by the splendor of Saint Giuseppe church, Saint Agostino church (now a library) and the Torre dell’Orologio balustraded clock tower. The tower seemed a gateway to another time as its delicate archway welcomed travelers to the older neighborhoods of the town.

It is not a coincidence that writers have extolled Taormina’s beauty almost since it was founded in the 6th century BC. The more streets we strolled in Taormina, the more bucolic it felt. Cafes with outdoor spaces and local specialties speckled the city center streets. We loved the harmonious fusion of medieval, renaissance and baroque architectural styles. Nearby we could see Giardini Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily in 735 BC. The colony was a subtle reminder of the changes that the town had seen. My parents and I found that Taormina embodied the passion, the sophistication and rustic warmth of the Mediterranean. For my mom, Taormina was like a fresh floral perfume. For me, the city’s atmosphere was vivacious and radiant with the fusion of ancient styles laced in a delicate femininity. It wasn’t hard to see how so many had fallen in love with the area and why they didn’t want to leave.

Caption: Baroque style domintes the Valley of Noto

We continued our Sicily trip from Taormina to the Baroque valley of Noto. The valley forms part of a UNESCO heritage site and includes the cities of Caltagirone, Catania, Militello in Val di Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli. Small settlements perched on hilltops, their golden monuments glowing with the Sicilian sunshine, could be seen from miles away. These cities were meant to be seen, celebrated and adored. This tiny but opulent Baroque jewel is the result of the efforts to rebuild after a devastating earthquake in 1693. In Noto in particular, the atmosphere felt like a luxurious treat. In a region populated by olive and almond trees, it sits on a plateau dominating the valley of the Asinara and its citrus plantations. We enjoyed driving our car through the valley and admiring every nook. Each site seemed an outstanding testimony of the exuberant genius of late Baroque art and architecture.

Caption: The Valley of Noto

The richness and the sensuality of Sicily is not limited to its monuments or natural attractions. The freshness of the local tastes and the gastronomic varieties make the island a must-experience destination, and for that, we specifically visited the Baroque town of Modica, the home of a very special chocolate. The story of Modica’s chocolate goes back to the 16th century when the Spanish introduced cocoa seeds from Mexico to the region, which was then considered to be the most economically and culturally influential part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Regarded as a source of strength, vigour and a sign of wealth, chocolate became popular among Modica’s citizens and is still prepared today using the traditional Aztec method. Modica chocolate has remained unchanged through the centuries and has never become industrially produced. I couldn’t resist chocolate tastings offered by some of the tiny food shops in the town, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Caption: A Mpanatigghi from Modica. Photo credit: Pond 5

My curiosity on the subject was satisfied by the owner of a local gelateria selling Modica chocolate. With typical Sicilian pride and warmth, he explained to us that, unlike common chocolate, the mass of semi-ground cocoa mixed with castor sugar and cinnamon or vanilla is kept at cold temperatures that prevent the sugar crystals from melting. I was in love with this chocolate: it had a rough and dull look on its surface with visible sugar grains, a crumbly consistency and the shine of a polished marble inside. The strength of this product is the simplicity of the technique and the fact that there isn’t additional butter or other extraneous substances. For me, Modica chocolate represents the essence of Sicily: a rustic, luxurious and tasty gem. To quote Leonardo Sciascia in La Contea di Modica, “the flavour of Modica’s chocolate is so unique that whoever tastes it seems to have arrived at the archetype, the absolute, and the chocolate produced elsewhere – even the most famous – seems to be an adulterated or corrupted version.”

During our visit, I also had the pleasure of discovering another interesting Modica tradition: the so-called Mpanatigghi. The name was created from the phonetic distortion of “empanadas.” Along with cocoa seeds, the Spanish brought empanadas to Sicily in the 16th century. Sicilians made their own version of it years later. These half-moon shaped cookies have a thin crust and are filled with sugar, bitter chocolate, almonds, lemon, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla, as well as a secret ingredient: minced beef… That’s right. Beef is in these cookies for chocolate lovers of all kinds, like myself!

Caption: Pasta with fresh tuna, mint and tomates served in a sea shell

If a foreigner asked me where to travel in Italy, I would undoubtedly suggest Sicily. The beauty of its beaches, mountains, hills and archeological sites surely put Sicily on a traveler’s radar, but beauty alone doesn’t do the trick. What entices travelers to the island is the food – the best culinary traditions of the world. My parents and I, although coming from another Italian paradise, Tuscany, agreed on this: the charm of the Sicilian countryside, the variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, the freshness of fish and meats and above all, the way such food is prepared, is unique. It amazed us to learn how Sicilians have continued to follow recipes acquired from ancient invading cultures. Such a cornucopia of contrasts made us truly fall in love with this land.

Article and photos by Giulia Grazzini.

Tattoos & Mangos

Tattoos and Mangoes

The dark lines of ink covering her tattooed face couldn’t dissuade eye contact, and for a moment, we both caught each other staring. The woman’s stretched earlobes dangled under the weight of her circular earrings, intensifying the patterns of tribal tattoos emblazoned on her skin. I almost couldn’t look away. She held a mango in one hand and pointed directly at me with the other, signaling for me to kick the mud off my sandals before climbing up the steps into her bamboo-stilted, thatched-roof home.

Firmly entrenched in her golden years, Hla is one of the last tattooed women of the ethnic Chin villages in Myanmar’s remote Rakhine State.

A local custom with origins shrouded in centuries-old lore, the practice of applying tattoos over the faces of native women apparently began as a tactic to disfigure women’s natural beauty; a dubious deterrent to prevent kidnapping into concubine life from rival clans and Burmese kings. The ornate tattoo designs, painfully applied with a pine needle over the course of several days, also served as an eyebrow-raising method of branding, which identified the woman with her tribe.

Over time, the tattoos were embraced as a woman’s rite-of-passage, and ultimately, as a symbol of beauty. The controversial tradition has long since been outlawed, and only a few of these women remain alive today – one of whom was willing to share her world with me.

Dressed in a royal blue sarong with her hair tied into a bun behind her head, Hla’s tattoos appeared to be a web of sunrays at first glance. They extended outward from the center of her forehead almost like an Archimedean spiral, accentuating her high cheekbones and jawline. She was quick to flash a spirited grin as she moved beyond the bamboo frames of her doorway. I caught an inquisitive sparkle in her eye, as if she had a question on the tip of her tongue, but might be unsure how to ask.

Her footsteps shook the bamboo floor of her home with vibrations of merriment as she greeted me with a plate of freshly sliced mangos, picked moments earlier from right outside her home. I bowed my head in gratitude and she responded with a tsunami of a smile that seemed to swell with each bite of mango. Radiating a seemingly divine sense of cheerfulness, Hla was nearly adorned with a glowing halo above her head.

She pointed to my camera and gave me a nod, but I couldn’t take her photo, not like that. I looked back at my guide, Myant, and while he assured me that pictures were okay, I’ve never felt more uncomfortable snapping a photograph in my life. There was more than met the eye with this lovely woman who was standing in front of me, and I wanted to see beyond the intimidating guise of her tribal tattoos.

I stuffed the camera deep into my pocket and pointed to the colorful cloth draped over a wooden loom situated in the far corner of the room; her eyes lit up as she decoded my gestures, and her enthusiasm overflowed as she shared her life with a curious traveler from halfway around the world.

With Myant acting as our translator, our joyful hostess showed me how to weave cloth on her wooden loom, a process she had learned as a young girl. She sold the fabrics and handmade trinkets to both locals and travelers alike. After a moment, she picked out three of her most beautiful shawls specifically for my mother and sisters back home.

The number of words my new acquaintance understood in English could have been counted on both hands, and we all laughed together when she admitted that all foreign languages sounded the same. We were thankful to have Myant translating for us. Hla had known Myant for years; he was the son of a bamboo farmer up river, and had spent most of his life brokering bundles of bamboo with the villages along the banks of the Lay Myoe River. A humble entrepreneur with a knack for learning languages, he taught himself English to capitalize on the budding tourism scene in Myanmar. He took advantage of authentic tourism simply by approaching travelers on foot with an offer to take them upriver to the rural Chin villages to learn about local culture and meet the women with tattoos.

Times were beginning to change for this small community, and Hla knew it. Neither running water nor electricity had ever been a normal part of her life, and although she was content to live without them, she knew it was only a matter of time until modern technology crept into her village. She had seen the boats move faster and the cameras grow smaller year after year, while airplanes whooshed across the sky more frequently than ever.

She didn’t have an opinion on globalization and the foreign influence rapidly reconstructing Myanmar from the inside out; in her eyes, it simply was what it was, and she took it all it in stride. It was that same perspective that had helped her through the agonizing tattoo procedure many years ago.

It doesn’t bother her that wide-eyed tourists transform into paparazzi clones in the rare event that they visit her village, because the tourists spend money buying local handicrafts- although not all of the locals feel the same way. These riverside communities have been self-sufficient for generations, and Myant sheepishly implied that a portion of the population would prefer to stick to the traditional agrarian way of life that they have always known.

She doesn’t mind posing for photographs as long as donations of supplies are given to the local school – a mandatory “entry fee” for Myant and his visitors – and she requested that I make the donations in person before leaving her village.

Chicken is Hla’s favorite food, and she likes it spicy. Cutting open a mango to quench her thirst was a lifelong habit, and she made sure to keep our plates full of fresh slices, as if she were refilling water glasses at a restaurant.

She was captivated by my iPhone, particularly my photos of other people and places, and she wished she had a camera of her own to take pictures of the funny looking foreigners, who have increasingly made their way to her once-isolated corner of the globe. If she had had access to a power outlet, I might have given her my own.

Behind the striking tattoos adorning her face was a magnetic personality that was simply impossible not to like. I couldn’t help but wonder, had she been born in the same place and time as me, what would her life have been like? I could picture her as the popular cheerleader in high school, or perhaps a television personality with her own show. If I were to throw a party at any time or place in the world, she’d be among the first I would invite.

She offered me a handcrafted blue and white beaded necklace as a departing gift that nearly moved me to tears before I continued on with my journey.

Drenching humidity and tropical rains made the miry paths through the village slippery with mud puddles. Each turn of the path invited those unfamiliar with the foreign terrain to slide and fall if they weren’t mindful. Beige splotches of thanaka, a cosmetic paste concocted from wood pulp, ornamented the faces of Chin locals perched at their windows, staring down at me from their bamboo-stilted dwellings while I navigated the mud slicks below.

Tiptoeing delicately along the muddy pathway under the shade of a mango tree, I eagerly made my way toward a group of three more tattooed women chatting together in front of a bamboo gate not far from Hla’s home. Each of the lovely ladies displayed the same identical tattoos covering their faces, and each had a familiar demeanor that immediately struck home.

Moving about with the stylish flair of a dancer or an actress, the women in the purple sarong had an air of royalty about her, brimming with charismatic panache. With the graceful poise of a seasoned celebrity, she posed for pictures as if she were walking down her own red carpet, basking in the limelight. Much to my delight, she preferred to double check each picture, and we didn’t stop until she gave her approval that we had taken just the right shot.

The free-spirit of the group was a silver-haired women dressed in a floral-print yellow shirt. She had a carefree edginess to her, unimpressed by my presence and constantly chuckling with the other women about jokes I could only imagine. I liked her immediately. The way she wore her subtle blend of laissez-faire attitude cloaked in an aura of lightheartedness was the personification of cool, while her unremitting laughter provided the momentary soundtrack for my visit. She could have been a rock star or comedian in another life, and I would have paid for a front row ticket to see her perform live.

Dressed in a blue and red sarong similar to the others, the tallest woman had a genial presence that seemed to balance out the group. Even-keeled with an uplifting disposition, she made sure that her home was clean and that the mango was fresh. Her wise eyes fluttered about whenever she giggled, bewitching me with an affable charm. She was genuine and trustworthy, like a teacher – the gifted type that the students always stay in touch with – just being around her put my senses at ease. She was more interested in the pictures of my family than in the pictures of my travels, and she proudly introduced me to her great-grandson, who waddled about her home with his baby face decorated in swirls of thanaka.

Myant and I sat together with the ladies while each of them described the tattoo process of long ago. The procedure was excruciating, but they learned to love the tattoos for their aesthetic beauty. They laughed hysterically as they reflected on the serendipity that all these years later, as travelers from across the globe arrived with cameras in one hand and wads of cash in the other, that their facial tattoos would be a source of economic prosperity in their tiny village.

As I listened to their stories chomping on my last bite of mango, I realized that the tattoos seemed trivial at this point, almost like powdered make-up, merely blending in with their sarong and sandal attire. A predictably clichéd line about how the tattooed ladies of the Chin villages are just like you and me is certainly more true than not, but to sum up their character in a sweeping generalization just wouldn’t be right. There are many layers to each of these women, each one more lovely than the next.

I left the village with more than photographs and souvenir fabrics that day. What sticks with me the most is the vibrant character of each person I met – they just seemed so alive – and how much I hope to possess a similar energy when I reach their age. I’ll try to emulate their unwavering positivity and propensity to add laughter to every conversation. I’ll never forget their friendly competition to pose for the prettiest picture, similar to social media-obsessed millennials from a more familiar part of the world. They never seemed to view the world through the proverbial lens of glass half-full or half-empty; in their eyes, life simply was what it was, and they made sure to savor every moment.

One day, their descendants will browse the internet to find images of their tattoo-faced ancestors as ubiquitous on the web as the tattoos had once been among the hillside tribes of rural Myanmar. I just hope they know that the lovely tattooed ladies of the Chin villages were exquisitely beautiful inside and out.

Tips On Keeping You And Your Belongings Safe In The UK


One of the big worries for many people traveling to another country is the level of crime that can be seen, so as for anyone traveling to any country, knowing where it is safe to store belongings and where to leave valuables is vital to any visitor. This is not to say that the UK has a high crime rate, but every year a minority of visitors do have items stolen or taken, or fall victim to other forms of crime.

Throughout the London and the UK’s transport systems are always signs advising people to keep their luggage with them at all time, and certainly when traveling around the country this is good advice indeed. Not only is there a chance that leaving bags unattended can lead to them being stolen and valuables taken, but they can also be reported to police which can lead to a terrorism alert being carried out on the luggage.

Once arrived at the hotel, most rooms will be safe to leave general luggage in the rooms, but especially with cash, jewelery or other valuables most hotels will actually have a safe where they can be stored. Some hotel rooms will actually have safes built in to help with this. It is rare for things to be stolen, but keeping things as safe as possible is what every tourist should try to do.

Another smart move for many visitors is to make sure that the right level of travel insurance in place, especially for those who like to take gadgets or other expensive items with them on their holidays. Insurance may not be able to help with an immediate emergency, but it certainly can help when it comes to paying for any losses or out of pocket expenses that may have been caused by theft or other crime while in the UK.

The vast majority of people coming to Britain every year find it a wonderful place to visit, and have no problem or disruption from crime, but by taking certain precautions, this will make it much less likely that such an issue might arise.

Best 10 Apps for Travelers

Best Travel Apps

Let’s face it, we live in an electronic world and it shows no signs of abating.  Because of this, more and more apps are hitting the online markets every day, either for smartphones or tablets.  As a traveler used to having information at your fingertips, it becomes frustrating sitting in an airport and wondering why your plane’s late or wishing you had something to read but the bookstore prices are just too high.

I feel your pain.

Being part of the travel industry as a writer, I’ve discovered along the way a number of apps that have lightened the load, so to speak.

10.  Any app put out by a tourism board.  When I was in Dublin just over a year ago, the Dublin Tourism Council was introducing their app for smartphones.  My son downloaded it while we stood there (at a cost of €3.99, it was a bargain, IMHO) and we tried it out.  This is one of the coolest apps you could find anywhere and its premise is great for a city as walkable as Dublin.  The app works with your GPS and helps you figure out where you are in the city.  But then, it goes a step further by letting you know if there are any tourist attractions near you, as well as give you the ability to walk there, as though you’re looking at a map – it moves with you.  This app takes it a step further and gives coupons.  At the time, this was unheard of but now, more and more tourism offices are offering them – some are free, some cost a token amount.

9.  Airline apps.  Check-in for your flight, never lose a boarding pass again and do some airfare shopping on most airline apps.  I’m not talking about the sites that search several airlines, I’m talking about the apps for each airline like Delta, Southwest, American and others.  These are best once you’ve bought your ticket and don’t want to sit with your finger over the keyboard waiting for that exact second it’s 24 hours ahead of your take-off.  We all have lives we’d like to live…  These can be found in all the app markets and are usually free.  This is a suggestion that works best for those loyal to one or two airlines.  With so many airlines out there offering an app, don’t bog your phone down with ten of them.  Feature I love?  It tracks my miles…

8.  All Subway app.  Rental cars are expensive so if I can get away with using public transportation to get around, I’m using it.  This is an app I could have used several times in the last year or so.  All Subway has the usage maps of nearly 150 cities with more coming as time progresses.  The cost is minimal, 99 cents, but it can sure save a headache when times are tough in a strange city.  I could have used this when I was in San Francisco last year.  Great public transportation, difficult figure out.

7.  Wi-Fi Finder for iPhone.  Available for both Android and iPhone, this is an app whose time has come.  Being a stranger in a strange city, this free app helps when people need it most.  Airports charge an obscene amount for Wi-Fi access (Really?  Just $20 for 24 hours?  Okay, let me roll out my sleeping bag so I can get EVERY MINUTE of that 24 hours) and a McDonald’s isn’t always around every corner.  Shows both paid and free wi-fi spots for travelers but the company confirms every site so getting a new on their app takes a few weeks.

6.  FourSquare.  This is my favorite of all the apps, not just because it offers FourSquare only discounts and coupons but because it gives away BADGES and mayorships; you know, bragging rights.  This app offers tips from other travelers in a Twitter-like setting, short but sweet, and photos can be uploaded.  It doesn’t offer maps or GPS-like information but it gives one a pretty heady feeling to be told they are now the Mayor of a site.  More fun than useful but I can remember a feeling of pride, once, when I checked in at the airport in Atlanta and was given a “Swarm Badge” because at least 50 other people had checked in there that day.

5.  National Parks App.  National Parks are some of the best-kept secrets from travelers.  The discounts are in abundance and these are nice trips on which to take the kids.  Hiking trails are the focus on this app and while it’s free for Androids, I might have seen a cost of $4.99 for iPhones somewhere.  They obligingly offer QR codes from their website so you can get to their apps in a hurry.  This is a must have if you’re planning a vacation around the National Park Service.

4.  SitorSquat.  If you’ve ever traveled at all and needed a bathroom in a hurry, this is the app for you!  SitorSquat‘s premise is simple-you need a bathroom, they want to help you find one.  With a login, you can add bathrooms as well as rate them.  If there’s a really bad one, let your fellow travelers know.  Completely free.

3.  FlightAware.  How many times have you been sitting in an airport, your plane is late and when you try to ask an airline employee for a status you get snark and know even less than when you walked up to the employee?  FlightAware is an app that changes the game…  Free across a variety of devices, including the iPad and Blackberries (oh, the bane of my existence), integrated with Nexrad Weather, you can learn at a moment’s notice just WHY your plane is late and where it is NOW.

2.  GateGuru.  OMG, who of us hasn’t found ourselves hurriedly wandering an airport looking for something, even a hot cup of coffee or a sandwich, between flights?  By having the GateGuru app on your phone, find what you’re looking for and get back to your gate.  Use with FlightAware so you can know if you really have time to order a cup of tea at Starbucks with a line a mile long…  This app also works with TripIt and Kayak and allows users to give a review of a shop or store, saving you the anxiety of wondering if it’s even worth it to wait or move on?  Has information on over 120 airports and gives points like FourSquare, allowing you to compete with your Facebook friends for “King/Queen of the Airport”.  Fun AND useful!  Might be a free app – I was looking in the Android Store on my laptop not a device and I couldn’t see a price anywhere.

1.  Skype.  This is also the number one app for travelers as chosen by Frommer’s and I couldn’t agree more it should be number 1.  Particularly when you’re traveling in another country, staying in touch back home can get expensive and frustrating, due to time differences.  When my son and I were in Ireland, we used Skype to stay in touch with my husband/his dad.  The time difference was just right for us contacting each other at the end of our day – the beginning of his – and with WiFi available in many places in Dublin, we even took my laptop with us to some local pubs to share the experience with him.  It made for some interesting reactions from the locals to learn there were two Americans (whom they love) on the computer talking all the way across “the pond” to another American.  It’s not they aren’t tech savvy (they ARE), it was just a surprise to them to have someone eating a sandwich while talking to the family back home.  If you have a phone with the ability to go international (SIM cards can be bought there to turn your phone into a “Ireland” phone) put the app on your cell and save on International Internet Rates (which can get REALLY expensive).

So, these are my favorite apps to take with me when I’m traveling to keep me in the know, no matter where I land.  Do you have a favorite app or two or three?  Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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