A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

A coworker put out a call on our office intranet recently asking about people’s favorite souvenirs from abroad. This was my contribution to that question… I liked it, so I thought I’d cross post it here. (By the way, I love that in French, “souvenirs” means “memories.”)


When I was little, my parents did a lot of traveling due to my dad’s job with Northwest Airlines. They brought many cool souvenirs back for me– I remember a wooden cow from Denmark (I think) and a big stuffed panda bear from South Korea (no, not China, strangely). The souvenir I remember the most, though, was a book from Japan, written in Japanese, in the traditional style (back to front and bottom to top). My mom used to “read” it to us by looking at the pictures and making up a story to go with it. It was something about a man who drops a rice cake into a hole in the ground inhabited by some sort of gnomes. To this day, I have no idea  what the story was really about, but I still remember it very clearly.

As an adult, a friend of mine who works in the children’s publishing industry got me interested in collecting children’s books, often gifting me with picture books for birthday or Christmas. Integrating the hobby with my love of travel, I began buying children’s books as souvenirs when I visit other countries (and anywhere, really). This began way before I had any children on the way, and I did worry for awhile that I’d never have anyone to read them to… but I still bought them, because if nothing else, I enjoy them myself. I love going to a bookstore and looking through the fun, colorful books, trying to pick out something with an inkling of the country’s culture. When I’m in a country where English isn’t the majority language, I typically look for books in the local language.

My collection has grown to be rather significant over the years, so it’s impossible to pick just one favorite. Instead, I narrowed it down to four:

1. A book of Russian fairy tales… in Russian. I love the intricate illustrations and the way the Cyrillic script looks. Even with some knowledge of Russian, I can barely read any of it, but that doesn’t really matter.

2. Les chose cassées d’Octavio (Octavio‘s Broken Things). A story about a boy who can fix anything with glue, nails, wire, etc, but who has to learn how to mend the sad heart of the girl next door.

3. Grandma Joins the All Blacks. From New Zealand, obviously.

4. An Strae Beagán (A Bit Lost). I thought it was originally written in Irish, but I recently saw it at a bookstore here and learned that it was apparently written in English by an Irish author and translated into Irish… kind of a bummer, but still a cool book. It’s about a little owl who gets lost and can’t find his mother, so a friendly fox takes him around to all the different forest animals and asks, “Is this your mommy?” Each time, the owl replies in the negative, and describes an aspect of his mother not met by the current animal. “That’s not my mommy; my mommy has big eyes!” So the fox takes him to see a frog. It goes on like this until the owlet does indeed find his mother. And then they all eat cookies. Happy endings for all.

My collection to date includes books in French, Spanish, Russian, Irish, Danish, Japanese, Hmong, Catalan, and of course English (hailing from France, Red Balloon Bookstore, Moscow, Ireland, Copenhagen, Midway Books on Snelling and University, Hmongtown Market in St Paul, Barcelona, and Australia/New Zealand/the US, respectively). Looking for books has taught me some things, as well– for example, I wasn’t able to find a book in Swahili in Tanzania, or in Spanish on Cozumel. I didn’t look that hard in Tanzania– perhaps in Arusha City I’d have found something– but my spouse and I spent a lot of time wandering around Cozumel’s main (only) town, San Miguel, looking for a bookstore. It didn’t exist. All of the librerías we learned about from the phone book or natives were actually paper supply stores. We did visit an actual bookstore in a larger town, but the only books in Spanish were obviously translated from English, and completely devoid of Mexican culture. (Which, admittedly, does say something about the world in and of itself….)

The average children’s picture book contains about 500-1000 words. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and while I love to take pictures while abroad, I think it’s worthwhile to bring words home, too.


Australia Visit: Days 10-12

Day 10: Visit to University of Wollongong

I enjoyed this visit. First, I took a lovely train ride from Sydney to Wollongong (about an hour). The scenery was gorgeous – the train goes along the coast, through beautiful, lush areas. I love riding on trains, too. So relaxing. I almost missed the train, because I couldn’t figure out what platform to go to, and that wasn’t so relaxing, but once I boarded (about a minute before it left!), all was well! Also, in the morning, I stopped for coffee at a shop a block away from my hotel on the way to the train station, and the guy who made my coffee asked me where I was from, and when I said MN, he revealed that he was born there! Craziness. Of course, he could have been pulling my leg, but he knew stuff about the MN accent, like “Dontcha know,” and about small towns that I would guess most people wouldn’t know. So I think he was being serious.

Anyway, back to Wollongong. It was originally (and still is) a steel works town, so its origins are very blue collar and down to earth. I like that. But now, the University has replaced the steel industry as the town’s biggest employer, so there’s also that college town/academic vibe as well. The staff were, of course, super nice and friendly, and I was happy to hear Wollongong has a formal volunteering program, which is somewhat unusual in Oz, but something my students are always asking me about.

I took the train back to Sydney after the visit, once again arriving in town after dark. But that was okay; I didn’t plan to do any sightseeing that night—I had a ticket to Mary Poppins: The Musical, which was playing at a theater right across the street from my hotel. I was very excited about that. The performance was great… at least the first 30 minutes. After that, there was some kind of technical difficulty with the set (it broke somehow and wouldn’t turn, so they couldn’t change scenes), so the show had to be cancelled. ☹ Bummer! I got a refund, of course, but still, it was sad.

Day 11: University of Melbourne visit

I got up and caught an early flight to Melbourne, found my hotel, then headed to the University for my afternoon visit. Great visit: awesome staff, nice campus and city, etc. I got to visit one of the residential colleges (dorms) that is in a recently-refurbished historic building. Very cool! After my visit, I did some sightseeing, but most of the sightseeing was during my free day, Saturday.

Flinders Street Station

Australia Visit: Days 8-9

Day 8: Visit to James Cook U – Townsville:

In the morning, my colleague from JCU picked me up at the hotel and we drove to the Townsville campus. There, I had a coffee, met with some other colleagues, toured the campus, had lunch, and met with the head of international student support. This last meeting was particularly interesting. She might be a good colleague to collaborate with on some research about mental health during study abroad. She has a background in psychology, working with people in transition, and had some really great ideas and strategies on how to ease students’ transitions into Australian Uni life. I’ll definitely have to contact her again.

After my campus visit, which ended at about 1, I went into town to buy a new suitcase, and later took a ferry to Magnetic Island to look around and watch the sunset. The ferry took about 20 minutes and it was delightful. On Maggie Island, I took a bus to Horseshoe Bay, found myself a rock to sit on on the beach, and watched the sun set over the water, which is rare in Eastern Australia! It was quite beautiful. Caught the ferry back, and on the top level it was just me and a couple of tradies. It was a bit chilly, but it was nice and quiet and offered a great view of the night sky during the ride. I had sort of forgotten that the sky would look different at night!

Ship at Townsville’s port, view from Maggie Island ferry


Day 9: Townsville – Sydney via Brisbane

Airport, plane, airport, plane, airport, train. Someone quoted some theorist or another to me once, who noted that travel has changed from journeying through spaces to waiting in non-spaces. Non-spaces are things like airports and train stations, which look the same no matter where you are, and often are technically not even considered part of the country they are in. I’m inclined to agree, and this type of travel is necessary, but quite unfortunate. I’d much rather ride for 6 hours on a bus than go wait at an airport for an hour and sit on a plane for an hour.

I got into Sydney about 3pm, got situated in my hotel, and then went out exploring. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so I didn’t take any pictures, but I saw the Sydney Harbor, and the Opera House and all that. From what I got to see of it (not much; I was only ever in Sydney after dark, really), I didn’t care much for Sydney. It is the financial capital of Australia, and you can tell – it feels very corporate. The Harbor and Harbor Bridge were very pretty, and the Opera House is cool, but my favorite part (that I saw) was the Rocks area – the original part of the city. They’ve refurbished it a lot and have modern businesses in the historical buildings, but they’ve done a really good job at keeping the historical feel to the buildings. I’d have liked to explore it a bit more during the day, but the daylight hours on Day 10 were filled by my visit to University of Wollongong.

Australia Visit: Days 6-7

Day 6: Reef Day!
We went out snorkeling/scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef! It was pretty awesome. I thought about trying scuba, because it was pretty cheap given that the boat ride out was already paid for, but we had to fill out a health form at the beginning, and since I am on anxiety medication, they wouldn’t let me. That was fine with me; I didn’t have my heart set on scuba or anything. I went snorkeling and that was really fun.

One of the program leaders showed me around a bit – he found a clownfish (Nemo!) and showed me, and a sea cucumber, and huge clams. Just in general the fish were really bright, pretty and colorful, and so was the reef itself. I also just really enjoyed the boat ride. We saw a humpback whale mama and baby! I didn’t see it up close, although apparently they got quite close to the boat, but I could see them in the distance. So cool!

Day 7: Cairns-Townsville
I took the Greyhound bus from Cairns to Townsville. It was about a 6-hour journey, but it was very enjoyable and passed quickly. The bus wasn’t very full, so I had two seats to myself and plenty of room to spread out a little bit. I just watched the scenery and listened to music for the entire time—quite pleasant!

Also, the bus driver was awesome. When we started out, he made an announcement with some safety instructions, etc, and his information about the bathroom made me laugh. It went something like this:

“The bus is equipped with a toilet, or bathroom, for your comfort, so please use that if you need it. If you do need to use the facilities, please make sure that you lock the door. This is important for a few reasons. First, it turns on the light. Second, it keeps out any unwanted visitors. Third, it keeps you in the bathroom. Sometimes on the highway I have to swerve the bus, and if the door is not locked, the occupant of the toilet can find themselves in the seat across the way, usually with their pants around their ankles, and never very happy.

Also, outside the toilet, and in no way connected to what happens inside the toilet, you will find chilled water for your convenience.”

I was cracking up. He was fantastic.

Australia Visit, Travel Day

MSP-LAX, no problem. At LAX… we sat on the runway for half an hour plus the entire time it took to watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Well, or the time it took to watch a documentary on skin color (did you know that darker skin evolved as a response not to skin cancer, as most people believe, but to UV rays killing folate in the blood stream and causing birth defects like spina bifida?). Once we finally got in the air, the flight was about 15 hours, but actually it wasn’t too bad. I had an aisle seat, which is key, and Qantas also has these little wings on the headrests that you can adjust to lean your head on. That makes a huuuuge difference for sleeping. It worked better than the inflatable neck pillow I bought, and I actually got some decent sleep on the flight. It probably also helped that the flight took off at about 1am MN time, and that I took a sleeping pill, but still, I usually do not get any useable sleep on planes, so I was happy.

Flying Qantas, I noticed evidence of Australia’s more laid-back culture as soon as we left the ground. First of all, you still get food on those flights (even the domestic ones within Oz). Wow! Second of all, the captain turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign waaaay earlier than a US-based plane would do—I got up to use the toilet and I was walking at about a 30 degree angle! Same when we landed – on US flights, they yell at you if you get up and start getting your bags before the Fasten Seat Belt sign is off, even if the plane is stopped. When we landed in Sydney, everyone was getting up and we were still moving. Craziness.

We landed in Syndey and went through customs and immigration. That all went smoothly except that my checked bag did not make it to Sydney with me. Luckily, I had packed a couple of changes of clothes and undies, as well as indispensable toiletries, book, and camera in my carry on, so I was fine. I got to Bohemia Resort (aka hostel) at about 1, and Ross, the Resident Director, was there to meet me. We said hello and he showed me my room, and after I showered and called Rob, we went to visit JCU Cairns. They have a Mosquito Research Lab! And we saw a wallaby hanging out on campus. That took much less time than expected, so we drove up to Port Douglas (very scenic drive along the coast) and back, and then we went to dinner with the logistical coordinator, Meghan. Meghan ordered kangaroo satay and I ordered crocodile satay, and we shared so we could each try the other. It was good!

I was pretty tired, but not as tired as I was in Copenhagen when we arrived. Probably because I actually slept on the plane. But I was still in bed and asleep by 9, and I slept basically through the night until 8am, and from that point on, no jet lag. Woot!

Summer Travel Plans!

I’ve been blogging about serious stuff lately, so I thought I’d mix it up with some travel fun! I’ve got two big trips planned, one with my spouse and one for work, so I’m pretty excited.

Grand Canyon Road Trip
The first trip will be from June 10-20 with my husband. We’re taking a road trip to the Grand Canyon! I’m really hoping my brother and sister-in-law can drive out from Las Vegas to meet as at the Canyon; it’d be great to see them. But we’ll see. Either way, it will be an awesome trip! I’m really looking forward to doing some sight-seeing in the desert.

We are doing something very un-J-like (especially for two Js!): we are not booking hotels for every night ahead of time. We wanted to leave a little flexibility so that if we see something interesting and want to stop, we can do that without worrying that we won’t make it to our pre-booked hotel as planned. We are only pre-booking our hotel at the Canyon (in Williams, AZ, most likely) and the one night we plan to spend in Santa Fe. We are also spending a couple of nights with my spouse’s family: On the way there, we are spending one night with his cousins in Grand Island, NE, and on the way back, a night with his cousins in Denver. Other than those nights, we will just drive until we decide to stop for the night and sleep wherever we happen to find a motel. I’m a little worried about getting a skeevy motel that has bedbugs, but other than that I think it’ll be good. It’s nice to be a little spontaneous every once in awhile.

Our route to the Canyon:

Our route back from the Canyon:

Aside from visiting the Canyon, we plan to go to Lowell Observatory for some stargazing one night. It’s open to the public every evening! I’m really excited about that, and also to visit Santa Fe. I’ve never been there but have always wanted to go.  And between Albuquerque and Santa Fe there is the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum, which we’ll be driving practically right by, so I think we’ll plan a stop there. Sounds really cool! The one thing I wish we could do that I don’t think we’ll get to is go to a powwow or something on one of the reservations down there, but I looked and I don’t think there are any happening when we will be passing through.


My second trip of the summer is to Australia for work. I advise students who want to attend Australian universities for a semester or year, but I’ve never been to Australia, so this trip will be very good. The main universities we work with are James Cook University in Cairns and Townsville, University of Wollongong, and University of Melbourne, so those are the schools I will be visiting.

First, however, I get to attend the Australia introduction (orientation/fun) run by our partner, AustraLearn. This takes place in Cairns and includes lots of fun and educational things as well as the general orientation program. The fun things include seeing an aboriginal performance, holding a koala and feeding kangaroos, snorkeling at the Great Barrier reef, and participating in a volunteer project. Sweet! After that, I fly to Townsville, visit the university there, then fly to Sydney. From there I take the train to visit U of Wollongong, return to Sydney, then fly to Melbourne to visit the U of Melbourne.

I have an extra day at the end to explore Melbourne on my own. I’m a bit torn about that, because if I skip the free day, I can get back in time for practice on Sunday with my Fest group (I’ll already be missing two weeks of practice!) but then again, how often will I go to Australia? Probably not much, so maybe I should just miss practice and take the extra day.