Feb 18, 2024

Phnom Penh: A City of Surprises


A gilded reclining Buddha in Phnom Penh

What kind of hotel does $97 a night buy in the U.S. or Europe? In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it buys a comfortable suite at the Pavilion Hotel, with gardens, two pools, a spa and outdoor restaurant serving $6 cocktails and an unlimited breakfast on the outdoor terrace.

The Pavilion  Hotel, five-star service at two-star prices

An isolated and pretentious Western-style resort, you say? Hardly the case, given our next-door neighbors - street food vendors grilling on the side walk, sugar cane juice sellers and Buddhist monks living in a monastery where a giant Buddha reclines in a gilded temple.

A family sets up for the evening dinner rush

When most Americans think of traveling overseas, they think of Europe or Australia. Few think of Southeast Asia, and when they do, it’s the beaches of Thailand or Vietnam that come to mind. Few consider Cambodia, a country bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, and ravaged in the late 1970s by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime.

While Siem Reap is well-known for its ancient Angkor Wat temples, Phnom Penh is the surprise city. Abandoned when Pol Pot forced city dwellers back to their home villages in the countryside, it‘s now alive with a mixture of modern and French colonial architecture; street food carts and rooftop bars; outdoor markets and modern malls; and massive monasteries where monks in saffron robes welcome visitors. 

Bea Tem, a Buddhist monk at our neighborhood temple

Morning Glory for sale in a street market

With major sightseeing out of the way on a previous trip, we found various ways to explore the street life, either on foot or by taking Grab taxis which work like Uber does in the U.S. Most rides are $1-$4 at most, more comfortable and often less expensive  than Tuk-Tuks, the open-air motorcycles, we use when we were here 19 years ago. 

Especially fun are a variety of three or four-hour tours organized by eager, English-speaking young people. This is where the Tuk-Tuks do come in handy. Because of the 95 degree heat, signing up for a “walking tour” means going with a guide in a Tuk-Tuk with a driver who waits at each stop.

Neara explains the many types of herbs grown in Cambodia

The delightful Yim Neara, 30, was our guide for an early-morning breakfast tour by Turk-Tuk, organized by Portland, Oregon Lost Plate Tours. She arrived at our hotel at 8:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m., three of us were sampling steaming bowls of a pork and vegetable noodle soup at a popular street stall where the owner shows up at 4 a.m. to start the broth.

Key Teay is a popular breakfast food in Cambodia

Most Cambodians go to a stall like this for breakfast rather than prepare the time-consuming dishes at home. The soup is eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, for picking up the thin rice noodles, and accompanied by shot glass-sized cups of coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk.

Market day in Phnom Penh

After several snack stops and a walk through an outdoor urban farmers market, we stopped for banh chao, a thin, crispy pancake made with duck eggs and rice flour and tinted yellow with turmeric.  It’s a savory dish, filled with pork and vegetables, and served with a pile of fresh herbs. One was big enough to share.

Banh Chao for breakfast

Our next “walking tour” by Tuk-Tuk was an architectural tour led by Hun Sokagna, 30,  a university graduate and freelance architect specializing in urban preservation. 

Tuk-Tuks provide easy transport between stops on walking tours

Our guide, Sokagna, going over our plan to see local architecture 

The French colonized Cambodia in 1863, and left 90 years later in 1941 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk became the king. Houses and monuments built by the French remain along with other reminders of the past. Many older people speak French, and  fresh baguettes appear where you might expect rice. 

Our first stop was the main post office, built in the Neo-Classical style by the French in 1885. Like many buildings of that era in Phnom Penh, it was never bombed, but abandoned when  the Khmer Rouge emptied the city, forcing people back to their home villages in the countryside.

The post office building, built by the French in 1885.

Across the street is the building that was once the Grand Hotel, the city’s first five-star hotel built in Phnom Penh in 1910. Abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over, it and other buildings like it became the property of squatters once the genocide ended and people returned. Complicated laws mean various owners still claim rights to different parts of the same building.

The former Grand Hotel, now part casino, part run-down apartments 

The facade on this side of the old hotel is run down and in need of a paint job. The interior is run down as well although some of the original tile work remains. On the other side of the building is a sleek entrance to a modern Chinese-owned casino and a wine bar. 

Abandoned churches and temples became housing once the Khmer Rouge left. Books in the National Library were burned but the building was left standing, and has been renovated. The iconic Le Royal hotel, built in 1929, was used by the Khmer Rouge to welcome officials from China, then left in ruins. Today it‘s the luxury Singaporean-owned Raffles Hotel. 

Top-notch hotels, drinks and meals come at bargain prices in Cambodia, as they do in many parts of Southeast Asia. Given the country’s poverty and tragic past, travelers need to be sensitive about supporting businesses, restaurants, hotels etc. that promote responsible tourism. Some hotels cater to sex tourists, or do nothing to dissuade the practice, while others, such as the Pavilion, actively discourage it by posting “Child Safe” stickers on their doors.

While wandering towards Phnom Penh‘s Russian Market one day we found Y.E.K. Peace Handicrafts above a convenience store. Walking past shelves lined with boxes of detergent and cereal at Twin Supermarket, we climbed a flight of stairs to find a boutique that provides training and employment for disabled artisans, many of whom are land mine victims.

YEK Hong Tang

YEK Hong Tang, above, is the executive director and also the designer of many items, including these new messenger bags made with reused nylon netting traditionally used for hammocks or mosquito nets. 

Colorful bags made made from upcycled materials

Shops such as Peace Handicrafts can be hard to spot, or even know about. Friendship with Cambodia, the Oregon non-profit we support, publishes an online responsible travel guide on its website with updated suggestions on where to stay, eat, shop and patronize businesses that practice fair trade, and train disadvantaged workers for careers.


Feb 16, 2024

How education is spawning a new generation of leaders in Cambodia

Sien Sok-Ny takes her children to school on her motorbike

Sponsoring the education of students in foreign countries is a typical way for Americans to make donations in the third-world. You write a check. A photo comes in the mail. Rarely do you learn more, or hear from the organization again until it‘s time to donate again.

That‘s not been the case with our 20-year-long association with Eugene, Oregon-based Friendship with Cambodia to whose scholarship program we’ve been supporting every since we traveled with the founder, Bhavia Wagner, on a tour in 2004. Letters, updates and pictures went back and forth between us and the six students from poor, rural villages we sponsored over the years. This month, on a return trip to Cambodia, we met two in person, and it was a joy to celebrate their success.

Sien Sok-Ny, now 37, pictured above with two of her three children, cried when we walked through the door of Holt International, a non-profit that coordinates the sponsorships for Friendship with Cambodia. She opened a notebook where she kept the letters and photos we exchanged between 2010-14 while she was studying at the National University of Management in Phnom Penh.

She presented us with gifts - a  hand-woven scarf, a table covering and a jar of local honey -from the indigenous (ethnic) communities of women she has involved in supporting since her graduation. While her two boys did homework and played games on a lap top and iPhone, we talked about how her life had progressed from the time she was an only child in a rural, indigenous farming village, needed by her parents to clean the house and feed the cows in the morning, all before hopping on the back of a friend’s bicycle to ride the four miles to high school and back.

 Her 10-year goal after moving to Phnom Penh on the scholarship and graduating, was to have two children, a car and a house. She laughed that she ended up with three children, a motorbike and a rented house, but both she and her husband, a motorcycle repairman with his own business, are doing well enough to send their children to private school. After working for a while as project officer for the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Organization, she now freelances, volunteers and raises money for Indigenous causes online through a YouTube channel featuring songs she writes and sings with a small group.

In Cambodia with Sien Sok-Ny and her two boys

Earlier in the week, we attended a Sunday morning meeting Holt organizes for the FWC-sponsored students at its offices in Phnom Penh. Gathered in a circle around a projector and screen, 15 students, alumni and staff shared experiences in a mentoring session aimed at helping each other through adjustments from life in rural villages to universities in a big, busy city. FWC’s program includes not only tuition assistance but wrap-around care such as these mentoring meetings, English classes, a small subsidy for living expenses, and encouraging the students to organize community service projects in their home villages. FWC’s focus is mainly on empowering women and girls, but young men are also part of the scholarship program including one we sponsored who went on to become an electrical engineer. 

Royal University graduate Sung Sreyhuon is a social worker 

After practicing their public speaking skills with a presentation on the  increase in traffic accidents in Cambodia, and how to prevent them, several of the students talked about their community service projects. One taught village children how to brush their teeth and wash their hands. Another plans to start a community library. 

Sung Sreyhuon, 22, above, a social worker involved with a  project aimed at preventing the trafficking of young women,  told the students that without her scholarship support, “I would probably be a factory worker right now.”  She emphasized the self-confidence and leadership skills she gained, and encouraged perseverance, sometimes against family pushback when it comes girls  leaving home for school. She recalled her parents telling her,  “You‘re a woman. You need to be a man’s wife.”  Instead, she went onto college and became the first in her family to graduate, an accomplishment for which her parents are now very proud. Like most of the graduates, she helps her family with financial support and provides school supplies and some money for her cousin’s education.

At lunch with the students in Phnom Penh 

The meeting ended with a lunch of Cambodian specialties such as fish and pork dishes and platters of bright red Dragon fruit in honor of Valentine’s Day. Pictured on the right and below is Chanminea, 19, the student we are currently sponsoring. She is entering her third year in nursing school. We couldn’t be more proud of her success.

FWC‘s current class of students, alumni and staff at a Sunday gathering in Phnom Penh

Very few rural students go to university because their families are so poor. More than half of Cambodian children drop out in grade school. Only 21% enroll in high school. Friendship with Cambodia supports about 48 students in university every year. The cost to sponsor a student is about $1500 per year.

When Cambodian grandmothers in a rural village invite you to lunch


Yeah Yap, 85

“If people want to see the real Cambodia, please get out of the city,” is advice we heard. And so we did on a visit out of urban and sophisticated Phnom Penh to a rural community near the river city of Kampot where OEDDO, a non-profit, family-run organization caters to the needs of elder, orphans and the disabled. They greeted us with smiles, open arms and a lunch of whole fish, fried eels, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and much more.

The woman pictured above is Yeah (the Cambodian word for grandmother) Yap, 85, the oldest elder either living in or being served in a community run by OEDDO, Orphans, Elderly and Disabled Development Organization. The family-run non-profit is supported by Betsy Guinn, a fundraiser and OEDDO USA director based in Eugene, Oregon as well as Friendship with Cambodia, the group we have supported since taking our first trip to Cambodia 19 years ago.

Khmer Rouge genocide survivors

All of these women pictured above are widows. They had husbands, brothers, even children who were brutally murdered by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Still, they smile. I asked why. They told me they are happy because they are at the age where they no longer have to worry about anything, thanks to the support of the OEDDO center and in some cases, their grandchildren.

Yeah A and her granddaughter who became a nurse

This is Yeah A, 78. Her family was driven out of their home in Phnom Penh by Pol Pot, and her husband murdered after they were forced into labor in the countryside. 

“I can’t believe I am still alive today,” she told us. But she very much is. She rides a bicycle, celebrates her new glasses, and is proud of her  granddaughter who became a nurse with the help of an educational scholarship provided by Friendship with Cambodia

Hieng and his sister and her husband, both doctors

OEDDO has many projects planned for the future, including equipping this new hospital built with donations from U.S. sponsors and hospitals in Eugene.  Above is Hieng, middle photo, 32, and the son of Vanna, who started OEDDO in 2000 to care for AIDS orphans in her home. Flanking him are his sister and her husband, both doctors are volunteering their time in the community where otherwise health care is scarce and unaffordable.

At lunch at OEDDO with Hieng

The OEDDO staff prepared a lunch for us, the centerpiece of which was a whole fish. Hieng, who has an MBA, works as a consultant to foreign companies who want to locate in Cambodia. He and his siblings volunteer much of his time helping their mother run OEDDO, planning new projects and keeping in touch with sponsors in the U.S.

OEDDO staff and FWC director Bhavia Wagner at the entrance to the community in the village of Trapaing Kyong. Trapaing Kyon means Snail  Pond 

Feb 5, 2024

Touching the soul of Cambodia: A reason to return to Southeast Asia


When most  Americans think of traveling in Southeast Asia, they think of the beaches of Thailand or the historical sites and scenery in Vietnam. Few consider nearby Cambodia, a country bombed by the U.S. to destroy North Vietnamese hideouts, and later ravaged in the late '70s by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime.

Tom and I rarely revisit places where we've traveled in the past, or when we do, we focus on new cities or areas. Our upcoming trip to Cambodia is an exception.

We last visited 19 years ago on a  “Reality Tour” sponsored by Global Exchange, a San Francisco international human-rights organization dedicated to emerging participants into the heart and soul of the culture and countries they visit. 

Along with trips to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and a pre-dawn boat ride through the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake, we’ve spent a morning in a shanty town behind the Phnom Penh train station talking with women and children suffering from AIDS; shared duck and mushroom omelets prepared by Buddhist nuns; and talked with beggars who lost arms and legs in land-mine accidents. 

Our most memorable experience was spending the night In the rural village of Anchanh Rung where water buffalo outnumber motorcycles, and the night noises come from animals my Western ears can’t identify. Bowls of rice were passed, then fish steamed under leaves on an open fire under the house; strips of chicken and beef; a soup with coconut milk; and for dessert, pencil-thin potatoes that we peeled with the back of a spoon and dipped into palm sugar. 

Friendship with Cambodia is in its 21st year

Our guide was Bhavia Wagner of Eugene, Oregon, author of a book called  “Soul Survivors,” an anthology of first-person stories from women and children who survived the Pol Pot regime. Since that time, she deepened her ties with Cambodians through her work with Friendship with Cambodia, a humanitarian organization she formed after making her first trip in 1991. 

We and a few others in our tour group became involved with FWC after we returned to the U.S. Our main activity was sponsoring the education of students as they made their way out of the rural villages to go to high school and later university in Phnom Penh. 

Many were the children of poor rice farmers. Part of the money went to providing the families with a subsidy so they could afford to let their older children attend school. Our graduates have gone on to careers in social service, engineering, nursing, and other professions, enabling them to earn money to support their own families, and help their younger siblings with their education. 

Bhavia stayed involved with FWC, expanding its activities to empowering women, helping victims of land mines, homeless children, HIV/AIDs patients, publishing a guidebook on responsible travel, and making seed grants to help rural villages build schools, rice banks, fish ponds, houses and wells. 

Last year was the organization's 20th anniversary, marking $2.23 million in humanitarian aid for Cambodia. It seemed a fitting time to make plans to go back together and see the progress first-hand. Planning and scheduling logistics bumped our return trip into this year - the 21st anniversary of FWC - but we couldn't be more excited about seeing it all come together now.

Our route

Tom and I will follow our 10 days in Cambodia with a week in Hanoi, where we last visited 17 years ago for a story for The Seattle Times. Traveling to Southeast Asia has its challenges. Our flight is a non-stop between Seattle and Seoul, South Korea (13 hours) followed by a six-hour connecting flight into Hanoi and a 15-hour time change.

Like post-war Vietnam, Cambodia has come a long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. Bhavia, reports there are 100 new skyscrapers, mostly built to house Chinese, in a city that had almost no cars, just cargo trucks when she first visited in 1991. There are Uber-like apps (Grab) for getting around by taxi or open-air Tuk-Tuk auto rickshaw and restaurants specializing in food from throughout the Western world.

The people we will meet will no doubt seem optimistic and content, but scars remain when it comes to access to education, healthcare, the sex trade and employment.

Among our activities will be a group meeting with our students who will talk about life after graduation, and make a presentation about traffic accidents as a way to improve their public speaking. We'll meet with staff at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, take a student-led architectural tour of Phnom Penh and travel to rural Kampot where we will meet Vanna, a village woman mother of 50 orphans, who, with the help of a Eugene, Oregon, benefactor, founded an organization called OEDDO to help children, the elderly and disabled. 

The Tuk-Tuk, a main mode of transport in Southeast Asia

We saw the major sights on our last trip, thus the focus on people rather than places, but we're looking forward to a few new diversions such as taking a cooking class at a fair trade pepper plantation in Kampot, and a morning breakfast food tour of Phnom Penh by Tuk-Tuk.  

As tourists, we know our our actions can make a difference in people's lives. One way to do this is to book experiences with local entrepreneurs rather than use big tour companies; patronize  restaurants that exist to train and prepare young people for culinary careers; stay in hotels that discourage sex tourism; and shop for crafts that support fair-trade practices, 

When Tom and l move onto Hanoi, we've signed up for a walking tour with a student through Hanoi Free Walking Tours, and a visit to a farm outside the city booked through Eatwith.com, the Airbnb for dining with locals. Our host, Mandy, pictured at the top of this blog post, promises a visit to the local market, then a trip back to her home to cook with her family and have lunch. We'll travel there using the Grab app. There are more expensive (Mandy's price is $35 per person) ways to spend a morning cooking in Hanoi, but none, I suspect, as adventuresome or more fun.

Dec 16, 2023

Closing out international travel in 2023: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Skip the Global Entry kiosks with this mobile app

Who would expect the U.S. government to be helpful when it comes to smoothing the hassles of air travel? 

Who would expect a respected organization representing people over 50 to be promoting a rip-off passport scheme?

And who would expect a major travel magazine to nominate a war-torn country for a "Readers' Choice" award?

Examples of all three crossed by inbox this week. Let's label them examples of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of travel as we close out 2023.

The Good: U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry Mobile App.

Members of the government's Global Entry trusted traveler program can skip the kiosk checks at many airports when reentering the country from an international destination by downloading the Global Entry Mobile Application available on the Apple App store or Google Play.

Most Global Entry kiosks no longer require passports and fingerprints, but instead clear incoming passengers through facial recognition. Once pictures are taken, an immigration officer sees your information on a screen and waives you through.

The app allows you to skip the kiosk check entirely by registering your Known Traveler number ahead of time, then taking a selfie when you arrive and hitting "submit."

So far, 15 airports have been approved to accept the app including Seattle Tacoma International, Los Angeles, Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare.

AARP promo for passport services

The Bad: AARP's "Rush My Passport" service.

"Renewing your U.S. passport has never been easier," touts a promotion on the AARP website advertising "exclusive pricing" on U.S. Passport renewal "bundles" through a private vendor passport and visa service called RushMyPassport. 

Apparently following the clear and detailed directions on the U.S. State Department's passport application and renewal site is too complicated for those over 50, the group of citizens that the AARP represents.  

Thus, the idea that it's some how worth it to pay $415 for it's "Expedited Service Bundle" (estimated 5-week wait) vs. the $190 you'd pay by filling out the forms on the government's website and applying for expedited renewal ($130 for regular service plus $60 for expedited) directly by mail.

The RushMyPassport charge for its "Smart Service Bundle," - standard renewal (estimated 10-week wait) - is $335 vs. the government's fee of $130.

What does a "bundle" include for the extra money? According to the AARP/RushMyPassport website, it includes:

*A user-friendly online experience

*All government and shipping fees (postage)

*Document pre-check for accuracy

*Concierge-level assistance and dedicated support

Really?...And no mention that passport processing times have returned to pre-pandemic standards, according to the State Department. Routine services taking between six and eight weeks, and expedited services two to three weeks. That’s about a month faster than the estimated wait times from this March.

The Ugly: Conde Nast Traveler's annual Readers' Choice awards, ranking Israel as a top destination.

"The past two months have been challenging for Israel," reads a tone deaf press release, "but good news has arrived with the announcement of Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards, which ranked Israel as the eighth Best Country in the World. In addition, Tel Aviv was the third most Googled city in 2023."

"This news is sure to boost the morale and spirit of our many travel partners and stakeholders across the county as well as the people of Israel," said Eyal Carlin, tourism commissioner to North America for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

“We’ve been working closely with our travel advisers, encouraging them to work with their clients to postpone travel to Israel, not cancel it. "

Postpone? The reality is that everything has changed since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. it will be a long time before this part of the world will be in a position to welcome visitors. In the meantime, there are more critical concerns than restarting tourism. 

Dec 1, 2023

Small-Town America awaits one mile from the Canadian border in Blaine

The Railway Cafe in Blaine, Wa.

Vicka Haywood pulls a batch of orange-blackberry scones from the oven in the back of a vintage caboose overlooking the harbor in Blaine, Washington.

Her Railway Cafe, complete with wheels and train tracks, sits just a mile from the Peace Arch border crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

Travelers going in either direction always guaranteed a brisk  business. 

Then came the Covid pandemic. One of the nation's busiest border crossings  closed to nonessential travel. Traffic slowed to a trickle.

 "I realized then, this is what a small town in America is supposed to be like," she says. Starbucks and other places closed, but the Railway Cafe remained open for take-out, catering to police, borders officials, and families meeting at Peace Arch Park, a neutral space where Canadians and U.S. citizens could gather.

Sitting above Drayton Harbor overlooking Semiahmoo Bay in the Strait of Georgia, Blaine, population 6,000, is what many consider a way station between Bellingham and Vancouver B.C. 

Many pass through without stopping, but a pleasant few hours await those who do. A detour to what locals call the "Peace Arch City"  will indeed bring you solace before or after a long drive on Interstate 5.

Vicka and Rodney Haywood in their Railway Cafe

Start with a stroll along Peace Portal Drive, the main drag though town, and coffee, breakfast or lunch at the Railway Cafe. Relax on the deck overlooking the Blaine marina, or get cozy inside the 1921 caboose decorated with vintage signs, a faux  fireplace and red formica tables.

Vicka, born in Moldova and raised in Israel, bakes her scones, muffins and cookies one batch at a time in a small convection oven in the back of the railway car her husband, Rodney,   found one for rent on Craigslist.  

Filling her case on a recent morning were strawberry turnovers, raspberry-coconut scones and a Middle-Eastern spinach and feta breakfast treat encased in sheets of phyllo dough.

"My staff and I don't rush," reads a sign above the cash register. "If you have no patience, you're on the wrong train."

Marine walks

Walk it off with a two-mile stroll along the Blaine Marine Park Wharf Loop trail.  Bike or walk on paved and gravel trail past covered waterside shelters, picnic areas, benches and a playground outfitted with jungle gyms shaped like a lighthouse and a ship.

Birdwatchers in Blaine

Drayton Harbor is an important stop along with nearby Birch Bay, for migrating shorebirds and seabirds along the west coast. Birdwatchers are out most mornings as the migration goes into late fall and some birds spent the winter here. 

 A short walk from town is Peace Arch Park, unique in North America for being the only park where people from the U.S. and Canada can meet without crossing the border.

The Canadian side was closed during the pandemic, but U.S. officials kept the Washington side open, enabling families and others separated by the border closure, to meet, enjoy picnics and walks along garden paths. 

South of Blaine in the community of Birch Bay is Semiahmoo County Park, www.whatcomcounty.us/3579/Semiahmoo-Park CQ near the Semiahmoo Resort, www.semiahmoo.com CQ a waterfront destination built on a former salmon cannery site. The park sits on a 1.25-mile peninsula known as the Semiahmoo spit. Flat trails for walking or biking open to views of Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters and other peaks. 

Lunch stop

Always busy on a nice day is the patio at the Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. www.draytonharboroysters.com CQ 

Order at the bar, find a seat and a waiter will appear with plates of locally-harvested oysters, bowls of oyster stew, oyster (or cod or shimp) tacos or overstuffed Po'Boy sandwiches.  

The patio at Drayton Harbor Oyster Co.

Eat here, and you'll support the success of a statewide shellfish recovery program in waters once so polluted that the health department prohibited harvesting.

After years of effort in tracking down and cleaning up pollution, much of Drayton Harbor was considered recovered by the end of 2016, and year-round harvests resumed for the first time in 20 years.

Dessert awaits just up the street at Edaleen Dairy www.edaleendairy.com CQ founded in 1975 by Ed and Aileen BransmaCQ in the heart of Whatcom county dairy country. Stop in for soft serve at small town prices. 

Sustainable shopping

Tucked into an alley off Peace Portal Drive is the Living Pantry, www.livingpantry.com CQ an "almost" zero waste store owned by Shawna and Seppi Morris CQ 

The idea is for customers to bring their own containers to refill with natural cleansers, soaps and other liquids stored in big glass jugs. Because so many of her customers are travelers who don't come with empty jars, the shop compromises with some packaged versions of unpackaged bulk products.

Dryer balls from New Zealand

On the shelves are bees wax food wraps, flavored toothpaste  powders, solid dish soap discs made to last for months, and wool dryer balls from New Zealand designed to save energy by reducing dryer time.

Happy hour

Two recommended stops: The tasting room at the Glacial Lake Missoula Wine Co.,  housed in a former garage, and Beach Cat Brewing, a few miles south of Blaine on scenic Birch Bay.

Wine lovers will be intrigued by how Vancouver owners Tom Davis and Tracey DeGraff use Washington-grown grapes to produce an "enrobed" wine that combines red and white grape varieties into a single wine. The unfermented skins of red grapes are used to enrobe white grape juice and transform it into a red wine by fermentation. Tasting room hours are limited, so check before visiting.

Reports are that Beach Cat Brewing plans to open in Blaine sometime in the next year. In the meantime, enjoy a bike ride or stroll followed by a beer named after your favorite cat at its tap room on the beach at Birch Bay. 

If you go:

Downtown Blaine is 22 miles north of Bellingham, Wa. and one mile from the U.S/Canada Peace Arch border crossing. 

Find tourism info and maps at here. The Blaine Welcome Center is at 546 Peace Portal Drive.

Peace Arch Park is called Peace Arch Historical State Park on the Washington side.  A state park Discover Pass is required for parking. Day passes can be purchased at the park. 

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Nov. 3, 2023

Nov 11, 2023

Icelandair comes through with compensation for flight delays


Iceland's Keflavik airport

Most airlines would rather you not find out too easily about EC Regulation 261, commonly referred to as EU 261, granting passengers the right to seek compensation when they have experienced delayed (two to four hours or more), cancelled, or overbooked flights.

The policy applies to all airlines flying out of or within the EU and many non-EU countries, even U.S. based airlines. But few American travelers are familiar with this rule, and airlines are rarely pro-active in passing on this information.

Icelandair is the exception. Not only does it let passengers know of the policy via brochures labeled "Compensation and Assistance" stocked at all its counters inside Reykjavik's Keflavik's airport, it processes claims promptly and pays up quickly.

Icelandair spells out passenger rights

Less than a month after I submitted a claim for a seven-hour delay in a flight from Reykjavik to Rome in October, I received an email from the airline saying my claim had been approved. As per EU rules, the compensation totaled 600 euros ($648) each for my husband and me. We provided our bank account info as requested, and the cash was deposited the next day.

Do an internet search for "EU rule 261" and see how many complaints and questions come up as to how to actually get compensation that is owed. Many frustrated travelers turn to private fee-based services, such as Airadvisor.com, for help wading through the rules and paperwork.

Icelandair made the application easy, providing a link to an online form that asked only for passenger details, date and time of the flight, ticket numbers and boarding pass information. 

I received an immediate automated response saying the forms had been received, and a case number assigned. Two weeks later, I received another email thanking me for my patience and assuring me that processing was underway. One week later, I received the notice that we had been awarded the 600 euros each, based on an EU formula that takes into account the length of the delay and the destination. 

The EU rule allows for a few exceptions, such as weather, strikes etc., but not technical problems or, as happened with our flight, changes due a shortage of aircraft or crew.

Had this happened in the United States, the airline would owe us nothing but an apology. There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when flights are delayed. 

When it coms to the EU rules, the major U.S. airlines tend not to be as transparent as European-based carriers. Find all the information you need here to see if your delay or cancellation qualifies, and how to file a claim. Depending on the country, you have from one to three years to file a claim.

For a flight to be eligible for compensation under EU 261, it must be either departing from a Member State—one of the 27 EU countries, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, as well as most outlying territories—or departing from a nonmember country with a destination within a Member State.

The rule includes flights departing from the EU to the U.S. (but not from the U.S. to the EU) and some other countries and even connecting flights within the U.S. operated by U.S. partners of EU airlines. This means that any U.S. domestic flight booked through an EU airline on a single itinerary will be covered by the law. 

You can try finding the same information on your airline's website, but a simple search for "EU 261" turns up nothing on most U.S. carriers.

United is an exception. Type "EU 261" in the search window and this link comes up, along with instructions on how to file a claim.

British Airways publishes the information hereAmerican Airlines makes the rule easy to find on its UK booking site, but not on its US. site.  Delta hides the information under the obscure title of Exit European Union (EU) Compensation Request 

Keep in mind that whether the airline makes the process easy or difficult, you can be confident that if you have a qualifying flight, you will eventually be compensated. The EU has strict penalties in place for airlines that don’t comply with this regulation. And although an airline might offer a voucher, the law says you are entitled to cash.