Tag Archives: Travel

Imperfectly Recalled Tales from a Pleasantly Hot Place


"To get a hyena to eat a tree, you must tickle it like this." Or something. Dr. Joy Ochs actually made much more sense when she spoke about India. You should have been there.

Dr. Joy Ochs describes her travels in India.

Well, I suppose when you are there and the temperature is above 100 Fahrenheit and the humidity is high, summer in India must be sweltering.

Still, it was pleasant on this cold Iowa night to listen to Dr. Joy Ochs talk about India. I took a few notes during her speech, and promptly left them in my office, so I’m flying without a net here and hope I don’t garble too many details.

It probably doesn’t help that I had to push to finish writing an exam after seeing the speech and before tackling this blog post—there is nothing like making test questions to erase newly formed neural connections.

Quoting British writers on India. I'm out of jokes. They way white people describe brown people often isn't very funny..

Quoting British writers on India. They all thought British culture was better than Indian culture, one reason Dr. Ochs sought out Indian writers to read.

Anyway, I was impressed with many of the things I saw and heard, even if my memories are a bit fragmentary. The pictures she showed were stunning—I really liked the details of some of the architecture.

The important environmental work done by some NGOs was also good to hear about.

One point of the speech that stood out to me was Dr. Ochs recounting her desire to find Indian writers to read in order to understand India better. I guess I like the idea of finding the voices of another culture to speak for themselves. In fact, she will teach a course next year on Indian literature written by Indians.

You all should take it, MMU students.

Well, I won’t have time to enroll in the class myself, which is a pity. India seems like a fascinating, complex—and, most alluring to an Iowan today—warm place.

Pictures that tell the story of Gandhi. The Indians seem to tell lots of stories visually, and it would be cool to be in that warm place to see them. Especially today.

Pictures that tell the story of Gandhi. The Indians seem to tell lots of stories visually, and it would be cool to be in that warm place to see them. Especially today.

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The First Few Days in Paraguay


Butterfly in Yayaity, Paraguay. I'm visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Villarrica, and am having a good time.

Butterfly in Yayaity, Paraguay. I’m visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Villarrica, and am having a good time.

Well, blog fans, I think I’m on a bit of cultural overload. So many days have gone by, and I have not had time to write. We’re in the midst of a visit to Paraguay, where my son Jon and his wife Nalena Santiago are Peace Corps volunteers in Villarrica.

It’s clear that Paraguay is not Iowa. One glance at the Asuncion Airport and we knew we were in another place.

The place looks, honestly, a bit tired. Everything seems aged, from the broken pavement of the streets, to the motos that are the majority of traffic, to the loud cars and trucks and even horse carts that clatter by every morning. In the airport, there was not the cold, efficient feel of even the Eastern Iowa Airport. The officials who took our cash and granted our visas took their time. The webcams that were used to shoot our photos were held together with tape.

Several of our $20 bills were rejected because they have small tears. Don’t ask me why. But if you travel to Paraguay, bring only crisp, clean, newish bills, blog fans.

Well, we spent only a little time in the big city, and moved on to the town where Jon and Nalena are based.

As a state capitol, the city of Villaroca still has a very small-town, rural feeling to it. Thin dogs wander the cobblestone streets. The sidewalks are narrow, often appropriated as extra space for shops or as a motorbike parking area. You have to keep a sharp eye out for rather chaotic traffic that sometimes includes cattle, but, on the other hand, Paraguayan traffic is pretty orderly compared with Puerto Rico.

The people have mostly been friendly. The students in Jon and Nalena’s classes have been excited to have American guests.

The food is not very diverse—in a state capitol of more than 100,000 souls, I have not yet seen a single Chinese or Italian restaurant, beyond a couple of pizza joints. I could really do want some Indian or Thai food.

But the Paraguayan chow has been good. They drink a cold tea called terere, which involves using a special cooler for water, the pouring it into a cup filled with herbs, then drinking it through a spoon-straw. It’s a bit bitter at first, but gets better.  A group is expected to share the cup and straw.

They make a sort of cornmeal-starch-cheese bagel, the chipa, which is sold on busses during trips. Jon and Nalena say that it’s not always good, but the one I had on the bus from Asuncion was very tasty—chewy and cheesy and warm.

In a park in Villarica, we also had kabure, which is a dough cooked on a thick stick. It’s a little like having a corndog without a hotdog, although I’ve heard Paraguayans might blanch at the idea of meat inside a kabure.

We’re planning on doing some traveling around Paraguay, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this country. It’s definitely “deep South” feeling. But it’s not completely a land that time forgot.

There are apparently no noise ordinances in Villarica, and one way things are promoted is by cars driving around with loudspeakers. One morning, there was a horse cart that went by the house, with loudspeakers mounted on top, promoting something.

And it’s often that you see a horse cart driver texting Cell phones are quite common.

When I was speaking with students in one of Jon and Nalena’s classes, the Paraguayan teens asked about what music I liked. They perked up when I said “rock and roll.” They didn’t react much when I said I like The Beatles, but when I said “Green Day,” there were lots of smiles.

Besides seeing a new country, this vacation has been a welcome rest. I’ve been using a Spanish review book and have tried to communicate in that language, but that’s been so-so. I’ll keep working at it. I’ve read two books so far, one week into this trip:

“Cannery Row.” I mentioned once to my sister Cate that I had not enjoyed “Of Mice and Men” that much, and she suggested “Cannery Row” as a very different Steinbeck novel, and she was right, it was a fun read.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Don’t tell me the end, blog fans, I’m about 80 percent of the way through the book. It’s very different from “Cannery Row!”

Anyway, blog fans, I feel like I have had lots of experiences in Paraguay. I’ve been to a university here, seen a parade, been accosted in an ice cream shop by a begging child—it feels like I could do many blog posts a day, but I have had neither the time nor the computer access.

But, stay tuned, I’m sure at some point I’ll report a bit more on my Southern Hemisphere adventures. I haven’t written yet about the city part dedicated to a poet, the school parade, or the dozens of other things I’ve seen.  I’m sure I will at some point.

Here are some photos from the trip so far.

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It Starts: And I Like Spiders and Snakes


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Not universal opinions, I know, and it is a contextual rule: I was at Prairewoods, a Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration retreat center in Hiawatha on Monday, cutting some dead limbs from pine trees, and photographing students and flowers and trees in between the work.

I didn’t see any snakes, which is too bad, because during last year’s service trip to Prairiewoods, I did, and I don’t mind seeing snakes in their native habitat. Given, of course, that they are Iowa snakes—we don’t run heavily into venomous serpents here, mostly it’s garter snakes. Technically, they do have venom, but it’s not strong enough to do much to you if you’re bigger than a cricket.

The day was cool and foggy, and quickly became sunny and muggy. It felt good to be outside and to do some work that is good for trees. I do like trees.

I hope the students enjoyed themselves, too. Sadly, I was unable to shower before a big community meeting at Mount Mercy, so I showed up in grungy clothes with wood chips on my shoulder. Anyway, additional photos are available on Mount Mercy’s Facebook page.

Later that day, I got to speak at Founder’s Day, the official starting ceremony at MMU. I was introducing Ben Wood, a student who is Editor of the Mount Mercy Times. He promoted student involvement as a key to college success, which it is, and I think he turned “I can” into an acronym that helped him make his point. Sadly, I didn’t take notes so I can’t say more about what Ben said. Another student spoke to promote international travel, so our incoming students heard from their peers that they should join things and travel the globe.

Well, amen.

Students, if you’re reading this, as you strive to change the world, first change yourself, both by stretching yourself beyond classes (Ben’s point) and by going places you’ve never been before (Jennie Dondlinger is the student who spoke on her trip to Europe with an MMU class).

Here’s what I said to set up Ben’s speech:

Hello, my name is Joe Sheller, and I’m an Associate Professor of Communication and faculty advisor for your student newspaper, the Mount Mercy Times.

It’s my pleasure to speak to you and to introduce Ben Wood, who is this year’s Editor in Chief of the Times. Ben is also a resident assistant, a member of the choir, an actor in many plays.

You name it, Ben Wood would do it.

He understands something that is a key to each and every one of you.

Ben Wood knows, because he shows it by his actions, that what you get out of your university years goes well beyond what you learn in your classes.

As adults now, you have more freedom than ever before in your lives. You can choose to succeed, or not. As a former Dean at Mount Mercy famously used to say, every student has a right to fail.

But the good news is that most MMU students succeed. And those that succeed the most know what Ben knows, and do what Ben Wood would do:

Ben joined the staff of the student newspaper, “The Mount Mercy Times,” as its business manager last year. Although his job was to sell advertising, he also wrote many stories. That interest in the editorial product translated into his current job as Editor in Chief.

Flag of MMU Times

Flag of the MMU Times this year. Who would create it? Ben Wood would, of course.

He was worried about applying for the top job. After all, he’s in so many other things—his RA job, SGA, etc., etc. But, I think, in the end, he understood the importance of some words of wisdom that were often shared by Kathi Pudzuvelis, a speech and drama professor who retired last year.

When students came to Kathi to ask if they should do something difficult, like join the student newspaper or try out for a role in a play, she often said: “Life is a swimming pool. Here is the deep end. Jump in.”

MMU is a place that’s rich in “deep ends.” Whatever your major or interest, there are clubs and organizations that are anxious for your involvement. In return, you can get a priceless experience. So join the paper, or SIFE or sing in the choir or walk on for a team or find other ways to get engaged at MMU. It’s what all the smart students do. It’s what Ben Wood would do.

Ben is a jumper into many deep ends. It’s my pleasure to introduce Ben to you. Class of 2016, some people who will try to grab your attention in the next four years aren’t worth listening to. Some are. If I were you, I would listen to Ben Wood.

Well, I think my remarks and Ben’s and Tracy Tunwall’s (she is a Business Professor who introduced Jennie) and Jennie’s were well received, as were the points made by Dr. Melody Graham, our Provost, and Dr. Christopher Blake, our President.

So it starts. No snakes, shucks, but another year underway. The start frankly feels way too busy, which is nobody’s fault but my own, but also invigorating. There’s a nice hopefulness about the start of a new academic year. May it be a year of growth and change, not just for newly trimmed and tended trees at Prairiewoods, but also for students and for the faculty who are privileged to work with them.  Let the learning begin!

MMU service group, two portal classes, at Prairiewoods. Audrey and I, in back on left, are with our classes.

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Puerto Rico, Island of Enchantment


Jon Sheller and Nalena Santiago, dancing as husband and wife.

On its license plates, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico identifies itself as the “Isla del encanto.” It’s not really “island of enchantment,” I guess a more accurate translation would be “Charming Island” or “Island of delight.”

But, I feel enchanted. Puerto Rico, more than most places I have visited on brief trips, will have a special place in my heart.

Why? What did I love so much about a hot little slip of volcanic soil on the north edge of the Caribbean Sea between the Virgin Islands and Hispaniola? I’ll explore that, blog friends, as we go along.

To introduce my discourse on our recent trip to Puerto Rico, in the spirit of the travel guide that helped shape our journey (Top 10 Puerto Rico by Christopher Baker), here, from 10 to 1, are the top 10 things I was enchanted by in Puerto Rico:

Lizard on the wall--I think it's our hotel in San Juan, but not sure.

10-The animals and plants. Lizards on the walls. Snails and caterpillars the size of yogurt lids or railroad spikes. Colorful, tropical flowers. And, although mosquitoes are very dangerous in Puerto Rico, I did not have any worrisome encounters with animal, insect or plant—it may be in the tropics, but Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to be an unpleasantly toothy place. Stray dogs meander and hardly bother to bark at all. Huge spiders go about their business and frankly would rather not have anything to do with humans. Overall, Puerto Ricos flora and fauna provide a feast for the eyes of a flower lover.

9-The weather. We were warned that it would be hot, hot, hot. Well, it was hot, hot—but not hot, hot, hot. It felt like Iowa in July, and the seaside was often cooler due to ocean breezes. Of course, we did not experience a tropical storm, which might change my weather outlook, but even though it rained more days than not in Puerto Rico, we had more sun than rain each day. It was very nice.

8-A sense of history. Old buildings in Iowa might have been constructed in 1940. The original state Capitol in Iowa City, about as old as an Iowa building gets, dates from the 1840s. In contrast, Spain began building things in Puerto Rico in years that begin “15.”

Irma greets Lizzie at El Yunque park. Lizzie was very popular both with the Santiagos and with all other Puerto Ricans. Travel with a baby, if you can.

7-Beautiful people. Both inside and out. I’m sure there are rude, unfriendly Puerto Ricans who are lazy and ugly, but they were all hidden away during our visit. When I told a friend my son was marrying a Puerto Rican woman, her response was “I bet she’s beautiful,” which implies all Puerto Rican women are beautiful. Nalena certainly is, but I must admit that the friend had a point. Most Puerto Ricans are hotties. And both Puerto Rican women and men seem chronically polite, at least when they are not driving.

6- Breathtaking scenery. Beautiful beaches, lush steeply hilly countryside, dramatic skies, interesting tropical foliage—Puerto Rico itself, not just the people, is easy on the eyes.

5-The Americanness. Most (not all, but most) Puerto Ricans speak passable English. Street signs were quickly identifiable by shape and color, if not by words. The U.S. dollar is the currency, and no special shots nor passports are required. It’s home.

Solo is "only." Distances are in kilometers. Luckily, speed limits are mph.

4-The foreignness. Spanish being spoken everywhere, with all street signs written in Spanish. Small streets and sidewalks that aren’t “American” big. The caverns we visited were described as a “national treasure” by the introductory DVD in a way that made it clear that the nation being referred to was Puerto Rico, not Los Estados Unitos. It was nice being somewhere “else.” You do have the sense that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

3-Food, glorious food. When we went to Seattle, I wondered if I could again stomach Iowa “seafood.” Yes, I can, but I have a similar problem now. Puerto Rico was full of food delights, which of course I will talk of later.

2-The popularity of grandbabies. Puerto Ricans love small children. We traveled with Lizzie Moscou and her parents, and having a 7-month-old curly haired granddaughter was an instant icebreaker. If you travel to Puerto Rico, plan ahead and conceive, rent or buy a little one. You’ll get a lot of smiles.

1-Nalena Santiago and Jon Sheller were married in Mayaguez June 12. It was a sweet, wonderful and charming ceremony that united two sweet, wonderful and charming souls. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Anyway, more on my Puerto Rican adventure:

Capítulo Uno: Eating in Puerto Rico

It’s a good idea. Puerto Rican cuisine seems based on four things: fish, rice, beans and plantains, with some yucca thrown in for variety. But these things are combined and recombined, along with tropical fruits, in ways that produce results that can only be called “yummy.”

From an upscale San Juan French restaurant to the small kiosk food vendors on the Isla Verde beach, the only food we didn’t enjoy in Puerto Rico was the few meals where we went “American.” A Burger King is not your best choice in San Juan for desayuno, my friends. But a chicken taco from a beach kiosk is actually a mild chicken and vegetable filling fried inside a pastry shell that we could consider a hand-held meat pie. And it’s good. Plantains can be fried or mashed, or mashed and then fried, and they are good. One of the side dishes I had looked exactly like mashed potatoes, but it was a medley that included mashed yucca, and it was sweet, creamy, light and divine. When Jesus wants mashed potatoes in Heaven, they are cooked by a Puerto Rican chef who tosses in plenty of yucca.

One of the nicest meals we had was our Monday breakfast in old San Juan. We stopped, for no particular reason, at a tiny café that could not have been more than a dozen feet wide. It was a sort of dive diner in appearance, but the host quickly ushered us to a back room, which turned out to be a hidden open-air patio with palm trees and statues of Saint Francis all around. It was a very tiny patio, with barely room for one deck umbrella and two tables, but we ate a hearty and good breakfast. I wish I could say I ordered the yogurt and fruit combo, but that was what everyone else ordered. I got eggs, sausage, toast and potatoes. The potatoes are hard to describe—they were yellow and seemed to have been both boiled and fried. The toast was large pieces of flat Puerto Rican bread, which is a  little bit like French bread but not as dry. I liked my breakfast, but loved the fresh fruit and yogurt that others shared with me.

That’s what we did in Puerto Rico—shared all of our food so we could experience what everyone ordered. It was a good idea, so travel with friends whom you trust to have good oral hygiene.

We even ate at a Puerto Rican fast-food chain, “El Meson.” I am not sure if the name refers to the Spanish word that has an accent on the O and refers to a rustic restaurant, but never mind. We had both breakfast and lunch at El Meson and enjoyed both—partly due to the bread.

We had excellent pizza with Nalena and Angel Santiago the first night. One night, we ate at a combo bar and grill in the same neighborhood as our hotel in San Juan. We ate at a restaurant that Angel called “American food” on the east coast after visiting El Yunque. It didn’t seem American to me—it, like the mild Puerto Rican beer I enjoyed with my meal, was much better.

Capítulo Dos: Life’s a beach

Ben and Jon during our Ocean Park beach outing. Seven year age difference between the two boys, so Ben has time to meet a nice Puerto Rican girl, too.

Not everything went well in Puerto Rico. Driving was difficult—Puerto Ricans have a very lax attitude about traffic rules, as in, there really aren’t any. San Juan is only twice the size of Des Moines, but felt like a much bigger city, partly because it’s squeezed into a small geographic area and very crowded. A drive of 5 miles might be a 30-minute journey. A lot of the cars in Puerto Rico have bangs and dings on the side, and when you see how Puerto Ricans squeeze through small gaps and treat lane marks as suggestions, it’s not a surprise. The other reason San Juan seems so much bigger is that it is cheek by jowl with other Puerto Rican towns—although the population of San Juan is only twice that of Des Moines, the San Juan metro area is far larger. San Juan is a big city squeezed into a small space.

When you need a break from traffic in Puerto Rico, head to a beach. We went to several—one by accident on a day when we unsuccessfully sought to go to the Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy. We went to a coral beach on the west coast, the “accidental” beach on the north coast, and two San Juan beaches—Isle Verde and Ocean Park.

The water was warm and clear at all of the beaches, but the best were in San Juan, where consistent waves from the Atlantic Ocean washed sandy shores. Isle Verde was more crowded—we were there on a Sunday—but also had more “stuff,” such as food vendors. Ocean Park was quieter, but I suspect it would also have been crowded if we had been there on a weekend.

On the Sunday outing, after some prodding, Nikayla finally got in the ocean, and seemed to really like it. Both Tristan and Lizzie liked splashing in the waves, too.

If you go to a beach in Puerto Rico, note the signs. Some beaches are definitely not for swimming, due to dangerous currents—but the ones that are made for swimming are very fine.

Capítulo Tres: Getting Married

One of my family members said that Jon and Nalena’s wedding was the fanciest they would probably ever attend. The location was certainly exotic—getting married in a cathedral-sized church on the town square of the island third largest city and then having a reception at a beach resort—but other than that, the ceremony seemed pretty simple, normal and laid back to me.

I got to taste mojito at the Friday pre-party, and the party was fun and relaxing. It was a bit tough being dressed well in the afternoon heat the next day for the wedding, but the church was air conditioned, and the reception hall, too.

The food was grand at the reception. The music was way too loud, but that’s apparently how Puerto Ricans like it.

Nalena, Jon and Nalena's family pose after Jon and Nalena were married.

Seeing Jon and Nalena get their union blessed was an experience I cannot describe adequately. It was a bilingual service, done well. Nalena was beautiful, Jon was handsome, and I struggled through some primitive Spanish at the reception, which seemed to be appreciated.

What can I say about Jon and Nalena? They come from different places, but there are similarities. Both Iowa and Puerto Rico are American backwaters, to some extent. 3 million people call Iowa home. 4 million live in Puerto Rico. Both are rectangular land masses, but Iowa is about 300 miles wide and 200 miles deep, while Puerto Rico is at most 110 miles wide and 40 miles deep. You could fit about 15 Puerto Ricos in Iowa.

Anyway, Jon and Nalena seem like kindred spirits, and I loved sharing the start of what I hope is a long journey for them.

Capítulo Cuatro: Places to See

If you are lucky enough to travel in Puerto Rico, where should you go and what should you see? Heck, I don’t really know. I was only there for a few days, and only saw portions of even the places I did see. But here are a few ideas:

1) Do see the Caverns, but go early in the morning. The park only allows so many visitors daily and fills up. It is worth the trip. Getting there by going west (oestre) from San Juan seems a lot easier than by coming from the east (estre). We tried and failed to go there on our first full day in Puerto Rico, but succeeded in our last. The caverns are more impressive and less kitschy than the caves near Hannibal, Missouri (although if given the chance, see the Hannibal caves, too).
2) Do travel to El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. park system. We did not see it all, did not, for example, take the hike to the anvil-shaped peak that gives the park it’s name (along with the a sound-alike native diety), but what we saw we enjoyed. It rained a lot when we were there, but good company (the Santiagos, minus Nalena who had gone back to Seattle with Jon by then) and breaks in the rain made for a pleasant hike. Wear comfortable, grippy shoes and clothing designed to get wet. Irma Santiago bought an umbrella, but surrendered it quickly to Amanda to keep Lizzie dry, which was a sweet thing for Irma to do. I don’t even know the names of of the plants I saw, and I heard, but did not see, lots of birds. There is definitely more to see in this large park than we squeezed in our brief visit, but it was fun.
3) And go to Old San Juan. The forts are worth the modest price of admission, the stores vary a lot and are touristy trappy, but still fun. Lots of restaurants, and I don’t know if they are all good, but all that we tried were. We look a long walk along the shore under the city walls, which was hot and tiring, but definitely worth it. We also purchased an ice treat from a vendor, a bit like a slushy but made from hand-shaved ice and much more strongly flavored. Yum.

Lizzie and Amanda in Old San Juan.

4) The west coast. There is not a lot to do at the Plaza de Colon in Mayaguez, but it’s worth seeing, especially at night. The lighthouse at Rincon was also a fine sight.

Well, all for now. I need to rest to recover from this trip. Jon, Nalena, best wishes seem a bit superfluous when you’re off to such a wonderful start, but best wishes nonetheless. Angel, Irma, Pamela, gracias por todos.

We’ve been to several “snowbird” climates—Phoenix, New Orleans and Puerto Rico. If we win unexpected millions and retire wealthy, we’ve already decided.

Open a Medalla or ask the bartender to mix up another mojito. We want more of Puerto Rico.

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Ready to Flee at a Moment’s Notice


"All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. I'm standing here outside your door. I hate to wake you up to day goodbye." Except I'll take Audrey with me. "Have Passport will travel reads the card of a man. Ingite without horror in a sanitary lamb." Or something like that.

I’ve been out of the United States, as far as I know, only twice. Family legend is that when we moved from Schenectady, New York, to Pomona, California in 1962, the flight took us briefly into Canadian airspace.

To my knowledge, no jets were scrambled.

The second time was in the summer of 2006. I went with a group from Mount Mercy College to build houses for a group called Proyecto Azteca, a sort of Habitat for Humanity focused on colonias near the U.S.-Mexico border.

A part of the group working at Proyecto Azteca.

During that trip, we took an afternoon off and crossed into a small city in Mexico. At that time, you didn’t need a Passport to enter a Mexican border town.

Rules have changed and you need a Passport to go to Nebraska, practically. But, I’m ready. It came in the mail today.

Both Audrey and I now have passports. We can flee at a moment’s notice. We’re itching for some sexy visa stamps. From whence should such stamps come?

I’ve never seen Paris. Or Dublin. Or British Columbia. I’ve not yet eaten curry rice in Bombay, nor tasted a shrimp on the barby in Sydney.

Sometime in the next year, our first overseas flight should take us to the U.K., where our daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter will be living for several years. Dr. Moscou has a post-PhD (note, MA guy got it right this time) research position over there somewhere. Some town you never heard of because it’s in the U.K. and we’re in the U.S. and frankly we don’t give a damn. Except that Amanda and Matt and Lizzie will be there, so now we care.

Where else shall we go? Since seeing “The Motorcycle Diaries,” I’ve been interested in southern South America. Then again, I also recently enjoyed “Invictus.” I’ve never been to Africa. Finally, despite Celine Dion, I really like Canadian Idiot. 

Oh Canada, our friendly frozen neighbor to the north, I hear it’s nice but I’d like to see it for myself.

Help me out, blog friends. Where in the world should Joe and Audrey go?

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