John with Antarctica flag

While I didn’t post much in 2023, I can tell you it was a banner travel year. Perhaps that’s exactly why I haven’t written…I’m traveling too much!

Let’s recap the year’s major travel destinations and experiences.

Penguins on an iceberg
And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Antarctic Expedition

At the end of January, I flew to Buenos Aires en route to Ushuaia, Argentina. There at the end of the world I began to embark on my first Antarctic expedition cruise.

The trip was years in the making, and fulfilled my quest to travel to all seven continents.

Tierra Del Fuego

Tall mountain with geodesic dome houses in the foreground with a river
This mountain towers over the Tierra Del Fuego National Park near Lapataia, Argentina

In addition to getting a taste of Buenos Aires for a day, I spent a few days in Ushuaia exploring. It’s an interesting city in its own right.

A four-hour hike in the Tierra Del Fuego National Park prefaced the amazing scenery that was to come.

Antarctic Peninsula

The cruise was a 19-day excursion with Oceanwide Expeditions on the ship M/V Hondius. We sailed from Ushuaia through the Beagle Channel and the notorious Drake Passage, which was calmer than I expected.

The itinerary was reversed due to weather, making our first stop the Antarctic Peninsula. We then sailed to South Georgia and on to the Falkland Islands before returning to Ushuaia.

Low clouds, snowcapped mountains, icebergs, and water
One of the first glimpses of the “White Continent” from the ship

Although it was very expensive, I’d been saving up for years and can honestly say it was worth every penny. Unless I end up going to the Moon, this will probably be my “trip of a lifetime.”

Seeing photos and reading about Antarctica dims in comparison to being there physically. There’s something magical and unique about breathing in the pristine air and witnessing the tranquility first hand.

The author running into the cold water with mountains, sunlight, and zodiacs in the background
Running like a madman into the icy water for an official Polar Plunge

I joined several other passengers in the “polar plunge” on our very first day in Antarctica. Submerging myself in the freezing cold Antarctic waters off Danco Island was kind of a baptism for me.

Afterwards, it was strange that the air temperature felt about the same as the water. My bare body was comfortable in the frigid outdoor air after being regulated by the icy dip.

Mountains, a glacier & glacial river, and several king penguins
A comparatively small group of king penguins gather near St. Andrew’s Bay on South Georgia island

Elephant Island & A-76a

Making a pit stop at Elephant Island as part of an Ernest Shackleton theme day was especially meaningful.

This remote island was where 22 of Shackleton’s 28-man crew had to shelter for four and a half months. Although we couldn’t make a landing, we toasted on deck with glühwein while looking out at Point Wild.

Mountains with snow and black rocky cliffs and icy harbor waters
Elephant Island’s Point Wild on an uncharacteristically clear day

The Hondius docked in the harbor for lunch, where we had the privilege to enjoy views of the island. If you’re not familiar with this incredible story, I encourage you to read Endurance.

The ship happened to pass by one of the world’s largest icebergs between Elephant Island and South Georgia. Iceberg A-76a was nearly the size of Puerto Rico.

Thin strip of iceberg in the distance with low gray clouds and choppy waters
This was just a small portion of the iceberg A-76a

We only saw the “short” end, and through low, gray clouds. It was impossible to get a single shot of something so massive.

South Georgia

Mingling with seven different types of penguins. Watching fur seal pups frolic in the meadows. Visiting one of the world’s most remote post offices.

These were just some of the highlights of the four-day stop in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The author holding up a postcard reading "Grytviken" and getting ready to drop it in a red postbox inside the post office
Mailing a postcard at the most remote post office I’ve ever been to

Doing a Shackleton whiskey tribute at his grave at Grytviken, South Georgia fulfilled my inner explorer.

Including South Georgia is a must for anyone wishing to take an Antarctic expedition cruise.

Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands contained many surprises, from the charming British capital of Stanley to the wildlife haven of Saunders Island.

After hiking across Carcass Island as it drizzled, a sumptuous array of pastries awaited us at the Carcass Island Lodge. This secluded inn tempted us with dreams of returning to stay and experience the solitude and nature there.

We were blessed with good weather almost the entire trip, thanks to the skillful decisions and navigation of the ship’s crew.

A colony of albatrosses nesting on a cliffside
Black-browed albatrosses nest along the seaside on Saunders Island, West Falkland

Witnessing a full rainbow over the Scotia Sea on Valentine’s Day must have been designed by the universe. It was like a farewell present from lovely South Georgia.

Rainbow over the Scotia Sea
A perfectly arced rainbow wished us a Happy Valentine’s Day after leaving South Georgia

After the Cruise

After the cruise, it was hard to “return” to civilization. I found it a bit disorienting to be surrounded by noise, people, and so many human-made features.

Antarctica and its subantarctic periphery really make you feel all the feels.

I felt the vastness of our planet and the seeming insignificance of human activity. I also understood on a deeper level the devastating effects we as humans have on the planet.

Penguins on a rocky shore with chunks of ice and the ship in the distance
Our ship, the Hondius, waits for us as we explore Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula

Returning to Buenos Aires for an extended stay seemed like a stark transition at first. However, the city quickly captured me with its charm, beautiful buildings, coffee shops, and late-night eateries.

It’s a world class city that’s very affordable (especially with the unofficial exchange rate) and fun.

Domed building and statues in front of a dormant fountain on a partly cloudy day
Plaza Congreso in Buenos Aires is one of many attractions to enjoy

Uruguay

Mark, my travel partner extraordinaire, met me on March 1st and we immediately hopped on a ferry to Uruguay.

There we spent 10 days enjoying jaw-dropping sunsets, expansive beaches, and some of the friendliest, laid back people we’ve ever met.

Sunset over the beach
One of the many gorgeous sunsets that captivated us in Uruguay (Chihuahua Beach)

Uruguay proved the point that under-the-radar destinations can leave a deeper impression and longer lasting memories than tourist traps.

Still, there is plenty to see, delicious foods to eat, and an interesting culture to get a chance to know.

Statue with horse and big government building with palm trees
I really enjoyed hanging out in Uruguay’s calm capital city, Montevideo

The ornate architecture of Colonia and endless beaches of Punta del Diablo were just a few standouts.

Buenos Aires, Part II

We took the ferry back to Buenos Aires and continued sightseeing, eating, and catching up on work.

Mausoleum of Bernardo Irigoyen at Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires
The Recoleta Cemetery–where Evita is buried–is a treasure trove of beautiful and fascinating tombs

Staying in the vibrant Palermo neighborhood, I yearned to remain for months just soaking up the energy, trying different restaurants and cafes, and people-watching late at night.

We even got to attend an Argentine wrestling match that was more like boxing than I expected.

Green everywhere at Sullivan's Irish pub in Palermo district
It was so much fun to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish pub in Buenos Aires

USA: Domestic Travels in 2023

Kansas, Part I

Returning to the US in mid-March, we immediately hopped another plane to Kansas to spend some quality time with family and celebrate my mom’s 86th birthday.

While we were there, we paid a visit to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, & Boyhood Home in Abilene. One of Mark’s high school classmates lives there and gave us a grand tour of the small city.

Mural featuring Abilene, KS 67410 September 14, 2019 on two buffalo stamps
I was shocked to find this postmark mural in Abilene, Kansas

As April came, we spent a weekend in Kansas City. We finally checked out the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. The rest of our time there included sampling local microbrews and getting our fill of some Gates barbecue.

The trip was also a chance to experience the newly constructed airport that had just opened earlier in March.

DMV, Part I

April 22nd was “free national park day,” so we commemorated it by visiting Antietam National Battlefield in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland.

There we decided to purchase a lifetime park pass for our vehicle. Take advantage of those senior citizen benefits if you can!

5 cannons and a monument
Cannons on display at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland

May marked the return to one of my favorite DC-area activities: the Passport DC Around the World Embassy Tour open house!

We visited about 12 different embassies, including Mauritania, Paraguay, Eritrea*, Rwanda, Oman, and Trinidad & Tobago.

*A good omen of what was to come later!

Display with frankincense, roses and other essences
The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in DC showcased essences from Oman, such as frankincense and roses

The following weekend was the EU Open House, where I visited about four. 

Kansas, Part II

For a week around Memorial Day, we returned to Kansas to celebrate a classmate friend’s 50th birthday.

The party was held on a side street in the small Kansas town of Eskridge, complete with a band and the local cafe opening later than usual. Classic small town hospitality and style. We loved it!

We also fit in a little day trip through the lush and green Flint Hills of Wabaunsee and Morris counties. There we enjoyed a picnic at the Shamrock Cafe and a beer flight at the Riverbank Brewing in Council Grove.

Chairs and a table overlooking the plains, with a sign Shamrock Cafe "always open"
Shamrock Cafe is open 24 hours a day, but you have to bring your own food and beverages

South Carolina

Not letting too much dust settle on our suitcases, we hopped in our own vehicle and drove to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a week for a little family reunion.

Despite the chances of rain, we also spent some time walking on the beach at Myrtle Beach State Park.

Expansive beach with some people and the city in the distance
The expansive beach still draws crowds when rain threatens

New York & Camp Indie

With the hood still warm, we got back in that car and drove north to the Hudson Valley. It is becoming a destination we return to.

This time, we explored Poughkeepsie, New York and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum and the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.

A study in a mansion, with books, chairs, desks, and lamps
The study at Springwood, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked on his stamp collection among other things

This was the gateway to Club Getaway in nearby Kent, Connecticut, where we returned for Camp Indie 2023.

There we met several friends from the Location Indie community I’ve been in, and made new ones who had attended the event for the first time.

It was a fun-filled, professionally inspiring, and completely motivating weekend.

Scene of grassy knoll and lake
Club Getaway was the setting for Camp Indie, an “adult summer camp” for entrepreneurs and creative thinkers

Visiting some cousins for dinner in Old Saybrook, Connecticut before heading back home added to the meaningfulness of this particular trip.

DMV, Part II

After attending a wedding near home, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in DC, and hanging out with a close friend in Hyattsville, Maryland, we were once again back on a plane for Kansas.

FolkLife Festival sign with the Capitol Building in DC
The rain couldn’t mess up this view!

Kansas, Part III

This time, we were celebrating my aunt’s 96th birthday and planning to attend a comedy show of one of our favorite comedians.

We accompanied Mom to her dental appointment in Atchison, Kansas, and explored that historic town a little. We also got to visit the Pay Station Museum in my hometown and see other relatives.

Nebraska Road Trip

We took a 3-day road trip up through Nebraska, where we visited a charming farm brewery/ winery called Lazy Horse. There we witnessed incredible thunderstorm cloud formations.

Storm cloud moving in
Dramatic storm clouds near Ohiowa, Nebraska

As fate would have it, the same storm system was responsible for a tornado that touched down just outside our hotel in Sutton, Nebraska.

Luckily our vehicle was unharmed, but the hotel suffered some broken windows and lost its sign. It was rather exciting, to be honest, as I’d never been in a tornado despite being from Kansas!

Building with roof damage and police officers near the scene
The tornado damaged the roof of this historic building in downtown Sutton
Minneapolis & Rock City

Zane Lamprey’s comedy show at the Farm & Odd Fellows Brewery in Minneapolis, Kansas was a blast. This was our second time attending one of his shows, and he did not disappoint.

We enjoyed walking around the town and the next day visited nearby Rock City, a conglomeration of puff-shaped rocks that are called concretions. It is one of the rare locations of such features.

Several concretions of Dakota sandstone
Some of the many rock concretions at Rock City near Minneapolis, Kansas

DMV, Part III

In early August we took a short day trip to Mount Saint Mary’s University campus and grotto near Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Later that month I went to my first Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg.

Funnel cake stand at the fair
The classic sign of a county fair: funnel cakes and fried stuff

We closed out the month spending some days at Mark’s brother’s new home near Salisbury. It was a relaxing time, but we also had a reunion with our friends Ryan & Neely and their beautiful family.

Before heading back home, we celebrated our friends’ daughter Kaia’s birthday on the beach in Ocean City!

Two flavors of ice cream in a cup at Island Creamery's Berlin branch
Grabbing some ice cream in Berlin, Maryland

Labor Day kicked off September with the hottest day of the year. Fortunately we were treated with a private pool party near Reston, Virginia.

Mark’s 50th high school reunion was celebrated at the Lakewood Country Club in Rockville right before we returned to the Midwest for our Texas road trip.

Texas Road Trip

Kansas, Part IV

Once again in Kansas, we gassed up the truck and drove through tiny towns, stopping to visit the Little House on the Prairie Museum and historic site near Wayside, Kansas.

Farm house that is now a museum
The Ingalls family lived in this farmhouse near Wayside, Kansas from 1869 to 1871
Tulsa

We got our art deco and Route 66 kicks in Tulsa, where we spent the night on our way to Terrell, Texas for the 61st annual Postmark Collectors Club convention.

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, an art deco building
Tulsa has a serious collection of art deco buildings and Route 66 kitsch

There are so many places to stop along the way. We hung out a little bit longer in Okmulgee, Oklahoma and Denison, Texas before pulling into Terrell after 9pm.

Terrell, TX

Terrell is a cute town with many murals and an interesting museum devoted to the fact that there was a World War II British flying school located here that trained hundreds of pilots to aid in the war effort.

Mural showing Texas and Great Britain with flags and words "Terrell, Texas Est. 1873"
I never knew about this town’s unique connection to Britain

Greenville and Kaufman were nearby towns with some cool buildings and historical things to check out and good grub to snarf down.

Dallas-Forth Worth

After the convention, we spent the weekend with friends Amber and Jason in Arlington while we explored Dallas and Forth Worth.

We also got to have a delicious taco brunch with friends John & Molly. It was a whirlwind tour of the DFW area, for sure.

Oklahoma City

On the way back to Kansas, we spent a night in Oklahoma City, spending some sobering time at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

It was fascinating and a very well-done tribute to the horrific bombing that occurred there in 1995.

Destroyed metal window blinds, files, and a computer from the Murrah Building after the terrorist attack
One of the harrowing but emotionally effective displays at the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum

The final little stops on the road trip were Ardmore and Blackwell, Oklahoma; and Wellington, Wichita, and Marion, Kansas.

Return to Kansas

Our flexible schedule allows us to return so often and when things come up, we can pivot.

My mom’s cancer surgery was scheduled for early October, so we extended our trip so that we could be with her throughout the whole process.

Book tower amidst books in a bookstore
Prospero’s Bookstore was just a few blocks from the KU Medical Center, across the Missouri state line

This brought us once again to Kansas City, where we were graciously hosted by our friend Justin for the third time.

And when we returned to St. Marys, we got to attend the Flint Hills Shakespeare Festival, which was like a small, cozy Renaissance Festival. It was amazing!

"The Bell Arm Inn" with flags
The Flint Hills Shakespeare Festival takes place every September in my hometown

York, PA

Before the next trip, I made an overnight jaunt up to Pennsylvania for a site visit. Because I will be hosting the next Postmark Collectors Club convention, there were a few places in the area I wanted to check out before finalizing the decision.

I was most pleased with York, and signed a contract for our event to be held there at the Four Points by Sheraton in August 2024. I may have had too much fun at some of the city’s breweries.

Statue of Marquis de Lafayette holding a glass of beer
With its rich history, colorful murals, and plentiful breweries, York makes an excellent destination

New Orleans

Next up was a trip to New Orleans for FinCon, another conference that both Mark and I attended. We stayed in the Garden District for a total of a week and explored more of New Orleans than either of us had before.

We also got to see the city decking out for Halloween and got curbside placement to experience their Halloween Parade on Canal Street. What a fun time!

Facade of the Soria-Creel House in New Orleans
New Orleans’s Garden District is home to dozens of stately mansions

Horn of Africa

The final big trip of the year kicked off November, as I flew across the pond to start my 40-day Horn of Africa tour.

Doha

The first stop was three days in Doha, Qatar, where I visited two of my host sisters from the Peace Corps Uzbekistan days. It was so good to be able to see them and meet Sanam’s husband and children.

Night skyline with a clock and Hublot FIFA World Cup emblem statue
Signs of the 2022 World Cup are still everywhere in Doha

Qatar was an interesting place to explore, offering a modern cityscape, architecturally fascinating museums, and a well-organized transportation system.

Ethiopia

I spent the next three weeks in Ethiopia, enjoying delicious food, coffee, and weather.

I stayed mainly in Addis Ababa, the capital, but the most rewarding visit was to Lalibela, the home of the famous rock-hewn churches from the 12th century.

Side view of the rock-hewn church with steps
The famous St. George Church in Lalibela, a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site

I also visited the culturally and religiously diverse city of Harar and the nearby city of Dire Dawa.

Djibouti

I turned 51 in the nation of Djibouti, waking up to sunrise at Lake Abbe with carbonate chimney formations and steaming waterholes standing in lieu of birthday cake.

Djibouti City was hot and gritty, but full of friendly people and some pretty good food options.

Carbonate chimney rocks in the shape of a man with mouth open, a nose, and eye during sunrise
I think I can hear this rock snoring

Some misfortunes changed the itinerary for Djibouti, but not to be deterred, my new travel companion Francisco and I replanned our trip and continued on to the unofficial, unrecognized country of Somaliland.

Somaliland

From the cool weather capital city of Hargeisa to the balmy seaport of Berbera, we got to see the contrasts quickly.

The perfectly preserved rock paintings of Las Geel were a definitive highlight.

Rock paintings of mostly cattle
Perfectly preserved rock art dating back to as far as 3500 BCE at Las Geel, Somaliland

We enjoyed fresh fish, a dip in the Gulf of Aden, and stunning views of the Golis Mountains on the rest of our Somaliland tour.

It was cool to mingle with the “money market” vendors selling blocks of local currency in Hargeisa, as they do not have a typical banking system since the currency is non-convertible.

Rubber-banded blocks of various bills bundled for sale
Blocks of currency for sale at the “money market” in Hargeisa

Somalia

One of the more controversial stops on this trip was a two-night visit to Somalia’s war-torn capital of Mogadishu.

Unfortunately much of the time was spent in a bulletproof vehicle with armed security guards or in the green zone at our hotel due to security curfews. We did get to do a few things that involved being outside of the vehicle.

Many people, lots of wires, buildings, cars
A busy street scene in downtown Mogadishu

The first thing we did after arriving was head to a mall to sample coffee and baked goods.

We had some photo ops with locals at a city park and spent an afternoon gorging ourselves on lobster, shrimp, and seasoned fish at Liido Beach.

The highlight was witnessing up close and personal Somali fishermen hauling swordfish and other large marine fish in from the ocean to the fish market.

Man carrying two swordfish on his head, with a background of the sea and cityscape and many people
Carrying a double load of swordfish up to the fish market in Mogadishu, Somalia

We closed out our last night strolling along a rocky beach in the green zone where expats exercised and helicopters land during emergencies.

The city has enormous potential, and I hope that in time it will blossom.

Eritrea

The last stop on my Horn of Africa tour was Eritrea, which is completely different from any other country in Africa.

It’s a unique blend of cultures, with some similarities to Ethiopia and Italy, but completely laid back.

Countryside with terraced hills, distant mountains, and a village in the distance
Eritrean countryside near Ghinda on the winding downward road from Asmara to Massawa

Eritrea’s lack of wired internet means that it’s truly like stepping back in time. People at coffee shops were actually talking to each other instead of being on their phones.

Asmara, Part I

The capital of Asmara is aesthetically appealing with many original art deco buildings dating from the 1930s and 1940s. The cool temperatures made it ideal to explore on foot.

One of Asmara’s more peculiar attractions is the “tank graveyard,” a junkyard testament to the many decades of fighting that eventually led the country to full independence.

Author sitting on top of a rusted out army vehicle with trees and weeds growing through it, amidst other scrap metal and tank parts
Rife with photo ops, Asmara’s tank graveyard is a treasure trove of curious discoveries

It now is a collection point for used appliances, vehicles, and scrap metal as well as the old rusted out tank or military vehicle.

Massawa

The historic port city of Massawa was super hot in contrast to Asmara. The decaying old town was worth a few hours in the heat exploring its narrow alleys and passageways.

Banco d'Italia burned out building
Ruins of the Bank of Italy in Massawa’s historic old town

We took a dip in the warm Red Sea and went to a nomadic village inhabited by the Arabic-speaking Rashaida people. They even dressed us up in their traditional garb.

We hightailed it back to Asmara for our driver’s daughter’s first birthday party, which we were delighted to attend. After that, we went to Eritrea’s third city of Keren, arriving late.

Keren

The next morning was Monday, time for the weekly market in the dry riverbed running through the town.

Cattle and shepherds with hills in the distance
Huge livestock market in Keren

We also went to the livestock market, which was mostly camels, sheep, goats, and cattle. Most unique was the “Madonna of the Baobabs” church that was built into the trunk of a big tree.

Asmara, Part II

I enjoyed some relaxing days in Asmara, sipping macchiatos in historic art deco cinema cafes, eating delicious Ethiopian and Italian food, and trying to wander around as many areas as my feet could take me before it was time to go home.

It was a peaceful and healing way to end the trip, which had many contentious moments and lots of lessons for me to learn. I’m glad I got the idea to go after visiting the embassy earlier in the year.

Building with "ROMA" illuminated across the facade
Elegant Cinema Roma at night

Kansas, Part V

Closing out the year, we spent a week in Kansas (yes, again!) celebrating all the year-end holidays and returning home to have some family Christmas celebrations before getting diagnosed with strep throat.

Much of the latter days of 2023 were spent sleeping and trying to recover. At least we finished watching The Crown.

Christmas tree with presents
Merry Christmas from my childhood home in Saint Marys, Kansas

Here’s to 2024 and another year of travel, inspiration, and growth.

Happy New Year!

John with Antarctica flag
Happy New Year from my 7th Continent!

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