The Favourites of Wendy Arbeit

Wendy Arbeit is a visual artist and textile designer living in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She has travelled to nearly 160 countries and still has a long bucket list! She is a Gold Member in The Travelers’ Century Club and frequently gives presentations about her trips. Wendy’s favourite part of travelling is meeting the local people and experiencing their culture. She loves the “hunt” of scouting out and buying authentic art, handicrafts, and antiques.

What are three of your favourite countries, and why?

People are always surprised that, although I have been to so many countries, “on-the-beaten track” Italy is still my top choice. I have a particular affinity for it since I studied jewellery design in Florence and lived in Rome for a bit. I love everything about Italy—the people, the food, the language, the history, the scenery, the architecture. I could go on and on. I love wandering through the narrow streets of San Gimignano, retracing ancient footsteps in Pompeii and on the Appian Way, and walking along the water in magical Lipari. And for food there is nothing better than a quattro formaggi pizza with Mulino Bianco’s “Pan di Stelle” cookies for dessert.

The rich gelato, of course, is legendary. Once I had an unfortunate incident where it was an especially hot day, and my fudgy chocolate gelato ended up everywhere—on my face, my shirt, and then somehow on the bench, where I managed to sit in it! It made for a hilariously embarrassing waddle back to my apartment.

One of my favourite experiences was visiting Alberobello, a town of roughly 11,000 people in Italy’s Apulia region. Alberobello translates to “beautiful tree” and is known for its famous hundreds-of-years-old homes called “trulli”. The trulli are mortarless, whitewashed cave-like dwellings with primitive, Christian, and magic symbols inscribed on their conical roofs. I even stayed in a trullo! And while I was visiting, the town had a local religious festival, and it felt so authentically Italian. I’d love to one day own a trullo!

I truly enjoyed my trip to Pakistan! I started in Islamabad, travelled to Peshawar, went up north to Gilgit-Baltistan, and finished in Azad Kashmir. The springtime scenery was gorgeous, and the people were all so welcoming and friendly. At every stop, the locals invited me for tea or lunch, or even to stay with them! A major highlight was spending time with the Kalash people, who are both exotic and approachable. I look forward to returning someday soon. Next time, I’d like to visit Lahore, Skardu, and make my way to the south.

I love Mexico! I joke with my Mexican friends that in a past life, I was Mexican, because I simply adore the people, the culture, the food, and the lifestyle. The festivals are incredible (especially Dia de Los Muertos in Oaxaca), and I am addicted to the amazing handicrafts, ranging from alebrijes to papier-mache masks, nichos, Milagros, and colourful embroidered clothing. A favourite pastime is viewing luxury homes online in San Miguel de Allende. One can dream!

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

Spontaneously Seeing an Austrian Festival
In the year 2000, my identical twin sister Michelle and I visited Innsbruck, Austria. We were loving our time there. As we were returning to the train station, Michelle mused, “This town is picture-perfect. The only thing that would make it better would be to see people in lederhosen.” As if on cue, townspeople began trickling into the streets decked out in lederhosen! It turns out that it was a local festival day.

We made a sharp U-turn and joined the festivities. It appeared that we were the only tourists there, and the townspeople included us in the festival and dressed us up in their hats! It was one of the most memorable travel events that I’ve ever experienced because it was so authentic, lively, and unexpected.

Taking the Wrong (But Great!) Tour in El Salvador
Michelle and I were staying at a hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador. We inquired about a tour, and the receptionist arranged a three-hour guided tour the next day with an English-speaking guide named Julio. She told us to be outside at 10 a.m. and that it would be $60.

The next morning we dutifully went downstairs. 10 a.m. came and went, then 10:15 a.m., then 10:30 a.m. Finally, at around 10:45 a.m., a beat-up white van covered in stickers pulled up. We asked the driver (who sported a rather impressive mullet) if he was Julio, and he nodded, so we climbed inside.

We quickly realized that he didn’t speak English as the receptionist had promised, but we understand Spanish decently well, so it was ok. We showed Julio postcards that we had purchased, and he took us to see all of the major sights and even went out of his way to hunt down a post office where we could mail them (not an easy feat in El Salvador, actually).

After a few hours, Julio dropped us off, we paid him our $60, and we happily entered the hotel. The receptionist stopped us and apologized that Julio never made it. Michelle and I looked at each other and were like, “umm if that wasn’t Julio, who the heck’s van did we get in and spend three hours driving around town with?”

Seeing the Vác Mummies – but not in Vác
The only thing better than seeing mummies is seeing mummies dressed in authentic 1700’s garb, so when I was in Budapest in 2016, I made a beeline to the town of Vác. Vác is famous for its mummies dressed in their gorgeous old clothing and buried in elaborate, hand-painted coffins featuring crucifixes, angels, quotes, and inscriptions in different languages.

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When I arrived at the Memento Mori museum, I was crushed to see that the exhibit was closed. Using my Google Translate app, I inquired if I could see them, and the curator said no. I inquired again, asking if I could pay for a private tour (or otherwise sweeten the pot). She again said no, and explained that the mummies weren’t even there, that they had been sent out. I milled around the rest of Vác, which was a cute enough little town, but I won’t lie – I was super disappointed.

Imagine my surprise when 6 weeks later I happened to be in Orange County, California and decided to go to the Bowers Museum, and they had the Vác mummies on exhibit! I almost cried with joy. The mummies were even more spectacular than I had imagined. I felt like the stars had aligned. 

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

Getting My Bag Swiped in Afghanistan
I am very fortunate that (knock on suitcase) I’ve never really had anything stolen while travelling. Recently though, I was celebrating Nowruz (the new year) in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. My guide had warned me that it would be crowded, so I luckily didn’t take my regular bag—I packed my “I Love Istanbul” reusable tote bag (that I had purchased just two days before at the Istanbul airport) with just the essentials (a half-dead lipstick that is older than I care to admit, small mirror, fresh memory card, and spare camera battery). 

After the event, the crowd swarmed me, eager to take photos with the foreigner. My bag was on the chair next to me, and in the blur, when I reached for it, it was gone. I wasn’t concerned about the items in the bag (although I really, really liked that lipstick colour!), but I still felt violated, and I was most disappointed that my souvenir visitor pass was gone. I felt vindicated when I bought another “I Love Istanbul” bag at the airport, and all things considered, especially with all of the real troubles going on now in Afghanistan, it was a trivial loss.  

I can recall another time when in 2008 in Laos I bought a $3 Beerlao baseball cap, and it kept getting swiped by other tourists, and I kept having to ask for it back (while I was sitting on a bus, in an internet café, at a hostel, etc.). Finally, I just gave into the fact that the universe didn’t want me to have that hat!

Almost Getting Attacked in Morocco
Everyone has at least one story about travelling with a nutty companion. Well, I have several about a certain companion, but one incident, in particular, stands out. She and I took a day trip from Ceuta (in Spanish Morocco) to Tetouan. On the way back at the border crossing, there was a long taxi queue (conservatively guesstimating an hour’s wait). Instead of waiting in line like a normal person, she snapped, “I don’t wait in line,” and then madly darted in front and hopped the queue. She quickly dashed into the front seat of a slow-moving taxi, yelling at me to get in the back. I scrambled inside, knowing full well that she wouldn’t hesitate to leave without me.

Angry locals then swarmed the car, ripping the doors open, screaming, and tried to pull her out and beat her with canes, fists, and bags of fruit. She calmly told the driver to go, and as we peeled away, tires screeching and still being chased, I was simultaneously sweating and frozen with fear. She was completely, utterly unfazed. We were lucky to escape unscathed!

Getting my ATM Card Stuck in a Machine in Djibouti
Picture it: 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening in Djibouti, the bank is about to close for the evening, and Friday the bank is closed. I earnestly put my ATM card in the machine, and it swallowed it, then abruptly (and dare I say cheerfully?) displayed an “out of order” message.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I panicked and ran into the bank, where I wildly gesticulated and explained to the large, unimpressed teller. She gave an unaffected shrug and went back to texting. I then tried to get someone else’s attention, and thankfully, a male customer went to bat for me and talked to a manager. The manager vaguely said that “someone will be out to look at it.” 

I went outside and paced nervously, visions of having all of my money wiped clean from my card or never seeing it again. In my panic, I forgot to zip my camera bag closed, and my DLSR camera and lenses toppled out of my bag and slammed down to the hard dirt ground. In one week, I was going gorilla trekking in Uganda, and seeing my camera died on the ground, I’m pretty sure that I howled the word “NOOOOOOO!” It was undoubtedly my worst travel moment ever. 

My 18-135mm lens bit the dust (literally), but miraculously my camera and longer 70-300mm lens survived (kudos to Nikon for that). And almost more amazingly, in another half hour, a man came with a key and unlocked the ATM, rescuing my card. The funniest thing is that he kept looking at me to make sure that I matched the photo on the card (like how many foreigners get their card stuck in there that you have to quadruple check the photo? Although in his defence, the photo on my ATM card is from 1998). In any case, I was incredibly relieved. But that whole debacle, combined with quite possibly the world’s most sleazy guide, soured Djibouti a bit for me.

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What are three of your best travel tips?

Shut Out Negativity!
I’ll never forget the summer of 2007, when I was super excited to embark on a multi-country trip through five of the ‘stans (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan). I was studying in London, and a classmate warned me about going, pontificating about how dangerous they were. He made me nervous since I had never been to that region, and I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling until I landed in Ashgabat, and it was fine. It was then that I learned a valuable lesson—never take advice from someone who has never been to that country. In a similar vein, I found Papua New Guinea, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia perfectly lovely despite hearing otherwise. So if you are on the fence about visiting a country, go for it, and have a great time! 

Also, in the US, it is frowned upon to wear clothing belonging to another culture, considering it “cultural appropriation.” I’ve found that the locals love it when I wear a local dress or their jewellery! And as an artist, it is important for me to support local artisans and their creations, and I find that they appreciate my appreciation for their culture. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Solo
Obviously, my sister Michelle (my “travelling twin”) is my favourite person to travel with– we are like one person and have the exact same interests. We joke that I am the “planning monkey” and do all of the work with the itinerary and budget, and she just shows up, knowing that whatever I book will be right up her travel alley. However, due to work and family commitments, I often have to go solo.

Many people I meet are in awe that I mainly travel alone, but it’s the nature of the beast when you are trying to see every country. When my travel buddies and I try to coordinate a trip, it can be difficult because we are at varying degrees of accomplishing our travel goals and much of the time we are missing different countries. 

Also, as cheesy as it sounds, I enjoy my own company! The more I travel, the more that I am in tune with myself and my interests (for example, I’m not really into camping, hiking, or other adventure-type activities, so I do it in small doses. I’m more into the culture and would rather meet locals, dress in the local outfits, see old artwork and old castles and old towns, and go to markets to hunt for “treasure”). By travelling solo, I have the flexibility to see what I want and spend as much time as I want in a place.    

Depending on the country and how easy it is to travel there, I either: 1) go totally solo; 2) arrange day trips through the hotel; or 3) book a longer, more extensive tour with a guide and a driver.  

If you are a newbie or hesitating going on a trip by yourself, start small—go to a European city and stay at a hostel to meet other solo travellers. With the exception of perhaps New York City, it is actually easier to travel within Europe than the US because the cities there are more compact, easier to navigate by public transportation or walking, and well-connected to other major cities by trains.

Don’t Be in a Rush to Simply Tick Off Countries
I see so many travellers nowadays trying to be the youngest, or the fastest, or the youngest and fastest traveller in the world. The reason to visit a country should be to experience it, not just put a foot down in the airport or across a border to say “check!” 

Similarly, nowadays, with the whole Instagram culture, I see travellers who want to be stars. They want to snap the perfect photo, in the perfect lighting and in the perfect pose, and they miss the whole point. I was at the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso in Porto, Portugal, soaking in the beauty of the 18th-century church. In front of me, a girl and her boyfriend/photographer videotaped her (in her beautiful long fluttery dress, which was blue and white, to match the tiles) running up the stairs about six times, and then they scurried off, without even going inside, in search of their next snap.

I travel because I want to experience the culture, the food, the scenery, so when I meet someone from another country, I understand where they come from. Every country, big and small, has something unique and special to offer and should be savoured.

Additional favourites

If you can only choose one: 

Favourite airline: Ethiopian Airlines.
Besides flying to most of my wish-list places, when they recently cancelled a flight due to covid I was escorted as a VIP to their office for a full refund on the spot (whereas another airline cancelled a flight, and 6 weeks later I still can’t get through on the phone and I’m still waiting for some sort of response to my email).  Ethiopian Airlines also serves meals and snacks on even the shortest flights.

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Favourite airport: Istanbul Airport
While the new location is not near the city (boo!), it is a nice new airport that is manageable, it has secure luggage storage, a Burger King, and it’s a 10 minute Uber ride to cheap but decent overnight accommodation.  It also has multiple options for cheap and fast onsite PCR tests ($28 for results within 90 minutes), and has air connections to almost everywhere!

Favourite city: St. Peter Port in Guernsey, in the UK’s Channel Islands.
It is such a beautiful, quaint, classically English town with flowers and colourful flags. It’s also easy to travel to other interesting places like Sark (an adorable island with no cars) and Jersey.

Favourite hotel: For higher-end, Breezes Beach Club & Spa Zanzibar.
It is the most romantic place that I’ve stayed in, featuring big hand-carved day beds under the gauzy fabric, a private beach with silky sand on the water in several shades of turquoise, and with dhows sailing past.  I normally have a hard time “doing nothing”, because when I travel, I’m always on the move, but it was completely relaxing to lie on a lounger under a palm tree dozing off to the sound of my iPod and taking in the warm breeze.

I’m not huge into hostels because I like privacy (and not trudging down the hall to the bathroom), but the Ostello Bello Grande in Milan really stood out. It is clean, secure, they offer free dinner, it’s social, and located right by the train station for easy access to day trips (and as a major bonus the bathroom is attached to the room).

Favourite island: Socotra island in Yemen
It has everything on my travel wish list: Breathtaking scenery, sand dunes, funky trees, caves, aqua-coloured water, great food, gorgeous giant seashells, and friendly locals.  It also has really funny-looking vultures with fuzzy yellow feathers that I thought were so cute.  I spent a week there and easily could have stayed longer.  

Favourite people: I find friendly people in every country!
Some of the nicest and most hospitable I’ve found are Filipinos, Saudis, and Iranians.

Favourite small town: Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
It is a super cute little fairytale-like Bohemian town, and my favourite part was seeing a roof with “1492” inscribed in it.  Back in the year 2000, I bought a handmade wrought iron candelabra there and with some difficulty schlepped it home.  Alas, the candelabra has sat in my mother’s attic for the past 21 years, but when I go into the attic I still smile when I see it.

Favourite restaurant
Although it’s a well-known fact that I seek out pizza in every country (seriously—ask anyone that I’ve ever travelled with!), I love different types of cuisines, and I’ve never met a dal makhani that I didn’t like.

Internationally my favourite restaurant is found in Budapest, Hungary, and it’s called The New York Café.  Known as “The most beautiful café in the world”, it features a lavish Italian Renaissance style decor, and the interior is so exquisite that it literally looks like a step back in time.  I ordered the goulash and ice cream, and on an American budget, it is very affordable.  If memory serves, it was approximately $10.

At home in the US it’s a toss-up between four restaurants:

  1. Islands, a Hawaiian-themed chain restaurant in California.  It has fun tropical décor and the cheddar fries are drenched in cheese and are topped with scallions (and the platter is ginormous!).  Growing up in Santa Monica, I have fond memories of dining there with friends.
  2. Café du Monde in New Orleans for their fresh hot beignets smothered in powdered sugar and served with hot chocolate. 
  3. Nepenthe in Big Sur – their Famous Ambrosiaburger is hands down the best, juiciest burger that I’ve ever had!  And the view can’t be beaten.
  4. Zachary’s Pizza in Berkeley, California – their deep-dish pizza is decadent.  One slice doesn’t feel like enough but one and a half leaves me glazed in a blissful pizza coma.

Favourite travel book
For better or worse, I don’t read guidebooks unless a travelling companion has one on them.  But I do like and refer to Lonely Planet’s “The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World”.  My cousin bought me the book several years ago, and I love the quick at-a-glance facts and gorgeous photos.  It’s a great resource as it captures the essence of a country, and now the well-loved book has several dog-eared pages. 

Favourite travel movie
I have a wide variety of movie favourites, including indie, foreign, and classic movies.  However, my hands-down favourite travel movie is EuroTrip. It is a funny, wacky, and irreverent comedy about four American teens’ misadventures in Europe.  The best scene is where Scotty dukes it out with a French mime dressed as a robot.

Favourite travel website
I don’t often read blogs or travel websites, but I found three that are super helpful and entertaining.  They are (in no particular order): 1) Adventures of Lil Nicki, 2) Randy Williams and 3) Adam Hickman.  Also, hopefully, soon I’ll start my own blog—everyone that I meet asks me to!

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