Travel Memories Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall – Germany

In the summer of 1989 Berlin was a city divided. There was “The East” and there was “The West” with the Berlin Wall dividing the “island” of West Berlin from East Berlin and the East German and the Soviet controlled Eastern Bloc. Cracks were forming, however, as Eric witnessed. These photos and travel memories are from his time in Germany just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Climbing the Berlin Wall

Eric climbing a ladder to peek over the Berlin Wall just a few months before the wall came down in 1989.

Before beginning law school Eric took his first long-term backpacking trip through Europe and the Middle East. During late June and early July of 1989 he traveled to Berlin and the former Eastern Bloc countries of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Berlin was far from the city filled with shiny new towers that it is today. The now-unified capital of Germany still had empty lots and ruined buildings left over from the ravages of World War II, including the sealed up and abandoned Reichstag.

Checkpoint Charlie was the only gap in the Berlin Wall that was open to foreigners who wanted to cross between East Berlin and West Berlin and it stood like an exclamation point on the island of western culture (West Berlin) which was surrounded by the Soviet East.

Checkpoint Charlie seperating West Berlin from East berlin

Checkpoint Charlie in 1989. Its days as an active checkpoint were numbered.

Cracks in the Berlin Wall

The wall itself, all 87 miles (140 km) of it, was nearly invisible from the East Berlin side, blocked from access and from public view by official buildings or sealed and condemned structures. On the West Berlin side the wall was a giant, open wound clearly visible for anyone to see though outside of the commonly visited areas around the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Checkpoint Charlie much of the wall was a dirty, urine drenched, sketchy area often filled with gypsy squatters or drug addicts.

Berlin Wall Graffiti - Breaking through the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall graffiti from 1989 when the best political and satirical work was quickly covered by random, angry, inarticulate tags.

Murals on the Berlin Wall

Graffiti was an established part of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – some of it profound, some of it mere vandalism.

Berlin Wall graffiti has become famous and in 1989 some of it had strong political messages or was very clever. However, very little of the good stuff was visible since new wall art was immediately covered with dozens or even hundreds of ragged “tags” within days.

There were a few platforms along the wall which you could stand on to see over the barrier. A quick peek was all you needed to be grateful that you didn’t live on the other side where a heavily armed, well-guarded 50 to 100 yard no-man’s land known as the “death strip” provided a physical buffer between the haves and have-nots. The guards in the guard towers were not there to keep the West out but to keep the East in and they were backed up by orders to shoot.

Berlin Wall - East German Death Strip

Eric’s view of the “death strip” patrolled by armed guards on the East Berlin side of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Looking over the Berlin Wall into East Berlin

Looking over the Berlin Wall from West Germany into East Germany in the final days of the wall in 1989.

Few realized it at the time, but Hungary’s decision in May of 1989 to dismantle its border fence with Austria, effectively opening the first hole in the iron curtain, represented the first cracks in the Berlin Wall. By mid-August, just one month after Eric had toured Hungary, the country completely disabled its defenses along the border with Austria.

The Berlin Wall stood, but Hungary’s moves created a literal and figurative loop-hole which more than 13,000 East Germans used, crossing into Hungary on “vacation” then defecting to the West.

An encounter in East Berlin

When Eric passed through the intimidating Checkpoint Charlie border crossing into East Germany (DDR) he spent a day wandering the streets of East Berlin. He saw the world-class museums on Museum Island, the overly militaristic soviet-style monuments and a great statue of Marx and Engles but he also saw shops with mostly empty shelves, except for the well-stocked duty-free shops near the border where only foreigners could shop using either Deutsche marks or dollars.

Crossing into East berlin & East germany (DDR) at Checkpoint Charlie

A secretly snapped shot as Eric crossed into East Berlin and East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie in the summer of 1989.

Outside of the center, the streets were filled with decrepit buildings usually with large piles of coal in front of them. The only vehicles on the streets were the notoriously bad Trebant cars which looked like they were designed in the ‘50s because they were and there had been no changes made to the vehicle since then.

If you didn’t have a day pass to tour the city of East Berlin, the only other way to enter the city was if you held a train ticket out of Berlin Friedrichstraße, then the main station in East Berlin, heading to an Eastern Block country. Back then parts of the West Berlin subway system (the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn) passed under East Berlin and traveled right past some stations that were sealed when the wall went up. The only East Berlin station that the subway actually stopped at was the Berlin Friedrichstraße station and there was a fully militarized border control point right on the platform which you could only exit if you had a rail ticket on to another Eastern Bloc country.

Eric was heading to Prague, then still in Czechoslovakia, on a night train and that ticket got him into the Berlin Friedrichstraße station. However, he missed his train and didn’t want the expense and hassle of returning to West Berlin so he figured he could hide out in the station and grab a train that was leaving a few hours later in the wee hours of the morning.

East German Guard Tower Berlin Wall

A guard in an East German guard tower on the Berlin Wall in 1989.

He headed to a bar tucked away in a dark corner of the station, ordered a beer and that’s when a young man approached him. The next few hours were spent “talking” with this 18-year-old East Berliner. Despite the language barrier, they managed to cover complicated concepts of freedom and the kid’s belief that “Reagan Good” (something Eric could have argued, but under the circumstances the underlying meaning was easy to agree upon).

Memorial for those killed trying to cross Berlin Wall

One of many memorials to those killed while trying to get over the Berlin Wall.

Then the kid asked to see Eric’s US passport and as he held it in his hands tears welled up in his eyes. In that moment Eric realized what freedom really meant. In a few hours he was going to head off to another country. This kid in the bar could not. The experience changed Eric’s perspective on freedom and liberty and made him appreciate the privileges those of us from free countries have, including our ability to travel nearly anywhere in the world.

In the summer of 1989 in that bar in the East German train station it seemed like the Berlin Wall, which started as a barbed wire fence, had always existed and would always exist. Back in New York City, Eric watched CNN in disbelief between November 6 and November 9th, 1989 as the wall officially came down. For 28 years it had divided East from West. Now we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and we wonder where that kid in the train station is now.


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It’s Penguin Season Again! – Antarctica

This post is part 3 of 3 in the series Antarctica

November marks the beginning of summer in Antarctica, summer being relative term, and the beginning of the Antarctic travel season. Right about now boats of various shapes and sizes full of passengers of various shapes and sizes are leaving Ushuaia (the southernmost town in the world), braving the Drake Passage and heading for Antarctica as the short tourist season opens. Penguins rule the frozen continent. The rest of us are just visiting. We visited Antarctica last year right about this time aboard the MV Antarctic Dream and, as we posted at the time it was a dream come true:

Right now we’re debuting some videos we shot in Antarctica–shown for the first time here.

Penguins, orcas and seals

Penguins are adorable. Orcas are deadly. Seals are way bigger than you think. We got close to all of them. Check it out.


Gentoo penguins in Port Lockroy

More penguins, this time they’re swarming around the research station in a rocky, windy place called Port Lockroy.


Aboard the MV Antarctic Dream

The truth is that you’re going to spend most of your Antarctic adventure on board the boat traveling to various points of interest and/or waiting out bad weather. Much of this video was shot from onboard the MV Antarctic Dream, including up in the bridge as well as from Zodiacs during excursions away from the ship.


A (relatively) calm day on the Drake Passage

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans bump bellies at a spot called the Drake Passage. This notoriously rough stretch of sea must be crossed immediately leaving Ushuaia and again returning to port in Ushuaia. It takes two to three days to get through the Drake Passage and seas are usually rough to hellish. We lucked out with swells peaking at just 30-40 feet (moderately rough). Here’s a taste…
If we’ve helped inspire your own Antarctic dreams, check out our tip-filled newspaper story about How to Make the Most of an Antarctic Adventure and our piece about all the fun you can (hopefully) have with the humans in Antarctica.

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2.5 Years, 250 Posts, 7 Links Worth Re-Visiting

We started our Trans-Americas Journey blog 2.5 years ago and we’ve produced more than 250 posts since then.

When we were nominated by Immersed in the World to contribute to the “My 7 Links” project on Tripbase it felt like the prefect time (and perfect reason) to take a little stroll back through blog history and fulfill the pretty simple mandate to come up with seven posts that fit into the following categories.

Some posts are old favorites, others are unsung heroes but they all deserve a second look!


Our Most Beautiful Post

You Know You Want It: MORE Antarctica Photos

Even the word Antarctica is beautiful and we made the most of the wonders of the white continent (penguins! glaciers! killer whales!) during adventure aboard the MV Antarctic Dream.



Our Most Popular Post

What’s In Your (Travel) Wallet?

Our own frustration at being charged foreign transaction fees when using a credit card outside the US  inspired a whole lot of digging until we uncovered the one, the only credit card that makes sense for serial travelers like ourselves who just can’t bear giving someone money for nothing. Which credit card is it? You’ll have to read the post (like more than 7,000 other travelers have) to find out.


Our Most Controversial Post

Rockstar in the Bullring

Spaniard Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza is not just a rejoneador (a matador who fights bulls on horseback). He is the world’s best rejoneador so when we had the chance to watch one of his fights during his most recent tour of Mexico we had to go. Whatever your feelings about bullfighting (and, trust us, there ARE feelings) the experience gave us an amazing glimpse into Latin culture and an amazing display of horsemanship.



Our Most Helpful Post

How To Have A Mexican Road Trip

After 18 months and nearly 25,000 miles on the road in Mexico we learned a thing or two (sometimes the hard way) about how to have a Mexican road trip. This comprehensive post covers all the bases from topes warnings to how to get out of a police shakedowns to which insurance to buy to the pros and cons of toll roads.  Read this before you drive over the border (we sure wish we’d had a resource like this before we left). You’re welcome.



The Post Whose Success Surprised Us

Fiesta de 188 Aniversario – Union de Tula, Jalisco, Mexico

We went to Tula with our friends in the Delgadillo family from Guadalajara. The patriarch of the family, who was born in Union de Tula, returned with his family to his home town to celebrate the 188th anniversary of its founding and we tagged along. We had a lovely time being welcomed to each neighborhood’s food and tequila and music-filled street parties and we produced a very nice post about a very nice Mexican town. End of story.

Nope. This post was an instant, huge hit. It rocketed through the roof and instantly to the top of our most popular posts list and stayed there for months. What readers were (and still are) after are the two videos embedded in the post–one of an adorable 5-year-old cowboy dancing up a storm in front of a band and another of couples dancing (very closely) to banda music in the town square. To date, these videos have been viewed more than 54,000 times. That accounts for more than 25% of all the views of all of the 150 videos on our YouTube channel.

Turns out, a high percentage of those born in Tula now live and work outside Mexico–mostly in the US (we met the two long lost sons, below, during our time in Tula) and they’re homesick. Very, very homesick.



The Post We Feel Didn’t Get the Attention It (totally) Deserved

Children of Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

Come on! This post has adorable children and one of the most famous and colorful religious events in one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. Did cold-hearted readers care? Not so much.



The Post We’re Most Proud Of

Flower Wars: Is Your V-Day Bouquet Destroying the Jungles of Belize?

Published just prior to Valentine’s Day, this post alerted many readers to a hidden problem with that annual V-day bouquet. Besides being more than a bit trite as love tokens go, many bouquets use an innocuous-looking palm frond as cheap, long-lasting filler. This frond is from a species of xate palm and almost all of it is harvested in the jungles of Belize (having already been seriously depleted in Guatemala and Mexico) and sold to huge international floral companies.

Where’s the problem? Let’s see…illegal border crossing, animal poaching, jungle clearing, theft, violence and all of it in vast tracts of untouched jungle where endangered species like the harpy eagle are trying to regain a foothold. Makes chocolates look like a genius move.



To keep the ball rolling, We’d like to nominate the following great bloggers to take part in the My 7 Links project:



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This New Map Puts our Posts in their Place

With a little help from Google and our Geo-Mashup plugin we’ve created a map that allows anyone with a really boring job, a doctor’s note ordering bed rest or a passion for maps to instantly see where our blog posts correspond to, geographically speaking.

Roll over the markers to see the post title. Click on the markers to see a portion of the post. Click on the post title to open that post in full. You can move around the map, as well as zoom in and out as you would with any Google map.

It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” for our blog posts and we hope you’ll return to this post (where this map will live in a continually updated state) and check out this graphic way to see where we’ve been and what we’re talking about.


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You Know You Want It: MORE Antarctica Photos

This post is part 2 of 3 in the series Antarctica

Because penguins are adorable and no one believes we were THIS close to killer whales or that icebergs get to be the size of skyscrapers we’re putting up even more of Eric’s photos from our recent Antarctic adventure aboard the MV Antarctic Dream. To learn more about travel to Antarctica, check out the feature we did for the Dallas Morning News including tips for making the most of your trip to Antarctica and our feature for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about all of the onboard adventures you’ll have.

Now, we turn it over to Mother Nature (you’re welcome).

The beauty of Antarctica.

The crazy blues created by icebergs in Antarctic water.

An excursion away from the M/V Antarctic Dream in small zodiacs to get closer to wildlife and icebergs.

Gentoo penguins are impossibly charming.

Gentoo penguins with our home for 11 days, the M/V Antarctic Dream, in the background.

Gentoo penguins in Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions on an Antarctic adventure.

It was tempting to travel through this arch created as wind eroded away an iceberg but that’s strictly forbidden since icebergs can capsize at any moment.

Antarctica, land of the midnight sun.

A killer whale (orca) welcoming party.

The crabeater seals were curious but cautious.

It’s clear how chinstrap penguins got their name.

Gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy, one of the land excurstions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy, one of the land excurstions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins were busy collecting small stones to construct their nests with when we were in Antarctica.

It was tempting to travel through this arch created as wind eroded away an iceberg but that’s strictly forbidden since icebergs can capsize at any moment.

A change in the weather had us traveling through surface ice that was clearly beginning to re-form.

Colder temperatures created conditions that made us glad our M/V Antarctic Dream ship was built as an ice-breaker with a reinforced hull.

This is what passes for flirting as gentoo penguins woo their partners so they can do what they came here to do…

…which they are not shy about at all.

Gentoo penguins are the cutest waddlers in the world.

Iceberg art in Antarctica.

Navigation charts keeping us on course and away from the bergs in Antarctica.


Check out the first post from our Antarctica adventure for more photos and stories.




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The White Continent or Bust – Antrctica

This post is part 1 of 3 in the series Antarctica

We know it’s been a few weeks since we’ve put up any new blog posts but we’ve got a good reason: we were in Antarctica!

No, we didn’t drive there. LAN Airlines got us to Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) and back and from there we sailed along the Antarctic peninsula for 11 days on the MV Antarctic Dream. Our thanks to both companies.

Our home for 11 days: the M/V Antarctic Dream


Followers of our Journey know that we’ve been anticipating our Antarctic adventure since August and the planet’s most remote continent totally lived up the hype and our expectations.

And that’s not even a BIG iceberg by Antarctic standards.


For one thing, penguins are even cuter than you think and we saw thousands of them–mainly gentoo and chinstraps.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.


We also got a rare and exciting sighting of a lone emperor penguin (the four foot tall stars of March of the Penguins) on an iceberg far, far from its usual home.

A lost and lonely emperor penguin adrift on an iceberg.


The icebergs themselves (which can reach more than 10 miles in length) were stars of the trip as well. They came in intricate wind-swept shapes, impossible blue colors and the ice is ultra-clear–like glass. We know because Karen braved the frigid water and reached in to retrieve a small chunk to enjoy in our on-board cocktails that evening.

Literally the tip of the iceberg in Antarctica.

Icebergs as art in Antarctica.


We did NOT put our hands in the water during a zodiac excursion during which our inflatable boat was surrounded by a pod of seven killer whales. We also sighted minke whales on a couple of occasions and crabeater seals and Weddell seals also made appearances.

Our zodiacs were surrounded by pod of killer whales during one shore excursion in Antarctica.

Our zodiacs were surrounded by pod of killer whales during one shore excursion in Antarctica.

That killer whale dorsal fin is at least three feet tall and its heading straight for our shipmates.


There were also many human highlights on the ship including “Ernie Shack, Adventure Addict”, the captain’s wife, the crazy defense attorney from New York who brought along her Snoopy Snowcone maker, el capitan guapo, The Glen (who went skinny dipping one day and performed a necessarily brief yet impressive re-enactment of the loping way penguins swim), our fearless leader Pablo and, of course, Maxi. Oh, and Jacques Cousteau’s granddaughter Céline Cousteau was on the ship with a film crew working on a series of TV show about the waters around Chile.

Our shipmate The Glen (who has a tattoo of the Antarctic continent on his back) went skinny dipping in the frigid Antarctic waters off Deception Island just like…

…the penguins.

To learn more about travel to Antarctica, check out the feature we did for the Dallas Morning News including tips for making the most of your trip to Antarctica and our feature for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about all of the onboard adventures you’ll have.


All travelers to Antarctica are required to have a medical evacuation insurance policy just in case something awful happens out there in the middle of nowhere. On Call International has covered us on our Trans-Americas Journey for more than a year now so we didn’t have to worry about arranging coverage (or dealing with a catastrophe). Because we were already covered we could focus on just being excited about this trip of a lifetime.

We weren’t taking any chances with the notoriously rough waters of the Drake Passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans crash up against each other so we went the prescription route and used a Scopolamine patch. But we also armed ourselves with homeopathic remedies including a pair of Sea Bands. These simple, cheap, reusable devices–picture an old-school wrist sweatband like McEnroe used to wear with a plastic ball embedded in one side–stave off nausea caused by motion sickness (or morning sickness) by applying pressure to a specific point in your wrist. The combo worked and we made it through the passage without getting seasick.

We’re pretty sure nothing could stave off seasickness among the passengers on a different ship, the Clelia II, which sailed just a few weeks after our Antarctic trip. However, the Clelia II broke down in the Drake Passage and got tossed around by 40′ waves for a day or two. The ship is back in port now and everyone on board is fine but this report and dramatic video shows how rough it was for passengers and crew on the stranded ship.


Our route from Ushuaia, Argentina at the bottom of South America, across the Drake Passage and on to the Antarctic Peninsula.


Check out our follow-up Antarctica post to see many more photos.




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