Taxi Tales: Las Vegas

Taxi Tales: Las Vegas

Las Vegas holds a special place in my heart, somewhere between skipping a beat and bleeding out. Vegas is the girl who hid in the back of the class unnoticed in high school; running into her at Costco years later, you see pock marks under scoops of sparkling makeup, framed by  clanging bangles and cotton-candy hair to distract from the girl she once was. Forever the tease, Vegas promises your nervous caress (of a rabbit’s foot) will bring a big score. She pretends the marquees and bright lights will make you forget that real people call her “Home.”


My relationship with Las Vegas began when my late husband and I attended a time-share presentation for a trip to Mexico. After three tries to cash in the cruise that was always “full,” they offered us a free trip to Vegas instead.

“Las Vegas???!!! Why would we want to go to Las Vegas?” Jack asked. I nodded in agreement. No. Interest. Whatsoever. A minute later: “But we’ll probably never go otherwise . . .” he said, hand on bearded chin.

I nodded in agreement.

And so after that intro-dabble into Texas Hold’Em in Nevada, we began a life-changing endgame to “see the world by poker room.” We became serious students of the game and  played in L.A., Barcelona, Connecticut, Slovenia, Oklahoma, Prague…

A few short months before my husband died, he wanted to take one final trip. I suggested San Francisco, once his favorite city EVER, Paris, New York… But no. Vegas.

Years later, I met my now domestic partner in Sin City. I was attending a “WPT Boot Camp” with Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patton. Bob flew in to meet me for the first time. We’d begun emailing through and then moved on to talking nightly on the phone. Our weekend whirl led to dinner at Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse followed by O at the Bellagio, ice cream, breakfast, magic.

No getting away from Las Vegas now. I head there at least once a year, usually twice, to play in various poker series. I have my favorite casinos, favorite pools, favorite hotels, favorite cheap tournaments, favorite restaurants. My poker coach lives there. Friends have moved there. Whenever my plane lands, and I see the Strip’s iconic skyline in the distance, my blood pulses as if ionized, like a neon sign.

One thing: unlike most travel destinations, I never rent a car in Vegas. Taxis, Ubers, Lyfts are plentiful and cheap. I always enjoy when they ask if I’m meeting my husband or if my game is Bingo or slots. When I say “poker,” almost without fail drivers seem surprised, having prided themselves on their accuracy at reading their customers. One driver said to me, “Seriously? You are the last person I would ever imagine at a poker table.” This is what I long to hear. I count on disarming others in the game by them not knowing what to make of me.

Over the years, I’ve learned about the other Las Vegas—the one behind the bangles and glitter, flowing dollars, and hoards hoping to “get lucky”– from taxi drivers. Like hair dressers and bored waiters, they love to tell their stories and listen to yours.


Probably in his late 40s, Luis was a large and jovial man with dense black hair swept over his forehead.  He talked about being raised with five sisters and one brother, the proverbial “Catholic Family,” although he corrected me with “Hispanic” when I said “Latino.”

Growing up with female-sibling overload gave him an almost intuitive understanding of women that astounded me, except for one point: he kept insisting women were smarter than men; I kept insisting we were just wired differently.

Luis shared home-life anecdotes and insights into traveling with a family of stragglers and the value of his wife’s way of thinking. His voice rose in his throat full-bodied whenever he mentioned her—a peacock spreading bold feathers, proud. He believed in her. He believed in his life with her. Her sense of humor. The way she tilted her head before asking a question as simple as, “Which drawer did you put the bottle opener in?”

I was awed by his kindness and generous spirit and how much he appreciated and admired the women in his life. He was self-confident enough that their strength in no way threatened his own. He was candid the way people can be when they’ve been well-loved.


He and his wife had followed his parents and siblings to Orlando from Brazil. Superhero-handsome, intelligent, and in his late 20s, Marco was still in graduate studies, but his wife was a working criminal analyst, who moved between local police and intelligence agencies, well-respected and in demand for her skills.

They had moved to Vegas to follow her career, but they weren’t happy. They found the city beyond the Strip ugly and depressing. The homelessness and poverty reminded him of San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro without the beauty. And he missed his family in Orlando. Those still in Brazil.

Marco had worried overall about Trump and his authoritarianism, but also felt the same thing with Bolsonaro, still in power, and worried about the state of the world. His wife believed that Trump fit several criminal profiles in addition to being a dictatorial threat with his cult-like followers.

They felt stuck. In, but out. Financially comfortable, the promise of a successful future—for both of them—looming. But happiness. No. Not here.


Can someone reek of Bible Seminary like fresh Ivory soap? Thin, pale, well-scrubbed, with a softly twanging voice, Jared had too-short of hair, oddly coifed.

Turned out Jared did, in fact, start out in College Bible study with friends in Tennessee, but then he read several novels and books of poetry, which led to even more, that took him “beyond” what he’d been taught.

I kept thinking of how my late husband, the college poetry professor, would warn his discontented, but wealthy, housewife students to “Turn back” unless they were ready to change their lives: “Poetry is a dangerous elixir once decanted.” More than one of his students ended up divorced, in graduate school, sequestered in a mansion, writing poetry.

Jared laughed at how he was now in “Sin City” and reading James Baldwin. If you’d told him this three years ago, he’d never have believed you. Told him that I was a big fan of the “Prodigal Son” method to finding faith by exploring the universe inside, that the best path to true spirituality is self-discovery. Let’s face it. Self-knowledge is a deeply humbling thing. We both admired how the Amish turned their young people loose into the world to see if the Amish lifestyle was what they truly wanted.

We then talked about Hesse and Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and before we said goodbye, he decided to order them both on Amazon that very afternoon to read after Baldwin.


We started out talking about weather as soon as I answered that I lived in Alaska.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I know that latitude. I lived nearby, in Russia. Not too close… St. Petersburg. Tiny little snowflakes that packed hard into snow like boulders. The wind went right to the bone…”

“To the bone” was always one of my favorite phrases. We would enjoy this ride.

Cuban and full of machismo, Hector expressed himself in masterful English. He’d lived in the U.S. for maybe 20 years, brought over by relatives who hated Castro and the entire revolution.

Decidedly anti-Socialist, he could sense my liberalism and took it on himself to school me as thoroughly as he could in 20 minutes.

“Do you know where Socialism started?”

I shrugged. Had my ideas, but much more interested in where he took us, both in the cab and in the conversation.

“France. And the American Transcendalists took it up as their own. The Utopians.”

Aaah—a well-read man.

He bragged about the “immigrant spirit” and how Trump was wrong about that. “Immigrants are zealots—almost fanatically patriotic. If we stayed a country of first-year immigrants, we’d have the hardest working, most patriotic citizenship in the world.”

“Did you see Hamilton?” he asked, seemingly free-floating, but not.

I nodded.

“He was outside the box. Hamilton could see objectively what a new country needed. The American forefathers—what collective brainpower!”

There–right there–that zealous pride, that immigrant adoption / adaptation of superior patriotism.

Then Hector told me about the failures of South America, of Cuban health care (“Don’t believe for one minute that it’s better than here.”), of American capitalism going back to Teddy Roosevelt and the creation of the National Park system (“It was an enticement for Americans and foreigners to travel and spend money across the U.S. It spends fuel, fills hotels, connects states, sets up dynamic exchange.”)

“Don’t believe anything you hear. Venezuela… such a mess.” I asked about the country’s political corruption. “Well, sure… but Venezuela… its socialism led to the collapse. What a mess.

I asked about American socialist programs like highways, education, fire departments. He insisted we have none. Our “socialist” programs invest our taxes, he said, to pay for services, that then pay the government back in other ways, even directly in many places.

I actually don’t know the market investments of government well enough to agree or disagree. My contrary nature wanted to argue, but Hector had me charmed with his immigrant enthusiasm.


Born in Romania, Marcellus was a large man who barely fit into his car. Gentle-toned and kind, he talked about his wife and two children and living in the south of Spain before settling in Vegas, and how now they felt inundated by the frenetic pace and tourist greed of the town. Ironically, he did like the money, but felt they’d lose their hearts if they stayed much longer.

He and his family were in preparation to move to Utah, as they had many, many friends there, and, as Mormons, longed for deeper community and peace. He put himself in my place and chuckled over the thought of a Romanian Mormon. He’d make a good writer, I thought, anticipating the questions and amusements of his audience.

Marcellus, like Luis, spoke with reverence about his wife, who he felt managed to stay grounded no matter where she was or who she was with.

We spoke about the beauty of Alaska, of Utah, of the world, and about his fears over Trump’s attacks on preserved lands. He hoped the new administration would overturn Trump’s many executive orders favoring corporations over nature. He worried that reversing Trump’s damage might get lost in a sweep of reforms. He loved Utah, its ruggedness, its soulfulness. He imagined setting up a charitable agency with his friends, his wife, something reflecting a love of God’s landscape.

In each of these trips, I was almost sorry to arrive at my destinations, as getting to know these previous strangers felt like the true purpose, the real journey. As I left each of them I felt oddly blessed and happy to have come to these intersections of life experience, brief as they were.

I’m not usually a “travel journal” kind of person, but so much happened in a very short space that I wanted to capture and share. Even places we’ve been many times can become fertile ground for learning how to become a better human.


Hector, the Cuban-turned-patriotic-American-Capitalist, maybe said it best, turning to me as we paused at a red light, “Do you know what’s the best thing about America?”

I got out of his way, nodding, so he could answer himself.

He pointed to me and then to himself. “We can agree or disagree and have real conversations outside of the State. Us. You and me. Isn’t that great?”


Yes. That’s exactly the best thing about America.

Visiting the Pont Du Gard, An Ancient Roman Monument

Visiting the Pont Du Gard, An Ancient Roman Monument

The resounding impact of my steps as I walk beneath these mighty arches made me think I could almost hear the voices of those who built them. I was lost, like an insect, in its immensity. I felt, though small and insignificant, that something unknown was lifting my soul, and I said to myself, “Am I not a Roman!”

– Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau on le Pont du Gard

Inspiring poets, philosophers, artists, and architects for centuries, the Pont du Gard stands as a reminder of the genius and grandeur of the Roman Empire.

Imagine you are in the middle of a huge wilderness area, surrounded by undeveloped land. A massive Roman structure, 2,000 years old and completely intact, appears in front of you. I didn’t visit the South of France looking for Roman monuments. And yet, I found myself gazing upon the granddaddy of all Roman aqueducts. Yep, it’s really all that.


I think part of the reason the Pont du Gard made such an impression on me is the location. It reminded me of the Texas Hill Country with its low growing scruffy plant life, oak trees, and hot dry summers.

I spent about an hour and a half walking along a path that followed the Gardon River upstream. The path passed underneath one of the arches of the bridge. I put my hands on those ancient stones and tried to imagine the energy and vision of the people who created this magnificent structure. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I felt small, and insignificant, and uplifted, all at the same time.

Why was the Pont du Gard built?


The Pont du Gard was part of an aqueduct meant to carry water about 12.5 miles from Uzes to the city of Nimes (once referred to as the Rome of France). The bridge is three tiers high, approximately 164 feet tall, and 30 miles long. It took over 1,000 men five years to build the bridge, which houses the aqueduct.

The Pont du Gard has withstood frequent flooding, while more recently built bridges in the area have not. You have to hand it to the Romans, they were the best architects in the world and built things to last.

Enjoy life

In 1985, the Pont du Gard became a UNESCO World Heritage Site (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). To become a UNESCO site, a nominee has to be a:

1. Masterpiece of human creative genius;

2. Unique example of Roman civilization;

3. Outstanding type of construction which combined architectural and technical skills.

To summarize: it is an enduring example of the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire.


Today at the Aqueduct

The location of the Pont du Gard, surrounded by 165 hectares of protected land in the South of France, accentuates its immense size and remarkable architecture. It has always been accessible to the public and is a wonderful area for recreation, including hiking, kayaking, swimming, and sunbathing. It is the most popular monument in France, receiving more than 1,000,000 visitors per year. Due to the nature of the site and the unique landscape – referred to in the Mediterranean as the garrigue (limestone soil with fragrant vegetation like lavender, thyme, and juniper) – it is important to be respectful, and take everything with you that you bring in.


if you go:

The Pont du Gard is offered as an excursion to travelers on the Viking River Cruises Provence to Lyon itinerary. One of many excellent tours I took on the eight-day cruise, it stands out as a highlight of my time in France. This tour usually sells out quickly, so if you do go with Viking, be sure to book it early on.

You can also visit the Pont du Gard on your own. I recommend basing yourself in Arles or Avignon. Both cities have historic centers which are UNESCO sites. Arles is only 10 minutes more drive time to the Pont du Gard, than from Avignon. Rick Steves describes Arles as “grittier than Avignon” and I’d say that’s accurate. I loved it because of the Roman ruins and the Van Gogh history. However, I also loved Avignon, a very pretty city full of lovely shops, cafes, and home to the Palace du Papes.

Here’s the link for the official Pont du Gard website.  Check my travel blog for more stories on my time there.  

This article originally appeared in Penny’s blog, Adventures of a Carry-On

Why I Traveled to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zanzibar During Covid-19

Why I Traveled to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zanzibar During Covid-19

For decades, it’s been my dream to join the Traveler’s Century Club. Why? Their club motto aligns with my personal mission statement–“World travel: The passport to peace through understanding.”

Once you’ve stepped foot in 100 sovereign states, territories, exclaves or island groups (I’m at 71), you may apply to the social networking group for intrepid travelers.

Due to Covid-19, I had already cancelled two trips to never-been-there-before countries. The prospect of losing an entire travel year to the pandemic was weighing heavily on my mind. I’m no spring chicken; I don’t have forever to accomplish my goal!

My friend Robyn and I first envisioned this trip to Africa in late 2019. Her brother, Stuart, had accepted a position in Kigali, Rwanda. Robyn and I had a history of visiting Stuart in exotic locales, having spent a week with him when he lived in Bangkok, Thailand, four years ago. Eager to take advantage of the inside information Stuart was so adept at providing, Robyn and I blocked off dates during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday.

Then, the borders closed in March 2020, and we stopped talking about the trip.

In August, when Robyn and I were suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms due to no travel, Stuart messaged and said Rwanda had reopened its borders to Americans with a negative Covid-19 PCR test result 120 hours before departure, a negative test result upon arrival, and a 24-hour quarantine. Plus, he wasn’t sure how much longer his assignment would last. Robyn and I started discussing the journey again.

In October, official studies decreed that flying posed a low risk of catching the coronavirus. Stuart noted that Rwanda’s death rate was much lower than in the U.S., masks were mandated, and a 10pm curfew was in effect. We would probably be safer there than here. He suggested we add on either Kenya, Tanzania, and/or Zanzibar, because they were also allowing Americans in. 

Robyn and I are beach fiends and easily fixated on dipping our toes in the crystal-clear water and brilliant white sand found on Zanzibar’s award-winning shores. We would stay there four nights with Stuart at the end of our trip, loafing at a fancy hotel a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. 

Dar Es Salaam (DAR), Tanzania, was meant to be a two-night citybreak before riding the ferry to Zanzibar. We would hop a return ferry and fly from Tanzania back to the U.S. A Covid test was not required. The rest of our trip would be spent in Rwanda.

We purchased tickets on Qatar Airways, confirmed a designated quarantine hotel, and uploaded our negative test results on the compulsory Rwandan government form. Equipped with face masks, face shields, and Clorox wipes, I was ready to take a risk for a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity (and the reward of adding three new countries to my list)!  

We landed at Kigali International Airport and were collected by our hotel driver. I gawked out the window as we wound our way through the city. My head swiveled and I took in more breathtaking views. Huge trees in countless shades of green, rolling hills, pink roofed houses perched in the distance.

The driver explained that Rwanda’s nickname is “Le pays des mille collines,” French for “Land of a thousand hills.”

Kigali is the capital, located in the center of the country on the Ruganwa River. Locals navigated the hills carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. Vendors pushed carts down pristine streets. No potholes in the roads. Everyone wearing masks.

We were dropped off at the hotel’s open-air lobby, tested for Covid and escorted to our room. Four hours later, we received our negative test results. Another scary hurdle conquered! Stuart picked us up the next morning. We would stay at his place for three nights and celebrate Thanksgiving together.

Our first tourist stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This Centre commemorates the genocide of 1994, where members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered 600,000 of the Tutsi minority. Inside, an audio tour describes the heartbreaking exhibits. Outside, a garden of carefully tended trees, flowers and an eternal flame mark the graves of over 250,000 souls.

Perhaps you saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, starring Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, which documents the Rwandan civil war. We had soup and sandwiches at the real-life “Hotel Rwanda,” Hotel des Milles Collines, which became a sanctuary for 1000 Tutsis whose lives were saved by the guile of the manager, Paul Rusesabagina. Chatting with hotel and restaurant staff, we learned the Rwandan people have put this horror behind them and are a unified front in moving their country forward. Rwanda is now considered one of the safest and cleanest countries in Africa.

Another of Rwanda’s claims to fame is animal wildlife viewing. Before Covid, tourists flocked to the country to go gorilla trekking, and you might have had a year’s wait for a permit. Robyn and I had decided we didn’t want to hike hours in difficult terrain or pay $1500 each. Instead, after consultation with Stuart, we made plans to see the golden monkeys at Volcanoes National Park, a three-hour drive north of Kigali.

I scored last minute reservations for two nights at a luxury lodge near the park. We had to take another Covid test, because negative results within 72 hours are needed to enter Rwanda’s national parks and to leave the country. (Tip: Go to the Rwanda Biomedical Centre’s Petit Stade location on KG 11 Ave. Park employees can verify your test results through this portal.) 

We purchased our permits ($100 per person) at the Rwanda Development Board office one day in advance. Lodge personnel verified our updated Covid-free test results the next morning, and our assigned butler drove us to the entrance of the park.

With our guide, we trudged 45 minutes through muddy farmland and prickly brush. Armed guards flanked our front and rear. Photo ops abounded with a background of tree-flecked knolls and mooing cows. We put on surgical masks and had our shoes disinfected before entering the bamboo forest.

Dozens of monkeys with reddish-gold streaks on their backs scampered inside the evergreen grove. You have one hour to immerse yourself in the experience. After taking plenty of photos, I closed my eyes, and breathed deeply in the palpably fresh air. I listened to the monkeys chattering and rustling around me, and thanked the Universe for this moment.

We missed our flight to DAR on Sunday because of an erroneous email from RwandAir, and rescheduled for Monday with Stuart. A warm, breezy, full moon night in a City Centre Holiday Inn boasting a rooftop restaurant, infinity pool, and a hella jacuzzi made up for no time to tour.  At the ferry terminal in DAR, be wary of touts fighting to carry your luggage. Go inside to the main box office to buy your ticket. I highly recommend upgrading to VIP for the two-hour ferry ride.

We docked at our “Shangri-la” greeted by pouring rain! Zanzibar, also known as the Spice Island, is an autonomous territory of Tanzania. The country is a mix of African, Persian, Arab, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and British cultures. More than 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Here, we noticed the majority of women wore hijabs and traditional Islamic dresses.

Stuart wanted to check out the spice bazaar to restock his kitchen, and we all wished to visit the former slave market and memorial. For over 100 years, Zanzibar served as the biggest slave trader hub in East Africa. Our hotel suggested a two-hour walking tour through the mazelike passageways of the main city, Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Luckily, the skies soon cleared. After that, beach time!



When our toes were firmly planted in the warm sand, Robyn and I gave ourselves a huge high five! We had achieved a joint mission to reach this fabled island halfway around the world!

Taking full advantage of the tropical setting, we rode in a skiff to a secluded islet, accompanied by a school of dolphins. We snorkeled. Our captain dished up coconut, mango and pineapple so plump the juice dribbled down our chins.  

We savored freshly caught red snapper in restaurants beside the sea. Amazing sunsets topped off lazy, flawless days. Waves lapping against the shore lulled us to sleep each night.

Much too quickly, our vacation was coming to an end. 


I learned it is possible to travel safely in spite of a pandemic. I’m glad I took the chance. And even if I don’t get to 100 countries before my stint on Earth is up, it makes me happy to know a group of like-minded individuals is committed to the superlative goal of promoting world peace through international travel.

Solo Travel Safety

Solo Travel Safety

(Originally appeared in Penny’s Travel Blog, “Adventures of a Carry-On.”  To check out some of her other travel entries, click here.)

I don’t normally blog about solo travel, even though it is a topic in which I’m well-versed. It’s trendy to travel solo as a woman, something I’ve been doing most of my life and never given a second thought. But, a recent experience in downtown Los Angeles made me realize that there is a good reason this is a hot topic and maybe I could help someone else by sharing my insights.


Solo travel safety ©pennysadler 2013 Broadway St. Historic Broadway District, Los Angeles

Last Sunday I was with friends in L.A., and we decided to take an architecture walk in the Historic Broadway District. In addition to the old vaudeville and movie theaters, you’ll find the Bradbury Building (Blade Runner location), and the Grand Central Market. The theaters date from the 1800’s to the 1960s. On Broadway St. The architectural styles range from Renaissance Revival to Art Deco.

This was once part of the garment and jewelry district, too. It’s a wonderful area for photography and for culture and history, which I will cover in a future post.

So, I’m standing on the street in front of the Bradbury Building taking photographs while my friends have disappeared into the Sprint store next-door.

Out of nowhere, two guys appear, and they are in my space. I wasn’t afraid at first, mostly just annoyed. They had an attitude –- street guys doing an I’m cool routine. They didn’t seem threatening, but, there were two of them. One of them said, “Hey, you look like a tourist.” I replied back (foolishly perhaps), “Hey, because I am a tourist.”

They then started sort of a rant about the pretty tourist woman on the street. I don’t know if it was meant to be flattering or to distract me but I began to feel uncomfortable. That’s when I knew it was time to make a quick getaway.

I still didn’t feel true fear, but I wasn’t going to wait for it either. I dropped an F bomb and walked away while they yelled at me what I could do with parts of their anatomy I’d prefer not to ponder.

I never felt truly threatened by those guys, and they probably weren’t dangerous. The point is that I never saw them coming. They surprised me. Reflecting on that day I realize that I really was vulnerable, even if they weren’t dangerous.

What happened?

It was daylight, friends were nearby, and though I was on the street, there was no one around me. I didn’t know the neighborhood, but the car was parked only two blocks away. I felt safe. But, I was distracted by all of the cool architecture.


If I’d been alone, truly alone, my intuitive radar would have been on high alert. I would have been scanning the area for several blocks, not just the block I was on, and I don’t think I would have spoken to those guys at all. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. I’m not suggesting that women should walk in fear, or even that they should never talk to strangers on the street, but know when to walk and when to run, and when to keep your mouth shut.

Coincidentally, later that day, I was describing the neighborhood to a friend on the phone who said, “Is that where the Canadian girl’s body was found in a water tank on the rooftop of the hotel of her hotel?”

Wait, what? I knew nothing about this. I soon learned that a young Canadian girl, a tourist, had gone missing. Guests in the hotel had been complaining about the color, taste, and smell of the water, thus, the missing girl was found.

I was stunned. Yes, in fact, we had been in that very neighborhood and walked right past the Hotel Cecil. Now my brief encounter with the two guys on the street seemed more ominous.

I still believe in most cases I’m just as safe on my own as with someone, but there are many factors to consider. My message today is this:  do your research, pay attention, and if anything seems the least bit uncomfortable, get the hell out.

If you’d like to read some of the most current news regarding solo women traveling,
here are some suggestions:

                or follow the discussion #WeGoSolo on Twitter.