Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Interactive urinals and other advertising

Just what is an "Interactive Urinal Communicator," you ask? One of a number of creative ways advertisers are using to engage our eyeballs. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Whether we're peeing, standing in an elevator or pumping gas, we're a captive audience for an apparently valuable part of any given day. And advertisers are increasingly trying to capitalize on that.

Nowhere are we more captive than at 30,000 feet. And advertiser agency Brand in the Hand knows it. They're hoping to earn our goodwill for their clients by hitting us with ads during that brief flash of excitement when the flight attendant hands us a free (for now) bag of peanuts.

But simply slapping ads everywhere isn't the trick. "The challenge for Brand In Hand and any company or marketer entering ambient media is to make sure their brand message is adding value to the consumer," says Andrew Hampp of Advertising Age in the article.

I'm a voracious bathroom reader, so I'm looking forward to the day when USA Today sponsors the airplane lavatory and prints the news on each sheet of toilet paper. Talk about adding value....

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is the grass always greener?

Earlier this year, I waxed whimsical (as I often do) about my hometown of San Diego, describing it as "where I'd rather be." Now that's exactly where I will be in a couple of weeks. I've accepted a writing job with The Active Network, so Cassie and I are heading for greener pastures out west.

I left San Diego four years ago, as excited by the adventure of living somewhere new as I am about returning whence I came. It didn't take much time living on the East Coast to start second-guessing my decision to move, however, so I can't help but wonder what the future holds. Is the grass always greener on the other side of the country? Or only the grass you've never walked on?

Virginia and New York seemed bright and shiny and different, and they were all that and more. But always my heart turned back to the West Coast. Is it weakness on my part, to want what I don't have? A failure to be satisfied with the present? I don't know. It's possible that we San Diego natives are simply too spoiled to be happy living elsewhere. New York City is an amazing place, and it has been exciting living here; but—no disrespect toward those who love this city—I can't deal with the urban lifestyle. Once a beach bum, always a beach bum, I guess.

And I'm not returning home alone. I'm dragging my Hoosier wife with me, and she enjoys the four seasons as much as I enjoy year-round sunshine. So the coming months will be nothing, if not interesting.

Relocation chores will likely prevent new blog postings in the near future, but perhaps the muse will strike me during our cross-country travels.



Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hope: A reason to travel

Why do we travel? It's a question I've asked myself more than once, and one I even posed to all of you in the early days of this blog (though to little response). For many, the obvious answer is escape: a vacation from a stressful job, a warm getaway during a cold winter, a break from the routine of everyday life. For others, there are countless reasons for travel: business, pleasure, family, study, exploration.

But what about hope? Can hope be a reason to travel? Hope that you might learn something new, hope that you might find the answer to an unspoken question, hope that your life might be better for having gone? The answer, of course, is yes: hope is as valid a reason as any to travel—especially in these times of uncertainty.

Hope has stirred me to travel more than once. Enough so, back in 2002, that I posed for the self-portrait pictured at right when I literally found Hope in New Mexico on December 31. (I took it as an omen of "hope for the new year," and 2003 did indeed turn out to be a better year.) Much further back, hope for personal growth motivated me to travel the world, courtesy of the United States Navy. Hope even figured into my travels to San Diego last weekend (though, lacking an ending, that story must be told another time).

As anyone who paid attention to last year's presidential campaign knows, the idea of "hope" can be a powerful motivator to people. Presumably most of us appreciate what we have, but most of us probably also hope for more: whether it's an altruistic hope for something like world peace, or a more self-centered hope for a better job or salary. So it should be no surprise that hope can serve as an equally powerful motivator when it comes to travel.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Iceland

Earlier this week, I met a friend for drinks. He'd just come home from a work assignment to Iceland, so his trip took up a good part of the conversation. Before he spoke, I knew little about the country; by the time he finished describing his trip, it had become a must-visit.

I've heard the old saw about how the country was named "Iceland" by explorers wanting to scare off settlers by suggesting the place was nothing but ice (and steering them to icy "Greenland" with reverse logic). So I wasn't surprised to hear my friend's descriptions of the mild climate and beautiful landscape. But what did surprise me was hearing how free and easy it is to explore.

Though I haven't done enough research to check facts yet, he said that most of the country's land is not owned by individuals; even farmers lease the land they work. As a result, anyone can camp virtually anywhere without a permit. Living in a bureaucratic and regulation-heavy country where camping is concerned, I perked up when I heard this. To be able to just wander the countryside and pitch a tent wherever the fancy strikes me... that's a heady prospect, when one considers the natural beauty to be found there. Especially in light of my new backpacking hobby.

Granted, this is all just starry-eyed fantasy at this point, but the discussion was certainly enough to get me thinking seriously about trekking midway across the pond. And Iceland Air offers a $399 round-trip fare this winter. Yes, it sounds crazy to contemplate a winter trip to a place with the word "ice" in its name, but if my friend's account is to be believed, even winters are not as cold as the name suggests. We'll see....

(Read a photographer's account of his camping trip & photo safari; I'm including this link mostly for my own future reference, when I plan my own similar trip.)

See more Iceland photos

Photo credit: Paolo Ardiani


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Europe's Christmas markets - $499 Danube cruise

For countless years, I've wanted to spend part of the holiday season touring the many Christmas markets in Europe. Some of the most popular ones are to be found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but it's a common tradition in many parts of the continent. There's something about the Old World setting for an Old World tradition that makes a magical season seem even more magical.

I can't even recall when I first heard about Europe's Christmas markets, nor when this whimsical idea first formed in my mind. I believe I saw a travel program that showcased the markets (probably Rick Steves), and that's all it took to set my imagination alight. Someday, I hope to make this fantasy of mine a reality.

If this idea appeals to you as well, and you're casting about for cheap holiday travel ideas, check out this special deal (which is what brought this to mind months before Christmas): five nights cruising the Danube, including 14 meals, with shore excursions to Christmas markets in Vienna, Passau and Regensburg, all for $499. Find all the details here.

[Disclosure: I am not affiliated with this travel operator in any way, and I have not vetted the offer, so do your own research. On the surface, it seems like a great deal.]

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expectations defied in Cuba

A friend recently traveled to Cuba, and told me the following story. I found it inspiring enough to share here.

The whole trip is too long to write about, but our first impression pretty much sums up the whole experience. Cuba is famous for all kinds of hustlers, scammers and petty thieves, and our travel budget was cut in half right at the airport when our fully pre-paid rental car was suddenly two times more expensive than previously agreed. Since American credit and ATM cards don't work in Cuba, our vacation looked pretty much doomed. So with a bitter taste already in our mouths, we started driving around the country.

We always pick up hitchhikers wherever we travel, but we didn't know if we should stick to this principle after the bad start. But we did our usual thing when the guy we stopped for directions asked if he could ride with us, since his sister lives on the way. The rough roads took us much longer than we ever expected, and it was already midnight when we arrived at the sister's house. It was obvious to everybody that we could never get to our destination before the morning, and this area was too rural for any hotels. So the guy asked us to stay with them. We refused and said we were okay and didn't want to bother them. In reality, we were so exhausted and tired that we couldn't have driven any longer. But we were too afraid to stay and thought they would chop our heads off and take the car and the little cash we had left (everybody in the countryside carries a machete on their belt).

After long negotiations with our terribly poor Spanish we finally decided to stay. We offered some money and they refused. Then he kicked his sister out of her bed and both of them went to sleep in the same bed with their old mother. And they were so poor that they had only one light bulb, so when you went to the bathroom (which had no running water), you had to take it out of the kitchen light. All this was too generous and good to be true, so we went to bed really nervous.

We woke up early in the morning and thought if we survived this far, we should try to leave ASAP without waking anybody. I left $5 on the pillow and we snuck out of the house. Half way to the car, we hear: Tommi y Anna! We thought that he finally got his machete, and maybe we should try to run to the car. But I decided to go back and find out what he wanted. He apologized that they didn't have anything to make us for breakfast (their fridge really was empty when we put our water bottle in there the previous night). Then he gave me a piece of paper with his email address on it (they are not allowed to access the web, but they can use email at post offices).

At that point, I started feeling really ashamed about my doubts. But that was nothing compared to later that day, when I decided to take a closer look at his email address: it was written on a folded piece of paper, and when I unfolded it, a $5 bill dropped from it to the floor. I don't think I have ever felt so ashamed of my prejudice, my cultural background and values. Not only is my home country's embargo partly to blame for why they are doing so badly, but my $5 would have been considered as trading with the enemy—which could bring me $250,000 in fines and two years in prison. But they didn't have any trouble giving the enemy a shelter that night.

The whole rest of the trip we stayed with the local families, every single night. Absolutely amazing people and country.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fantasizing off the beaten path

When it comes to Caribbean vacations, places like St. Thomas, Jamaica and the Bahamas have little appeal for me (even though my last visit to the region was to Grand Bahama). I prefer to venture off the beaten path, away from the glitz and homogeneity of tourist areas, to get a more genuine feel for a place and its people.

That part of me that sometimes thinks about ditching the rat race and moving to the Caribbean (some days pure fantasy, other days not) also thinks about places not already overrun and well-known to guidebooks. A place that's not yet "discovered" offers more opportunity in terms of low real estate prices and little competition for starting a business (such as a B&B, a dive shop, a bar/restaurant, a tour operation, and so on).

Roatan, an island off the north coast of Honduras, would be paradise for Cassie and me, but it has moved far beyond the "discovery" phase. It's well known to scuba divers and cruise ships, and real estate prices have already shot up in the five years since my first visit.

Two places that have been on the list for consideration (or, mostly, for fantasizing) are Bocas del Toro in Panama, and Nicaragua's Corn Islands. Cassie became acquainted with the former by way of a friend, whose mother lives there. I learned about the latter through a friend who always takes vacations to places I've never heard of. Both locations seem ideal: gorgeous settings lying underneath the radar, yet poised for discovery.

Alas, we may already be too late. My most recent issue of Sport Diver magazine profiled Bocas in depth, and the New York Times just published an online photo gallery of the Corn Islands. The current state of the economy may slow the discovery of these places by the tourist masses, but I fear the secret is already out. Maybe it's time for my fantasizing to venture even further off the beaten path....

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Costa Brava

I have wanted to visit Spain since I was a teenager. In fact, the reason I ended up in Honduras as a foreign student during high school is because I had indicated Spain as my first choice. (I suppose their logic was "Spain? They speak Spanish in Honduras also, we'll send him there.")

Today, as my mouse led me astray across the web, I found myself on Spain's Costa Brava, a gorgeous stretch along the Mediterranean. Take a look at this photo gallery and, like me, you'll find yourself thinking you'd rather be there.

Bonus: If you are serious about visiting, download this 16-page guide.


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Monday, May 18, 2009

A skyward glance

Like probably many people, I go through cycles in my life where at one extreme, I'm content and engaged in my daily life; and at the other extreme, I've had enough and can't stop fantasizing about an escape. I ebb and flow between the two, swayed by life events like the tide is influenced by the moon. Currently, I'm pegged pretty much at the edge of the "escape" side of the scale.

Daily life is quite taken with the logistics of my wedding a month from now, but that prospect is a welcome one; I'm excited to marry my sweetheart, and the event itself will satisfy my desire for escape (we're marrying in California, and honeymooning in St. Lucia). It's the daily work grind and my environment that have me stir crazy. Together, they both make me feel like a rat trapped in a corner, frantically and vainly scratching the walls to get away.

Lately, my view every day has been concrete, my gaze barely rising above the sidewalk on my way to and from work. Today, I happened to glance skyward, and the pinkish glow of dusk on the few clouds in the sky suddenly took me away. In a split-second, I found myself gazing up at past sunsets in other places, palpably feeling the relaxed contentment I have rarely felt outside of vacations.

And then, just as suddenly, reality crashed back in. I felt depressed contemplating that my life—many of our lives, the modern way of life—limits us to feeling this way only a few weeks per year (however much vacation time you get). We in the rat race work 48, 49, 50 weeks a year to earn those few weeks when we can live our lives at our own pace, on our own terms, looking up at the sky rather than studying the lines in the sidewalk.

Times like this, it's easy and seductive to pine for the life of the playboy or the vagabond. One clutches a silver spoon, one carries his life in a rucksack—but both live the life we all crave. Sure, the grass is always greener, a lesson I've learned the hard way. But at the end, when we look back one final time at the summation of our life, will we wish we didn't spend so many of our finest hours under fluorescent lights, at someone else's whim? With each passing day, I grow more afraid of such a prospect.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Where I'd rather be: San Diego, "America's Finest City"

This is becoming a disturbing pattern. For the past several weekends, I've awoken to a wet and gloomy day. That provides plenty of inspiration to write about "Where I'd rather be," but I'd much prefer to be here on a warm and sunny day, than be somewhere else in my mind.

Nevertheless, I have to play the cards I was dealt, so once again we get to travel virtually together to some far-off spot. Actually, for some of you, this may be a virtual trip no further than your own backyard; because today, I'm going back to my hometown of San Diego, known as "America's Finest City."

I browsed the web for photos to post here, and came across the following aerial shot. It'll serve as an orientation shot for our travels, so take a look:

This shot effectively captures the heart of what I love most about San Diego: the beaches and water, and the countless hours of fun that they both offer. In this photo, you can see the long Mission and Pacific Beaches on the ocean side, the many little bays that make up Mission Bay Park just to the east (right), and the sloping hill of La Jolla toward the north (top of the photo).

On the beach side, a concrete "boardwalk" parallels the beach for about four miles. This path provides endless recreation for bicyclists, joggers, skaters and pedestrians. The personality of the boardwalk changes as you follow its entire stretch, so it's easy to find a part of the beach that suits what you're looking for: rowdiness, peace & quiet, athletics, and so on. And at regular intervals, you'll find restaurants, bars, taco shops, stores and more. At the far southern end of the strip (where the beach widens at the bottom of the aerial photo), an array of public beach volleyball courts planted in the sand offers a fun way to spend an afternoon.

On the other side of the narrow strip of beach cottages, you'll find Mission Bay Park. To me, this is the crown jewel of San Diego (not La Jolla, whose name literally means "the jewel"). This man-made aquatic park, covering more than 4,000 acres, contains many little hidden bays, each with its own personality and use. There's Sail Bay (pictured below), for use by sailboats; Ski Beach, where motorized watercraft can play (and where they hold the annual Thunderboat Regatta); Fiesta Island, an undeveloped area where the Over-the-Line Tournament is held; Tecolote Shores, a family-friendly area with picnic tables and grass lawns; and much, much more. One of my favorite activities is to spend the day riding the approximately 20-mile perimeter of Mission Bay, nearly all of which is bounded by a bike path (also visible in the picture below).

Just to the north of Pacific Beach and Mission Bay, the coastline changes from sandy beaches to rocky cliffs. While the topography is less appealing to sunbathers, it's perfect for scuba diving (since the same rocky shore continues below the surface, creating an excellent reef structure). The bluffs also offer picturesque scenery, which is probably why many of San Diego's millionaires live in expensive estates overlooking the ocean. La Jolla Cove (pictured below) is the most well-known spot, as it offers a small beach and easy, sheltered access to the ocean.

I may yet return to my beautiful hometown, but for now, writing about it made for a fun virtual escape back to a playground of sand and sun.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why we travel

The New York Times Travel section features a photo essay called "Why We Travel." The piece profiles 13 travelers who answer the question in their own words, and the 13 answers are as diverse as the people offering them.

While I enjoyed the words and pictures, the photo essay made me ask myself the same question. Why do I travel? I had to think about it for a little while, because my enjoyment of traveling is such a subconscious, intuitive thing. But pressed for an answer, I'd have to say it's the moments. Those special moments when you find something unexpected, experience something unplanned, do something spontaneous. You may spend a fantastic week someplace faraway, but chances are you'll return home with one magical moment (or maybe several) emblazoned on your memory for the rest of your life.

I love the adventure that comes with traveling to new places, but it's really those moments that I'll remember and relive for the rest of my life that keep me traveling.

Why do you travel?

This looks like a run-of-the-mill snack bar in Curacao, but it represents the successful culmination of an epic search, guided only by the vaguest of directions from a local who recommended the place. The delicious lumpia that rewarded our perseverance made this one of those "moments" from that trip.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Via Krupp on Capri

Again I find myself looking out at a gray and gloomy Sunday. Spring is limping along here in New York, having a hard time escaping the grip of a dying winter. So naturally my mind wanders again to dreams of warm and sunny climes far away in distance and time. I find myself thousands of miles and eight years from here, on the Italian island of Capri.

I came to Capri in 2001, an unplanned escape from a planned visit to Naples. Little did I know I was traveling to a place that remains to this day my favorite spot on the planet. Dramatic cliffs rise from turquoise waters, and hidden alleyways lead to tranquil piazzas. And limoncello... this is where I first tasted—and fell in love with—the drink that I have ever since called "sunshine in a bottle."

With clear skies and hot weather, the clear blue water called loudly to me. Near the villa where I was staying, a footpath called Via Krupp led down to the sea on the back side of the island by way of a series of switchbacks. I wasted no time, and set out to take a dip in the Mediterranean for the first time in my life.

On a tip from my hotel's proprietor, I hopped over the locked gate and made my way down. (The path only reopened last year, after being "officially" closed for 30 years due to falling rocks and other safety issues.) Besides being a fun way to get down to the water's edge, the path presented fantastic views all the way down that heightened the anticipation of jumping into the azure waters. At the bottom, I clambered over the rocks and staked out a spot for the afternoon, where I took this shot (but not before jumping in):

Isle of Capri, Italy
[Take a virtual walk down Via Krupp with this slide show.]

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Where I'd rather be

Spring has still not sprung here in the Northeast, so as I stretch my virtual legs to do some virtual traveling, I naturally seek out warmer climes. Today, I find myself kayaking the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, the arid landscape of Mexico's Baja peninsula providing a counterpoint to the 32-degree weather outside my door.

I hope, within the next year or two, to paddle those waters for real, and explore more of Baja California's 1,000-mile desert playground.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Check-ins of the future

I've had some interesting hotel check-in experiences. At the W Times Square in New York City, the lobby was not on the ground floor. Instead, I boarded an elevator just inside the ground-floor entrance, went to the seventh floor, and stepped out into a nightclub lounge. Tucked away off in a corner, I eventually found the front desk and checked in.

At the Omni Hotel in San Diego, I had barely stepped into the lobby when a waiting clerk greeted me and asked my name. Before I even reached the front desk, the clerk handed me a key and guided me to a nearby elevator. No lengthy credit card verification or reservation confirmation; just "welcome" and "here's your key."

While those check-in experiences impressed me, I would sure like to try checking in at an Andaz, Hyatt's answer to Starwood's hip W brand. At Andaz, you don't walk up to a check-in counter; you take a seat in a comfortable chair, and they come to you, checking you in via a handheld computer.

Of course, I look forward to the day when embedded chips in my luggage and wallet enable the following check-in scenario: I get out of the taxi and drop my bags at the entrance, where they'll be scanned and automatically routed to my room. As I walk through the entrance, a scanner reads the chip in my wallet and checks me in. I stroll to the elevator, where a scanner detects my chip, displays my room number on a screen, and takes me to my floor. When I reach my room, I wave my wallet against a card reader to open the door. Now that's a fancy check-in.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where I'd rather be

In the interest of breathing some new life into this blog, I'm going to start a semi-regular feature, "Where I'd Rather Be." While I'm not suggesting that I'd rather be anywhere other than "right here," a little escapism can be exercise for the imagination. And, in the current economic climate, it might be the only kind of travel some of us can do right now.

What I'll do is virtually travel through the internet until I find an entrancing picture of someplace "I'd rather be," and then post the picture here for you to share. So, in a way, we'll get to virtually travel together.

Today, here's where I'd rather be:

Pool at Bishops' Court B&B, Cape Town, South Africa

This picture caught my imagination while I surfed the net over my morning coffee, the image of an infinity pool and lush landscape on a sunny day quickly pulling me away from an overcast and gray Brooklyn day.

See the rest of the photo gallery in the New York Times' Travel section.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Cemeteries: Millions of untold stories

I love cemeteries. Always have. Whenever I come upon them, I want to stop, stroll around, look at the names of those who have lived, loved and passed on. Especially here in the Northeast where, more often than not, the cemetery turns out to be old or even historic.

Last October, the Tour de Bronx bike ride took us through Woodlawn Cemetery. The list of eternal residents is a Who's Who of bygone New York society and culture: J.C. Penney, Joseph Pulitzer, Irving Berlin, Frank Woolworth and Celia Cruz, to name a few. Like mansions for the dead, giant mausoleums display in death the wealth that many of the interred must have enjoyed in life.

On my first trip from LaGuardia Airport into Brooklyn, I got my first look at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. There, the horizon of the cemetery blends into the Manhattan skyline, making the distant skyscrapers look like just more headstones and monuments.

Last winter, I rode solo down the Ocean Parkway bike path, a route through Brooklyn that ends at the Coney Island boardwalk (and which is the country's oldest bike path). Along the way, I stopped at Washington Cemetery, a Jewish graveyard full of poignant headstones etched with likenesses of the deceased.

Before moving out of Virginia, I spent a day in Harper's Ferry, a historic town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. On the hill overlooking the town, I found an old graveyard with markers old enough that the dates had long since been weathered away.

And just last week, while watching "House Hunters International" (one of our favorite shows), I found a cemetery I want to visit in the future: Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perhaps best known for being the last resting place of Eva Peron, the place looks like a city within a city, with narrow alleyways that invite exploration.

Why do cemeteries fascinate me so? Most people probably find my interest morbid. But that's not it. When I walk past the headstones and gaze at the names and dates, I think about the stories that each one represents. A life lived, whether short or long; love, whether unrequited or consummated; dreams realized or unfulfilled; hardship endured or fruits of labor enjoyed; loved ones left behind.

Put simply, when I walk through a cemetery, I feel the millions of untold stories swirling all around me. I read the scant clues provided by the names, dates and brief epitaphs and let my imagination fill in the rest. For me, ironically, there is no place more full of life than a cemetery.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Go, Chargers! (to London)

I've been waiting for this day for months. Yes, that's right, it's football season again! Well, technically, it's "preseason," but that's good enough for me. I've been a fan of the San Diego Chargers for as long as I can remember, and tonight they kicked off the season with a game against the Dallas Cowboys (as of this writing, the Chargers are up 24-10 at halftime).

What does this have to do with travel, you ask? Very little. But as a blogger and die-hard Chargers fan, how could I not mention it? Let's see if I can make the stretch and connect the two.

In 2006, NFL owners approved a plan to play up to two regular-season games per year outside the U.S. This year, the Chargers play the New Orleans Saints in London's Wembley Stadium on Oct. 26.

Last November, I visited London for the first time, and enjoyed it tremendously. We drank in history metaphorically at Westminster Abbey, and literally drank "in history" at a 400-year-old pub. Best of all was the company of our hosts, Cassie's brother and sister-in-law. If time and my bank account could only allow it, I would love to visit them again in October and take us all to Wembley to show those soccer-crazy Brits a real football fan.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Take a virtual trip to Antarctica's dry valleys

Antarctica is high on my wish list of places I'd like to someday go, when money is less of an issue. To me, it seems the closest one can get to visiting another planet, though I confess that's somewhat subjective--one could argue Death Valley or any number of coral reefs I've dived on give an equally extraterrestrial impression.

But something about Antarctica beckons me. Perhaps it's the flavor of adventure any visitor must taste, even on the most luxurious cruises. Or the knowledge that you're in one of the most remote spots on the entire planet. Or, probably, the fact that it is just about as far metaphorically as I could get from my often mundane life.

So I was pleased when Gmail dealt me a wild card in the news link widget at the top of the mail interface: "Discovery Channel: Antarctica's Once-Living Valleys." Clicking the link, I was instantly whisked away to the bottom of the world (albeit virtually, and briefly). Someday, maybe, I'll set foot on that continent myself. Until then, I'll have to remain satisfied with words and pictures like these.

Note: If you're similarly captivated by Antarctica, I highly recommend Werner Herzog's new film, "Encounters at the End of the World."

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Painkiller: A Caribbean traveler's cocktail

My first taste of the cocktail called the "Painkiller" crossed my taste buds in 2006, during a visit to the Virgin Islands. That was the Beginning and the End. I've never gone ga-ga for sweet tropical drinks, the kind that have hunks of fresh fruit and an umbrella dangling from them. But when it came to Painkillers, it was love at first taste.

Maybe it's because the concoction, when made right, is not overly sweet or acidic. Besides rum, it's made with a mix of pineapple and orange juices and cream of coconut. But the fruity acidity of the juices and the creaminess of the cream of coconut offset each other, so it's neither too acidic or too creamy. And something about the mix disguises the rum, so you don't know just how much pain you're actually killing.

Painkillers are the signature drink of the Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British ones), and rumor has it the cocktail got its start at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the BVIs—so named because you have to swim to shore to get to the bar, thereby getting your dollars all soggy. Perhaps that's why I like them so much; the drink is so tied to the identity of these islands that I feel like I'm in the Caribbean every time I sip one.

If you want to take a "spiritual" trip to the Virgin Islands yourself, here's the Painkiller recipe (which, as you'll see below, I put to use last weekend in Maine).

4 parts pineapple juice
1 part orange juice
1 part cream of coconut
2, 3 or 4 parts golden rum, depending on desired strength (don't use light or dark rum)

Mix well, then serve over ice cubes. Don't forget the final step: grate fresh nutmeg on top!


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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Perfect for airline travel

Ziploc Easy Zipper: Where government bureaucracy meets mass consumerism. I should have bought stock in SC Johnson when the TSA debuted the 3-1-1 program. Now we all need a Ziploc bag whenever we fly.

I can think of a few more companies that should be promoting their products as "perfect for airline travel":

Capital One No Hassle Credit Cards: Perfect for paying all of those new fees!

Coleman Sleeping Bags: Perfect for those nights spent in the airport terminal after your flight gets canceled.

Balance Meal Replacement Bar: For those cross-country flights, when a bag of peanuts just won't keep you going.

What else can you think of that's "perfect for airline travel"?


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Monday, July 7, 2008

For sale: your eyeballs

We used to put up with commercial advertising in exchange for free television programming. Then commercials started appearing in movie theaters, where we paid for the privilege to sit through obvious ads before the less-obvious ads (previews) started. Now, your eyeballs are for sale aboard airplanes too.

Marketing messages used to be confined to the in-flight magazine. Then, when airlines like JetBlue debuted TV programming, commercials wormed their way aboard your flight. The analogous platform made it palatable: travelers watch TV commercials at home, so they shouldn't mind seeing them in flight. And besides, the OFF switch was always available.

But now, as airlines struggle to remain solvent, they're becoming bolder when it comes to selling your eyeballs. On many flights, you'll now find that your tray table is skinned with advertising. As the New York Times editorial that inspired this blog posting notes, flight attendants frequently hawk credit card applications. Perhaps someday soon, lavatories will be wallpapered with advertising from Charmin or Pepto-Bismol.

All this comes as no surprise. Airlines are trying to find any way possible to offset rising fuel prices. But look at the bright side: if the airline can find companies to sponsor lavatories and overhead compartments, maybe the dark future depicted in this brilliant TV commercial from Southwest Airlines won't actually come to pass.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tips to maximize your carry-on capacity

On Sunday, I watched a piece on the local news talking about American Airlines' $15 fee for the first checked bag going into effect. The segment offered suggestions on how to pack lightly and maximize your carry-on capacity, so as to avoid checking any bags.

Among their tips was a recommendation to utilize "the space in your shoes." I eventually figured out that they meant to put items in your empty shoes that you pack into your bag, not to stick stuff into the shoes you're actually wearing. However, my initial misunderstanding got me thinking about various other ways to carry on as much as possible.

Pants Pockets. This one is obvious. Besides, your wallet, keys and iPod, think what else you can fit into your pants pockets: several pairs of underwear (clean on the outbound flight, dirty on the return), your TSA-approved 1-quart Ziploc bag of toiletries, even a hair dryer (you can holster it in your pocket and pretend you're an air marshal).

Under Your Hat. Depending on the size of the hat you're wearing, you can probably fit some extra socks or a T-shirt or two underneath. Even if all you're wearing is a yarmulke, you can still hide some emergency cash or stash a pair of nail clippers.

Layering. Wear all of the clothes you're bringing with you at once. This not only frees up extra space in your carry-on bag, but will also help keep you warm in the plane's frigid AC when they run out of blankets after giving them out to the first three rows. This same strategy is also useful for scuba divers like me. Rather than be forced to check a bag with all our dive gear, we can just board the plane wearing our wetsuits and buoyancy control vests.

Underclothes. Your pockets aren't the only space within your pants where you can stash some extra belongings. You can pack half your luggage under your blouse and look no different than your large cabin mate who's taking up one and a half seats. Or you can fit a pair or two of socks in your underwear (men, think of the extra female attention).

Body Cavities. I'll leave it mostly up to your imagination, but this extra space could help you sneak on that 3.5-ounce bottle of contact lens solution that's a half-ounce over the TSA-allowed size.

So don't despair! The airlines may be making your travel more inconvenient, but with a little creativity and imagination, you can avoid that $15 fee. What other ideas can you think of?

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Wastelands" and other mental travels

I just started reading a new book. It's an anthology called "Wastelands," and the common thread running through all the stories is their setting in a post-apocalyptic world. I confess a certain morbid fascination with this sub-genre, which is often lumped in with general science fiction, but is really a genre-busting theme. As the editor of the anthology notes, one of the most recent examples of this sub-genre, Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," won the Pulitzer Prize.

What does this have to do with travel, you ask? The common thread running through my fascination with this sub-genre and my love of travel is escapism. Reading speculative fiction that imagines a world after societal collapse helps me escape the mundane trappings of everyday life. Conference calls, fluorescent lights, rush hour traffic: I can picture a world where these annoyances don't matter anymore. Similarly, thinking about travel, planning trips, actually traveling... they all provide a real escape from the everyday grind: sometimes for only the span of a daydream, other times for as long as my vacation time allows.

I realize my notions of post-apocalyptic fiction are romanticized fantasies, that the reality of an apocalyptic event like nuclear holocaust or a cosmic collision with an asteroid would be terrible beyond even my own overactive imagination. But, like travel to distant lands in the here and now, such mental travels help me keep the banality of corporate life and the everyday "small stuff" in perspective.

[Editors note: This is my 100th post. Congratulations to me.]


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fortress of Solitude: Mexico's Crystal Cave of Giants

I've been in a real-life "Bat Cave." I've sat in the captain's chair on the set of "Star Trek: Voyager." I've even walked amongst hills where Iron Man would later escape from terrorists. But I've never been inside Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Turns out such a place does exist outside of movies and comic books. In a mine in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, miners discovered in 2000 what could be the world's largest crystals. Giant columns of selenite (gypsum) grow as long as 50 feet, conjuring visions of the Man of Steel's hideout.

For now, the 1,000-foot-deep "Crystal Cave of Giants" is off-limits to the general public. But perhaps one day these amazing crystal behemoths will be accessible to everyday adventurers seeking a crystal connection to Krypton.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alabama Hills and Iron Man

We went to see "Iron Man" tonight (at $12 each, thank you, New York). When the lights dimmed and the first scene started unspooling, I had one of those movie/travel moments when I said to myself, "I've been there!" No, I haven't been to Afghanistan, the setting for the brutal opening scene. But I've been off-roading in Alabama Hills, where they shot the sequence.

How did I recognize the location so quickly and definitively? If you've been there, you would too. The Alabama Hills are a distinctly picturesque range of boulder-strewn foothills near Lone Pine, California, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Even if you avoid filming the most distinctive features of the terrain, as director Jon Favreau did, it's still easily recognizable.

The uniqueness of the landscape is what makes it a Hollywood favorite. Films have been shot there since the 1920s, featuring such old-time faves as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. The Alabama Hills have also been a backdrop in more recent movies like "Tremors," "Star Trek Generations" and "Gladiator."

I became acquainted with the Alabama Hills on one of the group camping trips I've written before. While it was great fun off-roading around the boulders during the day (when I shot this photo), my fondest memory was driving a truck full of campers across the dirt roads after dark, a full moon silhouetting the jagged landscape, Frank Sinatra crooning from my speakers and echoing off the rocks.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Carrier: Life aboard a Navy warship

Family and friends know I served four years in the U.S. Navy before going to college, and those acquainted with my past blogging have read about some of my experiences in the Navy ("My Cup Runneth Over," "Beer Day" and "Gulf War Memories," to name a few).

The Navy slogan "See the world" was the only part of the recruitment process that wasn't an exaggeration: I visited Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and other places during those four years of shipboard life. I crossed the Pacific Ocean several times, crossed the Equator twice and watched a radar screen in the first Gulf War.

If you want an even better idea what it was like to serve in the Navy than my blogging, I urge you to check out the PBS program "Carrier." Not only does it paint an extremely accurate and candid picture of what things are like for sailors and airmen/women at sea, it's also a very well produced and entertaining program in its own right. It's a 10-hour miniseries, and they've been rerunning it regularly, so check it out (you can also watch full episodes on the website).

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dark tourism: reflection and connection

Taking a journey only the internet can offer, yesterday I followed a series of links originating in a travel blog and ended up in the figurative crying room of the travel industry: "dark tourism." The term, also known as "black tourism" or "grief tourism," signifies travel to destinations associated with death and suffering.

I had no idea such a niche existed. Sure, I know sites like Auschwitz and Gettysburg draw millions of visitors, but I didn't realize such tourism had its own term and cottage industry. But I suppose it makes sense. Travel to such places inspires reflection about our personal and collective losses, and enables us to connect to our past, whether individually—by visiting a site where a loved one or ancestor died—or collectively—communing in a place where violent events affected a nation or the entire world.

As I thought more about it, I began to remember more and more such "dark tourism" sites that I myself have visited. I've been to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and contemplated how that loss affected our country. I made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg with my family, where my great-great-great grandfather fought and thousands died. I've passed the sunken remains of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and thought about the hundreds of sailors still entombed in that wreck to this day. I've stood above Ground Zero and tried to imagine what the victims and survivors who were there on September 11 must have felt. I've gazed upon the 168 memorial markers at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and thought about how many of them represented children whose lives ended too soon.

I guess part of me has a fascination with dark tourism. Someday I'd like to visit the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, where my uncle Jack drowned during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. I also think a visit to a Nazi concentration camp would mean a lot, as I try to comprehend how human beings could treat other human beings with such brutality. Maybe that's just it: perhaps dark tourism helps us to better understand the human condition.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My 10 tips for greener travel

It's April, which means Earth Day. Environmentalism has gone mainstream, and everywhere you look, you see the adjective "Green" applied to everything from water bottles to SUVs. If you're not eco-friendly, you're not hip.

Fodors jumped on the "green" bandwagon, recently publishing "10 Tips for Greener Travel." I love Mother Earth as much as the next guy, but enough already with this "green" fad. So here's my take on Fodor's 10 tips for greener travel:

Beware of Green Washing. If you're traveling for an extended period and need to wash your clothes, watch out for those laundromats that advertise "green washing"—unless, of course, you're a leprechaun, and all of your clothing is already green.

Ask about the company's green philosophies. Do they recycle toilet paper? Do they test their piña coladas on laboratory animals? Do they employ workers who eat only organic foods and wear hemp clothing? Do they wash the sheets more than once a year, and if so, do they use harsh, eco-unfriendly soap? These are all important questions, so you should be sure to get satisfactory answers before flying to your destination in a greenhouse gas-spewing jet airplane.

Look into offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. The concept of carbon offsetting is brilliant: Let a company that pollutes go right on polluting, as long as they invest in practices that "offset" their carbon footprint. That makes as much sense as allowing a drug dealer to continue selling drugs, as long as he spends some of those drug profits to support a drug treatment center. So go right ahead, invest in a company that dumps iron dust into the ocean. Or spend $39 for feel-good bragging rights to call yourself "carbon-neutral." Or, better still, offset your carbon footprint by purchasing some carbon credits from ChuckieD.

Be Sensitive to Cultures and Customs. Okay, sure. I'm down with avoiding the "Ugly American" stereotype. But I don't understand what possible connection this tip has with ecology. What if I'm a visitor to consumerist U.S.A.? I'm supposed to "be sensitive" to our consumption culture and use-it-once-throw-it-away customs? How is that helping me to be "green"?

Never litter. Unless you're a smoker. Because cigarette butts apparently get an exemption from litter laws. Smokers who are otherwise law-abiding citizens toss their butts on the ground or out their car window without even thinking, and I've never heard of any of them getting a citation, so cigarette butts must not qualify as "litter." Unless you're doing a beach cleanup, when cigarette butts will be the most common item of litter that you'll pick up.

Think small. That's right, think small. Forget about global warming, "local warming" is the real problem.

Purchase local products whenever possible. This is one I have no problem with: in Honduras, I purchased a lot of local beer; in the Virgin Islands, I bought plenty of local rum; in fact, purchasing local fermented products whenever possible was an unofficial rule I followed throughout the travels of my Navy career.

Conserve resources. Stated another way, don't consume unnecessarily. From this principle comes practices like taking a canvas bag to the supermarket to avoid using plastic bags. Or using a reusable water bottle instead of adding yet another plastic water bottle to the local landfill. Or—my favorite example, from a public event I recently attended—packaging an ecology-focused fad book called "101 Green Travel Tips" in individual plastic bags (not).

Do not feed wild animals. Yes, this applies even in Cancun, where you'll commonly encounter 18-year-old bipedal mammals wearing USC ball caps and fraternity T-shirts that hoot like howler monkeys. They may look well-fed, but you still might feel compelled to feed them. Just don't do it.

If you are camping, don't leave anything behind but your footprint. Yes, you read that right. You have to "hold it." Just because the wild animals (that you aren't going to feed) have the right to poop in the woods doesn't mean you can too. "Don't leave anything behind but your footprint" means just that.

Now go hug a tree.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No, really: What does travel mean to you?

A couple of months ago, I posed the question "What does travel mean to you?" Even though only one of you responded, I know there are as many answers to that question as there are people considering it.

More, in fact.

I myself would probably offer many different answers depending on my mood, the time of year, or what I'm thinking about at any given moment.

Today, for instance, "travel" means escape. Forget exploration, education, edification. Never mind adventure, excitement, adrenaline. You can keep your new culture, people, ideas. All I crave right now is an escape from the mundane.

Give me a palapa on a deserted beach, an isolated rock on top of a mountain, a boat to sail upon a wide ocean. Just get my keys off this keyboard, my eyes off this computer screen, my body out from under these fluorescent lights.

I'll give you another chance to answer the question: what does travel mean to you?


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What makes good travel writing?

Great travel writing tells a compelling story, makes you feel like you're right there with the writer. It paints colors with words, pulls you through the pages and into another world. As author Stanley Stewart said, "Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story—narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation."

It seems a certain Lonely Planet guidebook author followed such guidance a little too enthusiastically: his guidebook on Colombia was a work of fiction. What writer Thomas Kohnstamm apparently didn't understand is that Stewart's advice about narrative and characters referred to travel literature, not travel guidebook writing. Kohnstamm, apparently disgruntled about how much Lonely Planet was paying him, wrote his guidebook in San Francisco, without ever visiting Colombia. With the help of his Colombian girlfriend, he plagiarized or made up vast portions of the guidebook.

Now he's about to publish a book about what he did. Which got me thinking: a travel writer is a writer who travels... which means Kohnstamm is not, strictly speaking, a travel writer. But if he writes about his fake travel writing, does that in fact make him a de facto travel writer? Truly a twenty-first century conundrum.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Traveling to my couch

You know I love everything about travel. I love visiting new places, meeting new people, creating new memories. I also love reading about others' travel experiences, seeing photos of distant lands, thinking about and planning future trips. But some days I don't want to travel beyond my own front door. Today is one of those days.

During the past month, I attended the New York Times Travel Show, went skiing in Vermont, flew to Los Angeles for work, tasted wine in Paso Robles, hosted visitors on two different occasions, and even found time to design a new newsletter for my dive club (which includes some of my travel writing—download a copy). That's more than enough activity for me.

After taking my last visitors to the airport this morning, the only travel that interests me is the trip between my couch and refrigerator, and perhaps the vicarious travel I'll get with some past episodes of "No Reservations."


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

People are the best part of travel

I am traveling vicariously to New York City again, this time hosting my parents for a visit to celebrate their anniversary. We went to Lombardi's ("America's First Pizzeria") in Little Italy on their first night, which has somehow become a standard stop for all the people who visit me here. Today, I'm taking the day off work to take them sightseeing.

Initially, I had a little difficulty trying to think of things to see and places to take them. A few ideas didn't pan out. My father expressed an interest in seeing the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but that tour is currently closed for security reasons. I thought of getting tickets to see The Late Show, but those are hard to come by, and they only give them out in pairs (which would make it impossible for the four of us to go together). My father is also having some knee issues, so things that involve a lot of walking or standing are not the best choices.

Then an obvious "travel truth" dawned on me, and I stopped worrying about it. People are the best part of travel, whether it's the people you meet while traveling or the people you travel with. So no matter what we do today, I know they're excited to see and spend time with me, so I know they'll enjoy whatever we do.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Vagabonding and other travel philosophies

I'm currently reading "Vagabonding," a book by world traveler Rolf Potts that calls itself "an uncommon guide to the art of long-term world travel."

I first heard about this book and its author when researching travel podcasts. One of the podcasts I listened to featured Potts, and his interview awoke my inner vagabond. I put his book on my Amazon wish list, but it stayed there for a lot less time than many of the other books that are still there.

The book's back cover defines "vagabonding" as "taking time off from your normal life—from six weeks to four months to two years—to discover and experience the world on your own terms." But what impresses me most about this book so far (I'm only two chapters into it) is that it's not a "how to" book. Instead, it discusses the philosophy of vagabonding, which seems so at-odds with the "normal" way of thinking in our contemporary society.

That "normal," very American philosophy has us all locked into a cycle of working hard to buy stuff, and then having to work harder to make the payments on that stuff, and working still harder to protect and insure our stuff, and then fitting in a week or two per year to go sit next to a pool somewhere. And along the way, we add on a few more hours to our work week to put money away for a far-off time when we "retire" from this cycle and live a life closer to what I'd call "normal."

Thoreau (quoted by Potts) questioned this wisdom of spending "the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it." I too have often thought such a lifestyle seemed at odds with true happiness, and even suggested in a former blog that we upend the cycle by retiring till we're 50 and then working till we die.

In the first chapter, Potts briefly mentions fear (as he puts it, "our insane duty to fear") as one of the factors that keep people from acting on their dreams of long-term travel. Though he goes on to discuss other factors, I think it's all about fear. Not so much a fear of the unknown—what we might encounter out there in the wide world if we go out and experience it—but a fear of the known, a fear of giving up that lifestyle that society tells us we must have, a fear of the uncertainty that "dropping out" (even if only temporarily) entails.

While I still have most of a book to go before I fully acquaint myself with Potts' philosophy, I already subscribe to a philosophy of a different type: that if I want to do something, I can find a way to make it happen. I've certainly done it before. And that philosophy goes a long way toward conquering any fear that society tries to instill in me.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Europe on $128 a day?

When I went to Europe in 2001, the euro hadn't debuted yet. I paid with francs in Paris and lira in Rome. When the euro hit the market not long after, it was roughly equal to the U.S. dollar. Today, it's worth more than US$1.50. Or, stated another way, things in Europe will cost you one and a half times what they do in the U.S. (Unless you're going to Great Britain, where they're twice as much.)

Add to that situation the rising cost of air fare and fuel surcharges, and you'll be nearly broke before you can even change your dollars into euros. It doesn't take an economist to figure out that U.S. tourism to Europe is falling in lockstep with the value of the dollar.

What I find interesting is watching how travel marketing and information providers deal with this situation. Europe has always been an extremely popular travel destination for Americans, yet it's receding out of reach for more and more of us. Companies like Fodors and Lonely Planet cover global destinations, so they can compensate by suggesting travel to bargains like Central America and Africa. What I'm really wondering is how Rick Steves is coping. His business model is virtually exclusive to European travel.

On that trip back in 2001, my Bible was Frommer's "Europe on $70 a Day." Inflation drove that book's title to "Europe on $85 a Day" in 2004 (the latest year an edition was published). If you factor in the current state of the currency market, that's more like $128 a day that you'll need to get by—and I still have a hard time believing that's possible.

Then again, Arthur Frommer recently suggested camping as a way to afford a European vacation (yeah, I'm sure he researched that article personally). So there you have it: Europe on $128 a day, sleeping bag not included.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Travel vicariously: host a visitor

I love to travel. Why else would I update this blog on a near-daily basis, when I could be watching the TV shows stacked up on my DVR or getting to bed at a decent hour? But the responsibilities of my current life (namely, work) keep me from traveling more often (though I guess one could argue that I'd travel less if I weren't earning money).

But there's one fun way to travel without going anywhere: hosting visitors. When people come visit, you can see your town through their eyes, pretending like you too are traveling and seeing things for the first time. And if you're like many of us, there are probably a lot of sights in your own town that you haven't even seen yourself.

That's just what I've done this weekend: I've been vicariously traveling to New York City by hosting my friend Sirpa from Finland (by way of San Diego). We walked across Brooklyn Bridge (pictured), ate New York pizza at Lombardi's (America's first pizzeria), saw as much of the Met as our feet and legs could handle, and had a cocktail overlooking Grand Central Terminal.

Her visit will end all too soon tomorrow, but I will get the chance to vicariously travel to New York City again next week, when my parents arrive for a visit.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

SoCal, SoCool: California with Avra

Traveling and scuba diving are two of my favorite activities, and there could possibly be no hobbies more compatible with each other. It occurred to me to write a blog posting on this subject, but when casting about the web for inspiration, I came across a trip report written by fellow Oceanblue Divers member Avra Cohen about his recent trip to southern California.

The beautiful descriptions of his experiences exploring SoCal's kelp forests, deserts and beaches made me more homesick than just about anything else I've read or seen since moving to the East Coast in 2005. His accounts brought back vivid memories of my own times exploring the very same places. He "meticulously planned, for ten days, to go whichever way the wind blew," and the result is testament to the value of spontaneity in travel.

Avra's report is far better than anything I'm going to write today, so travel vicariously to California with him through this link.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Leaving it all behind currently features an article about a middle-aged couple who sold everything and toured the world on bicycles from 2002-2006. The title of the article is "Leaving it all behind." I can't imagine a more warped (yet, admittedly, mainstream) way to characterize their lifestyle change. Instead, I'd call it "Putting it all ahead."

If traversing the well-worn path between home and office every day, sitting in a chair for 40 hours a week, seeing and experiencing the same things day in and day out is "normal," such that breaking out of that cycle and doing something bold means you're "leaving it all behind," then maybe I'm the one with the warped perspective. To me, it seems that escaping the rat race would put the best of what life can offer ahead of—not behind—you.

Contemplating the seductive idea of exploring the world on your own timetable (instead of wedging such journeys into the small box delimited by your company's vacation policy), I imagine how liberating that would feel, how open your lifestyle would become. The phrase "leaving it all behind" contradicts that feeling; it connotes sacrifice, a limitation of options, like you're giving up everything. I think the opposite is true: in choosing such a lifestyle, I think you gain everything.

You acquire the power to define your own life, instead of having it defined for you by the expectations of America's consumerist society. You get the humbling insight of experiencing how the other 98 percent of the world lives, instead of viewing life through the lens of reality TV, celebrity gossip mags and Pottery Barn catalogs. You attain the perspective of seeing just how large this planet is, and how tiny your little place in it is. Perhaps most importantly, you learn what matters most: how much more a new experience adds to your life than does a new pair of trendy shoes.

The critics (my father chief among them) will offer the usual arguments against vagabond living: what about health insurance? retirement savings? financial security? Clearly, these are valid concerns, but they are not reasons NOT to "leave it all behind." If done right, you can live like Pat and Cat Patterson, bicycling around the world—or sailing, or backpacking, or whatever turns you on—and still keep some measure of security. Your 401(k) might not grow as quickly, you might not be able to see a doctor for every sniffle, you will almost certainly have to tighten the belt and live on less. But isn't that the point?

I think we should all take a sabbatical at some point in our lives, whether for only a few months, or for several years, like the Pattersons. It's certainly a notion that I've thought about more than once before. If or when I do it, however, you won't hear me saying I'm "leaving it all behind."

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Beer as a metaphor for travel

I like beer. Pilsner, pale ale, porter, dopplebock, hefeweizen—hell, I've even been known to drink a "Silver Bullet" on a hot summer day at the beach. In my travels, beer has often been a way to connect with the country I'm visiting. Wherever I go, I try to sample the local brew.

In some countries, I've been happily surprised: Japanese beer, for example, tasted far better in Japan than the Japanese imports available back in the States. In other places, the local brew has been less than impressive: in Thailand, Kloster and Singha were best enjoyed in large quantities.

Back home, beer often becomes a way to recapture the magic of travel. After my first trip to Honduras, I sought out Port Royal (a Honduran beer imported to the U.S.) whenever possible. I brought home a case of Creemore Springs lager from a trip to Toronto (sadly, I didn't realize it was unpasteurized until it was too late). Even Peroni, a pretty unremarkable pilsner, can sometimes bring back memories of Italy.

And beer is the central theme of a future, as yet unplanned, trip. I know it's a cliche, but someday I want to make the pilgrimage to Oktoberfest in Munich. It's like going up the Eiffel Tower: a touristy thing to do, but everyone's gotta do it once.

Beer me!

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What movies have inspired you to travel?

Though I have a film degree, I'm more of a travel nut now than a movie junkie. However, there's no question that movies have inspired me to travel on more than one occasion. As I look back now, I think of the scenes of Italy in "A Room with a View" and the beautiful Mediterranean in "Il Postino." The dramatic scenery from "The Lord of the Rings" has put New Zealand on my wish list, and I even have distant memories of World War II movies watched in my youth that gave me the bug to travel to some far-off Pacific island.

What movies have inspired you to travel?


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where I'd like to go

Much of my travel in the past couple of years has centered around scuba diving, and has taken me to such places as Cozumel (Mexico), Roatan (Honduras) and Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles). While there are many other dive destinations I'd like to visit, my travel wish list includes many non-diving destinations.

Here's a list of some of the places I'd like to visit, along with a brief explanation of why.

Spain. No city in particular, but perhaps Barcelona and the Balearic Islands for starters. I've wanted to visit Spain since my high school Spanish class, and this desire led me to apply to the American Field Service in my junior year. AFS sent me to Honduras instead, so I still haven't made it to Spain.

Scandinavia. I could probably spend several weeks traveling through Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland and never have to pay for a hotel room. My father made many friends in Norway during his years in international business, and I have a number of friends scattered throughout the rest of the region. Someday soon, I need to take advantage of these connections.

New Zealand. I am a Lord of the Rings fan, but the country's scenery appeals more to my outdoor adventure sensibilities than to the nerd within. From friends who have gone and TV programs I've seen, I know I'd love exploring that beautiful country.

South Pacific. From what I've heard and read, comparing the scuba diving in the Caribbean to that of the South Pacific is like comparing the amusement park section of your county fair to Six Flags. The only thing that has held me back before now is the cost. I feel a trip like that needs at least two weeks (costly in terms of vacation time), and the air fare itself is very pricey. So for now, places like Palau, Fiji and Papua New Guinea will stay on the wish list.

Antarctica. Like the South Pacific, this one will likely stay on the wish list for awhile (unless I win the lottery). I've already been face-to-face (more like beak-to-knee) with Emperor penguins, thanks to my time working as a diver at Sea World. But someday I'd like to set foot on this continent and see its otherworldly landscape in person. (And, yes, I want to go diving here too.)

Where would you like to go? And why?

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Monday, February 18, 2008

What does travel mean to you?

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to travel. I can't recall exactly when this wanderlust took a hold of me, but it was a desire to start seeing this great big world of ours that inspired me to participate in a study-abroad program in high school. If I wasn't hooked on travel then, I surely was after spending a year in a foreign country during my formative teenage years.

I don't know if this vagabond sensibility is acquired, or if it's in my blood. Possibly the latter—my uncle was a drifter, exploring much of Europe (including the prisons of East Germany) before sailing across the Atlantic on a boat appropriately named "Tumbleweed" and settling in Puerto Rico. One thing I know for sure: a great many people share this love of travel with me.

This fact was recently reinforced by an ad I saw on the subway that theorized why people prefer Jameson Irish whiskey: "Perhaps the ship on our label reminds people of travel. And who doesn't like to travel?" I know that a man who seeks wisdom from a bottle of whiskey will probably meet a bad end, but in this case, the wisdom is obvious. People love to travel.

And the beauty of the "Why"—why people love to travel—is because "travel" means so many different things to different people. Travel can be an exploration of the unknown; it can be a well-deserved vacation from work; it can be a reunion with family and loved ones; it can be an opportunity for new business deals or a new life; it can even be a tearful goodbye to one who has passed. Travel brings us closer, whether to those we know or those we haven't met yet. It (hopefully) reminds us that although the world is large, we are all one people.

What does travel mean to you?