Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ten Essential Items to Always Keep in Your Daypack or Carry On

Fully-stocked backpack waiting for the bus in Patagonia, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)  

At times, as exciting and life-changing as travel is, it can also be a bit of a challenge, especially in the developing world. Having things close at hand on a long trip can make your traveling life a little easier and even possibly help to avoid a disaster. Here are a few things that I keep stocked in my daypack or carry-on at all times:

1) Toilet paper: few countries outside North America or Western Europe regularly stock public bathrooms with toilet paper and when camping and hiking in remote areas it is almost never available. Keep two rolls of toilet paper in a Ziploc or other waterproof bag with you always; you’ll be glad you did. This is one item you don’t want to get caught without in emergencies (see below).

2) Diarrhea medicine: this malady always seems to strike in the second hour of an 18 hour cross-country trip on a bus with no working bathrooms. It’s comforting to know that diarrhea medicine is close at hand and not stuck in a pocket of your full-size backpack on the roof of the bus. At the very least, a tablet or two can get you to your next stop and a visit to the doctor or pharmacy.

3) Wet wipes: towelettes in a resealable plastic packet are useful for so many things: cleaning face and hands, sanitizing phones or remote controls in hotel rooms, wiping up messes, cleaning cuts and blisters or removing stains from clothing. They can also be very refreshing during long, hot trips when a shower is hours away.

Early morning on the bus from Junin de los Andes, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

4) Something entertaining: a book, a crossword puzzle and pen, Sudoku, an Ipod or an Iphone; anything that will help pass the time between flights or buses or on long trips. Much of travel involves long, often unexpected, periods of waiting and it’s nice to have something to pass the time.

5) Toothbrush and toothpaste: if your luggage goes astray or you are at the end of a long trip, you will at least be able to have clean teeth and fresh breath.

6) A flashlight: indispensable for convenience, reading and personal safety on airplanes, overnight bus and train trips, campsites, dark trails, unlit city streets and hotels with unreliable electricity.

7) Band-Aids: nothing is worse than being stuck on a hike with a blister or two and nothing to help alleviate the discomfort. These are great to have on hand for blisters and cuts, but can also be used to repair small holes in your daypack or Ziploc bags or to help secure small items.

On the way to the campsite, Junin de Los Andes, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

8) Socks and a sweater: long distance buses, especially in tropical countries like Venezuela, tend to crank up the air-conditioning to below-freezing temperatures. Having an extra sweater, socks, a cozy scarf or hat can be the difference between an enjoyable and an intolerable trip.

9) Snacks and a bottle of water: take something like a bag of pretzels, dried fruit, peanuts, trail mix or crackers for those times when restaurants are closed or food is scarce. Having a little something to eat can carry you to the next real meal.

10) Notepad and pen: to record travel impressions, write down hotel recommendations or email addresses of fellow travelers, bus schedules or directions.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sierra de la Ventana, Argentina Travel Journal

The natural window at the top of Cerro de la Ventana, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

This month, Luis and I are hiking and camping our way through Patagonia so that we can meet up with our friends from New York in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. We have a very loose plan (read: we have no idea what our route will be), but are generally heading south so that we arrive in Chile at the agreed upon date of Jan. 5th. Since we had already traveled down the coast of Argentina a couple of years ago, stopping in places like Puerto Madryn to visit the stunning Peninsula Valdes (aka Poor Man’s Galapagos), we decided to travel inland this time. We arrived first at the tranquil town of Sierra de la Ventana, known for its artisans, laid back atmosphere and its beautiful green spaces, including the provincial park, Parque Provincial Ernesto Tornquist, home to a small mountain/large hill with a natural “window” or hole at the summit. We were planning on staying with someone local that we found on the CouchSurfing website, but unfortunately he cancelled at the last possible moment and, after an overnight bus trip from Buenos Aires, we found ourselves stranded in the town at 6am without a place to stay. No worries, though, tent in hand, we strode over to the nearest campsite, El Camping Paraiso run by a friendly couple name Joseluis and his wife, Mabel.

Sim and Luis taking a rest at the midway point of the climb
  A pleasant, clean and quiet place, the campground has room for tents but also has private cabins and shared clean bathrooms with hot showers…perfect! The price for camping was $10 for two people per night and the cabins were $16. As we were setting up the tent, Luis suddenly stopped, looked at me and said ”Are we crazy for sleeping on the ground when, for $6 more, we could have a private cabin with a nice soft bed?” I replied “Yes, we are.” And so we promptly took down the tent and moved into a warm, cozy cabin. When we were settled, we explored the town. It’s fairly small, but has plenty of restaurants, shops, cultural events, a municipal pool open to tourists and nature spots nearby to explore. Local residents are extremely friendly and helpful and we were invited to several parties, cultural events and art expositions in the first few hours of our arrival. The next day, one of the business owners gave us a ride to the provincial park so that we could hike up the Cerro de la Ventana (“hill of the window”) to see the natural hole carved in the mountain by water and wind erosion.

A family of wild horses traverses the hillside (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We started at 10:30am and hiked until 6:30pm, but it was a tough hike. The mountain is steep, very rocky and filled with tree roots and the trails are not clear, although the signage is generally good. Our feet and legs were aching because of the constant impact of the hard surfaces (there is only a short part of the trail that is on soft earth) but the view from the top was fantastic. The natural hole channels and concentrates the wind, so we had to hold onto the rocks to keep from being blown over by the force of the winds. As we were descending, families of guanacos (a smaller, caramel-colored cousin of the llama) and wild horses, foals in tow, passed above and below us on the rocky precipices, while groups of screeching red hawks flew overhead. The wildflowers were colorful and abundant, in shades of bright yellow, pink, violet and flaming, almost glowing red. In the late afternoon, the colors of the surrounding hills and fields deepened into tones of deep blue, grey, gold and green and we could see clearly for miles around us. We finally descended into forests of pine, eucalyptus and jasmine, slumping on to the grass tired and aching, but surrounded by an incredible mix of natural perfumes under the shade of the tall pines. It was worth every blister!

Guanacos on a rocky ledge, Cerro de la Ventana, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Great Gifts for Travelers (or Would-Be Travelers)

Christmas ornament from the Washington Monument, Washington D.C. (photo by Simone Cannon)

There are lots of lists of gift ideas for the travelers in your life, but what to buy for the vast number of armchair travelers that you know and love (perhaps yourself included)? They are those many friends and family members who aspire to travel but just can't make the leap. They have the soul of a traveler but just need an extra push to get out there and see the world. Maybe all they need is a little spark of inspiration and you can be the one to provide it. The end-of-the-year holidays are a wonderful time to take stock and make resolutions for the new year. Here are some great gift ideas to help your loved ones add "Travel More" to their list of New Year's resolutions:     

1) Travel Books: there are so many possibilities in this category, from travel guides to travel journals to glossy coffee table books filled with gorgeous, colorful photos. All are sure to inspire, but here are a few of my favorites:

A wonderful gift for prospective travelers (photo courtesy of

2) Language CDs or Classes: perhaps a fear of having to communicate in a foreign language is holding back a potential world traveler. Berlitz and Rosetta Stone make excellent language CDs and DVDs, but you can also buy less expensive versions in almost every new and used bookstore or online. If your loved one is more of a face-to-face learner, consider buying a series of group or private language classes. The most popular, useful and easiest-to-tackle beginning languages for English speakers are generally Spanish, French, Japanese or Italian.

3) Travel Gift Cards or Certificates: Orbitz, American Express, most airlines, cruise lines, spas and hotels offer gift certificates in denominations as small as US$25.

Paper prayer knots, Gokoku-ji Temple, Tokyo, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

4)  Travel Documentary DVDs: Globetrekker, National Geographic, the Travel Channel and PBS all offer excellent and informative travel DVDs of their regular TV series or specific destinations or themes. 

5) Movies: Roman Holiday; Out of Africa; Eat, Pray, Love; Seven Years in Tibet; The Motorcycle Diaries; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; City of God; The English Patient; Lost in Translation; Under the Tuscan Sun; Into the Wild; French Kiss; Shirley Valentine; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Romancing the Stone; Thelma and Louise; The Talented Mr. Ripley; any Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie...the list of inspirational travel movies is endless. Everyone loves movies and there are hundreds of DVDs available to inspire travel in general or a visit to a particular dreamed-of place in the world.  

6) Exotic Souvenirs: bring back holiday gifts from your next trip or visit local import shops for unique items such as Tibetan singing bowls, colorful Peruvian blankets or bags, Japanese origami ornaments, Murano glass, Finnish modern vases or terracotta pottery from Mexico...all will be appreciated and treasured and may even inspire a little globe-trotting.

What's your idea of the perfect travel gift? We'd love to hear from you!

Shopping for Peruvian handmade textiles, Colca Canyon, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How to Sleep Very Cheaply When Traveling

Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Traveling costs can add up quickly, especially when moving from one exotic place to another. Traveling extensively is exciting and interesting, but can increase your transportation and lodging costs exponentially if you're not careful. One way to cut expenses is to use cheaper lodging alternatives such as hostels, homestays or camp sites. There are so many interesting ways to spend the night (but that's another blog...) and to save money that the choices are almost endless. If you are flexible and open to new experiences, you will find a much wider array of sleeping options available to you. Here are a few suggestions that you may already know and some that you might not have thought of:

Beach side at dusk, Koh Samui, Thailand (photo by Simone Cannon)

1) Hostels: the most popular budget option by far, hostels will generally run about US$18-$20 a bed per night in a dorm or a spot at a hostel campsite. Private ensuite rooms or smaller 2-4 bed dorms with shared bathrooms are also widely available at hostels but are more expensive. Hostels vary in quality, location, cleanliness and noise level, so it's best to book through a trusted website with a ratings system like Hosteling International or Pick hostels near the top of the rating scale, but keep in mind that many rating systems include a category called "fun" which generally translates to "noise" and "late-night parties", so you may want to exclude that category if you are looking for a tranquil place to stay. Most hostels are geared toward younger travelers, although all ages are welcome, and they often host BBQs, Meet and Greet events and can organize tours and excursions. Hostels are an especially helpful option in more expensive countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the countries of Scandinavia, as the hostels in those countries tend to be very well-maintained and clean and often include amenities such as clean swimming pools, breakfast buffets, wi-fi, free internet and group rates.  

Colorful flags flutter on a boat dock, Ubud, Bali (photo by Simone Cannon)

2) Couch Surfing: nothing is cheaper than free and the idea of crashing on other people's couches has been around for years, but has recently become organized (and much safer) thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, Thorn Tree and CouchSurfing, a website dedicated to organizing the couch-surfing community and currently hosting 2,377,653 registered members. The idea is to sleep on someone's couch or spare bed in exchange for other members using yours (although CouchSurfing staffers emphasize that this is not obligatory; you are under no pressure to let someone stay with you if you're not comfortable with the person asking for accommodation). The site stresses security by recording all written communication, encouraging feedback and providing a ratings system. operates in 245 countries and territories around the world and almost 80,000 cities, so the options are numerous and varied. If you are planning on visiting a city, just search the database for available couches and contact the member via the site. Although it's a great way to get to know new people and to learn about (and share) local culture, you can also just meet someone for a cup of coffee or a meal if you are not comfortable staying with someone else or hosting someone in your home.

Waiting for the Astronomical Clock to strike, Prague, The Czech Republic (photo by Simone Cannon)

3) Colleges, Universities and Convents: most college campuses around the world become deserted once classes wrap up, yet the university properties still need to be maintained, so many administrations opt to rent out their dorms to travelers during unoccupied months to offset their costs. Convents and monasteries similarly find that they often have to burden the expense of unused living quarters and often offer services such as lodging and meals. Be aware, though, that most of these places have strict noise, behavior and cleanliness rules and curfews so they may not be the best option if your travel goals include partying with other travelers, but for a clean, quiet place to stay that is generally located on picturesque grounds, this is a great choice. Ask at your local university campus for information and directories or contact universities in the city in which you are traveling. Keep in mind that university accommodations are usually only available during school holidays. In London, for example, institutions such as Imperial College and The London School of Economics open their dorms up to travelers during winter, spring and summer breaks. For available convent, abbey and monastery lodgings and prices, check websites such as Good Night and God Bless or 5star Accommodation.
Mt. Hood, Portland, Oregon, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

4) Homestays: in many regions, particularly economically recessed areas, homestays are an excellent budget choice. Owners hoping to make some extra money open up their private residences to travelers, usually providing a private room and bathroom (although occasionally shared), full breakfast, travel information, transportation and the chance to stay with locals. Depending on the country, these can be extremely cheap places to stay and the owners will often negotiate with travelers. I once stayed in Tonga for four days for a total cost of US$24, including four nights accommodation, four breakfasts, laundry service and a day tour of the island in a private jeep. Many Latin American countries, for example, offer lodging in casas particulares (private houses) to tourists. The owners often speak some English, but have little exposure to the outside world and are therefore fascinated by travelers of all kinds. On our first night at a homestay in Puerto Varas, Chile, the owner invited the entire extended family over to dinner to meet us (and Latino family sizes are nothing to shake a stick at). For a total cultural immersion and one-of-a-kind experience, homestays can't be topped. Contact websites such as Homestay Agencies or ask at airport, train or bus station terminal tourist information booths when you arrive.       

Can you suggest lodging ideas that are even cheaper? Please let us could be part of the next lodging blog post!      

Road meets ocean, Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga (photo by Simone Cannon)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island: Ten Reasons to Visit The Other New York City

The Mets Citi Field Stadium, Flushing Meadows, Queens (photo courtesy of

New York is and will always be my favorite city in the world. It has everything: theater, restaurants, fashion, sports, green spaces, business, interesting people, impressive architecture, great public transportation and a vibrant buzz. And I'm not even talking about Manhattan. There is much more to NYC than first meets the tourist eye. Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens are the overlooked jewels in the crown of New York City. Most tourists are only vaguely aware of the Outer Boroughs (and come to think of it, the same is true for many Manhattanites), but the boroughs are treasure troves of culture, history, excellent food and interesting people. Once you’ve hit the major tourist sites of Manhattan, hop the subway to the rest of New York City…you will be pleasantly surprised. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Summer rose in bloom, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Simone Cannon)

1) Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: less crowded than Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum is the place to go for a relaxing day of art. Take the 2 or 3 subway line to the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop and stroll through the galleries before visiting the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The gorgeous museum features extensive collections in various styles from all over the world including Asia, Africa, America and Europe as well as Islamic and Modern Art. The stunning botanical gardens change with the seasons and are within walking distance of the museum, so you can make a day of viewing world-class art in the morning and the art of nature in the gardens in the afternoon (or vice versa, depending on the weather).

2) Queens’ Ethnic Restaurants: die-hard foodies already know that Queens is one of the culinary meccas of New York. Some of the best food in the city can be found in the distinct ethnic neighborhoods of Queens: Greek, Indian, Italian, Russian, Armenian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Jamaican and Chinese restaurants are just the tip of the iceberg. For the best experience, travel around the world: eat your appetizer in one “country”, your main course in another and go for dessert in a third. The pleasant bonus of this eater's paradise is that the food is generally much less expensive and the atmosphere is more casual than in Manhattan.

A park visitor takes a break on a trail bridge, Greenbelt Park, Staten Island (photo courtesy of
3) Staten Island Parks: take the Staten Island Ferry in the late morning, after the morning crush of commuters has left Whitehall Street Station, and cruise to Staten Island for a day of wilderness hiking. Although just a few minutes from Manhattan by boat, Staten Island is probably the least explored of all the boroughs, yet it is filled with some of the most beautiful green spaces in New York. When you arrive at the port, head for parks such as the Greenbelt, at 2,500 acres, Staten Island's largest park or Wolfe's Pond Park, a 170 acre park with 20 acres reserved for swimming, boating or fishing. Walk the trails, observe the wildlife (e.g. blue herons, purple martins, squirrels), people watch, breathe the air and unwind.

4) The New York Transit Museum, Brooklyn: even if you’re not a fan of public transportation per se, this well-organized and interesting museum is worth a visit for insight into the history of NYC. Another good choice if you are traveling with kids, the museum maintains a fleet of subway cars from past eras which you can explore, as well as collections of old tokens and other memorabilia, exhibits on the construction of the extensive Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) system and even has facilities for hosting birthday parties. The museum store features unique NYC souvenirs such as subway token jewelery, MTA Christmas ornaments and silk scarves imprinted with the MTA subway map. Check the directions and hours on the MTA website; which subway you take will depend on where you start out.

A baby lemur clings to his mom, Bronx Zoo (photo courtesy of

5) The Bronx Zoo: This popular and wonderfully maintained zoo is just a subway ride away and a relaxing way to spend a day, especially if you are traveling with kids. The animals roam freely in large, landscaped enclosures and the zoo offers numerous educational programs for both children and adults. Exhibits include the Congo Gorilla Forest, The Wild Asia Monorail, Tiger Mountain and the newst exhibit, Madagascar! From Manhattan, take the 2 or 5 train to East Tremont Ave/West Farms Square stop and look straight ahead for signs to the zoo (or just follow the crowds).

6) Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn: if you’re a history buff or a dead celebrity watcher, the Green-Wood Cemetery is the happenin’ place to be. Built in 1838, the beautifully landscaped cemetery is still functioning and is the final home of over 600,000 souls including such diverse residents as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, composer Leonard Bernstein, mobster Joey Gallo, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, the infamous and corrupt New York political leader. Guided tours are available and highly recommended as the knowledgeable guides provide history and fascinating stories which will greatly enhance your visit. Take the R train to 25th Street Station and walk east one block.

Movie goers at the Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo courtesy of Julienne Schaer/

7) Brooklyn Bridge Park's Movies With a View: every summer, the Brooklyn Bridge Park and SyFy host outdoor movies at Pier 1 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. Film goers bring blankets and picnics, and sit on the large expanse of grass, watching movies and gazing at the jeweled night skyline of Manhattan. Last years movies included Annie Hall, The Big Lebowski, Rear Window, Brokeback Mountain, Dreamgirls, Blues Brothers, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What better way to spend a summer night?

8) Citi Field Tours: baseball fans flock to the new Mets stadium, Citi Field, in Flushing Meadows, Queens, not just for the games, but for the well-guided tours. The one-hour tours are $10 a person (discounted group rates are also available) and include such highlights as the Clubhouse, Field and Dugout, Productions Area (scoreboard control room), Press Box, Suite Levels (Sterling and Empire) and the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum. The tours are very popular so it's best to call ahead or reserve tickets online. Construction of the new stadium was completed in 2009 and replaced the aging Shea Stadium. The new stadium is also used as a concert venue, with Paul McCartney and Dave Matthews performing in 2009 and 2010. Take the 7 train to the Mets–Willets Point station.

A green on Van Cortlandt Golf Course, The Bronx (photo courtesy of

9) Van Cortlandt Golf Course, The Bronx: if you thought that NYC was the last place that you'd find a lush golf course, think again. There are several courses of varying size in the outer boroughs, but golf history buffs will want to take a trip to Van Cortlandt. Known as "Vanny" by locals, the Van Cortlandt Golf Course is the oldest course in the US. Constructed in 1895, it sits in the North Bronx, close to Yonkers and is the most easily accessible golf course by subway (take the 1 train directly from Manhattan; the stop is just a few blocks away from the course). After a recent four million dollar renovation, the course features seven new greens, additional cart paths and upgraded bunkers. Past golfers have included Babe Ruth, Sidney Poitier and Willie Mays. Take No. 1 or 9 trains to 242d St.

10) Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island: at the entrance to New York Harbor, on Staten Island, lies one of the oldest and most important military sites in US history. Built in 1663, it was the longest continually manned fort until 1994. Now managed by the National Park Service, park rangers give regular tours of the fort and surrounding area, including the old catacomb-like passageways, Battery Weed and some of the most panoramic views in the city. An excellent and interesting choice for military or history buffs, but worth the trip just for the incredible vistas of New York Harbor and the New York City skyline.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The American Museum of Natural History: New York Travel Tips

Luis and his Easter Island friend, The American Museum of Natural History, New York (photo by Simone Cannon)

New York is the home to hundreds of interesting museums; it would be impossible to explore all of them, but there are several that you definitely don't want to miss. The American Museum of Natural History is one of them. For fans of the Ben Stiller movie, Night at the Museum, the museum is a must-see. It houses a collection of over 32 million specimens: fossils, minerals and gems (including the 2 billion year old, 563 carat Star of India star sapphire, the largest in the world), ocean life, dioramas depicting human and animal evolution and biology, anthropology and constantly rotating temporary exhibitions. Add to that, the adjoining 120-foot-high, 333,500-square-foot area of the Rose Center for Earth and Space with the amazing Hayden Planetarium Space Shows and it's breathtaking galleries that explore the galaxies, stars and planets of the universe, an IMAX Theater, an annual butterfly conservatory with over 500 live butterflies and a real time butterfly webcam, and one of the most extensive dinosaur exhibits in the world, and you have an excellent way to spend a day in New York. Kids understandably love the museum and planetarium, but adults of all ages are often also happily surprised at how visitor-friendly, interesting and interactive it is.

At the Rose Center for Earth and Space, I find out my weight on the moon: less than 20 lbs...I'm definitely moving there (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The museum, located across from Central Park West at 79th street, was founded in 1869, and receives almost 4 million visitors annually from around the world. The museum is hard to miss: the traditional Victorian brick museum stands next to the ultra-modern Hayden Planetarium which is housed in a gigantic glass cube and is lit up by blue floodlights at night.The original collection was mostly amassed through the finds of world explorers' expeditions such as The Brewster-Sanford Expedition (contributing the collection of seabirds) and the Whitney South Seas Expedition (which brought back to the museum biological artifacts from the Southwest Pacific zone). The taxidermied land animals, marine life and birds were arranged in "dioramas", scenes frozen in time depicting their lives and natural surroundings. In the early 20th century, before the current ecological sensitivity existed, these dioramas were on the cutting edge of museum exhibits. The dioramas stand today behind large plate glass windows and are still hugely popular. 

The Giant Blue Whale exhibit, The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life (photo by Simone Cannon)

The museum is also a mecca for dinosaur fans, with two large dinosaur halls filled with reconstructed skeletons. According to the museum's website, it is home to "the world's largest collection of vertebrate fossils, totaling nearly one million specimens. More than 600 of these specimens, nearly 85 percent of which are real fossils as opposed to casts, are on view." The fossil collection occupies a whole floor of the museum but still represents only a tiny percentage of the museum's complete fossil and bone collection. The collection even includes an 80 million year old fossil of an ammonite, a nautilus shaped sea animal that became extinct 65 million years ago.

One of hundreds of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When you have had enough of animals and anthropology, head over to the space center for a look at the vast universe. Most of the exhibits in the space center are hands-on and encourage interaction. The Space Show in the Hayden Planetarium is currently running "Journey to the Stars" a trip through the cosmos narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. The shows run several times a day, but are very popular, so it's a good idea to buy your ticket when you first arrive, explore parts of the museum, then return to the planetarium 15 minutes before your show is scheduled to start. After the show, you can continue to explore the space center or return to the main museum building. If you decided to see only one museum during your visit to New York, make it this one; you won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Six Easy Ways to Survive TSA Security Checks and Full-Body Scanners

An airport security sign indicating that either a robbery or a full body scan is imminent... (photo courtesy of

In the midst of the latest TSA scandal, the dreaded full body scan, several websites and blogs have recently posted the following question: Which would you prefer, a full body scan or shoe removal when passing through airport security? For me, it's a no-brainer; I prefer the full body scan hands down (no pun intended). Nothing drives me more insane than the rite of shoe removal when passing through US airport security. It's annoying, inane and pointless. I mean, really, over 8 million passengers have had to go through this ridiculous hassle because one guy once (ONE guy! Once!) tried to conspicuously blow up an airplane with the sole of his shoe? Seriously? Can you imagine if security officials reacted this way to every one-time incident? Let's say that some guy tried to smuggle some TNT onto a plane by hiding it beneath his long, wavy hair. Would we then all have to go through a thorough hair inspection and mandatory haircuts before entering the boarding area? 

It could be worse: Bolivian transportation security force near Uyuni, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon)

I have never gone through the shoe inspection smoothly. This is in part because I insist on wearing my lace-up hiking boots since they are usually too dirty, heavy and bulky to pack in my regular luggage. This leads to a precarious dance of hopping around on one foot trying to undo the three yards of laces securing my boots to my feet, while simultaneously grasping my passport and boarding passes between my teeth, juggling my jacket, scarf, hat, laptop, carry-on bag and small neck pouch in my arms, all while trying not to lose my balance and make a complete fool of myself. At the other end of the security area, it's the dance in reverse. Give me the full body, all-is-revealed body scanner anytime. I seriously doubt that the sight of my body will send security agents into any kind frenzy, good or bad. Anyway, I suspect that the most negatively affected by all this will be the security agents. After several months of having to look at grainy black and white images of 1,000 flabby, naked bodies a day, the poor agents will be in need of some serious therapy. Most of them will probably never be able to have sex again, poor sods. Anyway, for everyone's sanity, the best thing is to stay calm, get it over quickly and board your plane. Here are a few tips to help things go smoothly.

Trendy, but probably excessive for passing through the TSA inspection quickly (photo courtesy of

1) Carry as little as possible in as few bags as possible. The less you have to juggle, the better. This is not only good for you, but your fellow passengers. Remember the time that you got stuck behind the mother with two small kids and a baby and their collective belongings?

2) Wear slip-on shoes: learn from my example and wear loafers, slides, anything that you can push off one foot with the other foot or otherwise remove and put back on quickly. 

3) Avoid carrying or wearing anything that will flag security: watches with metal bands, excessive jewelery, large belt buckles, purses with chain straps, excessive piercings, sunglasses with metallic rims, lighters, large bottles of liquids, tweezers: all of these cause delays and annoyance (to you, security and to the people behind you waiting to go through the metal detector).     

Staying, calm, cool and collected gets everyone through security more quickly (photo courtesy of

4) Timing is everything. Arrive early so that you have plenty of time and are not stressed about missing your flight. Try to schedule your flight in the early morning, late at night or on the day of a holiday to avoid long lines and crowds (the airport is deserted on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, for example). 

5) Try to pick the line with the business travelers. Avoid the line with the once-a-year travelers, large families or obvious tourists. Stick with the "been there, done that" crowd; the line will move much more efficiently. 

6) Stay calm: it's just a few minutes out of your life and soon you can board your plane and be on your way. The worst thing that you can do is stress out; you will make yourself and everyone else miserable. Let it go.             

Let us know about your experiences going through airport security. We'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Native North American Harvest Feasts

A traditional Native American harvest festival dish, succotash (photo courtesy of

Often when celebrating Thanksgiving in the US and Canada, we forget that it was not the first holiday of its kind in the Americas, far from it. Anthropologists believe that similar harvest festivals in the Americas existed for more than 12,000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene. Throughout North, Central and South America, various indigenous tribes could (and still do) party with the best of them, celebrating not only the end of the months of grueling agricultural labor, but also the bounties that were reaped and could be stored away for the winter months. Corn, squash and beans, the holy trinity of crops known as The Three Sisters, are the center of most feasts. Native American/First Nation festivals such as the Green Corn Festival, Cheno i-equa and Nowatequa occur during the full moon (usually the August or September full or "harvest" moon) and mark when the corn or other crop is ready to be harvested. These holidays are still widely celebrated in Native American communities, not only to show respect for and to preserve ancestral heritage, but to express gratitude for family, friends and good fortune throughout the year. November is American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month and the perfect time to highlight the original harvest festivals and thanksgivings of North America.

Dancer at the Green Corn Festival, Piscataway Conoy Tribe, Maryland, USA (photo courtesy of

Green Corn Festival: celebrated by many tribes including the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, Piscataway, Natchez and Iroquois, the Green Corn Festival is held during a full moon in the late summer or early fall when the corn crop has ripened and is ready to be harvested. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, "Green Corn" refers to ripe or sweet corn. The holiday is also a time of cleansing and forgiveness, beginning with a period of fasting and cleaning known as Busk. After the cleansing period is finished and the harvest is in, the feasting can begin. Traditional dishes served are succotash (a mixture of corn, squash and beans), boiled or fried corn bread, sweet potatoes, corn soup and chicken with corn.     

Nowatequa: also known as the Harvest Festival, is celebrated by the Cherokee and is held in October. This festival also begins with a fasting period, normally up to seven days, and focuses on giving thanks to Unethlana, the apportioner. The full moon, known as Duninudi, is represented by Kana'ti "The Lucky Hunter", a helper of  Unethlana. Traditional Cherokee foods include ramps (wild leeks), bean bread, chestnut bread, wild greens, fry bread (originally fried in bear, beaver or groundhog fat and topped with wild honey) and roasted corn.

Cherokee Fry Bread (photo courtesy of

Ochpaniztli: in Mexico, the Aztecs celebrated a harvest festival known as Ochpaniztli, or Sweeping of the Roads, representing a time of cleaning and rebirth. It was celebrated in the 11th month of the Aztec calendar known as the Xiuhpohualli (roughly the first three weeks of September) and marked the beginning of the corn harvest. This was a very female-centered celebration: women conducted the opening ceremonies, engaged in mock battles, and the goddesses, Teteo Innan the Mother Goddess and Toci, the Grandmother, were honored. The festival did have its dark side, involving human sacrifice, flaying, wearing of human skins and mock warfare, but death to the Aztecs was not a morbid affair; it simply represented one part of the continuous cycle of the universe: birth, life, death and rebirth, so was thought to be joyous and a necessary part of the celebration and thanksgiving. Festivals goers could partake of parched maize kernels, tortillas, beans and squash, but also fish and shellfish such as crab and freshwater fish and 30 different types of birds, including duck, pheasant, partridge, turkey and geese. The Aztec farming system was sophisticated and complex, involving irrigation canals, dams, aqueducts and gates. The Aztec also widely cultivated experimental and personal gardens, producing a wide variety of exotic produce and herbs.  

A typical Aztec farming system incorporating chinampas, small rectangular floating plots of land (image courtesy of

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to Get Up Close and Personal with Animals When Traveling

One of the wild pig population of Big Major Spot Island, Bahamas (photo courtesy of

Had enough of the tired, old "swimming with the dolphins" routine? Can't deal with one more ride on a burro down the Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail? Been there, done that, bestially speaking? Not to worry...there are plenty more animals afoot at vacation spots around the world. From pigs to deer to penguins, you can have an up close and personal cross-species experience on your next trip.

Pigs in the Bahamas: Big Major Spot Island is the place to be for human to pig interaction. The aptly named Pig Beach hosts a family of wild pigs, who have lived there for generations. Just like porcine beach bums, the amiable pigs lounge on the beach, swim in the surf and subsist on wild plants and roots and food donations from tourists. Just don't offer your BLT...

Long-Tailed Macaque in a pensive mood, Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali (photo courtesy of  

Monkeys in Bali: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali is home to approximately 340 wild monkeys known as Long-Tailed Macaques, and one of the best places to come face to face with a Balinese monkey. The monkeys are accustomed to visitors and have lived happily near human communities for years. The dual nature of monkeys (fun-loving but mischievous) is revered in Hinduism, the principal religion of Bali, and so the monkeys are respected and cared for by locals and tourists alike. Remember that these are still wild animals, though, and can be unpredictable. Guard your personal belongings, such as bags, wallets, cameras, hats and sunglasses...the monkeys love shiny, colorful things and are adept at pickpocketing.

Tame Deer in Nara, Japan:  in the former capital city of Japan, Nara, more than 1,200 tame Sika deer roam the streets, enjoying free run in the forests, parks (especially Nara Park), the stores, and even the temples. You can buy Deer Cookies (shika sembei) from the many deer food vendors and the deer will eat directly from your hand. The deer are considered sacred and divine (until 1637, killing a sacred deer was punishable by death), and are officially protected as National Treasures.

Simone feeding the Sacred Deer of Nara, Japan

Penguins in ChileLos Pinguinos Natural Monument on Magdalena Island, near Punta Arenas, Chile, is home to a huge colony of 60,000 families of Magellanic penguins. The island is the penguins' nesting and hunting ground, where sardines and squid, their principal source of food, is abundant. Human visitors to the island can get a close look at penguin life, as long as they don't touch or feed the birds. Photography, flora and fauna observation and sea-kayaking are allowed. The island and surrounding sea is also home to dozens of types of seabirds and sealife, including whales, dolphins, penguins, pumas, condors and guanacos.  

Magellanic Penguins on their way to their nests, Los Pinguinos Natural Monument, Punta Arenas, Chile (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York City Travel Tips, Part Nine

Luis on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum visiting Roxy Paine's sculpture, Maelstrom (photo by Simone Cannon) 

After spending the morning exploring the Cloisters, we dashed back downtown to grab lunch and visit the main branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd and 5th, my favorite museum in the world. I love the Met, not only for its extensive and varied art collection, but also for the way in which its curators display the permanent collection and exhibitions. The museum uses authentic backdrops and galleries whenever possible, recreating dark, old Spanish churches, light-filled atrium gardens complete with fountains or American Colonial-style multi-story homes to display the various periods of art. I have visited hundreds of times, but I still find something new and interesting that I hadn't noticed before. When taking visitors, I generally stick to a tried-and-true "highlights" tour, because as wonderful as the museum is, it is gigantic and someone unaccustomed to its size could become quickly overwhelmed.

The Arms and Armor Room at the Metropolitan Museum (photo by Luis Bastardo)

It was sunny and warm, so I took Luis first to the Roof Garden, which is always a good idea, because the garden can close at any minute due to inclement weather and it's best not to miss the window of opportunity. The exhibitions change every few months and when we were there, the artist Roxy Paine was displaying a huge, 130 foot x 45 foot stainless steel sculpture titled Maelstrom (storm). According to the Met website, this work "is based on systems such as vascular networks, tree roots, industrial piping, and fungal mycelia." After the roof garden, we visited the lovely, sunny New American Wing with its collection of Tiffany glass and fireplaces, and one of its galleries, Arms and Armor, a hugely popular display of over 14,000 pieces, including weapons, shields, helmets, armor, swords guns from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The collection is in excellent condition, as many of the pieces were created for decorative or ceremonial uses and were never put into action. The Samurai armor and swords are especially impressive, well-crafted and colorful.

The Temple of Dendur, The Sackler Wing, The Metropolitan (photo courtesy of

Our next stop was The Temple of Dendur, a reconstructed Egyptian temple built in about 15 BC to honor the goddess, Isis, and moved piece by piece to the museum in 1978. Next to the Sackler Wing that houses the temple are adjoining galleries with fascinating Egyptian mummies, gigantic sarcophagi, vases, masks and other artifacts dating back to 3900 BC. The museum houses incredible pieces from every era and every corner of the earth, from American Colonial furniture and clocks to ancient fertility amulets to intricately woven Tibetan rugs to European paintings and sculpture. Among the most impressive displays are the recreated Period Rooms filled with original furnishings, floors, windows and moldings from a particular era: The Baltimore Dining Room, 1810-11; The Frank Lloyd Wright Room, 1912-1914; The Bedroom from the Sagredo Palace, Venice, 1718; the gilded Versailles-style sitting rooms and bedrooms of The Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts. In other areas, parts of the original churches or gardens are used as a backdrop to display the art, such as the recreated Spanish medieval church style room that houses the gigantic choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladoid or the peaceful, skylit Chinese Garden Court that showcases Scholar's Rocks and a moon gate.

The Great Hall (main entrance) of the Metropolitan (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The Met, founded in 1870, is approximately 1/4 mile long and is about 2 million square feet in area, displays hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, and hosts about 5 million visitors a year, so try to plan on visiting the museum early or late or over several shorter visits to avoid fatigue. The admission prices are suggestions, so you may pay what you can afford. Also, the museum offers memberships for locals and tourists, so there are many options available to save money and to help support one of the most incredible museums in the world. Whatever option you choose, make at least one visit to see the highlights; you won't be sorry. And wear comfortable shoes.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Ten Favorite Travel Quotes: Inspiration for World Philosophy Day

Simone and some Japanese students contemplating Hello Kitty's place in Zen philosophy at the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden in Kyoto, Japan

Today is UNESCO's World Philosophy Day, the perfect time to share my favorite travel quotes. Sometimes travel can be really hard. You spend hours traipsing around a hilltop town trying to find a temple that apparently doesn't exist, the hostel has lost your reservation, the ferry no longer goes to the island that you want to visit, your feet are swollen and blistered, if you eat one more empanada, you're going to commit hari-kari, the waiter doesn't understand a thing you say, it's been raining non-stop for a week and you just want to go home. At times like that, a little travel inspiration can go a long way (as can a tall, strong, icy cocktail) in making things right, or at least less painful, with the world. Here's what I like to think about when I'm ready to throw in the travel towel:  

Luis watching the sunset, no doubt engrossed in deep, philosophical thoughts or possibly wondering when Happy Hour starts in Canada: Dease Lake, BC (photo by Simone Cannon)   

 “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

I'm fairly sure that when I'm old and withered and sitting in a nursing home, I'm not going to be reminiscing about the wonderful episode of American Idol that I saw one Saturday night. I'm guessing that my memories will probably be more along the lines of what it felt like to see Machu Picchu for the first time as the dawn was breaking over the mountains or the sounds and smells of climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Angkor Wat.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” J. R. R. Tolkien

I read Lord of the Rings three times...all three books. They made me want to hit the trail every time I read them.

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” James Michener

If you're going to travel, travel. Just like love, enter it with abandon or not at all.

 Luis hiking up the Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

"Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys." Richard R. Niebuhr

If you think that you're not the creative type, maybe you're wrong. Perhaps your art is to travel, to make connections, to learn about the world and its people and to share your stories and photos with others so that they can learn by extension. Perhaps it's your gift.

"My country is the world and my religion is to do good." Thomas Paine

Be a citizen of the world, keep an open mind, perform random acts of kindness, accept the generosity of strangers, try to understand other belief systems, support peace, learn as much as you can and you can't go wrong.

"Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware." Martin Buber

You can never know where a trip or path will take you, so keep your eyes open to the possibilities. If you have your whole trip planned out ahead of time, you will never experience serendipity or the joy of discovery. Some of the best moments of traveling for me have been unplanned and sometime the results of things going wrong. Take the road less traveled.

Arriving at the mountain town of Iruya, Argentina via high altitude hairpin turns on the chicken bus (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

"Life is always either a tightrope or a featherbed. Give me the tightrope." Edith Wharton
Take a chance. Don't always take the path of least resistance. Push your comfort zones. Experience life; you'll never have another chance.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Mark Twain
Call me optimistic, but I believe that if more people traveled, there would be a lot more empathy, understanding and fewer stereotypes. People are the same the world over. The extremists grab the headlines, but the vast majority of people just go about their lives, living quietly, trying to get by and squeezing in a little happiness whenever they can.

Ballroom dancing in the park, Beijing, China (photo by Simone Cannon)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thanksgiving and Other Harvest Festivals Around the World

A selection of autumn squash, Toronto, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November and in Canada on the second Monday in October, each holiday originally celebrating plentiful harvests. In the case of the US, the holiday commemorates a harvest shared by European settlers and Native Americans in 1621, although the day wasn't recognized as an official holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln designated it as such. In Canada, Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a harvest festival in 1578 by explorer Martin Frobisher, but wasn't officially recognized until 1957. Many countries around the world also celebrate a version of Thanksgiving, not only to mark the end of the harvest, but to show gratitude to their communities, to nature, to their ancestors and deities, and for all the hard work throughout the year dedicated to planting, growing, tending to and gathering the crops.
Homowo Harvest Celebration in Ghana (photo courtesy of

In the US and Canada, the day is subdued, with the focus on family and friend get-togethers, with a large meal that includes such traditional foods as roast turkey, bread or corn stuffing, mashed potatoes and root vegetables, green beans, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, followed by a walk or football-watching. In other countries, the holiday is typically more festive or more religious, and may include music, dance, local parades, costumes and meals centered around locally produced fruits, vegetables and grains. 

Africa: harvest celebrations generally center on grains or sweet potatoes (yams) and involve several days of parties, dancing, ceremonies and meals. In August, residents of West Africa celebrate the Yam Festival, to give thanks for a bumper crop of yams. In other African areas, harvest festivals are often remembrances of the end of famines or long migrations, such as the Ghanaian Homowo Festival (also known as the Hunger Hooting Festival). Foods like yams, fish, ko (similar to grits, but made with palm oil) and palm nut soup are part of the festivities.

Floating, brightly lit lanterns celebrate the Harvest Moon Festival in Hong Kong (photo courtesy of

China: the ancient holiday known as Zhong Qiu Jie (Harvest Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival) is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, when the moon is considered to be at its fullest and brightest. This is thought to be the ideal time to start, renew or strengthen friendships and romantic relationships. Family and friends come together to revel in a spirit of completeness and abundance with parties and family gatherings decorated with brightly colored lanterns.The traditional food served is the Moon Cake, a sweet yellow cake traditionally filled with lotus seed paste, but now filled with everything from nuts and dried fruits to Chinese style sausages and egg yolks. Other traditional foods are naturally red or colored red for good luck and may include lobster, salmon, pomegranates, peanuts and fatt koh (sweet steamed rice cake).

A Kolache pastry commonly eaten during the Czech harvest festival, Posviceni (photo courtesy of

Czech Republic: Czechs celebrate two ancient festivals known as Posviceni and Obzinky, both held at the end of the harvest. The wheat, corn and rye sheaves from the harvest are considered especially lucky, with curative and fertility powers, and are often woven into wreaths with wildflowers to be given to new new mothers or brides and grooms. After the post-harvest ceremonies, the harvest feast, called Obzinky Oldomas, is prepared and served and includes foods such as sauerkraut, roast pig or goose, and prune-filled pastries called kolaches.  

Barbados: this Caribbean island definitely has the most descriptive, simple and least confusing name for its harvest festival. It comes right to the point: Crop Over. Parties, cane-cutting contests, dancing, parades and concerts are widespread. Festival goers enjoy foods such as roti (a kind of Bajan burrito), flying fish, cutters (rolls stuffed with meat or cheese, coconut bread and desserts, cou-cou (cornmeal and okra pudding) and of course, lots of rum punch!

Crop Over Festival celebrations, Barbados (photo courtesy of