Friday, October 29, 2010

The Dalai Lama and Central Park: New York Travel Tips

Tibetans waiting for the Dalai Lama at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Manhattan (photo by Luis Bastardo)

My favorite place by far in New York City is Central Park. It's an amazing place every day and in every season, an oasis of calm and sanity in a sometimes chaotic and overwhelming city. Sunday is the best day to visit, especially for your first time, when the 843 acre park is full of life: locals and tourists walking, sunbathing, playing baseball, soccer and Frisbee, picnicking, bird watching, horse riding and people watching. Performers and vendors are in every part of the park, selling hot dogs and watercolor paintings, performing hip hop and roller-blading routines, singing, miming and making giant soap bubbles and balloon animals for the kids. We woke to a beautiful, warm and sunny Sunday in October so off we went to the park.

The Dalai Lama arriving at the Waldorf (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

On the way, we got sidetracked by couple of interesting looking street fairs and found ourselves in front of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Luis was interested in seeing the interior, so we decided to take a detour and pop inside. In the lobby, there were dozens of people dressed in Tibetan clothing, apparently waiting for something or someone. I asked one of the women next to me what was happening and she told me that they were awaiting for the arrival of the Dalai Lama in half an hour. "The Dalai Lama?", I sputtered, flabbergasted, and ran off to tell Luis. "Do you want to wait?" I asked him. He looked at me as if I'd gone temporarily insane. "Seriously? Um...hmmm, let's see...YES!" You just never know what awaits you around the next corner in New York City.

Luis receiving his blessing from a Buddhist monk (photo by Simone Cannon)

So we stood on the sidewalk in our conspicuous, non-Tibetan Nike and Adidas clothes with the Tibetans, waiting. About an hour later, several sun-glassed, dark-suited security agents arrived, quickly scanning the area and talking into headsets (the Dalai Lama is constantly receiving death threats) followed by three long black limousines. Out of the middle car, jumped the Dalai Lama himself, as always happily smiling and energetic, blessing and greeting the crowd. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist world, and is believed by his followers to be the reincarnation of a long line of Tulkus or high priests, beginning in 1391 with the birth of the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has been in power since 1950, but is in exile due to threats by the Chinese government. It is a great honor to meet the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan Buddhists wait their entire lives for the touch of the Dalai Lama on their head as the ultimate blessing. Although we didn't get blessed by him, later, Buddhist monks poured liquid into our cupped hands and onto our heads as a blessing for safe travel.

A fellow New Yorker off to enjoy a day in the park (photo by Luis Bastardo)

After the excitement of seeing the Dalai Lama, we resumed our trip to the park, first stopping by The Plaza Hotel to get a look at another luxurious lobby. The park was full of people, skateboarding, strolling and taking wedding photos. Near Bethesda Terrace, we watched a group of hip-hop performers demonstrate amazing aerial and balance feats, then wandered over to the rollerbladers and skateboarders to watch their tricks. Luis was in his glory, photographically speaking, and ran around the park, snapping hundreds of pictures. Central Park, designed by  Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux first opened in 1857, originally encompassing 770 acres, but was later expanded to 843. The terrain was rocky, hilly and swampy and had to be extensively landscaped. The land was also home to 1,600 working poor, who were evicted under the laws of eminent domain to make way for park construction. Although the park went into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, it was revived when maintenance responsibility was  assumed by the privately funded Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980 by Elizabeth (Betsy) Barlow Rogers. The Conservancy estimates that the the park currently receives 35 million local and international visitors a year, up from 13 million people in 1973.   

Hip-hop performers show their stuff in Central Park (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Travel News and Alerts: Indonesian Tsunami Victims Continue Struggle

Vicitms navigate the flood waters in Tangerang, Banten (photo courtesy of

The New York Times reports that Indonesians are struggling to recover after a devastating tsunami and numerous volcanic eruptions that followed. In the October 28th story, the paper states the current death count is at least 340, with displaced individuals estimated at 16,000. On the island of Java, aid workers are attempting to provide victims with food, water and medical supplies. The Jakarta Post reported today that aid "in the form of supplies and donations" has been flowing into the country. The European Commission and the Australian government have been two of the biggest contributors. To donate funds or otherwise help victims, a good resource is's Donor Guide to Global Emrencies.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Top Ten Things I Can't Travel Without

Loaded up like pack mules on the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru

I can do without a lot of things when I travel, but books aren't one of them. I am a librioholic (is that a word?). Ever since I could hold a book, I've been addicted to them. I used to carry dozens around with me when I traveled, buying whatever I could wherever I found it, since interesting English language books (i.e. not romances or cheap spy novels) are few and far between when traveling, especially in non-English speaking, developing countries. I was desperate to refill my stash; my worst nightmare was (and still is) being stuck somewhere without something to read. Like some kind of wild-eyed book junkie, I scoured the shelves of hostels and used book stores and traded with other travelers every chance I got. The godsend came in the form of the e-book, a marvelous little device that can store hundreds of books, travel guides, Word and .pdf files and library books. Now I can happily relax on long plane and bus trips and extended layovers; my e-book is at the ready. And hopefully, I remembered to charge it...

Always reading a cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Here are my Top Ten "Can't Live Without" Travel Items:

1) EReader: I actually have two of these: a Sony Reader and a Kindle (a gift from a dear friend). They each have their attributes so I use them both. The Sony allows for the download of library books, which saves me the hundreds of dollars that my addiction would have normally cost me, and is easy to navigate. The Amazon Kindle still doesn't allow library downloads, stating DRM issues (strange how all the other electronic device companies have resolved those), but is lighter, sleeker and has Internet access, including the ability to download samples of books. If you don't have/don't want to buy an EReader, you can also load Ebooks onto a laptop (as well as photos and music). See fellow travel blogger Sofia's great tips on how to travel with a laptop (and keep it working!) at As We Travel:

2) Ipod:  Another wonderful electronic space saver is my Ipod. I can carry my entire music collection, audio books, travel guides, podcasts and there is even room to store photos in a pinch. The Ipod is especially helpful on long overnight bus rides where it is difficult to read due to the lack of light and bumpiness of the ride. Also great for listening to relaxing or energy boosting music when I've reached the end of my travel rope and need some inspiring music.

Making full use of my eye mask, earplugs and travel pillow on the flight from Buenos Aires to New York (photo by Luis Bastardo)

3) Plastic Folding Laundry Hanger or Line: These come in many shapes and sizes, but are usually round, square or star-shaped plastic hanging frames with clothespins attached. Alternately, you could use a retractable or flexible laundry line with separate clothes pins. These are wonderful for air drying hand washed clothes, quick drying ponchos or caps, or keeping food in the trees and away from animals when camping.

4) Something Cozy: A windproof jacket, a favorite cashmere sweater, cushy socks: always useful, cozy and welcome, not just in the great outdoors, but on chilly bus or plane rides. These items have made me feel much, much better on many occasions.

5) Backup Batteries/Memory Cards: It never fails: the photo of a lifetime always coincides with my camera battery running out of juice or the last byte of space being used up on my memory card. Having extras available and handy has helped me snap that potential National Geographic Photo of the Year many times.

Luis taking our photo in a mirrored pyramid sculpture at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

6) Travel Meds: The top four that I never, ever travel without are Ambein (Zolpidem), Ciprofloxacin, Benodryl (antihistamine) and Anti-Diarrhea medicine. Not everyone likes to take sleep medication, but for me, Ambien has been a lifesaver. On long tedious flights, while jet lagged, if unable to sleep because of noise, heat or being in a strange and uncomfortable bed, Ambien has helped. I have also used melatonin, tilo and chamomile in capsule form or tea, but for me, Ambien is the most effective. Cipro is a potent antibiotic that kills everything, and I mean everything. I always try to use natural medicines first for stomach ailments, but if all else fails, Cipro will work. Be cautious about taking it too often though or it will also destroy the good bacteria that your stomach needs to function well. Benodryl is good to have in emergencies, such as in the case of injuries or insect bites, anytime that I need to reduce pain and swelling quickly. Anti-diarrheal speaks for itself. I always make sure that I have at least two tablets in my daypack, since diarrhea has a nasty way of hitting you (no pun intended) when you least expect or want it (e.g. long bus rides with no working toilets).

7) An Eyemask and Earplugs: Speaking of sleep, these lightweight inexpensive little items have both saved my sanity. On South American overnight buses especially, where other passengers are texted and called through the night at increasingly elevated ring volume (South Americans don't seem keen on the "vibrate" option), or in noisy hostels filled with partying guests, they have prevented me from committing aggravated assault or worse on fellow travelers.

8) Neck Pillow: I have tried several types of these and finally settled on a microfiber, foam pellet-filled pillow that I bought in El Tigre, Argentina. It is light, comfortable, washable, dries quickly and can be squashed into a backpack easily. Others I've tried, but didn't care for, are a fuzzy but heavier pillow that I bought at an airport shop (bulky and took a long time to dry) and an inflatable pillow which always managed to spring a leak when I needed it the most.

On the beach in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil with my sarong/beach blanket (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

9) Lightweight Rain Poncho:  Much better than carting around an umbrella or a heavy rain jacket and will cover you entirely, including backpack, in case of a sudden downpour. Rain ponchos can be tucked into almost any pocket or small space, dry quickly and are incredibly useful when the weather changes quickly. Buy a higher end model, since the cheaper ones tend to rupture easily.

10) Sarong: This is the ultimate multi-purpose item. A sarong (or pareo) can be used as a skirt, a scarf (to cover up in places of worship or more formal buildings), a shawl (to keep warm on planes and buses), a tablecloth, a bathing suit coverup, a beach blanket, a tote and a sheet. I bought a bright yellow one and a purple one in Brazil and I'm still discovering uses for them.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How to Eat Like a Local When Traveling: Global Table Manners

Enjoying a traditional Chinese meal with fellow travelers, Beijing, China

Ever wonder why, when you're eating in a foreign restaurant while traveling, you feel like you're getting odd looks from other patrons? True, it could be your day-glo pink visor with "I Heart Las Vegas" printed in rhinestone letters. But it could also be your table manners. At home, you may be Emily Post incarnate, but dining etiquette varies widely throughout the world. Each country has its own strictly observed set of dining rules, but the good news is that, even though specific customs vary, the general theme throughout the world is the same: try not to infringe on the enjoyment of the dining experience of others. This is why, in North America for example, we try not to reach over the plates of others or brandish sharp utensils in the air, and avoid placing our elbows in each others' bowls of  linguine. Don't get too wound up in adhering perfectly to other culture's dining rules, though. Luckily for travelers, most countries have a "foreigner escape clause" as in, "Oh, poor thing, she can't help herself because she's a foreign tourist and doesn't know any better". In other words, no one really expects you to know and understand all of local custom. Most errors are forgivable and understandable and if you keep a good sense of humor, smile and try to be as polite as possible, all will be well. But wouldn't it be nice to show off your knowledge and respect of local culture and general sense of worldliness to local diners and enjoy a fantastic meal to boot?

The huge, colorful, tasty variety of freshly prepared Thai food, Bangkok, Thailand (photo courtesy of

Thailand: some of the best food in the world can be found in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, for example, offer unforgettable culinary experiences. Even the street food is colorful, fresh, spicy and amazing. Eating on the street in any country is, of course, much less formal than eating in restaurants, but don't let restaurants intimidate you. The Thai are friendly, laid back people and you will have little trouble ordering and eating. The Thais use a spoon as their main utensil, held in the right hand, using a fork held in the left hand to push the food onto the spoon; knives aren't used at the table. Don't put the food directly into your mouth using the fork (this is akin to using your knife to put food in your mouth in the West). Chopsticks are used if noodles are served, but this is a bow to China or Japan. Unlike in the West, you don't need to wait until everyone has received his or her food before you begin eating; you can begin as soon as you are served. If you have had enough to eat, try to leave a little food on your plate (except rice, which is considered wasteful to leave uneaten) or you will be served a second helping. The assumption is that, if you finish everything, you are still hungry. 

A typical Japanese meal, allowing a diner to pick and choose (

Japan: the style of Japanese food varies widely from sushi to the wildly popular myriad noodle dishes to omelets to very formal, multi course dinners. Chopsticks are used widely in Japan, so proper etiquette is important. Hold your chopsticks near the end, not near the middle or the tips. Don't rub your wooden chopsticks together before you start to remove splinters; this is considerd an insult as it implies that the chopsticks are of inferior quailty. Never wave your chopsticks over food while making a decision or point them at your fellow diners or restaurant staff (you wouldn't do this with your knife and fork in the West). Never stick chopsticks in food, especially rice, as this is a funeral custom. Once you have put your chopsticks in your mouth, use the opposite, blunt end to pick up food from a communal dish (again, you probably wouldn't use your own fork to take food from a shared dish). Sushi can be eaten with the hands or chopsticks (either is correct) and should be eaten in one bite. Never mix wasabi into your bowl of soy sauce, creating a grayish, sludgy mess. This is incredibly off putting to the Japanese and insulting to the sushi chef, who spends a great deal of time creating perfectly balanced flavors in each piece created. Think of preparing a delicious, perfectly grilled steak, only to have your guest mix ketchup, mustard and steak sauce in a bowl, and proceed to smear it over the top. Don't place a slice of ginger on top of a piece of sushi and eat it; ginger is meant to cleanse the palate between different-tasting items. Noodle soups don't usually come with a spoon, because the diner is expected to sip the soup, then eat the solids with chopsticks. By the way, it's perfectly acceptable, if not preferable, to slurp your noodle soup loudly. This one is a bit of a challenge for non-Asians, as it goes against everything we've been taught since childhood, but once you get into the habit, it's hard to stop.

A typical selection of Spanish tapas (photo courtesy of

Spain:  European countries tend to be similar in their table manners, but some (England, Germany, The Netherlands) are more subdued than others (Spain, Italy, Greece). The Spanish look upon a meal as a small celebration to enjoy the company of family or friends, as well as the food and drink. As in most of Europe, keep your hands above the table. This tends to be a problem for visitors from the less urban parts of the U.S. and Canada, who have been taught to keep hands, elbows and arms off the table. This practice is unnerving to most Europeans, so keep your hands where other diners can see them. In cities, do not use your bread to clean your plate or to dip into your soup (a caveat here: I've seen many rural Europeans use their bread for everything but cleaning off the tablecloth, so to be safe, follow the customs of your fellow local diners). Keep up your end of the conversation. As a guest, you are expected to contribute stories, jokes and generally to entertain and enjoy the company of your hosts. Tapas (small plates of appetizers) and jerez (sherry) go hand in hand in Spain and are a wonderful way to try different foods while traveling from bar to bar in true Spanish style. The Spanish tend to have one type of tapas (un plato) at one place with a particular type of sherry, then move to another bar for the next tapas plate and another type of sherry. In some tapas bars, the bartender serves you, in others, it's self-serve. Just observe what others are doing and follow along. Remember that mistakes are inevitable but can add to the fun and cultural experience of travel. Like I always say, if everything goes as planned when traveling, you haven't really traveled. And hey, look on the bright side: if you commit some horrendous breach of etiquette, irretrievably embarrassing both yourself and those dining with you, think of the fabulous travel stories you'll be able to tell your friends when you return home.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Alternative Lodging: Treehouses, Caves, Salt Hotels and More

A hammock camp, Angel Falls, Venezuela (photo by Simone Cannon)

The Hyatt, The Marriott, The Four Seasons...snooze. All fine hotels, but after enough trips, they all start to look and feel the same. In the new millennium, travelers want variety: something new, exciting and, in the best of circumstances, something eco-friendly. It's not necessary to go right to the more rustic options of hammocks or refugios. Enter alternative lodging: if you can imagine a concept, it exists. From underwater hotels, to hotels made entirely of salt or ice, to treehouses to capsule hotels. In almost every country in the world, there are creative, non-corporate places to drop your backpack. Here are some outstanding examples:

1) The Hotel Playa Blanca, Uyuni, Bolivia

If you truly want to feel like you are alone on the planet, stay at the Hotel Playa Blanca in Bolivia. This hotel, made almost entirely of salt, is situated in the middle of the vast salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia. It's name, meaning White Beach, does not refer to white sand or snow, but rather the seemingly endless 4,000 square mile salt desert in which it is situated. Everything in the structure of the hotel is made of salt: the walls, floors, roof, beds, chairs and tables. Even the mortar that holds the walls together is a mixture of water and salt. There are no roads to the hotel and no stores or other amenities nearby, just white plains as far as the eye can see. The only way to arrive at and leave the hotel is by 4x4, so make sure that you have everything you need before you arrive.

The Salt Hotel, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

2) Jules' Undersea Lodge, Key Largo, Florida, USA

This is the oldest of the underwater hotels and the most traditional. Jules' Undersea Lodge, located in Key Largo, in the U.S. Florida Keys, and named after Jules Verne, the hotel was first opened to the public in 1986. No worries if you are not a certified diver, the hotel offers a 3-hour accelerated scuba course. This is necessary, as the entrance to the hotel is underwater at a depth of seven meters (approx. 21 feet) and guests must dive through a lagoon filled with mangroves to arrive at their room. You won't have to live like a fish, though, as the rooms are cozy and comfortable and offer 42 inch portal windows for viewing sea life, TVs/DVDs, air conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen and hot water. Originally La Chalupa oceanic research laboratory, the hotel now serves as lodging for sealife as well as humans, as an artificial reef. According to Ian Koblick, owner and co-developer of the lodge, “Marine life is actually enhanced by the presence of an underwater structure...providing shelter and substrate for marine animals. And the flow of air to the Lodge constantly adds oxygen to the entire surrounding body of water, creating a symbiotic relationship between the technology of man and the beauty of nature.”

A guest watches a "merchef" deliver room service, Jules' Undersea Lodge, Key Largo, Florida (photo courtesy of

3) Kokopelli's Cave Bed and Breakfast, Farmington, New Mexico, USA 

Ever had a desire to sleep in a hotel located 70 feet below the surface of the earth? You're in luck. Kokopelli's Cave Bed and Breakfast, in Farmington, New Mexico, might be just the place. Located near the Mesa Verde National Monument, guests first travel down a remote dirt road, then down a hillside path, then a ladder to reach their room entrance on the cliff face. Once you get settled though, you can scramble to the top, where you have an unobstructed view of four states, all part of the Four Corners region, including six mountain ranges: the Shiprock, Carrizo, Ute, Chuska, La Plata and San Juan Mountains and a Navajo Indian reservation. Originally used as a geologist's home and office, the 1,650 square foot suite is carved from a 65-million year old sandstone formation that lies 280 feet above the La Plata River. Amenities include a fully functioning kitchen, washer and dryer, a waterfall-style shower and a flagstone hot tub.

The main room of Kokopelli's Cave, Farmington, New Mexico (photo courtesy of
4) Tranquil Resort Treehouse, Wayanad, Kerala, India

The Tranquil Resort Treehouse is located in the middle of a 400 acre active coffee and spice plantation, which dates from the 1800's and is still operating today, growing coffee, pepper, cardamom and areca nut. Situated deep in the rainforest of Wayanad, India, the hotel is small, boasting just eight rooms and two treehouses. While more luxurious than typical treehouses, this option offers a unique experience to, literally, come nose-to nose with rainforest wildlife: bonnet monkeys, multi-colored bee-eaters, owls and butterflies are within reach of the treehouse verandas. Within a half hour's drive, the Muthanga Game Sanctuary provides a home to elephants, leopards, bison, bear, peacocks and tigers. The treehouses have king-size beds, full baths, verandas, and the trunk of a flowering full-grown Royal Poinciana tree growing right through the floor of the bedroom. The rooms are reached by stairs, a rope bridge and a water lift.

Tranquil Resort Treehouse, Wayanad, Kerala, India (photo courtesy of

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Empire State Building and The Statue of Liberty: New York Travel Tips

The Empire State Building, in October 2009, lit in blue and white for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ 125th Anniversary (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The evening after we visited Little Italy and Chinatown, Luis had the idea that it would be better to visit the Empire State Building at night to avoid the crowds and to get a spectacular view of the city and its lights. I'd only visited the ESB twice before, twenty years apart, once in the 70's and once in the 90's and never at night, so we made our way to 5th and 33rd. He was right: there were only about 20 other people visiting when we arrived and no line at all until we got to security. The last couple of times I visited (both times with out of town guests), the line had been practically out the door with at least two hours of waiting. This time, we flew through the roped lines, and arrived at the door to the elevator in only 15 minutes, arriving via the high speed elevator at the observation deck on the 80th floor less than a minute later. The night was crystal clear, no haze at all, and so we had an excellent view of the city laid out like a shimmering jewel box, filled with golden lights, the multi-colored pocket of neon lights of Times Square and the strings of white lights that adorn the city's bridges. It was an incredible view, like something created on a movie set. The winds were high, but it was worth visiting at night for the double benefit of avoiding the lines and crowds and to see a view that many people miss.

The spectacular view from the Empire State Building at night (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

 According to the ESB website, the Art Deco style Empire State Building was built in 1930 and was the highest building at its time at 103 floors and a height of 1,454 feet (443.2 meters). It was only overtaken in 1972 with the completion of the World Trade Center's North Tower. It took only a year and 45 days to build and, including the purchase of the land, cost $40,948,900 (about $5.2 billion in 2010 dollars), bringing the building in well under budget and ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the reduced prices of labor and materials brought on by the Great Depression. The building houses 6,500 windows and 73 elevators, including six freight elevators, operating at speeds from 600 to 1,000 feet per minute. More than 110 million people have visited the observations decks of the ESB since its construction (between 10,000 and 20,000 people visit every day). Luckily, very few of them were in attendance on the night we visited.

An early morning view of The Statue of Liberty from our boat (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Inspired by our success at the ESB, Luis had a similar idea to visit the Statue of Liberty very early in the morning before the mobs of tourists arrived; another stroke of genius as it turned out. We looked up the schedule for the ferry service out to Liberty Island and Ellis Island and found that the earliest ferry departed at 8:30am, so we got up early, and took the 1 subway train to the South Ferry Station and were the first to arrive at Battery Park. We had intended to buy crown tickets so we could climb all the way to the top, but forgot all about them when we became engrossed in conversation with another couple who had arrived right after us. The ferries travel first to Liberty Island and then to Ellis Island, and in my past experience, are so packed with hot and grumpy tourists that it seems to be a masochistic attempt on the part of the National Park Service to recreate the original "Ellis Island Experience". This time, though, there were only about 30 passengers on the boat: us, the other couple and a group of Norwegian tourists.  

The main processing hall for immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We stopped at Liberty Island to visit the Statue of Liberty, first perusing its interesting museum, followed by an easy stair climb to the first level observation deck (we'd have to visit the crown next time). A gift from France in 1886, the copper statue stands at 151 feet (46 meters) and weighs 450,000 lbs (204 metric tons). The statue receives about four million visitors each year. After September 11, the interior of the statue was not open to visitors, but it has since reopened, and the views from the crown and observation deck of lower Manhattan are spectacular.

Ellis Island is the second ferry stop, and well worth visiting. Although many tourists opt to only visit Liberty Island, in many ways Ellis Island is much more interesting, as it was the first stop for over 12 million immigrants arriving in the United States from 1892 to 1954. There is an excellent museum housing immigrant belongings donated by their families, original graffiti preserved on the waiting room walls and renovated dorms, clinics and the main processing area, where immigrants would wait to hear whether they would be allowed into the United States or would have to return via an arduous sea journey to their home countries. Although only 2% of immigrants were rejected for reasons of illness or lack of financial support or skills, many immigrants sat nervously for hours worrying about their fate. It is possible to search records free of charge to look through the manifests of arriving and processed immigrants and, to my surprise, members of both our families had indeed arrived at the island. For those interested in U.S. or New York City history, or tracing their family's roots, Ellis Island is a treasure trove of information.

 Original luggage brought in by immigrants, donated by their families to the museum, Ellis Island (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Travel News and Alerts: The Devalued U.S. Dollar: Where to Travel

Monks entering a temple, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported on the falling value of the U.S. dollar in their story, As Dollar’s Value Falls, Currency Conflicts Rise. The attempts by the U.S. Federal Reserve to stabilize the U.S. economy are having serious repercussions on the global economy as countries such as those in Southeast Asia have scrambled to devalue their own currency.

According to the article, "In recent weeks, central banks around the globe, including those of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan, have intervened furiously in foreign exchange markets in hopes of weakening their own currencies...A stronger United States economy is in everyone’s interest, but (the foreign central banks) fear that investors will flee America’s low interest rates and declining dollar and instead pour capital into their markets, overheating their economies and creating the types of asset bubbles in stocks and housing that burst with such devastating effects in the 1990s."

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon)

What does this mean for travelers? Expensive destinations such as Europe and Japan, countries with strong currencies, will be even more expensive since there is no need for their central banks to offset the effects of the declining dollar. This is especially bad news for Europe, already the subject of a travel alert from the U.S. State Department. There could be a silver lining, however, if in the face of declining tourism, European hotels and travel agencies create incentives, such as bargain travel packages, to lure U.S. tourists back to the region.

Bargains can still be had by traveling within the U.S., especially to traditionally expensive places like Hawaii or Puerto Rico, or by heading to countries where the dollar still has significant value, for example, Argentina, Bolivia, Cambodia, Laos, India and Bosnia. If you are willing to give up some of your independence, package tours can be an inexpensive option. Companies such as Overseas Adventure Travel, while geared toward older travelers, offers tours of excellent value, including airfare, to people of all ages, as well as last minute travel deals.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Debunking Travel Fears, Part Two

Relax and enjoy traveling: sharing a laugh and mehndi with some new friends, the Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Last week, I wrote the first part of my post about conquering the Top Ten most common travel fears and getting out into the world. This week, I am continuing to (hopefully) mitigate more fears and inspire more potential globetrotters. The short life that we all have is a wonderful gift and traveling is an incredible opportunity to make the most of that gift. Until very recently, it was much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive for the average citizen to travel, either domestically or globally, but with today's technology and the much more affordable cost of travel, it is within the reach of almost everyone. Women and minorities, for example, are able to travel freely today and with little hassle in most countries, an unheard of endeavor only a few short years ago. The Internet, the telephone, GPS, electronic books and language translators, Ipods and Ipads, rolling suitcases, backpacks and clothing made from lightweight, wrinkle-free microfibers have all made traveling almost foolproof.

An average, peaceful summer day relaxing on the dock, Salzburg, Austria (photo by Simone Cannon) 

4) The Media Says It's Not Safe to Travel

Today the biggest obstacle to travel, by far, is fear. U.S. citizens in particular are inundated daily by frightening TV news reports, chilling magazine and newspaper articles, and best-selling books whose premise seems to be "Be afraid, be very afraid". No wonder people are scared out of their wits. Media is big business and highly competitive; sensationalist stories draw big audiences who keep coming back. The truth is that, as fellow travel blogger Gary Arndt of Everything, Everywhere put it in his excellent guest blog for the Huffington Post, "the media lies" and "the world is a boring". The rarity of those frightening stories is what makes them news. Many more people die each year from heart disease, household accidents, road accidents, cancer and domestic violence each year in the U.S. alone than combined travelers' incidents in the entire world, but we seldom see these individual stories on TV because they are so commonplace. They don't make exciting news. A couple of years ago when I was visiting Caracas, Venezuela, there were a series of student protests organized against the policies of the president, Hugo Chavez. Although the protests were peaceful for the most part, Chavez's police force moved in aggressively, arresting students at random. I was staying with my husband's family in a residential part of the city, far from the action, but my family members in the U.S. and Canada were extremely nervous about my safety. When I saw the photos on the Internet, I understood why. Although the protests had been confined to a relatively small number of students and a few square blocks of the capital, the stories reported by the international press and the accompanying photos made it seem as if the whole city was under a Beirut-like siege, when in fact, the vast majority of citizens were going about their business as usual.

Carry a phrase book in Japan: a temple and lake nestled into the wooded hills of Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

5) It's Impossible to Communicate with People from Other Countries

English is the second most widely spoken language in the world, with 480 million native speakers (Chinese Mandarin is first with 1.12 billion speakers). English is also the universally acknowledged language of business, technology, aviation, tourism and global communications. Most Europeans, especially in large cities, are fluent in English. In other areas of the world that don't include many English speaking countries, such as Asia and South America, there are still large numbers of locals, especially in cities and heavily visited tourist sites such as Machu Picchu and The Great Wall of China, that are fluent in English or at least proficient enough to communicate with English speaking visitors. The odd exception is Japan, one of the most highly industrial and technologically advanced counties in the world, where very few people speak English. However, the Japanese are also exceptionally polite and helpful and will go out of their way to understand you. In rural areas everywhere, there will generally be only a handful of English speakers, but people tend to be friendly and helpful and will make every effort to understand visitors. It's useful for a traveler to carry a phrase book and to learn some basic words in the local language such as please, thank you, excuse me, "may I have...", "I need..." and "how much". When venturing out to sightsee, always take a card with the name of the destination and the name and address of your hotel written in the local language to show the bus or taxi drivers. Even though is it occasionally challenging, some of the most fun I've had while traveling is trying to make myself understood. Trying to pronounce the local language and communicate what I need, often quickly devolves into a hilarious impromptu game of charades, with everyone greatly enjoying themselves, especially the locals. And think of what a great story you will have when you return home.

No altitude sickness here: two tiny Peruvians share a snack, Colca Canyon, Arequipa, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

6) There's a High Probability of Being Sick or Injured When Traveling
The most common illness by far when traveling is motion sickness, brought on by a discordance between what we see and what our brain is telling us is happening. If a traveler is stuck inside a cabin in a violently moving ship, for example, the inner ear feels the movement but the eyes see that all is calm. The brain, not knowing which input to believe, responds by erring on the side of caution, believing that the body may be under the influence of toxins and induces vomiting. This condition can be avoided or treated by staying above deck or by taking one of the many anti-motion sickness medications available, including a nausea-preventing patch. When traveling in industrialized cities, it is highly unlikely that a traveler will encounter serious illnesses, but in developing countries and rural areas, health threats may include digestive problems brought on by unclean water or food, conditions such as dengue which is transmitted through a mosquito bite, more prevalent in low altitude, humid areas, and sunstroke and altitude sickness in mountainous areas. Although generally not serious conditions for reasonably healthy people, they can cut into the enjoyment of traveling, but luckily are, for the most part, easily preventable. When eating and drinking, stick to bottled or boiled water, fruits and vegetables that can be peeled and use your best judgment when accessing the cleanliness of an eating establishment.

Deer have their own language barriers: domesticated sacred deer wander freely through the streets and shops of Nara, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

Always wear a hat, use sunscreen and mosquito repellent and, in high altitude areas, move slowly, drinking lots of fluids, until you become accustomed to the altitude, usually 1-2 days. Most medication to treat these conditions can be bought over-the-counter and cheaply locally, but it is handy to carry a little first aid kit with band-aids, anti-altitude sickness tablets, an antibiotic such as Cipro (ciprofloxacin)anti-diarrhea pills, an antihistamine such as Benadryl , aspirin, antibacterial cream and Pepto Bismol tablets, just in case. It's comforting to know that these medications are at hand when you're not feeling well in your hotel room at 4am in a strange city. If you are traveling in very poor, undeveloped, rural or thickly jungled areas, its best to be vaccinated against yellow fever and hepatitis. Check with the Center of Disease Control website for specific country requirements.  Having said all that, don't let the fear of getting ill prevent you from traveling. It's extremely unlikely that you will contract anything truly serious; most conditions are minor and short-lived, are easily preventable and many travelers are not affected at all.     
In high humidity areas, use mosquito repellent: Angel Falls (Salto Angel), Canaima National Park, Venezuela (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Wines of Argentina: Malbec and Beyond

A display shelf of Argentine wines, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Ah, all the wonderful reasons to visit Argentina: high quality of life, rich culture, complex history, organic grass-fed beef, tango, tasty empanadas, gauchos, and, oh yes...excellent, inexpensive wine and lots of it. When our friends visit us here in Buenos Aires, inevitably their first two questions are 1) Can you recommend a good Tango show? and 2) Where can we buy some good, typical Argentine red wines to take home with us? The red wines of Argentina are well-known and universally loved. Malbec, Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo and Bonarda are some of the most delicious, popular and affordable wines in the world, followed by the equally delicious but lesser know whites: Torrontés, Sauvignonasse, Semillon, Ugni Blanc and Viognier. They are reasonably priced everywhere, but even more of a bargain in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, for example, it is still possible to buy an average bottle of wine in a restaurant for the equivalent of US$6, a very good bottle for US$12 and an excellent bottle for US$20. In the supermarkets, the wines are even cheaper, with a bottle of table wine selling for US$3 and a top of the line bottle selling for US$14.      

Luis and friends enjoying an organic wine tasting at Bodega Nanni, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

Most of Argentine's wine region lies in the northwest region of the country, incorporating towns such as Mendoza, La Rioja, Salta and Cafayate (not to be confused with El Calafate, a town in Patagonia). Rio Negro, lying southwest of Buenos Aires also produces wonderful wines, but to a lesser extent than the northwest. Although Malbec is probably the best known wine, there is a growing business cultivating popular whites such as Torrontés. According to, "Argentina is currently the world's fifth largest wine producer by volume–after France, Italy, Spain and the USA in that order–a position it has held for many years." Vines were first planted in Mendoza over 400 years ago, and for much of that time, Argentina produced vin ordinaire, ordinary quality, high volume wines, but the industry is now in the process of shifting its focus to creating high quality premium wines and many boutique wineries are springing up. Organic wines are also gaining a strong presence, in line with the current Argentine preference for raising organic beef and produce.

Bottling table wine, Bodega Familia Cecchin, Mendoza, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

Although many other grapes have been successfully cultivated, the Malbec grape remains the cornerstone of the Argentine wine industry. Originally grown in France with limited success, it took off in the northwest part of Argentina, an agricultural zone with ideal growing conditions for the grape. Malbec, rich and full-bodied, with red fruit flavors such as plums, cherries, currants and raspberries, can be bottled as a pure varietal or blended with grapes such as the Bordeaux varieties or Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Tempranillo, another very popular grape in Argentina, a native of Northern Spain, produces lighter wines with flavors of strawberries, oak and red currants. The most popular white, Torrontés, resembles a Muscat or a Sauvignon Blanc with a spicy, floral flavor of peach, grapes and lychee. Lesser known wines such as the light and fruity Bonarda, a grape now more commonly found in Argentina than its native Italy, and Ugni Blanc, a crsip, light, citrusy, herbal wine, are also worth trying. 

Sampling Argentine wines in a cozy bodega, Cafayate, Argentina

Even if you're on a budget, wines can generally be sampled very cheaply and without the surcharges that wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Niagara, Bordeaux and other popular wine regions impose. Throughout the region, you will find a wide variety of bodegas (wine cellars or small wineries), large industrial wineries, family run restaurants and organic farms where you will be able to tour the facilities and sample wines of every kind of grape and every level of quality. When you have had enough of wine tasting (if that's possible), the non-wine diversions of Argentina's wine region are endless: high-mountain trekking and 4x4 tours, rafting, kayaking, sailing, paragliding, horseback riding, fishing, art galleries, museums, shops, excellent restaurants, Jesuit ruins, festivals and parks. But don't forget to pack some wine to go...and make sure you see that Tango show.  

A cork-filled glass table, Bodega Nanni, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Endangered UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Can They be Saved?

The Great Wall of ChinaSimatai, China (photo by Simone Cannon)

"Taking action for the World Heritage is above all a celebration of the Earth, its environment and centuries of man-made accomplishments. Each one of us can make a gesture for the preservation of this legacy for the benefit of all." - UNESCO World Heritage Website

 Last week, I wrote about the branch of the Untied Nations known as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the organization's list of World Heritage Sites. UNESCO's stated mission is "to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter." Part of that charter is to preserve natural, cultural and historic sites around the world in order for citizens of all countries to be able to visit, enjoy, and learn from them. Individually, many of these sites combine several elements of cultural heritage criteria. For example, Quebrada de Humahuaca, in Northern Argentina, not only represents the colorful and majestic beauty of the natural world, but also important historic architecture and significant South American cultural and artistic developments. Unfortunately, this stunningly beautiful area of Argentina is not immune to damage wrought by natural causes such as weather and erosion or those of human activities, such as careless tourism or vandalism. These irreplaceable sites represent multi-dimensional and direct links to our past and should be preserved at all costs.   

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Even though many of these UNESCO sites are not listed as officially endangered, they remain in constant peril. Unlike historical treasures protected within the walls of museums, many sites are under threat of natural erosion, acid rain, neglect, pollution, vandalism, violent political acts and warfare. The 2,000 year old Great Wall of China, for example, a World Heritage site, although not part of the UNESCO List in Danger, is constantly fighting off the effects of earthquakes, storms and natural aging, but also deliberate human acts such as the theft of bricks, soil and stones for use as building materials, large scale construction near the wall (highways, shopping complexes), tourist traffic and littering, and well-intentioned, but poorly executed wall repairs. Many parts of the wall have already collapsed or started to collapse, but the sheer length of the wall at 8,851.8 km (5,500.3 mi), including all its branches, makes it nearly impossible to protect and maintain without an enormous global community effort. The Florida Everglades, 1.5 million acres of wetlands and subtropical wilderness in the southern United States has been placed on the endangered list because of a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem, due to natural and human causes. According to UNESCO, "Water inflows have been reduced by up to 60 percent and nutrient pollution increased to the point where the site is showing significant signs of eutrophication, loss of marine habitat and a subsequent decline in marine species."

  Alligator closely watching a shorebird, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

"Universal enjoyment of heritage generates a global obligation of solidarity" - Marcio Barbosa, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO.

 Even though the preservation of important natural, cultural and historic sites seems challenging, there are plenty of things that private citizens and organizations can do to help. Monetary donations are the most direct way to support UNESCO and its projects, but you or your organization can also become a UNESCO partner, or join the UNESCO interning or volunteering programs. Even if you choose not to join UNESCO, you can practice sustainable tourism by respecting local culture and customs and not damaging sites or littering when visiting. It is important to continue to visit sites, even endangered ones (assuming that there is no immediate physical threat to visitors, such as warfare or violent crime), so as to contribute to the local economy and to draw attention to the constant need for repair and renovation.

The Taj Majal, Agra, India (World Heritage Site, Inscription 1983) (photo by Simone Cannon)

Also, many governments are much more likely to invest funds for security or to keep a site from falling into disrepair if they think that they are responsible for a popular tourist attraction, a surefire way for both locals and government to generate income. Local environmental activists can have a huge positive impact on cultural sites. Although still in danger, the Taj Majal, in Agra, India, has largely had the devastating effects of industrial and automobile pollution mitigated thanks in great part to the efforts of local activists' petitions, large-scale protests, and court cases in India's Supreme Court challenging urban development projects. Lastly, you can help by creating an awareness of the importance of preserving these invaluable sites by sharing news and links through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As quoted on UNESCO's World Heritage site, we can work together to "encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world's cultural and natural heritage" to preserve our world for ourselves and future generations. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chinatown and Little Italy: New York Travel Tips

Shop signs and advertising in Chinatown, New York City (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The day after we visited Brooklyn, we decided to visit Chinatown and Little Italy. A bit of a touristy choice, admittedly, but both areas are interesting and the food can be really good if you know where to eat. I also knew that there would be lots of photo ops for Luis, always a draw, as Luis likes nothing better than snapping away at anything that moves (or isn't moving, for that matter) for hours on end. We created our own custom walking tour of New York's Chinatown, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Chinese immigrants and home to the largest group of Chinese outside of Asia with approximately 100,000 residents. Our first stop was the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, bringing fruit as an offering to the Buddhist shrine and buying a couple of wishes/prayers at another shrine for good luck. We were able to wander around freely, visiting various shrines, the interior of the temple which houses the largest gold Buddha in the city at 16 feet tall, and the well-stocked gift shop; everything was decorated in tones of gold, red and yellow and every surface was covered in flowers, fruit, candles and incense. After leaving the temple, we wandered into a nearby park to watch groups of Chinese women appearing to be having the time of their lives, laughing, telling stories, smoking and betting on a card game called  Si Se Pai (Four Color Cards). They tried to teach Luis the rules of the game, but their explanations got lost in translation somewhere along the route from Mandarin to English to Spanish. 

    A group of Chinese women in Chinatown placing bets on a hand of Si Se Pai or Four Color Cards (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Instead of sitting in a restaurant for lunch, we decided to visit various bakeries, markets and cafeteria-style "food to go" places and so ended up tasting a dozen different Chinese specialties, creating a kind of portable smorgasbord: Char Siu Bao (steamed pork buns), lightly glazed almond cookies, mooncakes, dim sum dumplings, crispy scallion pancakes, crab cakes, fresh plum and lotus leaf teas and soup dumplings. For dessert, we headed to the nearby neighborhood of Little Italy to sample the different cheeses, coffee and cannolis. Although much of the original Little Italy has now been absorbed by Chinatown, several interesting blocks still remain to be explored. The neighborhood of Little Italy began to form around 1860, when the first Italians began to immigrate to New York, taking on real size in 1920, when 391,000 Italians lived in the city. At Dipalo's, we tried some delicious smoked buffalo mozzarella, then we sat at a sidewalk table at Caffe Napoli and drank strong Italian espressos while we watched an Italian wedding reception, then wandered into several bakeries to sample different flavored cannolis. Luckily, since we visited on a weekday in October, we were able to wander around without fighting too many crowds; neither neighborhood was packed with tourists, as they are at the height of tourist season.         

A busy street in Little Italy (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Now fortified (to say the least) by our double espressos and the three kilos of sugar coursing through our veins, we had no choice but to speedwalk up to Washington Square Park and Washington Mews, an 18th century cobbled street originally lined with stables, now converted to offices and residences used by New York University. The sun was setting by now but the park was still filled with musicians and performers, students (NYU campus borders the park), snack vendors and colorful characters of all kinds, including a man with tattoos and piercings on every exposed part of his body (and probably every unexposed part, better not to ask), several well-dressed Latino transvestites and a tough-looking man decked out in a leather motorcycle jacket with large eagle insignia, a motorcycle helmet, leather motorcycle boots and chaps, incongruously riding a two-speed bicycle seemingly tricked out for a 13-year old girl, complete with multi-colored handlebar tassels and pink metallic heart stickers. That's what I love about New York...what other city can offer Chinese dinner, Italian dessert and a free show, all within a few square blocks?    

Washington Square Arch at dusk (photo by Luis Bastardo)