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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Protecting our National Parks from Oil and Mining Exploitation

Visitors on a lookout at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (photo by Luis Bastardo)

This week's online issue of National Park Traveler features a story by  Kurt Repanshek entitled "Republicans On House Natural Resources Committee Planning Big Changes For Public Lands", which discusses how the GOP plans to continue efforts to dismantle environmental legislation protecting, among other precious resources, our national parks. Many of the representatives are backed and funded by corporate behemoths such as the petroleum, logging and mining industries, who have been pushing for years to open the land close to the parks, if not the parks themselves, to oil exploration and drilling, logging and strip mining. Even if the activities are not conducted directly on park land, the proximity would be nonetheless devastating to a park's ecological balance, wildlife, plant life, geological structures, clean water supplies and park visitors. Aside from the obvious danger of oil and other chemicals leaking into the soil and groundwater of parkland, the land formation itself would suffer extensive damage from the shock waves of industrial hammerings and continuous heavy truck traffic.

Luis shivering in front of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah (photo by Simone Cannon)

This is especially important in parks such as Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both part of Utah's canyon country. The parks contain highly fragile sandstone spires and structures, such as the famous Delicate Arch that appears on the state's licence plates and in most of its tourism literature, that could be easily damaged or destroyed by the profound and wide-ranging vibrations of ongoing heavy exploration and drilling. Animals, plants, rivers, lakes and waterfalls would all suffer significant damage that could take decades, if ever, to reverse. The tone of Repanshek's article is optimistic overall and it's true that many environmental groups are fighting hard to maintain and improve environmental protection laws. Groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the Audubon Society have been working with (and against) congress for years to help the protect the parks, regularly engaging the support of their many followers, with considerable success. Bloggers such as Dan Lashof and Alisa Opar keep readers informed of park and other environmental developments. According to Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund. “Americans want us to unleash our ingenuity to develop clean-energy alternatives while combating climate change. We look forward to working with the next Congress and the Obama administration. But those who seek to reverse 40 years of environmental progress will find us fighting for the American public who made it clear yesterday that they want clean air and clean water."

Big Horn sheep cross the road in Zion National Park, Utah (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The Bush administration continually pushed to develop oil drilling areas, many within only two miles of the borders of national parks. Leading the current plans to continue that destructive tradition are U.S. Representatives Doc Hastings, R-Washington, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Tragically, Hastings, who has received only a 2% lifetime score from the League of Conservation will chair the Natural Resources Committee. Both politicians have abysmal conservation records. According to Repanshek's article, "Rep. Hastings has a record of opposing national park initiatives beyond his state and striving to legislate management of the parks within his state...earlier this year, when oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was coming ashore at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Rep. Hastings criticized the Obama administration for its moratorium on off-shore drilling (and he) opposed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill of 2009 because it would block energy development on some public lands."  Bishop "has been a vocal opponent of environmental regulations... (he) opposed the National Landscape Conservation System, which would not create any new federally owned lands but rather 'conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes (within the existing BLM domain) that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations'"

The extremely fragile and beautiful rock formations at Bryce National Park, Utah (photo by Luis Bastardo)

One way to help is to contact your state representative and make your opinion known. The House of Representatives makes it simple with a web page that first identifies your representative and then allows you to submit comments directly from the site: Remember that, although many politicians are largely funded by corporations and industries, the truth is that their job is only as good as the results of the next election. Believe it or not, most polititicans do care deeply about their constituents opinions; their votes are, after all, their bread and butter. Speak up: join an environmental support groups such as The Audubon Society, The Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society; join local efforts to protect state and national parks and conservations areas; use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to make your feelings known about protecting our beautiful national lands. Most importantly, visit, explore and enjoy the parks regularly. Every little bit helps and together, we can keep our parks green, healthy and untouched by those who wish to destroy the protected natural sites of our beautiful country to line their own pockets.

Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park, California (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Cloisters, The Medeival Outpost of the Metropolitan Museum, New York City

A gallery doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean (ca 1250) in The Cloisters Art Museum (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When Luis and I arrived in New York, I decided to buy a CityPass, a book of discount tickets for various cities allowing cheap entrance to popular attractions and avoiding waiting in long lines. While it's true that, in New York at least, there are many free entrance days at the museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art allows you to pay whatever you can afford, the CityPass allows much more flexibility and includes other attractions such as a visit to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Empire State Building. You can visit museums on less crowded days and times (the free days are often packed to the rafters with locals, tourists and school groups on field trips, making it nearly impossible to move or even get close to the art) and the line to have your ticket validated is almost always much shorter than the line for those waiting to buy tickets. The only drawback is that one of the tickets is a Cloisters/Metropolitan combination, which means that you have to visit both museums on the same day, a significant challenge since they are at opposite ends of the city.

Sim and Luis in the Medieval Garden at the Cloisters  

The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the art of Medieval Europe, but is located in Fort Tryon Park at the far north end of Manhattan, requiring a combination subway/bus ride or just a bus ride of at least 45 minutes, often closer to an hour, from the main branch of the Metropolitan, located at 82nd and 5th. The bus drops off passengers directly at the entrance to The Cloisters. The best day to combine the two museums is either Friday or Saturday, when the main branch is open from 9:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m, allowing sufficient time to visit both and commute between them. The Cloisters closes at 4:45pm or 5:15pm, depending on the season, so visit that museum first, then make your way down to the main branch of the Metropolitan. Directions from the Cloisters website: By Subway/Bus, take the A train to 190th Street and exit the station by elevator. Walk north along Margaret Corbin Drive for approximately ten minutes or transfer to the M4 bus and ride north one stop. If you are coming from the Museum's Main Building, you may also take the M4 bus directly from Madison Avenue/83rd Street to the last stop.

Pietà, early 16th century, Burgundy, France, The Cloisters collection (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Luis and I decided to leave from our apartment early in the morning, combining the subway and bus and arrived just as the Cloisters museum was opening. The museum, a project of John D. Rockefeller, opened in 1938, houses about 3,000 works from Medieval Europe, dating from around the ninth to the sixteenth century. The building itself is an incredible work of art, composed of various elements of five different Medieval French cloisters (Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville) and numerous European monastic sites, including imported stained glass windows from a castle chapel in Ebreichsdorf, Austria, carved stone entrances, columns capitals, stairway enclosures and arcades from Spain and Italy. The Medieval gardens were reconstructed from monastic plans and include medicinal plants, fragrance gardens, fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and magical plants. The museum offers free guided tours at 3pm and gallery talks at various times to discuss the works of art and the gardens (including workshops on weaving, gardening, music and painting, as well as talks in Spanish and for families/children).

The Unicorn in Captivity, from the Unicorn Tapestry collection, The Cloisters (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The art collection includes the famously well-preserved collection of wall hangings woven from wool, silk, silver and gold threads, known as "The Unicorn Tapestries", as well as numerous, incredible examples of triptychs, retables, altarpieces, candelabras, paintings and sculptures. Allow plenty of time to view the collection, visit the gardens and take in the views of the Hudson River and surrounding green hills. This part of Manhattan is very different from the rest, with a peaceful, pastoral feeling more like the countryside than part of one of the busiest cities in the world. From the gardens and upper floor windows, there are amazing vistas of the Hudson River Valley, rock overhangs and outcroppings and the neighborhoods and historic buildings of the area. When you're finished enjoying the museum, you can stop for a snack at the museum cafe, then wait for the bus at the entrance to take you down to the main branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (make sure you keep your entrance ticket; it's good at both museums).   

View of the New Jersey Palisades from the gardens of the Cloisters, across the Hudson River (photo by Luis Bastardo)     

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Top Ten Ways to Travel Without Liquids

Simone getting "nail-buffed" in a mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo)

There are two ways to look at it: 1) the tasks of checking in, passing through security and boarding the plane are getting to be more of a challenge and an exercise in hair-pulling frustration every day or 2) that the seemingly daily tighter TSA restrictions imposed on travelers make us more efficient then ever: minimizing, paring down, getting back to basics, lightening the load. While acknowledging the real security threats of travel, I always have the paranoid sense that the airlines secretly got together to pull off a large-scale, ongoing practical joke to see how many fraternity hazing pranks they can pull on their passengers and still get away with it. Witness shoe removal, belt removal, watch removal, invasive futuristic body scans and the confiscation of highly dangerous substances like bottles of jasmine-scented body wash and eyebrow tweezers (I mean, really, has any jet ever been hijacked by terrorists threatening to perfume the pilots and shape their brows?). I'll bet airline security officials are all sitting behind two way glass partitions laughing their asses off as we strip down to our skivvies. Well, it's all good, because we have our own tricky ways and know how to outsmart them. Although the TSA allows a large Ziploc bag filled with mini versions of liquid cosmetics, these don't last long when traveling. The good news is that almost everything that comes in a liquid also comes in a solid, long-lasting version, or at least, a less liquidy version.

Old Jamaica Mint and Aloe Soap (photo courtesy of

1) Soap: I know this sounds basic, but instead of carting around leaky bottles of body wash, body gels, liquid cleansers and creams, get back to using the original, highly-efficient form of body cleanser: soap. It's solid, cheap, effective, efficient, portable, doesn't leak, smells good, lasts forever and you can buy it anywhere. You can also buy it in unscented forms or in every scent imaginable, with moisturizing ingredients such as plant oils, aloe or coconut, or with exfoliating ingredients such as pumice or loofah. You can carry a dozen bars of soap in different varieties in your carry-on or luggage and security will never confiscate them.

2) Nail Buffer: instead of numerous fragile bottles of nail polish, take a small lightweight nail buffer. They normally come with three sides: one for smoothing, one for polishing and one for buffing to a high shine. You can use it anywhere without the strong smell of nail polish offending your fellow passengers and your nails will always look great.

3) Nail Polish Remover Pads: leave the smelly bottle of nail polish remover at home and take two Ziploc bags (one inside the other) filled with cotton pads saturated with remover. Since this is not officially a bottle of liquid, it is unlikely that it will be confiscated and it is much less likely that there will be leakage in your carry-on.

Island Solid Perfume by Michael Kors (photo courtesy of

4) Solid Perfume: almost every perfume brand has a solid version, some in chunky pencils (Clinique Happy), some in sleek, cool-looking compacts (Marc Jacobs or Chanel). The bonus is that they are generally a better buy than liquid perfumes, more subtle, longer lasting and are easy to tuck into small bags or pockets.

5) Solid Deodorant: much lighter and easier to carry than sprays or roll-ons and there is much less waste. They also dry faster and leave fewer marks on clothing.

6) Sunscreen Sticks: several companies make solid sunscreen sticks for the face or the whole body (Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat). These are especially useful for children to use on their own, since they are easy to hold in small hands and are less wasteful than liquid or cream versions.

7) Solid or Wet Towelette Insect Repellent: much more convenient and portable than sprays or lotions and usually less smelly also. It is much easier to use towelettes or apply solid insect repellent without getting any in your eyes or ears and again, much easier for children to use. These can be purchased with DEET or without, with the standard preparation or in an organic formula. Off! even makes a clip-on version.

A variety of Lush solid shampoos (photo courtesy of and Valli Ravindran/

 8) Shampoo Bar: believe it or not, it is even possible to buy shampoo in a solid form.  Lush  makes several varieties including Henna, Mint, Coconut, Violet Leaf, Jasmine and Patchouli. Some of the formulas even include conditioners and detanglers.

9) Anti-Bacterial Wet Wipes: instead of carrying numerous bottles of liquid sanitizing gel, carry plastic, resealable packs of anti-bacterial wet towelettes such as Wet Ones. They are much more convenient, thorough, and can also be used for a million other things, such as cleaning faces and hands, wiping down telephones and toilet seats, express "bathing" when on camping and hiking trips, and removing spills and stains from clothing.

10) Wax Strips: instead of carrying sharp objects like razors or tweezers which may be confiscated by security agents, or liquid or cream depilatories, take a box of pre-waxed strips for hair removal. Brands such as Sally Hansen or Moom Express make strips that you warm in your hands and apply. Lightweight, tidy and convenient.

Hawaiian Tropic Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Stick (photo courtesy of

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Empanadas Around the World

Luis buying Sunday breakfast empanadas, Buenos Aires, Argentina (photo by Fernando Garcia) 

Almost every country in the world has some version of empanada or turnover: some kind of meat, poultry, fish, cheese, vegetable or combination thereof, wrapped up in a small packet of dough, bread, pastry or cornmeal. The word "empanada" comes from the Spanish "empanar", meaning "to wrap". This is an excellent food-to-go option for locals and travelers alike, as empanadas are inexpensive, convenient, un-messy, portable, filling and tasty. You don't need a knife, fork, spoon, chopsticks, plate or bowl; just a napkin or two will suffice. You can grab a quick, satisfying snack or meal without having to sit down in a restaurant or cafe for lunch, perfect for when you don't want to lose time sightseeing. Just buy, walk and eat. If you want to slow down, you can stand at a counter in the bakery and eat them where you bought them, soaking in the local atmosphere. Every region (in fact, every bakery, restaurant or cafe) has a different method of preparation and combination of fillings and tastes, so trying various local empanadas is a great way to sample a variety of local flavors. They are generally small, so you can try a few or many different types without committing to a larger meal. All in all, the perfect travel meal.

The Venezuelan version of empanadas: fried and encased in corn meal (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Argentina: in South America, there are generally two types of empanada: one made with wheat flour and fried or baked in dough with a crimped edge and the other made with cornmeal and usually fried in an envelope-style form. The Argentine variety, the crimped-edge type, is usually filled with carne molida (ground meat), carne cortada (sliced meat), pollo (chicken), jamon y queso (ham and cheese) or verdura (kale, spinach and/or other greens). They often contain other ingredients such as chopped hard-boiled egg, green olives, chopped garlic or onion and are also available in flavors such as roquefort, humita (hominy or creamy corn), brotola (forkbeard fish), atun (tuna) or even pulpo (octopus). At Easter, there is the Cuaresma (Lent) empanada (usually a fish mixture). Each flavor of empanada has a distinct shape, making it easy to distinguish which empanada contains which filling (once you learn the shapes...)

Venezuela: the fried cornmeal empanada is the most common in Venezuela. The fillings usually include meat, fish and queso blanco (a type of semi-hard, salty white cheese). Since Venezuela has a long coastline on the Caribbean, many empanadas are filled with locally caught fish such as cazón (school shark), oysters, clams or shrimp, especially on Isla Margarita (Margarita Island) and because of the Caribbean influence, can include caraotas (stewed black beans), raisins, plantains, panela (solid cane sugar) or guiso (a type of meat or chicken stew made with red wine, red peppers and capers)., hot, hot! Sampling extra spicy Jamaican meat pies near Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

England: the UK's version of empanadas are called Cornish Pasties. Generally larger than other empanadas, pasties are normally filled with a mixture of beef, potato, onion, and root vegetables such as turnips, swedes (rutabagas), beets or carrots. They are generally mild in flavor and much less spicy than South American or Asian empanadas. It was a popular lunch for day laborers in England for many years, as it was a hearty, inexpensive lunch that could be easily transported, required no cutlery and came complete with a toss-away pastry handle (the crusty fluted edge), leaving the other hand free for an restorative mug of ale. The Scottish version, a Bridie, has a more delicate pastry and does not contain potatoes.

Italy: the Calzone (Italian for "stocking" or "trouser") is well-known and popular throughout the world, and usually contains mozzarella and/or ricotta, garlic, tomato sauce and pepperoni or sausage. In Italy, versions vary widely, depending on the region. Fillings may include onions, broccoli, anchovies, regional meats and sausages, whole roasted garlic cloves, olives and homemade Italian cheeses. They are often served with a marinara style sauce for dipping.

Crispy samosas filled with paneer (fresh Indian cheese), carrot, peas and spices (photo courtesy of

Jamaica: if you've ever visited a city with a large Jamaican population or visited the Caribbean, you are probably already familiar with the delicious Jamaican Meat Patty. With spice levels ranging from Mildly Spicy to Medium Hot to Smoke Coming Out of Your Ears, these tasty patties are usually filled with ground beef, goat or lamb, or occasionally fish, shellfish or a local fruit known as ackee, which when cooked, resembles scrambled eggs. The crust is tinted yellow with either egg yolk or turmeric and flavored with curry, ginger, garlic, cumin, allspice, cardamom, scotch bonnet peppers (habaneros) and sometimes Jamaican rum.

India: because of the large vegetarian population in India, the empanadas known as Samosas often don't contain meat (although it is possible to buy a chicken, lamb or fish-stuffed samosa depending on the region). Unlike other empanadas, samosas are wrapped in a triangular form, rather than a crescent shape and contain ingredients such as onions, lentils, chick peas, carrots, paneer (homemade Indian cheese), chilies, cabbage leaves, eggplant, potato, pumpkin or chutney and can be spiced with tamarind, curry (curry blends vary widely in India), coriander, mint or chopped Kaffir Lime leaves. In a country as diverse as India, there are staggering possibilities of spicy filling combinations, all delicious and addictive.

Delicious homemade perogies with onion and bacon dressing (photo courtesy of

Poland: Perogies are Poland's version of empanadas and can be baked, fried or boiled and are traditionally served with sour cream, bacon fat or apple sauce. Fillings include mashed potato, onion, cabbage, cheese (e.g. farmer's cheese, a sheep's milk such as bryndza or fresh white curd), mushrooms or seasonal vegetables.  
Many other countries and cultures have their own versions of empanadas: the Indonesian Panada, the Nigerian Meat Pie, the French Canadian Meat Pies, the Virgin Island Paté, the Chinese Jiaozi, the Jewish Knish. Most of them originated in peasant cooking traditions as a method of using leftovers efficiently or providing portable, inexpensive lunches for workers, but have happily spread to every part of the globe, much to the delight of hungry travelers on the go everywhere.