Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shut Down All Electronic Devices...Except E-Readers

It took me a long time to finally give in and get a Nook (or rather accept my dad's hand-me-down), and I must say that I've really taken to it. It's much easier to carry on the train, and I can easily read it in one hand while holding on for dear life with the other on the cta as I commute to and from work each day. The technology makes the screen less like a screen and more like a book, which is certainly appealing considering I stare at a computer all day long. And I definitely love when I finish a book, I can instantly start a new one with the touch of a button. But there is one downfall to this wonderous device: flying.

iStockphoto.com
Sure, the nook is easy to pack, and I don't have to shove five books into my bag, just in case I finish one on my trip and need another to read. But the benefit of a physical book is that I don't have to stop reading during takeoff and landing. Since e-reader are electronic devices, with an on and off switch, they have to be powered down during those times, and it is beyond frustrating. That's a good forty-five minutes or so of prime reading time taken away. I'm forced to flip through one of the airline magazines or Skymall, glancing at things I'll never buy (or can't afford to buy.)

I get it, I really do. There are regulations that need to be followed. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

So imagine how happy I was to hear on NPR this morning that the Federal Aviation Administration is considering allowing passengers to use e-readers during takeoff and landing. A call was put out by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, urging the FAA to allow the use of portable electronic devices for the "full duration of the flight." She argues that there is no factual evidence that supports that the devices pose any safety issues.

The first question is, why do we need to turn electronic devices off during takeoff and landing? The most common reason is that they might interfere with the aircraft's communication and navigation. In addition, even though some electronic devices may not interfere, flight attendants cannot monitor all the devices on baord, and they cannot determine which ones may or may not interfere with the plane. So it's just easier to shut everything down. So the next question becomes, are e-readers capable of causing communication or navigation problems on planes?

This is what the FAA is investigating. Analysts said there are many different types of devices, as well as many different aircrafts, so the agency has to conduct thorough testing to make sure, so it may take a while to determine if e-readers will be allowed to remain in use. But I don't think it needs to be as complicated as all that. I've already conducted my own test.

The last two flights I took, I continued reading my nook when I wasn't suppose to. I kept it on during takeoff on one flight, and during landing on another. As you see, I'm typing this post right now, so the planes didn't crash. I made it safely to my destinations, and didn't end up somewhere off the grid, so the navigation worked properly. And we even arrived a little early on both flights, so communication seemed to be in tack.

Obviously, my experiences are not enough evidence to convince the FAA, but if I've done this, imagine how many other travelers have, too. As one New York Times blogger mentioned in a column, "if electronic devices could bring down an airplane, you can be sure the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration...wouldn't allow passengers to board a plane with an iPad or Kindle."

Still, the FAA continues to live by a "better-safe-than-sorry" mentality, and will enforce the rules until they sufficiently determine that use of these devices is safe or until the government introduces legislation that will force the agency to act quickly on this.

For now, I'll continue to sigh in irritation, roll my eyes and turn off my nook when asked, just to keep them happy and keep my fellow passengers safe. Unless it's a really good book.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Traveler's Ideal Gifts

A couple days ago, I visited the Flight 001 (pronounce flight one) store in Chicago to pick up a couple holiday gifts for some future jetsetters. This all inclusive shop looks like the interior of a plane, without the seats or windows or overhead bins. So basically, it's just the shape of a plane cabin. It's incredibly modern, with just a hint of retroness, thanks to its product selection. It has all kinds of unique, fun and functional items for travel, from essentials that any frequent flier would appreciate, to quirky starter kits for  novice travelers. The minute I stepped in the store, I saw at least 10 things I wanted for myself. (Of course, I had to practice some self control, since I was shopping for other people.) I was able to find exactly what I wanted, and even some things I didn't expect.

I especially liked the weekend travel bags, since most of my trips lately have been quick ones up to milwaukee. I was tempted to buy a travel blanket, pillow and eye mask (one that read "I sleep with strangers" was particularly amusing). There was also a collection of pouches that hold small essentials, like aspirin, vitamins, chapstick, makeup, etc. Each one had an illustration and funny statement. For example, there was a purple one, with a picture of a pill bottle and it read "heavily medicated for take off;" and another one with the infinity sign that read "There's never an end to a trip just another destination." There were so many choices, it was tough to decide what I wanted to get, mostly because I was making my own wish list in my head.

Flight 001 is probably one of the best places to get gifts for the traveler in your life. They have a few stores around the world, but if you aren'y lucky enough to have one near you, their website is great.

An article in The New York Times also offered some great gift ideas for frugal travelers. The first item on the list was the VIOlight Slim Sonic Toothbrush (sold at Flight 001), which is a compact, electric toothbrush that comes in a bunch of fun colorful, bright designs. The Travel Stub Diary was certainly interesting, especially as someone who saves ticket stubs to museums, shows and other events from my travels. This offers a great place to store all those lose pieces of paper. For all the foodie travelers out there, the Mobile Foodie Survival Kit is amazing! If you stay in rental properties or hostels and cook your own food, this provides all the spices one might need to prepare a quality meal. You no longer have to go out and buy a whole bottle of salt, pepper, basil, oregano, etc., and then leave tje, or have to lug a bunch of spice bottles around the rest of the trip. The "No Foreign Lands" book looked really cool. It is from the Matador Network, a travel site, and offers inspiring quotes about travel. One of note: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." -Kurt Vonnegut. (To see the rest of the list, go here.)

So, if anyone is looking for a fun last minute gift for someone who likes to travel (cough--ME), check out Flight 001 or any of the websites featured on the New York Times list. Or just buy them a flight to anywhere in the world, I'm sure that would make them supremely happy, too!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Christmas Means...

Every year, it seems like the holidays just sneak up on me. Before I know it, Halloween costumes are being stored away and turkeys go on sale. And just as I've polished off the last of the pumpkin pie, the ornaments are being brought out of storage and hung on the tree. My decorations have been up since the beginning of December, and most of my shopping is complete–with the exception of one or two gifts–but something is still missing. I don't quite feel swept up in the holiday spirit, despite the smell of gingerbread, the twinkling lights all around the city and an almost annoying amount of holiday music. Luckily, I know exactly what is keeping me from reveling in it all...snow. Or the lack there of.

Yes, Chicago has yet to welcome any of the tiny white flakes this year, and while many are thankful for that, I am not. Snow is what makes Christmas complete. I have had a white Christmas nearly every year since I was young, and I can count on one hand how many times it has not snowed for the holidays. I was fortunate to have snow back in Colorado last year, and I am praying for that to happen again. However, things in Chicago do not seem very promising.

Lapland, Finland. Source: CNN
So perhaps I need to venture to where I can really get in the holiday spirit: The most Christmassy places in the world.

Located just above the Arctic Circle is Rovaniemi, Lapland in Finland, considered to be the ultimate Christmas destination. Locals here argue that this is the home of St. Nick, not the North Pole, as legend would have us believe. Children can make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, take part in Elf School, or take a calligraphy class to write their wish-lists in traditional quill style. The Ranua Zoo is home to polar bears; while the Sirmakko reindeer farm lets visitors take a safari sled-led tour.

Finland is a little far to travel, at least for me, so I would considering going to somewhere in North America. Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, is an off-the-beaten-path destination, far from the flashy holiday spectacle that is New York City. The predominantly Italian-American locals have an unspoken competition among one another to see who can have the best decorations. This results in quite a spectacle of towering Santas, oversized toys, swarms of nutcrackers, and millions of lights and tinsel. An unofficial tour of these festive streets is enough to lift even the grouchiest person's mood. Add a personal tour guide with a cannoli and hot chocolate, and the experience is complete.

Our neighbors to the North also offer a pretty festive collection of attractions and events. In Quebec, Canada, you will find a tree made of recycled sheet metal that has lights powered by cyclists pedaling nearby--way to be environmentally friendly and encourage physical fitness! The German Christmas market serves up roasted chestnuts and sausage, which can be enjoyed while strolling through international nativity scenes. (Check out more Christmassy places here.)

Of course, I don't have to go all the way to Quebec to experience a German market. Chicago does have the Christkindlemarket, a tradition that I have adopted almost every year since moving here. (My collection of Glühwein boots are displayed proudly in my cabinet.) I will admit that attending this year did help boost my holiday cheer.

In Colorado, Denver hosts its Mile High Holidays, over a month of lighting ceremonies, parades, festivals, theater, music, dance, heritage and history, all centered around the holidays. The Botanic Gardens features Blossoms of Light, with over one million lights draped in designs throughout the Gardens. Zoo Lights offer more than 38 illuminated acres of lights, and 150 animated animal sculptures that create a yuletide-inspired safari. Downtown, the City and County Building is completely covered in lights and decorations, becoming a beacon for all those wandering through the streets of Denver.

I think what will really make Christmas complete is being home with my family, taking part in our annual traditions: baking fresh bread, making handmade Italian sausage from scratch, watching holiday movies while enjoying delicious pizza, and opening presents together. Family. That's what Christmas really means to me.

So there's plenty to help me get past this minor hurdle and fully embrace the holidays. And as far as the snow...there is hope. In fact, as I was typing this post, a few flakes began falling outside. After a moment of pure joy and rapture, however, they stopped. But still, it's a good sign!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Delta Tries its Hand at Humor, and Fails

If you're a frequent flier--or even if you only travel occassionally--you are familiar with the mundane airline safety presentations. Most of us zone out the moment these come on the screen or the flight attendants start doing their choreagraphed dance at the front of the plane. I've heard the schpeel hundreds of times, so for me, it doesn't seem necessary to listen to it yet again; and I know I'm not alone in this. However, airlines continue to show them, well, because they have to. (It's mostly because of legal regulations, but there are always one or two passengers who are unfamiliar with the procedures.)

While airlines realize there are expert fliers on board who could quote the entire safety demonstration, they still want passengers to pay attention. Because, let's face it, if and when an emergency does happen, how many of us know-it-alls are actually going to remember where the life vest is or how to put on the oxygen mask or where the hell the exit is--oh crap, it might be behind you!

So, in an effort to make passengers pay attention, Delta Air Lines decided to take a humorous approach. It unveiled a funny safety video last month, which includes a robot that turns itself off before takeoff, a warning sign prohibiting playing squash onboard and a passenger in a neck brace who cannot turn around to see all the exits. Delta said it wanted to provide passengers with serious information, but wanted to connect with them and give them something a little more interesting to watch. The problem? The video isn't funny at all. It's a nice effort, really, but I don't think many people will find it humorous. In fact, I think this will turn people off from watching the safety demonstrations even more than before, because it's really just the same stuff with a few random images thrown in here and there. Maybe I'm being a little harsh, so take a look for yourself.



Clearly, Delta is trying to imitate the success of Air New Zealand, which created a number of crazy and quite funny safety videos with nude flight attendants, fitness celebrity Richard Simmons and "Lord of the Rings" characters. Now those were great videos. They got passengers' attention, and they held it the entire time, because the demonstrations were actually humorous, just because they were so ridiculous. Leave it to the Kiwis to be truly innovative.


So, which video would you pay attention to?

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Here to Timbuktu

You've probably heard this saying hundreds of times in your life. I know I have. For the longest time, I thought it was just a phrase people said to describe some far off place, a long journey to distant shores, that kind of thing. I had no idea it was an actual place.

Mali. Source: CIA World Factbook
For those of you who had no idea Timbuktu is real, don't worry, you are not alone. There are millions of people in the world who believe it does not exist, and even more people believe it's a mythical location. The mysticism of this historic region can be attributed to the legendary tales brought to Europe from various explorers, painting Timbuktu as the epitome of distance and intrigue. Stories of great riches drove travelers there from all over the world. Reality is a little less glamorous than legend told, so now Timbuktu is made famous by its location, mystery and seclusion. Even the English dictionaries cite it as a metaphor for a faraway place. After learning this, I felt better about not realizing Timbuktu was a real destination.

So where is it, you ask? Timbuktu is in the western African country of Mali, which is surrounded by many other countries, including Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Senegal, Guinea, Cote D'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Timbuktu sits along the Niger River, at the exact point where it flows northward into the southern edge of the desert, making it a natural meeting spot for dozens of local tribes. For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was where goods between West and North Africa were traded. The region has come under the rule of many empires throughout the years, and was most recently controlled by the French from 1893 to 1960, when Mali received independence. The country thrived for dozens of years on the production of certain goods, but also from its tourism industry, its third-largest revenue generator.

Nearly 170,000 visitors came to the country in 2011, helping support the economy and local businesses. However, that has come to a dead halt due to a coup that took place in March, when a group of junior soldiers took control of the presidential palace and said the government had dissolved. In addition, the northern part of the country has been occupied by militants associated with al-Qaida for years. The events pretty much killed tourism in the country, and the first half of the year only saw 7,000 people enter Mali--which I can only assume visited before the March attack. According to an NPR article, one tour guide in the city of Segou said the last big tour group he saw was in February. The story notes that hotels have laid off staff or closed all together because of lack of business, while once bustling riverside markets and restaurants are desolate. Local craftsman and performers sit around with little to do, and no source of income with which to spend on necessities like food and clothing, resulting in even more economic slowdown.

Timbuktu. Credit: Wikipedia
While the incidents of 2012 definitely hurt tourism in Mali, trouble has been brewing there for some time, particularly in Timbuktu, slowly deterring people from going.  In 2008, the al-Qaida militants started kidnapping tourist groups, and as a result, many countries started advising their citizens not to travel far from the capital of Bamako. Timbuktu saw its tourist numbers drop significantly.

It is truly unfortunate for Mali, as well as those who wish to visit its borders and witness the remains of its ancient history. The cultural treasures of the country have been crushed by the crisis, as the Islamists have demolished many historic sites in the north, which is devastating to its past and its future. While there is some hope for change and a re-establishment of the government, much damage has been done to the country, and the mystery and seclusion of Timbuktu has become even more pronounced.  It seems this remote part of the world will remain a mythical, faraway place for many.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My first cover story!

I am thrilled to report that my first cover story has been published!

It is the feature story in the December issue of Leisure Group Travel, which you can check out here!

It discusses the influx of international tourists to the U.S. and the effect it is having on the tour industry and our economy.

Please read through it and let me know what you think!!

Source: Leisure Group Travel website

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Save the Cats!

Cat Sanctuary. Credit: NY Times
A old memory from Rome came to mind today. One early morning in Rome--and when I say early, I mean just closed the bar early--my friends and I waited anxiously for the first bus of the day to appear. We sat at the bus stop across from the ruins of Torre Argentina, a site that hosts four Roman temples and the remains of Pompey's Theatre, where it is said Julius Cesar was stabbed. As I slumped in my exhausted state, a lone tabby cat sauntered across the deserted road to investigate the source of ruckus that was our crew. Considering it was a stray, it was in decent shape: healthy coat of fur, good weight, no signs of injury or malnutrition. This was a car I could take home with me. At the time, I did not realize that Torre Argentina was more widely known as the "cat forum," because of its large population of feline inhabitants. I found myself returning to the square a couple days later to find hundreds of cats playing, lounging and enjoying life amidst the ruins. I also noticed large crowds of people watching them, too, and I soon came to love visiting this site in Rome over the next few months.

This initial memory floated back to me this morning as I listened to an NPR report about the Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association being handed an eviction notice. It was shocking. The shelter began in 1994 in a small enclosure at one end of the ruins. Over the years, founders Lia Dequel and Silvia Viviani convinced the city to provide the once primitive shelter with electricity and running water. Volunteers care for some 200 cats at the site, which are all neutered and vaccinated, along with thousands of other across the city. The group also finds homes for cats, about 125 each year. Now, archaeological officials said the shelter is illegal and must shut down. But the cats can stay, of course.

Their argument? The shelter is unsanitary and threatens to spread disease. In addition, the group claims the shelter was built without proper planning permission. But these statements have been aggressively combated by volunteers. The archaeologists said the cats make it difficult to preserve the ruins, and it is the responsibility of the organization to protect Rome's history.

It seems odd that authorities are trying to shut down what has essentially become a tourist attraction and a key part of the city's heritage. But Dequel and Viviani said they are not giving up without a fight. They submitted a petition on the Culture Ministry website, which has scored over 6,000 signatures. After the news broke, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, said the cats are a part of Rome's history and that the shelter was not to be bothered.

I personally see no benefit in shutting down the shelter, as it help control the cat population of Rome and takes care of all these cats that would otherwise have no where else to go. If you're interested in voicing your opinion, feel free to leave a comment. Or go ahead and sign the petition and SAVE THE CATS!

Monday, December 3, 2012

More Fees? Or Just Different Ones?

Source: LA Times
Airline fees have become commonplace in the world of travel, it is difficult to remember a time when they did not exist. Ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the air travel culture has dramatically changed. Now, we are so accustomed to long security lines, taking shoes off, and standing in an ominous revolving scanner, it is second nature to perform all these tasks. We are unphased by all the security protocols. But one area people still have trouble accepting is the growing number of a la carte fees that airlines serve up.

According to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times, the world's largest airlines are expected to make $36.1 billion from fees. This includes food, drinks, wireless internet, priority seating, more leg room and checked bags. Some airlines even charge for checking in online, carry-on bags and expedited service through security check points. But it does not end there. At the Airline Information conference in San Diego, representatives from various airlines discussed ways to maximize the fees they charge passengers.

There was some talk of different travel insurance offers or letting passengers pre-order on-board meals and snacks, a move to reduce uneccessary spending and waste from leftover meals. One of the biggest trends, though, is basing fees on data collected from past bookings. Basically, airlines will offer package deals based on a travelers preferences, such as bundling tickets with onboard food, drinks and entertainment, at a discount.

Mining and analyzing passenger data could be seen as a bit invasive, but the reward is a specialized deal that fits you. Plus, if you can nab a discount on fees and charges that you would have paid anyway, why not? So while this trend could result in some new and different fees, the good news is that there does not seem to be any plans to add more to the menu. In fact, it looks like airlines are finally starting to get smart about looking after customers and making them happy.

Personally, I never buy on-board snacks (I tend to bring my own)or entertainment (when else do I have time to read a book), so I would like to see some other changes. I was actually reminiscing with my dad about what air travel used to be like before 9/11, and it occurred to me that the thing I miss the most is the ability to meet people at the gate, to greet them right after they've had a long flight. I think I would keep the fees if I could get that back.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Foodie Tour

Whole Journeys
Food and travel go together like...peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, wine and cheese...pretty much anything with perfect synergy that complements the details of the other flawlessly. Food can make a journey complete, since a destination would not be what it is without this important cultural element.

So it makes sense that there are plenty of tours centered around food, either offered by a tour company, a cruise line, a hotel or a local restaurant. But it's a bit odd to find a grocery store offering these kinds of trips. Enter Whole Foods Market, known for its selection of specialty and organic foods, as well as its commitment to offering local produce and meat, and sustainable seafood.

Whole Foods has now entered the travel industry with a new company aimed at active food lovers who want to "experience what travel should taste like." The company, called Whole Journeys, will offer guided tours from five days to two weeks on 11 itineraries in Europe, China and the U.S. The tours will take guests to local farms and food producers, wine tastings and cooking classes. Travelers will also be able to take part in cultural activities and physical endeavors like hiking and biking.

“We’re all about authentic experiences and rich cultural connections. I encourage guests to open themselves to the culture in each destination, and share their own perspective with the people there. When the trip is over, everyone comes away with a wider worldview and, hopefully, a deeper appreciation for global diversity and food culture and traditions,” said Kathy Dragon, executive director of Whole Journeys.
As of right now, there are a lot of tours through Italy, which makes sense considering the country's love of food and the importance it holds in Italy's culture. I've had the chance to experience many of Italy's cities and its wonderful culinary offerings, so it's time to venture somewhere else, some place different.

Turkish Delight. Souce: Whole Journeys' website
The "Turkish Delights" itinerary takes you all through Turkey's epic history and exotic cuisine. The trip explores the diversity of the country from the Aegean Coast and Ephesus, before heading to Cappadoccia. Travelers will walk roads taking them to "lunar-like landscapes of volcanic chimneys, gorges, vineyards, elaborately carved and Byzantine frescoed rock churches and entire underground cities." It lasts nine days, eight nights, and spots are capped at 16, so availability is pretty limited. 

All the trips start in April 2013 and cost anywhere between $3,000 and $4,500 per person. The tours include guides, visits, hotels and most meals.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Moving Forward

It's over. Election Day has come and gone, and Barack Obama has been reelected to a second term as President of the United States. It seems like the campaigns have been going on forever, and in one night, it all came to an end.

Now it is time to move forward.

Yes, I know many people are disappointed about the outcome, and they have made it very clear that they do not think Obama was the right choice. It is scary to think about how the bitter battles between candidates in all states will ultimately effect how well everyone works together to handle the upcoming challenges for America. It is a bit disconcerting to know that this country is so divided, with almost half the country voting against the incumbent. It appears that little has changed in the last four, eight, twelve years. We are still so polarized in our political beliefs and opinions. 

And yet both candidates have voiced the need for unity and bipartisanship to help the country fully recover and achieve economic growth. Change and improvement is not possible without collaboration between parties, but everyone seems to have their own agenda. And many who are angry about Romney's loss could bring that animosity to the table during House and Senate meetings, preventing any positive results.

Regardless of the winner, our country would still be facing this fiscal cliff, we would still be dealing with high unemployment and a slow economic recovery. Now it is time to toss our biased views aside and work together for the greater good of the country. The fact that both sides can be so stubborn and uncompromising is the reason we are in the position we are in. As a close friend of mine said, we dig our heels in and refuse to budge, and then we're surprised when things go to hell. Americans want results and right now, that fiscal cliff is looming in the distance.  Congress needs to get its act together, adopt a true bipartisan strategy and tackle this challenge.

The question still remains, however, of whether or not people will actually live up to the bipartisan image they touted during the election, or if they will go right back to their old ways and not work across the aisle for the greater good of the country?

I am hopeful that things will get better, even though I am nervous about the fast-approaching issues. For those who have given up hope and want to abandon the U.S.--if just for a little while--there are options. (I'm thinking Jamaica, Turks & Caicos or the Bahamas.) If any of you signed up for JetBlue's "Election Protection" giveaway and voted for Romney, I hope you win and enjoy your temporary trip out of the country. (At least I hope it's temporary, I wouldn't want a mass exodus from the U.S.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Contribute to Sandy Relief

A marina on Staten Island. Credit: CNN
Superstorm Sandy left a wave of devastation in her wake, displacing thousands of people who lost their homes and destroying amenities of people's daily lives. More than eight million people were without power last week in 17 states, and many cities are almost completely underwater.

For many in disaster areas whose losses are not covered by insurance, the best option is to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People who cannot live in their homes are eligible for housing needs assistance, like hotel or rent money. The agency will also offer assistance for home repairs, cleanup costs and medical expenses related to the hurricane.

On Saturday night, about 12,800 people stayed in 200 shelters, the Red Cross reported. The group has served over 481,000 meals and snacks to people in need, and provided more than 12,000 health services and emotional support.

But there is still so much that needs to be done. And many Americans from across the country are wondering how they can help. Apart from traveling however many miles to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, or any of the other devastated states, there are a few other ways people can lend a hand.

First, you can donate to the Red Cross, either by visiting the website or calling the help line. You can also text "Redcross" to 90999 to give a $10 donation. Blood supply is also low, so anyone in the surrounding areas who is eligible to give blood should try to make an appointment.

The Feeding America network delivered rtuckloads of food, water and supplies to communities in need, and its food banks set up additional emergency distribution sites, which are always looking for more volunteers and donations.

The Salvation Army set up feeding units and shelters in disaster zones. You can help in their efforts by visiting their website and provide clothes, food and beds to the displaced. You can also donate $10 by texting "Storm" to 80888.

Relief Center in Midland Beach. Credit: CNN
FEMA says that cash is the most efficient method of donating, and there are a number of organizations in each state that are active in disaster relief where people can donate or volunteer to assist.

Hundreds of businesses, media outlets, celebrities and big-name corporations have also made an effort to help. On Friday night, NBC held a telethon called "Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together," whcih raised close to $23 million for victims. The one hour event was hosted by Matt Lauer and headlined by Christina Aguilera and Bruce Springsteen. It generated a record number of donations by phone, text and online for the Red Cross. Time Warner and CBS each donated $1 million. The money will be put towards shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance.

Any contribution helps the cause to help rebuild the East Coast and get people back to their homes, their families and their lives.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Let's Ride...100 Miles

Propelling along the pavement, a heavy headwind slowing progress, muscles pumping ever furiously to accelerate, to keep going, to reach that final goal.

Riding the Rockies
I imagine this is what it must feel like to ride 100 miles timed, no less--a feat I have never attempted, and certainly have no desire to do. But for many, century rides are a welcome challenge, the true test of physical strength and endurance and the epitome of exhilaration.

Century rides are bike rides of 100 miles or more within 12 hours. It is unknown when exactly these races began, but long-distance races have been going on for what seems like forever. Cycling has been around for centuries, mostly as a means of transportation before the invention of cars. Bikes were a replacement for horses--though I think I would have preferred a horse. It wasn't until the 1860s that cycling became an official sport. It began with a short race between major landmarks, and then grew to longer races between cities, mostly in European countries. The trend crossed the pond to the U.S., where cycling became an immensely popular sport.

The League of American Bicyclists--orignally Wheelmen--began in 1880 and became the leading organization for cyclists in the U.S. It thrived for years, especially with the advent of the chain-driven safety bike in the 1890s. But soon amateur racing fell off with the rise of professionals, and the league dissolved in the early 1900s. It wasn't until the Great Depression when it was revived, but it went into decline again after WWII. Finally, in 1965, the league reorganized for good. It mostly existed as a social organization, holding annual rallies with mapped routes. In 1994, it changed its name to the League of American Bicyclists, to appease the female members, and slowly became more focused on advocacy and is now the voice for cyclists at the national level.

Under this sanctioning body, a number of bicycling coalitions now operate, providing education, social gatherings, organized rides and official races for amateur bikers. It is through these groups that many of the best century rides can be found. 

RAMROD. Seattle Times
There are hundreds of century rides across the country--and around the world--one could not possibly pick the best, or even the top 10. But I found a few that I think sound either super challenging or super fun.

  • Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day (RAMROD) is a 154-mile ride around one of Washington State's most famous natural national icons. Riders can enjoy the scenery of the mountain and the park while climbing nearly 10,000 feet of elevation in two mountain passes.
  • The Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic is a one- and two-day ride and considered one of the 10 biggest recreational races in the country. It is approximately 202 miles, and most riders finish in two days, but some get it done in one, if you're up to the challenge.
  • The Tour of the Scioto River Valley, better known as TOSRV, started back in 1962 as a father-son outing before becoming one of the biggest touring weekends in the U.S. It begins in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday and riders spend the night in Portsmouth and return to Columbus on Sunday, for a total of 210 miles.
  • Escape New York starts in Manhattan and crosses the Hudson River and leaves the city to explore other regions of New York. Riders can choose to go 25, 50, 65 or 100 miles along some of the best roads of the West Hudson Highlands.
  • Chile Pepper Challenge in El Paso, TX is a 100-mile ride that tours Mesilla Valley. It starts and ends at La Vina Winery--post race wine party, anyone??
  • Santa Barbara Century runs along the Pacific Ocean. It is a super challenging, 9,600-foot elevated ride of 100 miles. Luckily, beautiful views will make it worth the effort.
  • Savage Century takes place in Newark, Delaware, and spans three states--Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is a bit of a hilly ride, with three that have an average grades of 8%.
  • Ride Westcliffe is one of the most difficult century rides in Colorado, but also one of the most thrilling. It runs from Westcliffe to Colorado City via the Frontiers Pathways Scenic Byway.
  • Hot Doggett 100 takes place in Mars Hill, North Carolina, and takes riders through the mountains of Madison County with 9,600 feet of climbing. For less of a challenge, there's the Devil's Fork Metric, a 100k or 60-mile ride.
  • Red Poppy Ride is held in conjunction with the Georgetown Red Poppy Festival in Texas. It runs through scenic Eastern Williamson County. Not only do riders enjoy a pleasant spring race through country roads, they also get an impressive jersey designed with the flowers the ride is named for.
  • Old Kentucky Home Tour (OKHT) is a two-day ride through the rolling hills of rural Kentucky. You have the option of a 55-mile, 72-mile or 102-mile ride, but not matter what distance you ride, all are encouraged to bring cookies for the famed "cookie stop."
Old Kentucky Home
While physically, I am more of a runner than a biker, many of these races make me reconsider hopping back on that bike and getting in gear. If for no other reason than to experience some incredible sites of our great country. There are so many places I have never visited, and to see them from the vantage point of a bike would certainly be a memorable experience. I would definitely have to train for a long time before attempting one of these, even the shorter rides, but part of me thinks I would be up for the challenge. Who wants to join me on the ride of the century?

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Journey to the Promise Land

Along the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean lies the State of Israel, the world’s only Jewish majority state. Israel has been the subject of much controversy over the years, as it is widely considered an enemy to many countries in the Middle East, in particular Palestine. Turmoil in the region tied to the Iraq war, Syrian terrorism and Egyptian uprisings, have left a cloud of insecurity, uncertainty and fear, deterring many from visiting the Middle East. While most of those concerns are warranted, Israel has been deemed a safe state, and welcomes tourists from all regions.
It’s a good thing, too, because Israel has a lot to offer. It is said to be one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East as far as economics, industrial development and finance. Not only is it a modern cultural hotspot, but Israel also boasts a number of archaeological and historical sites, unique geography and religious venues, not to mention a wealth of museums.
Dead Sea
One of the nation's treasures--and possibly one of the most popular attractions--is the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth (417 meters below sea level). It has the highest concentration of salt in the world, and this, as most people know, means you will have no trouble floating in the water. The western shore inside Isreal's borders has some organized beaches and bathing areas were tourists have access to the natural health spa. That's right, the salinity provides relief to ailing guests. The sea bed has deposits of black mud that is spread on the body and feeds nourishing minerals to skin.
Surrounding the Dead Sea is a collection of hotels, hostels and houses, restaurants and shopping areas. There are also companies that offer activities like jeep and bike tours, camel tours and rappelling. The sea's edge is dotted with springs and abundant plant life, as well as a desert landscape that offers breathtaking scenery. Some important historical sites can also be found in this region, including the Massada Fortress, ancient Ein Gedi and the Qumran cave, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were dsicovered.

View from Mt. Zion
Jerusalem is the capital of Isreal, though it is often not recognized as such by most countries. It is considered to be one of the holiest cities in the world, built thousands of years ago as a hub for faith, religion and spirituality. The Old City is at the heart of Jerusalem, surrounded by a wall and divided into four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. Important holy sites for the three major religions can be found inside: The Western Wall (for the Jews), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of teh Rock on the Temple Mount. Apart from these, the Old City--and the rest of Jerusalem--holds thousands of other important religious sites, it's difficult to see them all, so grant yourself enough time.

Tel Aviv is the second largest city in Israel and is referred to as "the city that never stops." It is the economic and cultural center of the country, offering a lively, entertaining atmosphere with festivals and nightclubs that draw people out to the streets until the wee hours of the morning. Apart from an active nightlife, Tel Aviv features dozens of daytime attractions, including 20 museums such as the Land of Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The city hosts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israeli Opera Company, and most of the national dance and theater companies are situated in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv's has a wonderful shopping scene, too, with bustling street markets and modern malls. Its markets are truly exquisite, displaying a variety of local fare that reflects the locals behind the whole operation. The best known open-air market is Carmel Market, located near the Neveh Zedek quarter, which offers a wide array of fresh produce and ingredients. It's perfect if you have a kitchen where you can prepare a nice meal. If not, it's also a great place to grab some picnic fixings or snacks to munch on as you tour the rest of the city. If you're looking to make a deal on your purchases, head over to Jaffa Flea Market, where bargaining is the name of the game. But be warned, vendors do this for a living, and they have this down to a science.

While you can see original crafts and pieces of art at markets, it's a bonus to see them actually being made in front of your eyes. For this special treat, venture over to Shuk Ha'aliyah, where craftspeople can be seen at work making metal pieces and furniture.

Tel Aviv
The beaches of Tel Aviv are some of the best in the world, and are a must see while visiting the city. The entire west side of the city is one long stretch of beach, and each is divided and named based on the hotel or street nearby. The beaches certainly add to Tel Aviv's party city image, but some are relatively quiet and pleasant for those who are looking to just relax.

I guess it should be no surprise--especially considering its biblical ties--that Israel has an impressive collection of vineyards and a booming wine industry. The Bible includes dozens of verses referencing planting vineyards, producing wine and blessing the wonderful fruit of the vine. God be praised for wine! Unfortunately, I've never tasted any varieties from the region, but I'm certainly open to it. I mean, if it was good enough for Jesus and his disciples, it's good enough for me. Today, the vineyars supplying grapes for production are planted on sites from biblical and later periods. More than two hundred wineries currently operate in Israel, and wine tourism has become common, focusing on visiting wineries and surrounding areas. Many places have opened wine routes attracting tourists and wine lovers from all over the world. Some possible vineyards to check out include Zohar Winery, Bazelet Hagolan Winery, Stren Winery and Golan Heights Winery, to name a few.

While we're on the subject of wine, I should also mention Israel's thriving olive business. The image of the dove carrying an olive branch is an historical symbol in Jewish culture, and the olive tree plays an important role in Israel's culture. Olive oil is one of the most important agricultural elements for the country, used for food, light, heat, medical treatments and cleaning and hygiene. The olive harvest season is very important to the people of Israel. Olive festivals are held to mark the season, and families make trips to the groves to harvest olives and watch them being pressed. If you happen to be visiting during the season, you're in luck, because tourists are encouraged to take part in the events and participate in harvests.


Haifa
Other than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there are plenty of other areas in Israel you should definitely try to check out. At the Southern tip of Israel sits Eilat, a resort town perfect for sea-sports enthusiasts. There, you can enjoy diving, water skiiing, boating, swimming, snorkeling and much more. This city is a perfect getaway, as the temperature stays warm year-round and it rarely rains. Haifa is the third largest city and is said to be one of the most beautiful. It has the country's largest port, an active beach and is surrounded by dozens of nature sites. The city is speckled with a variety of unique churches, adding to its brilliance. Different religions and faiths live in harmony in Haifa, making it an incredibly tolerant city. The Bahai Faith's World Center is located in Haifa. It is an expansive complex on the slope of Carmel, and its famous for its gardens, which include landscaped 'Hanging Gardens." Probably one of the best ways to experience the cities--if you're physically up to the challenge--is a "step tour." Four marked walking routes begin on Yefe Nof Street and proceed down the beach. There are also various nature routes descending the mountain along one of the many rivers of the region.

You should definitely try to check out the Sea of Galilee and a place called the Cove of the Sower, a stretch of undisturbed beach on the northern shore. This area was the site of many events of Jesus' Galilee ministry.

I feel like I could go on forever about everything Israel offers, because what I've written so far does not even begin to do it justice. The solution, I suppose, is to actually visit this magical place. And one day I will. (My parents are actually there as we speak...but unfortunately I could not tag along...I have a job, after all.) I'm sure they will come back with some incredible stories, pictures and memories--and gifts--which will only make me want to visit even more. One day, I'll make it there.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Flying Home at a Much Higher Cost

Good News! Airfares are increasing at a much slower rate this year compared to last year! What's even better, analysts said prices will rise even less in 2013.

The bad news? Airfares in the last two months of the year are set to soar...just as I'm booking my flights home for Christmas. Wonderful!

Experts in the travel industry said the average domestic fare in September was $375.35. So just imagine what that will be in Nov. and Dec. when everyone is traveling for the holidays. I'm guessing that unless I get really lucky and book at just the right moment, I'm probably going to end up paying over $300 for my flight to Denver, give or take a few bucks depending on which days and times I choose to fly. (That will largely depend on my available time off from work...oh how I wish I had unlimited vacation time.) What makes that high price tag even more likely is the fact the Southwest--known for its lower prices, just raised its domestic fares last week between 44 and $10 per round trip...and all major airlines matched the hike. Oh, how I despise the influence of Southwest sometimes.

Who knows if another hike will take place before the end of the year--I'm keeping my fingers crossed --but either way, the next week or two will be spent thoroughly searching and comparing for the best price. I just hope there are seats available...yet another problem facing holiday travelers...high demand and fewer flight options.

I absolutely love the holidays, and I cannot wait for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. But this is the one downfall of the season. Airlines taking advantage of travelers as they try to spend time with their loved ones.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Take an Active Vacation

On Friday evening, I had the opportunity to help out at an event for VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations, recently named the No. 3 tour operator in the world by Travel & Leisure. The company has been around since 1971, when a Middlebury college professor became the provider of America's first ever organized biking tours. Located in Bristol, Vermont, VBT has grown to become a global travel company, with a family that spans across five continents.

At the event, I met owners Gregg and Caroline Marston, who greeted everyone as they entered the room. And most guests knew exactly who they were, either because they recognized their pictures from the website or travel guide, or because they had gone on an actual trip with them. I also met a couple of the seasoned travelers who have done numerous biking and hiking tours with VBT, and one man who participated in nearly 20 trips--the most of anyone else in the room. It was certainly an interesting crowd, but all of them were avid bikers and walkers with a love for travel and experiencing dynamic areas around the world. Many had met on tours together, a true bonding experience for any group, no matter their backgrounds.

And all of them had nothing but praise for the company, a rarity in the hospitality and tour industry.

So what makes VBT different? It's the personal touch they bring to each trip, making a group tour feel anything but mass-produced. It's about the individual experience, and each itinerary feels personalized. The website reads: "It starts with our seasoned trip planners, who carefully design unique itineraries in the world’s most interesting places. They work with our Trip Leaders to map out the most scenic and exhilarating routes. Then, they leverage our long-term group buying power with suppliers around the world, securing wonderful lodgings in top quality hotels where charm and character are complemented by comfort and convenience. Our air specialists do the same, working with major carriers to provide the best flight options at prices you could never match on your own."

During the event, Gregg and Caroline talked about all the new tours they were offering, as well as their foray into nordic ski trips. All the images, the stories, the destinations and the bonds made me want to book a trip right then and there. The first problem, though, is that I'm not much of a biker, so I would have to choose one of the walking tours. Of those, I would definitely sign up for the Amalfi Coast & Capri tour or the Italian Lakes. However, the Peru tour is certainly tempting, and since I've never been to South America, I might have to pick this tour first.

As much as I would love to go on one of these trips, it's not quite in my budget right now, despite the prices being incredibly reasonable for what you get. But maybe I can reach out to my new friends and negotiate a discount...they are a great connection to have, after all. But I'll most likely stay in touch because of how amazingly friendly and outgoing they are, and those are the kinds of people who know how to run a successful tour company.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Let's Get Muddy

As you may recall, I wrote a prevoius post about fun runs to do around the country. For the most part, those were basic races, with a couple interesting aspects thrown in. However, there has been an uptick in the number of people traveling to compete in obstacle-course events, also known as mud runs.

I am participating in one such event, called the Hell Run, over Labor Day weekend. It's called the Hell Run--"the most kick-ass mud run on earth!" It includes 3.15 miles of mud pits and insae obstacles like a barbed wire buncker, a rope wall, fire jumps, and a metal graveyard. And what awaits me at the end of this most outrageous of physical activities? A rock concet, beer and thousands of other mud covered participants all geared up and ready for another run!

So what is the appeal of these mud runs--other than the sheer joy of getting doused from head to toe in mud? They can be grueling, intense and definitely dirty, and yet strangely fun and addictive. These runs are essentially military-style obstacle courses, with an element of showiness thrown in, making them perfect for people who like to show off--in both a humorous and serious manner.

While my mud run is meant to be entertaining--costumes are encouraged--others are much more difficult, designed to challenge extreme fitness enthusiasts. Overall, though, mud runs are meant to be enjoyable, while still testing the physical strength and stamina of participants.

Tough Mudder, one of the top three mud runs in the country, is probably the most diffcult. The events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses that were designed by British Special Forces. Some obstacles include things like the Arctic Enema, a swim through ice; the Electric Eel, where people slide under live wires; the ball shrinker, where mudders cross a body of water with one rope overhead and one rope below to walk on; trench warfare, a crawl through narrow muddy trenches; and the gauntlet, where mudders get high pressure hosed from both sides as they climb a steep incline. Sounds crazy, right?

The greatest part about these races is that they aren't really races at all. Sure, there's a start and a finish, but it's not about being the first to cross the line, it's about conquering the course...with teammates by your side. That's right. This is not an individual event. The Tough Mudder asks runners to pledge to put teamwork and camaraderie ahead of their course time.

Warrior Dash and Spartan Race are two other popular obstacle courses. Warrior Dash was created by Chicago-based company Red Frog Events, and includes plank walks, bruch crawls, cargo nets and steep walls. It's a shorter course, usually only 3 miles, and most people finish within an hour. This event is basically a big party, kind of like Hell Run, with live bands and beer and free food.

On the other hand, Spartan Race is not for the faint of heart. It is an obstacle course that pushes contestants to their physical limits, and then throws fire, mud and water at them...pretty much Hell on Earth. The organizers never give racers advance warning about what they will encounter, only that there will be obstacles that catch them off guard.

For most people, these runs are about accomplishing something they never thought they would ever or could ever do. People say it makes them feel like a kid again, it's fun and entertaining, and different, to say the least. As someone who likes standard runs, I am looking forward to stepping out of my comfort zone. I know I can run a fast mile...but what about a mile through mud, over fire, under wires? If I can get through this...I can get through anything! (Or at least that's the kind of mentality these mud runs hope to engender in runners.)

I'll report back...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Do You Know How to Say 'how do you say..." in Spanish?

One of the most difficult aspects of traveling internationally is being unable to communicate with the locals. Luckily for us, most people do speak English, at least basic phrases, making it easier to converse. But if you don't want to be one of those typical (ugly) Americans who expect others to cater to you, even if you are a visitor in their country, then I suggest learning some common questions and statements so you can talk to residents, figure out the cost of something, learn about the ingredients on a menu, and, most importantly, find the bathroom. (That's ¿Dónde está el baño? in Spanish, just so you know.)

Had to know where to find this
As someone who studied Spanish, French and Italian, and lived abroad in Rome for four months, you would expect that I'd be somewhat fluent in at least one of those languages. Much to my chagrin, I'm not even close...in any of them. However, I do know some key phrases in Italian that were saviors during my time abroad. Quanto costa questo? (How much is this?) Posso acquistare un biglietto del treno? (Can I buy a train ticket?) Un cappuccino e cornetto al cioccolato, per favore (A cappuccino and chocolate croissant, please.) Posso avere un bicchiere di vino? (May I have a glass of wine?) Dove si trova il più vicino negozio di gelato? (Where is the closest gelato shop?) You get the idea...only the essentials. If you learn nothing else, at least learn "how do you say..." and insert whatever it is you would like to know how to say in a specific language. This definitely helped me when I found myself searching for the right word in Italian to tell the young man who was hitting on me that I was in a relationship. Somehow the word for boyfriend (ragazzo) escaped me at the time---not sure if it was those deep brown eyes, or the sultry accent, or that dreamy smile...

But I digress...

Obviously, you could take a language class to learn the necessary vocabulary; or purchase an expensive software program like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur Approach. But most of us don't have the time or the money set aside for those kinds of commitments. But there are alternatives.

Do a quick search on iTunes, and you'll find a waide array of free language lessons. There are some fun podcasts from Radio Lingua called Coffee Break Spanish--though there are more languages than Spanish. Each one is 15-20 minutes and encourages interaction to better learn pronunciation. There are also one-minute crash courses in Greek, Arabic and Mandarin. Living Language is not free, but there is a "free downloads" section that offers freebies like a pocket phrase guide to help you learn a few things before heading on your trip.

The BBC offers intruction on 40 languages, for no cost at all. Users select the desired language and then can choose from a variety of vocabulary categories in the "holiday phrases" link, such as food and drink and shopping. The downloads are accompanied by cultural notes and games, and there is even a beginners' course for those who have at least three months before their trip.

If you're willing to spend a little bit, try Livemocha, a networking site that connects people from different parts of the world and offers basic intruction in a given language. The program facilitates learning through actual communication with someone else, hands down the best way to learn a language. It costs $9.95 for one month of unlimited access, and $99.95 for a year.

So if you are heading to an international destination--whether for a week or ten--why not take some time to learn a few words. It will help you better interact, and make you a more cultured individual--and who doesn't want that?

Oh, and the answer to my first question is...¿Cómo se dice...
Just in case you were curious.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Not Your Average Tour

Just last weekend, my parents, uncle and his girlfriend, came to visit me in Chicago. For my parents, it was an opportunity to see their daughter and spend some quality family time together. While it was also that for my uncle and his girlfriend, it was also a chance to see a new city, since neither had been here before. Of course, they asked me what they should see and do, and I ran off the usual list of attractions. They decided to do the Architecture Tour along the river, which I think is one of the better tours offered in Chicago. Not only is it a great way to see a lot of the downtown area, but it provides great backround on Chicago's history.

While I will always recommend this tour to first time visitors, I cannot guarantee that everyone will appreciate it, since each person has different tastes, opinions, and interests that could be fulfilled through other options. There's walking tours, bus tours, mob tours, ghost tours, museum tours, the list goes on and on. But even with all these, some people may still be looking for something different, unusual, off-kilter.

Enter the internet and its vast array of travel-sharing websites touting specialty tours, unique experiences and some pretty odd activities not generally listed on a tourism site. I learned about these through a New York Times article, which discusses a few of the platforms.

Tequila Adventure Rapel
What makes these sites work is the artists, chefs, students, writers, hobbyists, and musicians, who offer their services to those looking for a truly novel experience. Some websites are better than others about making sure guides can deliver on their promises, while other rely on peer reviews.

CanaryHop.com was co-founded by "Saturday Night Live" star Andy Samberg and launched in March. It is a searchable list of about 2,500 guides and service providers, which are referred to on the site as "canaries," while travelers are called "hoppers." Some examples of experiences are a circus training in Las Vegas; a fire engine tour in San Francisco; camping in the Mojave Desert with a botanist; New York City makeup and accessories tour; and home cooking and eating with a family in Delhi.

Gidsy.com is another option that has grown popular in the last year. With the tagline "do something different," the website certainly lives up to that mentality with its options. It features offerings in nine cities, with activities like a chocolate and grappa tasting in Hasselt, Belgium; a tango lesson in London; a street photography workshop with a professional photographer in Istanbul; and a challah braiding and baking class in New York.

East London Street Food Tour
The idea behind Vayable.com is to give travelers a deeper look into at a local culture through experts. The site has 1,500 guides on almost every continent--it hasn't quite made it to Antartica. Travelers can search ac tivities by city and then book their own experience or join a pre-arranged tour. Some of the options include a hookah and tea tour in Istanbul, fly fishing in Alaska with the may of Kenai, a tour of East London street food, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle tour of Versailles and Rambouillet.

Another option if you are just looking for unique experiences in New York is SideTour. The founder, Vipin Goyal, said there are plans to expand, but New York certainly offers a plethora of exciting and intriguing opportunities. Most of the listings are updated weekly and sell out weeks in advance, so book early! Popular offerings include a street art tour and graffiti demonstration, urban beekeeping in Brooklyn, and creaft beer brewing.

As someone who is often looking for something different to do in my own city, perhaps I should see if there are any special activities/tours in Chicago. That way the next time someone asks me about what they should do here, I can offer something that's a little bit off the beaten path. And for my future travels, I will certainly give these sites a quick run through to see if there is anything I would like to take part in during my visit. Because what could be better than finding a hidden art gallery that isn't featured in every travel guide? Or tasting street food from the vendor that doesn't have a line around the block but is just as good--if not better--as that guy that was featured on the food network? Or having an in depth conversation with a local author while sipping regionally-made wine at an underground jazz club? It's these kinds of odd experiences and locations that make a city what it is, so why not take the opportunity to peel back the artificial layers and see the roots.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pride Around the World

Pride Fest Chicago is one of my favorite summer events, mostly because it is one of the few times during the year where everyone tosses aside their inhibitions, proudly wears anything--or nothing--and comes together in a grand spectacle of joy, celebration, openeness and unity. I have participated in the festivities for the last two years, and I always have a good time watching the parade of flamboyant costumes, colorful floats and shirtless men--not to mention the crowd of people who are just as entertaining to watch. So far, though, Chicago's is the only Pride Fest I've experienced, and while it's certainly a great one, there are a number of other's I am eager to see.

Here in the U.S., New York and San Francisco are probably the two most well-known pride festivals. New York has been celebrating ever since the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement, making it the oldest march for sexual equality in the world. The parade is usually held in June and is the finale of a week-long festival which can bring in as many as 750,000 people.

San Francisco's Pride Fest is held at the end of June and features 200 floats in its parade that travel along Market Street. The tradition dates back to 1970 and now more than one million people attend every year. Organizers said the point of the event is to "educate the world, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people."

While these events are certainly noteworthy, Pride resonates throughout the world, and there are some international festivals that are definitely a must see.

Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is the largest Pride event in the world and lasts the entire month of February. The event was sparked back in 1978 when police revoked a permit for a Pride parade and arrested 51 people. The celebration is combined with the Mardi Gras holiday, making for never-ending activities, including a parade, harbour parties, mardi gras festivals, drag races, pool parties and much more.

In Amsterdam, they take the celebration to the water. The Pride Fest features a flotilla of 75 glittering boats. The festivities take place at the end of July or beginning of August, and events include street parties and club circuit parties, as well as the famed Canal Parade.

Brazil is known for its Carnivale celebrations, but is also noted for its Pride Festivals. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro both have huge celebrations, so either city is worth visiting. Rio's parade is held on Copacabana Beach in October. Sao Paulo's event is acknowledged as the largest pride parade in the world, drawing nearly four million people.

Obviously, there are dozens more held all over the world, from Manila in the Philippines to Berlin, Germany, from Madrid, Spain to Montreal, Canada. There is no end to the possibilities to show your support for the Gay and Lesbian communities around the globe--or to find an excuse to wear flashy costumes and rainbow jewelry. I fully intend to hit some of the Sydney Pride Fest when I head down to Australia next February, and I will be sure to report back on all the insanity.

Until then, stay proud!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

North Korea Stirs Curiosity, Draws More Tourists

Of all the places in the world to go, one of the last places I would ever consider is North Korea. Mostly because I associate it with dictatorship, repression, nuclear war, poverty...not exactly selling points in the tourism industry. And yet, a number of Westerners are taking trips to the country, due in large part to curiosity about what its actually like.

In 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens traveling to the country. They are now able to visit anytime of the year, but they cannot travel by train and are not allowed to participate in homestay programs. Tourists do not have the same freedom as in other destinations, and they must be part of a tour and have a Korean escort. All visitors need a visa, which will be issued once a tour is booked, approved by authorities and paid for. It sounds a bit daunting, and travel is certainly limited, but that doesn't appear to be detering guests.

According to Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, about 3,500 Western and 40,000 Chinese tourists went to North Korea in 2011. And the number is expected to grow this year, especially as the image of the country continues to change under the rule of Kim Jong-un, who took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong II.

Tour companies, like Koryo, said there are many misconceptions about North Korea and its people, but the country offers a variety of great experiences just like any place else...tourists just need to give it a chance. Another common belief is that all tourists must have the same fixed itinerary that the government dictates, but there are a variety of tour packages available. Koryo, for instance, offers itineraries that include museums, parks, monuments and other areas around the capital Pyongyang; the demilitirized zone on the North Korean side of the border of South Korea; and Hamhung, an industrial city that was opened to tourists in 2010.

There are plenty of other tour groups that offer itineraries to North Korea, and the price of the vacation will vary depending on group size, trip length and sightseeing options.

Even though the country has opened its doors a crack to tourists, indicating that it is becoming a little less rigid on government control, there are still plenty of restrictions placed on guests. Visitors cannot use cellphones, send email, walk down the street without an escort, talk to strangers or take pictures of people or places that are not approved by the escort. (For an interesting account from a reporter, check out this article from the Washington Post.)

Juche Tower
I realize that some of this might be putting a few of you off the idea of visiting North Korea, but if you're still with me, here are a few places that are highly recommended to see once you are in the country--and hopefully the tour you booked takes you to these places:
  • Kim II Sung Stadium
  • Kim II Sung Square
  • Tower of the Juche Idea
  • Daedong River
  • Koguryo Tombs
  • Arch of Reunification
  • Geumsusan Memorial Palace
Mass Games
One of the best attractions in North Korea is the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, popular festivals held at the Kim II Sung Stadium. The events run for two months and held annually on Kim's birthday. The whole thing is kicked off by over 30,000 school children holding colored cards that create a massive mosaic. Guests can witness complex and highly choreographed group routines by dancers and gymnasts.

On the border between North Korea and China is Heaven Lake, located within a caldera on top of the volcanic Baekdu Mountain. This is one of the most popular sites to see in the country as it offers breathtaking views of the water and the surrounding mountains. 
There is a lot of great information on more attractions in the country at the official Korean Tourism website, which mostly features travel in South Korea. Still, there is a section dedicated to the spectacular sites of North Korea.
Despite the wonderful sites of the country, and the changes that are being made within its government, I am not completely sold on taking a trip there. I am all about spontaneity when I travel, being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and the restrictions set by North Korea definitely hinder my ability to explore freely. Given that fact, I'd say I'll hold off on traveling to North Korea until it gets a little more lacks with tourists--though that's not likely to happen very soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Would You Call Your City Romantic?

Of all the major U.S. cities, Chicago does not rank very high on the romance scale, at least in my opinion. Of course, I'm coming from the vantage point of a single woman, so my view is a little biased. (Though many friends, both single and attached, agree with my sentiments, but we won't get into that.) Despite my opinion, Chicago was actually named one of the top five most romantic cities in the country by MissTravel.com.

Sidenote: MissTravel is a dating website just launched in April, pairing wealthy men looking for traveling companions with women who are financially unable to go on vacations alone. I'm not gung-ho about the idea for obvious reasons, but apparently its somewhat of a lucrative market.

Based on the 20,000 trips that have been coordinated by the website, it has compiled a list of the 20 most romantic destinations in the U.S.

And they are as follows:

1. Las Vegas
2. New York City
3. Miami
4. San Francisco
5. Chicago
6. Honolulu
7. Los Angeles
8. Orlando
9. Santa Barbara
10. Washington, D.C.
11. Napa Valley
12. Dallas
13. San Diego
14. Boston
15. New Orleans
16. Philadelphia
17. Houston
18. Tampa
19. Sedona, AZ
20. Cleveland

Now, some of these I can totally see, while others (cough, Cleveland) make no sense at all. And how did Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. beat out Napa Valley. In my opinion, that should have definitely made the top five. What is more romantic than spending a weekend on a vineyard enjoying different wines and cheeses? And how did some other great romantic cities not make the list? What about my home town of Denver, with its proximity to the mountains providing ample opportunities to rent out a log cabin for an evening where you can cuddle with your sweetie next to a fire sipping hot cocoa. Or how about Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle or Santa Fe? I find those to be more romantic than some of the other choices.

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Well, maybe I just need to take a few romantic trips and create my own top 20 list. I'll add that to my array of travel tasks and report back when I finish.