Monday, March 31, 2008

Breakin' Down the Wall(s)

Maybe Tijuana's a long way away, San Diego even further. But it seems a lot of the world could use a little of the mojo the Border Meetup it trying to spread down on the US-Mexico border. I just found this group, which holds events smack on la linea in Tijuana/San Diego, attended by folks from both sides of the border. The goal? "To bring people together by finding a theme that has no borders, often has a direct effect on improving the region, and always results in friendships across cultural boundaries." Word.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Perfect Hat

I own eighteen hats, maybe more. Three no-name stingy-brims; two Panamas (Panamas are from Ecuador, by the way, not Panama); a mink ushanka from Russia; a beautiful 7X Beaver Stetson Gun Club (which no doubt wins title of Hat with the Coolest Name); a finely woven Peruvian farmer's hat; two Mexican cowboy hats; a camouflage bucket hat from Iraq with my name in Arabic embroidered on the front (courtesy of a reporter friend); a Stetson Open Road (which I love but never wear because, being a skinny white dude with glasses, I look like a total idiot under it rather than a wandering stud), two Kangols, three or four baseball caps and several others that I can't think of at the moment.

Despite owning all these hats, and although I hunt for a new hat nearly every time I travel, I've never found the perfect hat. In the end, the hat that I travel with the most, I have to admit, is the baseball cap. I wish I could say my tried and true travel hat were my Stetson Gun Club or the Open Road, but function beats form every time*. I can't shove one of the Stetsons in my pack without ruining it. The brim on the Gun Club (not to mention the stingy brims) isn't wide enough to block the sun from my eyes. I could wear one of my cowboy hats, but, not only do they make me look like a complete dork, they're impossible to deal with on planes and buses and, once again, I can't crumple them up and shove them in my pack when I need to.

My wool Kangol is great for traveling in cold places, but, for obvious reasons, tropical weather renders it useless. I have a summer Kangol which I long ago took to Argentina, only to realize it made me look like I was trying to don traditional Argentine garb and, rather than making me feel like the pretty-groovy dude that I am, made me feel, uh, like a poser. I'd love to take my giant paja toquilla (aka, Panama) hat along with me, but it's too cumbersome to be useful anywhere but on the banks of a river or in the garden.

So I'm back to the baseball cap.

Although it's entirely unstylish, I simply haven't found a hat that beats it in terms of function. It blocks the sun from my eyes. In a headwind, I can flip it around so it doesn't blow off my head**. When I'm taking photos, I can flip it around and the brim doesn't smash against my camera. It never loses its form when I toss it my pack. I can swim with it on. It works when it's wet. And it's still not as dorky as one of those REI/North Face-style synthetic, foldable adventure hats (oh yeah, I own one of these, too) that scream "Yankee Tourist" anywhere outside the United States. It's just as good as any other hat at doubling as a sack when doing things like picking fruit, gathering nuts or whatever. It's washable. Cotton is breathable.

It's almost perfect. It's only downfall, besides its utterly un-Hunter S Thompson ubiquitousnous, is that it doesn't shield my ears from the sun (although adding a bandana underneath solves that problem). But that's OK. When it comes to travel, I'm still a far greater fan of function than I am of form. And, although I fantasize, I'm no Hunter S.

*If I were truly beholden to function over form, I'd probably suck it up and wear one of those synthetic travel hats, but I just can bring myself to do it, although I have tried, albeit when backpacking in the middle of nowhere rather than when traipsing round populated areas.

**I've lost at least three caps to headwinds when I've forgotten to do this, once from a skiff in Argentina, once from a panga in Mexico and once from the back of a truck in Ecuador. This actually proves another value of the baseball cap: it's easy to replace.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Will online, user-generated content replace the traditional guidebook?

Worldhum just ran an excellent interview with Lonely Planet author/online publisher Robert Reid (here) about the future of guidebooks (and guidebook writers) in the world of internet and handhelds. This is one of the most intersting pieces I've read on the subject. Robert's a great guy, sports a smashing mustache (except when he has a beard) and publishes a very cool online guide to Vietnam.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Burrobag Item No. 2 (with variations)

The Bic Lighter Duct Tape Roll

This is hands down one of the handiest items to have when traveling. I've included it on every Don't-Forget checklist in every guidebook I've written (so if you've seen it elsewhere, now you know its origin!).

Basically, you want to create a mini roll of duct tap - never travel without it - by wrapping it around a Bic lighter, which gives you two tools in one: lighter and tape. The lighter is the perfect holder for the tape and, with the tape wrapped around the lighter, you'll never put the lighter in your pocket only to have someone pilfer it after asking you for a light (a threat when visiting stoner-friendly places like Zipolite or Moñtanita). So you'll never lose the lighter - or the tape. It's always in the the gear bag when you need it.

Gaff Tape Variation - this one comes courtesy of photographer/videographer Steele Douglas, who chooses black gaffers tape (available at any photo/vid supply site) over duct tape. Gaffers tape is pricier, but the stuff is extremely adhesive, even stickier than duct tape. Plus the black looks cool!

Pencil Variation - If you just can't see yourself needing a lighter that much (I have to admit, I use the lighter less now that I don't smoke), wrap it around a pencil that you've shortened to about three inches. Then you'll always have something to write with in case of emergency (you know, like when you have to write down the vitals of your buddy when he's spinning out after crashing that dirt bike or falling out of a tree). That said, having fire in the bag is always reassuring, so I'm not sure if this beats the Bic variation.

Maglite Soltaire Variation - This is another good one, arguably even handier than the Bic variation. But you have to use the Maglite Soltaire, not the Mini Mag, which is too big. Besides, you've already got your headlamp in the bag, so there's no point in having another big flashlight (when you're backpacking, even the Mini Mag is big). The Soltaire is in there in case of emergency. Problem: you still gotta throw some sort of fire source into the bag. Solution: matches.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Get Drunk, Write a Letter

I don't regularly get drunk alone, but one of my favorite things to do while traveling solo is going to a bar, getting looped and writing a letter. It's the best of both worlds: I'm alone but in good company, by myself, but having a conversation with my best friend. I don't know, maybe it's the sort of thing that becomes appealing only after long stretches alone on the road. But even after I'm home, I find myself craving, every now and then, the feeling of sitting alone with a drink and a pen and pouring out my thoughts to a friend on paper.

Maybe it's because there's nothing like ranting when you're on a good buzz. And with pen and paper, there's no one to interrupt. I get to do all the talking. No one breaks in when I lose my train of thought or if I pause and stare off in silence to hone in on something brilliant thought that's taking shape in my brain. And when I'm alone in bars, brilliant thoughts do take shape in my brain.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Where the Hell's My Money

If time is money (and during work hours it undoubtedly is), then the money I lose to time spent looking for stuff is off the charts. Organization is one of the keys to running a successful business, but it's one of the things I've continually botched during ten years of freelancing. Unless it's in my computer, odds are I have no idea where it is.

An editor can throw a simple query at me, like: "Your text says this is two blocks east of the cultural center, but on the map it's only one block – which is correct?" and I'll spend half a fucking hour digging through boxes of maps and brochures, through spiral notebooks, through manila envelopes labeled (I thought) precisely to allow me to find what I was looking for when queries just like this arose. No such luck.

During tax time, all my receipts are exactly where I filed them, except for that goddamn $800 flight to Buenos Aires. I need a quote that I know I wrote down, and I'll spend ten minutes flipping through six spiral notebooks trying to find it, despite the fact that I've labeled the cover of ever notebook with the dates and towns covered within. My printer won't print – there goes twenty minutes just trying to locate the manual.

But I guess that's the price I pay for spending at least half of the last ten years on the road. Home, wherever it's been, has rarely amounted to more than a rented room and a storage space stacked with file boxes. Nothing was ever in the same place for long. Until now. Now I have a place to call home, and I can travel. How did it take so long? I'm setting my file cabinet right here and leaving it here. And one by one I'll go through the boxes. My profit margin is gonna skyrocket!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Flights to South America

"Cheap flights" websites are everywhere. But when it comes to flights to South America, I've never done better than I do through eXito Travel (based in the USA), using a good old fashioned travel agent. I admit, I haven't spent hours online looking for better deals than the ones Ken (travel agent extraordinaire) quotes me, but I usually punch my destination into the biggies (Orbitz, Travelocity, etc), and haven't found a better price yet.

If you're flying to Central or South America, I highly recommend these guys. Every time I tell someone about eXito, they end up using the company for all their flights south. eXito is a consolidator (specializing in Central and South America), so it gets the cheapest flights you'll find. And in my experience, they do their darndest to hook you up with the right people/companies/tour operators/whatever once you're down there. More than anything, I love calling up and talking to a human being!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More on Rain

Years ago, two friends and I spent a month in a small trailer on a bog in Ireland. The deal, made in a Galway pub, was that we'd help the owner with his farm in exchange for a place to stay - in the middle of nowhere. But it turned out that the owner, Paul, liked to smoke pot as much as we did and liked sleeping late even more.

So we worked, on average, about an hour a day. The rest of the time we spent smoking pen-sized joints (those long three-paper tobacco-and-hash jobs which, unlike California pot, relax me rather than liquify my brain) and playing cards.

It was also the wettest June on record. In Ireland.

I remember hearing on the radio, toward the end of the month, that June had received a grand total of about four hours of sunshine. Everything in the trailer was damp. The cards, the tobacco, the sugar, the tea, the salt, the bread - all of it semi soggy and semi-useable.

We listened to the radio a lot, music and voices coming from somewhere through the rain. But more than anything we listened to the rain itself, amplified in all its forms by the thin roof and walls of the trailer. Downpours were deafening. Wind-blown drizzles brushed againsts the side of the trailer in gentle waves. Heavy mists were like whispers, with the random big drops thrown in to break things up. We sat there stoned, listening, dozing, playing cards, reading, talking.

We talked about going to Spain, to Andalucia, where we'd sit on the beach in the sun. But we never went. We just sat around, and Paul would come down every day sometime before noon, and we'd ask him what work we should do and he'd say, "Ah, lets make a pot of tea." Then we'd smoke another joint and play cards. Friends from Galway would come and visit, and we'd stand out on the bog in the drizzle and look at the hills. It was perfect. I eventually did make it to Andalucia, but I don't remember much about it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In Defense of Rain (I guess)

My family and I just moved from sunny California to a place that gets a lot of rain. For months we flip-flopped on the decision and every time we told someone where we wanted to move, the response was the same, "Yeah, but the rain. How could you live with that much rain?"

We decided we could. We told ourselves: "We did it before, right?" referring to our year in Buenos Aires, which actually gets about 1.5 inches more rain annually than we get here in our new city. We analyzed this statistic like freaks before moving: OK, so it rains more in Buenos Aires, but maybe that just means BA gets sudden downpours with regular daily sun, while our new home will just drizzle and dump and stay perpetually gray. BA gets summer downpours, which are different (thanks to the unrelenting summer heat that renders downpours harmless).

That sort of stuff. We doubted ourselves. With the doubts came more support from friends, from the humorous: "Are you and Aimee attempting to turn your child into an amphibious creature?" to the untrue: "That town gets more rain and more people hooked on mood enhancers than any other city in the US other than Seattle".

So here we are, two weeks into a decision that took over a year to make. And we're loving it. True enough, we're moving into spring and we haven't been through a winter. But it has rained nearly every day. The sun has also burst through the clouds every day, in a far more dramatic presentation than the average sunny day in Cali. The smell of the air is so fresh and thick with life my breaths feel deeper than ever. The cherry and plum trees are exploding with blossoms, and the leaf buds are all slowly poking through on the maples and the elms and the beeches and hawthorns. Moss is everywhere. It's unbelievably beautiful.

I know, I know, we haven't been through winter. We're still in the honeymoon phase. But our spirits are high.

And, from now on, to anyone who asks me about the rain I have a pat response:

"Yeah, but it's a dry rain."

Friday, March 14, 2008

You Suck at Photoshop

If you haven't already seen Donnie Hoyle's "You Suck at Photoshop" tutorials, you gotta check them out. Even if you don't use Photoshop, you'll laugh your ass off. The great thing is that they're actually extremely helpful. Like this one on the clone stamp tool and manual cloning - perfect stuff for removing those goddamn telephone lines from your otherwise award-winning travel photos:

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Slummin' Around

The Times ran a great article by Eric Weiner the other day on slum tourism (Thanks GR!). Crazy stuff. Or is it? I can't help but agree with David Fennell, that it's straight-up voyeurism. I'd love to get into the minds of the people who are taking the tours, just to see what they want to get out of the experience: photos and stories, I bet. Or am I being too cynical?

Anyway, for me it brings up the issue how people travel today. Particularly, how fast they travel. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to tour a favela in Rio, you'd probably have to hang out and get to know someone. That could take weeks! Good god, where the hell is all that time gonna come from? You'd have to gain someone's respect and trust (and you'd have to trust them), and then maybe they'd take you into a favela (and maybe you'd be comfortable going). He might even introduce you to people. Maybe you'd even hang out for a while. More weeks! You might even get to know some folks. And then the photos - it seems - would be honest. Not stolen.

But tours are fast. Convenient. They can be arranged on the spot. No confidence necessary (just sign here). No need for hanging around to really get to know the people and the place.

It's kind of like traveling to the Amazon in Ecuador. Fifteen, maybe twenty years ago, if you wanted to head into the rain forest, you could go to a little town at the edge of the jungle - somewhere like Misahualli, say - and you'd start asking around and people would point you to Jaime's house and then you'd go knock on the door. But Jaime wouldn't be there, so you'd have to wait a day or two for him to get back from wherever it was he went. When he finally did make it back, you'd set up a price and a day and finally off you'd go. (Thirty years ago - who knows how long you'd have to hang out to make it work. Weeks!!)

Starting ten or so years ago, more and more people started doing this, and then tour companies sprouted up (and later proliferated), and all the local guides got snatched up by the companies. Today if you head to the same town, you won't find a guide that knows a liana from a lemon ant. The guides are either with a group in the forest or they're in Quito. Now, you have to go through a tour group.

A few diehards still do it the old fashioned way, but they wait. And wait. And wait.

For most people, its' in and out. Four days in the rain forest. Five days in the rain forest. A weekend in the rain forest. On a tour that they set up from home or from Quito. There's no lingering around some frontier town waiting for some guy to turn up, waiting to meet someone that can guide you into woods. That takes too long. So people just sign up and head in with the group. And the tour leader wants to keep things safe (liability is an issue, of course), so they go to specific lodges, perhaps their own (which has the added benefit of keeping the money in the business), and they bring their own food from outside the jungle (which means food isn't purchased on site), and the tourist ends up being a little bubble roaming through the forest in a protective skin, neither really getting into the forest nor letting the forest inside. In this scenario, there's little or no contribution.

OK, there are some great outfitters out there. There really are. But something's been lost. Or has it? I don't know, I'm ranting . Tourism is weird. And often so fucked up.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Bolivian iPhone

I'll still take the cheap, transister pocket radio over the iPod for a travel companion on the grounds that leaving the iPod means leaving "home" at home. But here's another reason:

Going to La Paz, Bolivia? The radio will work just fine. The iPod? Nope. Not over 10,000 feet it wont. And neither will the iPhone.

According to the technical specs at Apple, the max operating altitude for both is 10,000ft. Bummer. Time to pay that guy running the sidewalk phone for a call.

Wonder if you can get Google maps on this thing?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Parsailing, the Dumbest Tourist Invention on Earth

Man, I always wondered about those parasailing outfitters that hang around beaches in countries where you KNOW safety regulations don't exist.

Someone forgot to take out the slack...

Another useless travel fact

According to the World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitive Report 2008, the United States ranks seventh in the world when it comes to "Balancing Economic Development and Environmental Sustainability". That's down two places since last year. Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Australia, Spain and Great Britain all beat the United States. Maybe it's the SUVs.