Monday, April 28, 2008

El Obelisco, Buenos Aires

Taking a picture of the Obelisco in Buenos Aires is practically impossible, whether you have a wide angle lens or not. You simply can't get everything in there. One day I was standing there thinking, how can I capture this place? Because it's not just the Obelisco - it's everything around it. And then it clicked.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Time Travel

I was reading about time travel this morning and came across a line on Wikipedia about how "Stephen Hawking once suggested that the absence of tourists from the future constitutes an argument against the existence of time travel."

And that got me wondering about time tourism. Of course, we'd have the gawkers and the other usual suspects coming to visit, but then wouldn't we also have the volunteers?

They'd have to come. I just can't imagine that philanthropical urge disappearing in people. I mean, if they still want to travel, why wouldn't there still be those who want to travel "with a purpose"?

And so they'd visit and sign on to help at our schools and out on the farm. Somewhere like California's Central Valley, maybe, where they could get the feel of authentic industrial mono-cultural agri-business.

But wait, wouldn't complete non-engagement be the only way time toursim could work? Otherwise, the time tourist might make changes in the past that could render them nonexistent. (Or whatever).

So all time tourists would have to remain completely out of sight. They couldn't even leave footprints. And no photos, of course. No interacting with the locals. No showing the kids their 24th century technology and turning them green with envy. No packs of futurists tromping through town with their weightless future packs exposing us to their future culture (which would irreperably alter ours). No futurists coming to live with the family.

I wonder how they'd enforce all that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Post Wednesday

No post today. I gotta run around town and visit as many hotels as possible. Speaking of hotels, the Ace Hotel has to be one of the coolest hotels I've ever come across. Wait for the flash player to load - trust me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hypnotic Chaos (Driving in India)

I don't know why, but I can watch this video over and over again. There's something so perfect about what's going on down there. It's baffling that it works, like watching ants.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Wormholes are one of the most exciting means of travel.

Travel Writing

Check this out. Between April 7 and today, New York Times Travel editor Stuart Emmrich answered readers questions about travel writing and travel. There's some great stuff in here, from the ethics of writers taking freebies to the dilemmas of whether or not to expose "undiscovered" destinations.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mentors for Everyone

The other day a religious studies student approached me in the park and asked if he could interview me for a class assignment. One of his questions was, "If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?" Tough one. End starvation? End war? Rid the world of the internal combustion engine? Why not?

Then, this morning, I thought of a far simpler request, and within a half hour it was a bumper sticker in my mind: Mentors for everyone.

I reckon David Mamet would make a good mentor. Here he is, putting it straight to writer Alex Pappademas in the current issue of GQ magazine:

"Y’know, I grew up in a different generation. I grew up after World War II, and boys did different things in those days. You went camping. You went hunting. You boxed. And the image of a writer, to someone starting off in those days was not some schmuck who went to graduate school. It was Jack London, Nelson Algren, Ernest Hemingway. Especially coming from Chicago–a writer was a knock-around guy. Someone who got a job as a reporter or drove a cab. I think the reason there are a lot of novels about How Mean My Mother Was to Me and all that shit is because the writers may have learned something called ‘technique,’ but they’ve neglected to have a life. What the fuck are they gonna write about?"

-- David Mamet

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bus Plunge

The eleven-year-old kid who jumped behind the wheel and stopped his runaway schoolbus from careening out of control (here) got me thinking about bad bus stories. And that, of course, got me thinking about ... BUS PLUNGE.

As a pat on the back for the cool-headed kid (nice work buddy!), and in memory of all those who have died in bus accidents, here's a little tribute to bus plunge, the media's favorite story:

The clearing house for Bus Plunge stories is, of course, Bus Plunge!, complete with a bus plunge archive, near-plunge experiences and it's headlining "Plunge of the Month".

According to Wikipedia, "Bus plunge stories are a journalism phenomenon of reporting passenger bus mishaps in short articles that invariably describe the bus as "plunging" from a bridge or hillside road." Read more here.

Find out "what killed the former New York Times staple" in this piece on Slate: The Rise and Fall of the 'Bus Plunge' Story.

Although it's possible you'd rather plunge off a Guatemalan cliff in a school bus before listening to the entire two minutes and 38 seconds of The Bob's Bus Plunge, you can get a free taste of it here.

This is interesting: Punch "bus plunge" into Google Maps (USA) and you get several Greyhound bus stations and a couple of travel agencies, all west of Dallas. OK. Another good reason to live on the West Coast.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Perfect Food

I like to consider myself a foodie, but if you think I'd let my daughter move in next door to Barry Goldwater -- wait, that's not how it goes. This one's something about me being a food lover but refusing, on principal, to eat somewhere like the French Laundry. I just couldn't do it. I believe in the power of a great meal, but I simply couldn't bring myself to spend $240 on one (unless Jim Harrison were joining me).

The thing is, I'm sort of cursed by the perfect food. I've eaten too many good tacos. What do you get at the French Laundry? A very special combination of select ingredients prepared by a master chef. Same thing at the right taco stand in Tijuana or Oaxaca or DF. But wait, eating at the French Laundry, bite after bite, is a transcendental experience. So is the right taqueria -- and more people will vouch for that than will vouch for the experience had at the French Laundry.

OK, OK, OK. How can you compare the two? It's a ridiculous juxtaposition. But, like so many people, I've had the experience of hearing about a taqueria somewhere in Mexico, run by so-and-so, who does the steak in this special way, or who cooks the corn tortillas inside the coals to unheard-of perfection, or who makes the most insane birria you can possibly imagine, or who uses some family recipe that no one in a city of 8.7 million people has ever been able to duplicate or top, and I've sought it out and eaten there and had my mind totally blown. For a buck.

I'd enjoy every bite at the French Laundry. Who wouldn't? But with every bite, back in my subconscious, I'd know that I'd been there already. And I'd miss the atmosphere.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Multnomah Falls

So here it is, Multnomah Falls "the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States" after Yosemite Falls. That's according to the United States Forestry Service website, Wikipedia and various other sources.

Am I the only one who sees the problem here? No, obviously not. Everyone knows that Yosemite Falls is not a year-round fall. Just ask all those heartbroken tourists that drove through the scorching Central Valley August heat all the way to Yosemite, only to find the world's second highest waterfall - dry.

So, if Yosemite Falls is not the United States' highest year-round fall, doesn't that make Multnomah Falls title holder?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

That's more like it

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Answer to the Universe

I think his full name was John Lee, but we just called him Mad John. Not to his face though, only when we were talking about him, which was often because he was fun to talk about.

Mad John was an inventor. He didn't get paid for his work, but collected a monthly government check which allowed him to keep inventing things like magnet-water games and star pens.

One of the things I remember about Mad John was his apartment (he lived in Inverness, Scotland), specifically the cigarette butts along the top of the shower door in his bathroom. John smoked a lot, even in the shower.

I met John at the hostel where I worked in Inverness. He was an old friend of the owner and used to come around to hang out. Often, he'd just sit there and smoke without saying anything. And when you'd talk to him, he'd get nervous and smoke faster and smile and answer whatever questions you asked. He was extremely polite and very gentle.

Mad John taught me how to play chess, and even though he could have pummeled me in three moves, he always took it easy on me. He was a formidable partner to have in 500, a card game that all the Australians played at the hostel. When he was on my side, we'd always take the Aussies for run.

I would never have gotten to know Mad John if it weren't for two actualities: he hung around the hostel every day and I worked there every day. One of the great things about the service industry, especially when you throw travel into the mix, is that you get to know people (or, rather, you're forced to get to know people) that would otherwise never fit into the often pigeon-holed definitions we create to define the very specific type-of-person-we-can-imagine-being-friends-with. I got to know Mad John by accident.

Not long before I met him, John got busted out on the runway at the Inverness airport, carrying a bicycle wheel and claiming it was the answer to the universe. I don't think the rest of the bike had anything to do with the answer. It was all right there.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Trip Along the Chocolate Trail

Get a group of travelers sitting around telling stories in a hostel and sooner or later it turns to illnesses on the road, the next story beating the previous one in terms of discomfort and disgust. One guy does the liquid laugh into a plastic bag on the bus to Ri\'o Negro, and the next guy is squirming in pain on a two-hour skiff ride silently begging his sphincter ani externus to please, please, please just hold out a little longer.

Knowing I can't compete, I usually bust out my Bariloche story, and everyone looks at me with blank eyes before letting out a couple of courtesy laughs and moving on to the next story.

But, c'mon, how often does traveler sickness involve too much chocolate?

Bariloche is a hiker/skier/tourist town in the Argentine Lake District in northern Patagonia. Thanks to all the Austrian and German settlers who shipped over and set up shop here in the late 1800s, the place is part Alpine village and part mismatched, unplanned Latin American tourist trap. It's a pretty cool place, despite the tourists. And it's famous for its chocolate.

The first time I covered the town for Lonely Planet, the book I was updating listed two chocolate shops: Del Turista and Fenoglio. Maybe they've been around the longest, but their chocolate, which they churn out on a national level, pretty much sucks.

Since this was my second gig for Lonely Planet, and I'd been assigned way more terrain than any single human could possibly cover in the time allotted, I had no time to slip into other shops and taste chocolate. I made sure coverage was up to date and I moved on.

The next time I updated the book, however, I vowed I'd provide complete coverage of Argentina's chocolate capital. After arriving Bariloche this time around, I asked everyone I met what their favorite chocolate was, I interviewed shop owners and chocolate makers, and (this should illustrate just how confident I'd become with my time) I even took a tour of the Fenoglio chocolate factory. And I sampled chocolate* in every shop on the main drag.

The next day I was sick. Dizzy, nauseous, weak, diarrhea – basically a classic case of traveler's diarrhea (or, if you will, an authentic case of the Hershey Squirts). It was so bad, I finally had to take a taxi to the health clinic**, where, after looking at my tongue, taking my temperature, checking my blood pressure and making a few other examinations, the doctor finally told me I'd probably eaten too much chocolate. He wrote me a prescription for a high-powered antidiarrheal. "We've seen it before."

You've got to be kidding.

It took me nearly four days to fully recover and get my strength back. Losing all that liquid made me weak, and weakness is your worst enemy when updating a guidebook. I still walked and I still worked, but it was pretty hellish. Chocolate. Are you serious?

*For the record, my scientific approach here was simple: I sampled (1) a small bar of the darkest chocolate available at each shop and (2) a piece of the shop's specialty, whatever it was.

**It's worth noting here that my visit to the clinic, which was recommended to me as one of the town's best, cost only about US$15, and I was seen within ten minutes of my arrival.