I’ve Had Way Too Many Hobbies Over the Years

I love hobbies. After all, traveling and mountain biking are the reason I created this blog. Sure, I sometimes write about other things (especially electric cars with an increased regulatory in recent years).

I’ve largely stuck to my main topics. Now, I’d like to drop something in here to frame who’s writing all this stuff. The overall content here will remain focused — this is just a little something to shake it up. I plan to do this more, while still retaining my original focus.

Today, I’ll tell you about the other stuff that’s interested me over the years … how I started, how far I took it, why I don’t do it anymore, that sort of stuff.

If any of these activities make you say “wow, I’d really like to try that!”, feel free to hit me up to learn more about it. It might turn into a future post.

A Hockey Kid in 80s Arizona

Growing up, I was non-athletic. I had no instincts for any of the typical American kid sports. Then some acquaintance of my mom’s brought a bunch of old hockey equipment over. We’re talking old-school wooden sticks, real rubber pucks, even goalie gear — all the ancient Cooper stuff that you’d recognize if you ever watched Slapshot.

For some reason, my hands knew exactly what to do with every bit of this equipment. Snapping a wrist shot was as natural as breathing. The catch glove and blocker made complete sense to me.

I could go on about this at length. But I’ll keep it short. I wanted to play hockey, but that was in short supply in Arizona. And I knew my parents wouldn’t be up for the effort required to put me on the ice. So I just had floor hockey at school, which was the one time in PE classes when I got picked first for anything.

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The ASU Blade Devils circa 1993. Check out my old deer hair-stuffed goalie pads. Old school!

Well, I started playing floor hockey during my freshman year of college as a goalie. I caught the attention of the Arizona State University Blade Devils in-line hockey club, which meant I needed to learn how to use in-line skates. An intense boot camp with a classmate got me ready. And I just got it. I had help from more experienced teammates to help me fill in the gaps formed by growing up in Arizona instead of Michigan, but I caught up quickly.

For a period of about 10 years, I was The Guy in goal. Local teams bribed me with equipment and PowerBars to fill in for their goalies and play in tournaments. Other goalies would groan “oh, no” when I showed up to play their team.

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The later days of my time as an ASU Blade Devils goalie.

I still love hockey. But it conflicted with a lot of other things I like doing. And good lord, being a goalie makes you smell TERRIBLE! Roller hockey also fell out of fashion — and ice hockey is even more expensive and has ridiculous game times. So I eventually retired, if you will.

But damn, I still miss the feeling of making a save look effortless or robbing someone of a certain, can’t-miss goal.

A Displaced Curler in the Southwest

Whenever I’ve traveled, people have asked me if I’m Canadian. This includes other Americans.

Well, it’s starting to seem like I just might be. I mean, hockey came to me naturally. And now you’re finding out that I used to curl.

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My rink (that’s what they call a curling team) from a beginner bonspiel (that’s what they call a curling tournament).

It all started with a movie called Men With Brooms. Of course, I knew about curling from the Olympics. But Men with Brooms brought curling to a new level for me. My wife found a curling club at one of the local hockey rinks, and we took a learn to curl class.

Eventually, the Coyotes Curling Club moved to its own facility. It became one of the biggest clubs in the western US. I curled for a few seasons straddling the birth of my daughter. She was actually one of the first little people born to the club, if not THE first!

A baby and mom among the curling rocks.

If I ever came into a bunch of free time, I’d go straight back to curling. But crunched for time as I am now, I need to burn more calories with my spare time.

BONUS: My worst injury from my hobbies came while curling on hockey ice. My feet went out from under me, and I came down hard on my side. I’m pretty sure I cracked some ribs.

Cranking Up the Volume

Playing the guitar is a part of my identity. I first started when I was 15 years old after hearing The Scorpions album “Savage Amusement.”

My cousin was my first guitar teacher, and he helped me find a cool used sparkly white Charvel Model 2 and a solid-state Randall halfstack — totally 80s! I jammed in many a garage, but never gigged.

That changed in my 30s, long after I’d slide my last guitar — a red Charvel Model 4 — under my bed. A friend of a friend became my friend, then my bandmate, then a co-best man at my wedding (someday, I’ll tell you about how his pants fell off while giving a toast at the wedding).

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My old band, Hung Dynasty, rocking a venue that’s long since closed.

Our band, Hung Dynasty, played close to 200 gigs over 10 years — everywhere from places a karate dojo to the Marquee Theater. And we went from a slightly harder sounding version of The Refreshments to a band that someone said sounded like “Arizona’s Iron Maiden.”

Hung Dynasty disbanded when our much-loved drummer/flatulence aficionado moved to Colorado. I played in another band, but eventually parted ways with them. I came close to putting another band together, only for the drummer and singer to move out of state shortly before we were gig ready.

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This venue? Also closed.

Now, one of the members of that project is working with me to drag some former members of Hung Dynasty back into the fray.

I’d be really excited for my daughter (now 6) to be able to see me play a few of her favorite tunes. CUTE BONUS OBSERVATION: For awhile, she was convinced that I was the guitarist for a Finnish band called Nightwish. The guitarist doesn’t look a foot shorter than me in videos, but he is!

Living by the Sword

I’ve always wanted to take up fencing. It just always looked cool. There is a fencing club in my city, but it’s neither close nor convenient.

Well, one night while pushing my daughter through the park in her stroller, saw a bunch of brightly colored lights. As I got closer, I discovered a bunch of people swinging KED-powered sabers at each other. I hesitate to call them “lightsabers” just to avoid the wrath of Disney.

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It’s hard to take good photos of people dueling at night. So here’s a little girl with a lightsaber.

As it turns out, there’s a local club for this sort of thing. Some of the people are mostly interested in choreography, while others are more interested in combat (and still others are there for the social aspects).

They had loaner sabers, and I took some basic instruction before trying my hand at dueling.

Pretty soon, I was dueling regularly, though it was nothing like fencing. I favor a two-handed style of combat based on kendo and kenjutsu. The stabbing motion associated with fencing isn’t allowed for safety reasons; groups that wear protective gear allow it.

I’ve had an enormous number of insights about swordplay thanks to club members who have studied various sword-related arts for a long time.

As another bonus, I also got into the “build you own saber” aspect. Now I know way too much about momentary switches, sound boards, LEDs, and wiring gauges! I’m also far better at soldering know than I ever have been, which comes in handy for Halloween decorations and costumes.

I’ve been on hiatus since COVID lockdowns began. But I’ve had my first vaccination, so I fully expect to be dueling again soon.

The Hobbies I Haven’t Mentioned (Yet)

These are just a few of the hobbies I’ve enjoyed over the years. I also played tennis for quite awhile. I’ve practiced yoga since 1999 and have dabbled in various types of weightlifting from CrossFit to HIIT. There’s also the usual reading and cooking stuff that many of us get into as a necessity.

I’m probably leaving some out. And there’s probably a hobby aimed at me that I don’t even see coming right now.

Literature Review: The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakToday’s post is travel writer Nichole L. Reber’s review of the Kira Salak memoir, The Cruelest Journey. Nichole is full-on obsessed with the fraternal twin crafts of writing and reading, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy her insights. Get to know Nichole and her work by visiting her website or her Facebook page.

“No place is safe. Safety, itself, is an illusion.” Kira Salak

The women’s memoirs I’ve read since repatriating to the US have repeatedly disappointed me. Rather than travelogues about other cultures and a writer’s (small) place in it, today’s publishers churn out self-obsessive memoirs aimed at women as if we were interested solely in finding boyfriends and making babies with men of foreign accents. Women writing about living in Japan, Yemen, mainland China, and Hong Kong, for instance, focus on infertility or stealing husbands, treading nowhere near anthropological observations of the other cultures. Then there’s Kira Salak. She raises travel writing to the level of explorer writing.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakHer book, The Cruelest Journey, published by Brooklyn-based Restless Books, is a riveting read. It, like her other books and National Geographic stories, reveals a women who eschews the easy route, the cliché destination. Salak has crossed Papua New Guinea and made a 700-mile cycling trip across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. She has ventured into Iranian vistas where local travel guides don’t take their clients, and explored Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Libya, Bhutan, and Borneo. At the age of 20, backpacking through Africa at the height of a brutal civil war in Mozambique, she was kidnapped by marauding soldiers.

“Since then I’ve sought out countries that are dangerous in order to reveal situations no one else is covering, like slavery in Timbuktu and genocide in eastern Congo. These tragedies are very emotionally difficult to witness, but if by shedding light on them I can improve even one person’s life, I feel it’s worth the risk,” she wrote in National Geographic.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakThe Cruelest Journey tells her journey kayaking solo six hundred miles down West Africa’s Niger River in an inflatable kayak toward the Saharan city of Timbuktu.

She begins her trip with a single backpack in a torrential downpour from the Malian town of Old Ségou. She reveals how Timbuktu fell from its zenith during the Songhai Empire’s reign from 1463-1591, when its academic and artistic riches were tantamount Florence’s during Europe’s age of Enlightenment until it was sacked by the Moors in the late 16th century, and how it’s come to be the rubble heap and tourist trap it is today.

Salak equips herself for the journey with the writings of 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who twice labored over this course but perished along the way. Determined to follow in (most of) his footsteps, she shows us a place that time has all but abandoned. She witnesses polio and leprosy, voodoo priests and shamans, and abundant slavery, despite its being outlawed there. She kayaks through a pod of hippos like tiptoeing through a field of landmines.

She learns to discern the differences between tribes such as the Tuareg, the Fulani and the Bambarra, the Bozo and Somono. Most nights she stops at villages, learning to deduce which tribe lives there by characteristics visible from the river, if she can’t already discern that by how the village inhabitants react to her from the shore. Do they wave and exchange greetings, yell and threaten her, or watch her like a zoo animal? All the while she searches for commonalities, for ways of communicating and better understanding by speaking to them in Bambarra.

Thoughts on Male Travelers

One particularly enjoyable part of Salak’s book is her ability to alternately make fun of and admire male travelers. (Though admittedly her adoration of Park sometimes reads like Oriana Fallaci’s hero worship of Alekos Panagulis in A Man.)

“He doesn’t hide his distress, and his trademark equanimity fails him, revealing glimpses of a traumatizing ordeal. Many male adventurers of his time chose to hide such candor, opting instead for bravado or tedious ethnographical digressions,” he says of Park’s narrative of his capture by Moors. When the women among his captors repeatedly inspected his physique, they became particularly hands-on to find out if circumcision also applies to Christians. Park supposedly had some say in the matter, allowing only beautiful women the chance to inspect his white skin and naughty bits.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakAs a female traveler, though, Salak isn’t as lucky. On one occasion she is nearly raped – or at least molested – by a male villager.

Gender Differences in Travel

“My gender will always make me appear more vulnerable. But to not travel anywhere out of fear, or to remain immobilized in a state of hypervigilance when I do, feels akin to psychological bondage. I do not want to give away that kind of power.”

She doesn’t decry this reality. She does in a way that can be described as literary anthropology. “The Somono fishermen, casting out their nets, puzzle over me as I float by. ‘a va, madame?’ they yell.”

Each fisherman carries a young son perched in the back of his pointed canoe to do the paddling. The boys stare at me, transfixed; they have never seen such a thing. A white woman. Alone. In a red, inflatable boat. Using a two-sided paddle.

“I’m an even greater novelty because Malian women don’t paddle here, not ever. It is a man’s job. So there is no good explanation for me, and the people want to understand.”

Considering the death-defying adventure she’s chosen the reader wants to understand too. What would compel a person to take such a trip? She addresses this and the very fundamental things that, as I learned when living abroad, mark the difference between tourism and travel.

Why Embark on These Trips?

Concerning “what we look for when we embark on these kinds of trips,” she writes: “There is the pat answer that you tell the people you don’t know: that you’re interested in seeing a place, learning about its people. But then the trip begins and the hardship comes, and hardship is more honest: It tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude. And we thought that we did. Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion.”

Salak’s poetic prose, like the parallel narratives of her journey and Park’s, meanders throughout the book like the bends and curves of the Niger itself. “The late afternoon sun settles complacently over the hills to the west. Paddling becomes a sort of meditation now, a gentle trespassing over a river that slumbers. The Niger gives me its beauty almost in apology for the violence of the earlier storms, treating me to smooth silver waters that ripple in the sunlight. The current – if there is one – barely moves. Park described the same grandeur of the Niger during his second journey, in an uncharacteristically sentimental passage that provided a welcome respite from accounts of dying soldiers and baggage stolen by natives.”

Heading Into Deeper Water

Her deft handling of dynamics, coupled with the occasional sweetener of levity make The Cruelest Journey an energetic read. This Restless Books publication and Salak’s other books such as Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea, traverse the depths of the human condition, weaves between fear and bliss, and blurs borders of time and place.

As Jessa Crispin points out in an essay in the Boston Review: “That the market has not sustained the work of other, more rugged, less self-obsessive women travel writers may have more to do with our expectations as readers than with any faults of their writing. We still look to men to tell us about what they do and to women to tell us how they feel.”

Meanwhile, for readers who like their water deeper, there’s the work of Kira Salak.

Don’t Make This Mistake if You Visit the Desert

You know why so many post-apocalyptic movies are about scarcity of water? Because water is really, really, really ridiculously important for the functioning of the human body and little things like growing food.

After reading stories about a French family’s disastrous experience with the a desert hike in the American Southwest, I felt awful.

If you haven’t heard, here’s the quick version: A vacationing French family went for a hike near White Sands National Monument in Mexico. In August. With barely any water. The parents died; their 9-year-old son, Enzo, survived, but will have to live with the most awful memories and probably a terrible case of survivor’s guilt.

"How stupid! Didn’t they realize what they were doing?" squawked many people.

I understand this knee-jerk reaction: The national park authorities did everything possible to alert people of the dangers, with more than adequate warning signs. I can’t say why Ornella and David Steiner didn’t obey them. This unbelievably sad situation was unnecessary and easily avoidable.

I think I found the real identity of the doctor who wrote about water intake for the New York Times.

But I feel a great deal of sympathy. Maybe they just didn’t understand the basics of human physiology and the critical role water plays in it. Or exactly how the hot, dry and unbelievably vast desert can suck moisture from a person’s body, especially during physical exertion. There is just nothing in France that can prepare a person adequately for the desert Southwest; it may as well be a different planet. Irresponsible articles like this mind-boggling piece of shit in the increasingly out-of-touch and haughty New York Times don’t help matters. The staggering ignorance of the comments is nearly equaled by the author’s ridiculous generalizations. The writer also failed to prove the harm in drinking 64 ounces a day, even in cooler, more humid conditions.His attitude encourages American to stay inadequately hydrated, fatigued, over-caffeinated and overfed.

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Your author (right) with Cody Lundin, putting our water knowledge into practice in the best laboratory there is – the high desert!

Where I live, people need to get rescued from Camelback Mountain – which is right in the middle of a city – every single year. In 2014, first responders went on 120 rescue missions (remember, this is just one mountain among many in the Phoenix area). Nearly every one of these rescues can be traced to dehydration – from getting immobilized by heat exhaustion to the lack of mental sharpness induced by dehydration. That leads to bad decision making, which leads to falls and injuries. Note to the New York Times: Precisely zero people have been rescued from Camelback Mountain due to the effects of hyperhydration. No adult is going to get hyper-hydrated by drinking that often-stated 64-ounces-a-day standard.

My foreign friends, especially those from Europe where deserts aren’t really in your frame of reference, I don’t want this to happen to you. I want you all to get back home safely. So I’m going to give you a few things to think about:

  1. The deserts in the American Southwest are huge. In many cases, they’re bigger than the countries you live in. Do not underestimate their size.
  2. Drink a lot. If you drink three liters a day as a baseline (more for increased heat and/or physical activity), you’re going to be in at least somewhere close to your needs.
  3. If you’re exercising or hiking or doing any physical activity, you need some electrolytes to go along with your water. Drop a few Nuun tablets or a few scoops of Skratch Labs mix into a liter of water, and you’ll stave off cramps and other effects of heat exhaustion. (NOTE: Nuun and Skratch Labs did not compensate me in any way for being mentioned. They’re just what I use whenever I exercise outdoors in the desert. Use whatever tastes good or makes sense to you.)
  4. Don’t forget to bring a snack. Raisins and nuts are compact and calorie-dense, and can balance the calories you burn.

There are a great many tips for staying safe in the desert. I can’t even scratch the surface here. If you plan to visit a desert region, I recommend picking up a copy of 98.6 Degrees by Cody Lundin. You will learn incredibly valuable information on hydration, desert safety and other wisdom that can be the difference between life and death. I’m not exaggerating. If Ornella and David Steiner had read this book, they’d still be alive and Enzo would still have parents.

Thoughts On Sith, Jedi and Redemption

CAUTION: What follows is a major digression from this website’s usual travel/adventure topics. But if you like Star Wars, this post will be a thought-provoking ride. Some of these thoughts contradict each other – but this is all just reflects my stream of consciousness and gives us a chance to talk about something fun. Enjoy!

One of my friends recently made a Facebook post with a Star Wars: The Force Awakens prediction – that Luke Skywalker would turn to the Dark Side. Sure enough, someone made a reference to Darth Vader being "redeemed." That led me down a rabbit hole of thoughts about redemption, motives and Sith Lords. Let’s have a look.

Why Did Darth Vader Save Luke?

Everyone assumes it was for love of his son – the son whose hand he severed, the son he was oh-so-close to shooting down over the first Death Star, the son whose junior-varsity T-16 races he’s never been to.

sithNo. I don’t care what he said in his dying moments. Vader acted out of hate for Darth Sidious and for his own ambition. Sidious engineered Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, and Vader knew it. Sidious brought about the death of his wife, the loss of much of his Force sensitivity and the loss of his limbs (and at least one other appendage, and don’t think for a second that’s not humiliating and emasculating – just ask Theon Greyjoy). He forced Vader into a hideously uncomfortable armored suit that he needed to survive. He made Vader dependent on him for nearly everything. There was no love, no trust, no camaraderie at all between these two Sith. Vader loathed Sidious for all that happened to him.

Luke and his still-developing powers were Vader’s ticket out from under Sidious’ thumb, possibly even out of the suit that tortured him every moment of every day. And what better final "peace out, sucka" to Sidious than Luke enabling Vader to become the senior Sith?

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A good baptism washed Delmar’s sins away. What’s it take for a Sith to get a clean slate?

Luke thought he could "feel the good" in Vader. But maybe what he detected was Vader’s willingness to usurp Sidious. A good act, sure. But a sign of more good acts to come? I have a hard time accepting that Vader would’ve renounced his Sith name, re-assumed his Anakin persona and gone on to a virtuous post-Sith life.

Can a Sith Actually Be "Redeemed"?

OK, Darth Vader did something good by tossing Sidious down that shaft. Does that wash away his crimes? There might be more than one answer to this. Had Vader survived his injuries and been brought before a New Republic tribunal for war crimes, my bet is an emphatic "Oh, hell, no."

But the remaining Jedi -- how would they view it? Are Jedi like evangelical Christians, where you can be history’s biggest murderer and yet have your immortal slate washed away by turning to Jesus and writing a blank check to live the rest of your life righteously? I can’t answer that.

Nor can I answer what a Sith would need to do to turn away from the Dark Side. Something tells me, though, that one good act couldn’t – in the eyes of the surviving Jedi or the New Republic – wash away the mop-up of the Jedi who survived Order 66, Alderaan and who knows how many other acts of mass and one-on-one murder.

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And that, Padawans, is why we avoid anger, fear and aggression.

And Something Else

Yoda clearly said "once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."

Now, that means jack and squat to me. The prequels reveal Yoda to be an out-of-touch, arrogant, catchphrase-gushing phlegmwad. If Yoda hadn’t been marinating in his aura of wisdom like a two-bit Croatian faith healer, he might’ve noticed a Sith Lord twerking the Jedi Council AND the Republic right under his nose.

So that whole "forever" stuff is probably more nonsense that he cooked up to frighten Padawans from thinking bad thoughts. If anything, that makes think a Sith could actually turn away from the Dark Side.

If Vader Had Lived By the Jedi Way, Luke Would Be Dead

How many warning did Anakin Skywalker receive about attachment? "Be mindful, Anakin. Miss them do not. Mourn them do not." And so on.

Did Darth Vader learn his lesson? It’s easy to say no – that his attachment to Luke motivated him to rebel against Darth Sidious.

On the other hand, if he’d acted as a Jedi should, he would’ve let Luke die. So, to perform the good act of saving his son, he had to act out of attachment -- like a Sith.

That’s All I Got

I hope you had fun joining me for a few random and oddball Star Wars thoughts. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone say anything like this before, so I thought it might be fun. Throw your comments in – I’m not offended by people who disagree. I just like talking to people who like some of the same things that I do. I’d love to hear some other thoughts about Star Wars that haven’t occurred to me.

Cool Stuff Roundup – Summer Edition

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La Compagnie’s 757s look stylish inside and out.

I just realized that’s in been months since I’ve done a Cool Stuff Roundup. I aim to correct that today with a few very interesting tidbits I’ve culled from various locations online.

Let’s start with some air travel.

You know it’s a favorite of mine – and that I don’t love to hate airlines nearly as much as many people. And an airline like La Compagnie could make us both like airlines even better – it’s an all-business class airline operating between Charles de Gaulle Airport, London Luton Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey (which is the Paris of the Eastern Seaboard -- kind of. OK, not at all). La Compagnie also charges a barely even premium economy price.

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Two of these seats for a $2,500 round trip for two? Yes, please.

For example, I priced a flight for one adult at less than $1,500. Word is a couple traveling together gets an even better price. Here’s what you get for that price: A Boeing 757-200 (previously owned by the excellent and meticulous Icelandair) holding less than 80 people; two by two seat layout with 180 degrees of recline; outlets at the seats; wifi; on-demand entertainment; seasonal menus; and a few other niceties I’d like to sample. The only downside I can see is that La Compagnie doesn’t seem to have airline alliances. So I’d have to book my flight to Newark separately, which creates a possible vector for problems. Still, I’d give La Compagnie a try next time I head to Europe. I’m sniffling and whinging a bit since I only found out about La Compagnie days – literally days! – after booking a trip to Europe on another airline for about the same price. In economy class. Grrrrr.

OK, let’s get a little closer to home with some coffee news.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that craft beer and top-quality coffee are my favorite beverages. When I was in Portland, I got hold of a super-delicious treat at Stumptown Coffee Roasters: a nitro-charged cold brew. It had the texture and look of a pint of Guinness, but tasted better (look, people, Guinness is mass-produced mediocrity – there are way better stouts out there).

Now, I no longer have to go to Portland for my nitro cold-brew fix: Songbird in downtown Phoenix is now pouring nitro cold brew. And soon, local newcomer Hazelrock will also be pouring nitro. This is a good time to be a coffee enthusiast in Phoenix!

Let’s shift gears back to transportation.

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Ready to roll on Amtrak? If you’re in business or first class, you might get free digital newspapers to pass the miles.
Sorry, but I have to mix my metaphors by bringing up trains. Amtrak clued me into a nice new feature for its business and first-class passenger service: They’ll be able to enjoy unlimited access to the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers via the trains’ free onboard wifi; previously, Amtrak had distributed paper copies. Amtrak views this as an environmentally friendly move that will save 25 tons of newspapers each year.

I’d recommend swinging a deal to get the Wall Street Journal – I love that paper for its mix of serious news from around the globe and its often snarky, sly humor. Still, from a green perspective, this seems like a very nice move. Let’s also not forget that the newspaper format is kind of an unwieldy pain to handle – I’ll take it in electronic format any day.

OK, I’ve mentioned planes and trains. Let’s get boats in here – or rather, container ships.

I piqued the curiosity of two of my good friends last night by mentioning that people travel around the world via container ships. Not as crew – just as self-loading cargo. This article makes it sound awfully interesting. I could see this being a very interesting way to pass some time to do some writing, exercising and sleeping without the distractions.

If you just graduated college and you’re looking for something oddball to do, this is your answer. Right here.

The Born Adventurer
Meet the Born Adventurer.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at TheBornAdventurer.com, a new blog I’m publishing.

This one is about a pretty big change in my life – being that dad to a new little girl who I hope will follow my interest in seeing the world. She’s not even 9 months old, and already has a passport and been camping. This story about her first milestones is really what the blog and my style of being a dad is all about. Give it a look, and spread the word -- I’m hoping to connect with like-minded parents to see what we can all learn from each other.

Book Review: attractive unattractive americans

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If you travel abroad, “attractive unattractive americans” is worth a look.

American travelers trying to pass themselves off as Canadians is an old story. I’ve seen them with Canadian flags sewn onto their backpacks – but I haven’t heard them going so far as to claim to be from Moose Jaw or pepper their speech with an "eh" every few sentences.

That’s because there’s still a perception that the world doesn’t like Americans – that people from other countries think we’re loud, impolite and dumb.

Author René Zografos tries to get a handle on this in his book attractive unattractive americans: how the world sees america.

I should mention a little problem up front: Some people from the Americas might have a problem with the title. As a friend from Brazil likes to say, he’s an American, too. I see his point, so I would’ve called it how the world sees the united states.

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A Canadian, or a faux-Canadian?

Zografos – who has an interesting half-Greek, half-Norwegian background – sets an interesting and nearly impossible task for himself here. He seems like the kind of guy who’s a great conversationalist. You’d want to run into him in a bar or a cafe and hang out with him. He clearly is good at getting people to chat with him, and at preserving the essence of what they say.

People from a long list of countries gave Zografos their thoughts on the United States and its people. Ultimately, I can’t see any clear-cut conclusion. I didn’t really expect him to reach one, though. I just expected to be entertained by the journey.

I also expected a few surprises along the way. Well, the people Zografos interviewed delivered. I was particularly shocked by some of the sweeping generalizations. More than a few people wrote off everything about the United States and rejected the possibility that there’s anything good about it – crude pursuit of wealth, crude language, crude dress (one person painted a picture of the entire United States running around with its pants collectively sagged).

I completely expected the United States to take its lumps in this book. I didn’t expect some of the criticism I saw, but I expected a good bit of it. I really enjoyed how one person skewered how the U.S. is addicted to superlatives – we love everything and think everything is awesome. And yes, we’re definitely way too oblivious to what’s happening in other countries.

There are a few things that caught me off-guard that I just can’t agree with:

  • Scandinavian and Nordic seem to think they’re cold and unfriendly. That’s their perception of themselves. Well, my Scandinavian and Nordic friends, this visitor doesn’t think so at all. From Iceland to Finland, people started conversations with me. They were quick to help with directions. Maybe they’re not as ebullient as Australians -- they’re more chill and relaxed. But they’re still genuinely nice. I have nothing but good to say about Scandinavian and Nordic people.
  • Speaking of friendliness, people from the U.S. have a reputation for friendliness. Some of the people interviewed for attractive unattractive americans accurately perceived that much of it is reflexive but insincere politeness rather than friendliness. I could probably write a book that deconstructs American friendliness for what it really is. That’s not to say we don’t have genuinely friendly people. But they’re the exception.
  • There’s also a perception that the United States is optimistic. I definitely question this. There was a time when each generation was expected to be more prosperous than the previous generation. Those days are over in the United States, and we know it. We lag behind the rest of the world in health care and paid time off (sick leave, vacation time, etc.). More of us work part-time and are mired in student debt. We’re over-caffeinated, overworked, overfed and over-tired. So, what reason do we really have to be optimistic?

Overall, I had fun reading attractive unattractive americans. I think future editions could use some improvement, though. One of my big quibbles is the book’s organization. I’d get into the flow and just be reading and reading -- and I’d lose track of who’s speaking. Between long interviews and short quotes from people he’s met, Zografos interjects with some ideas and opinions of his own. Sometimes, I had to backtrack a few pages because those transitions could be far more effective. That could be a design issue in the book’s layout. But it could also be solved with the author making a better effort to craft a more distinct voice.

If you travel, attractive unattractive americans is worth a look. It might help you realize a few things about yourself and your home country, and I see some learning opportunities that will help you connect with people you meet when you travel. And that is true no matter where you’re from.

Do You “Explore”? Not Likely.

explore
The guy in the white suit definitely earned the right to call himself an explorer. What about you?

I have this little eccentricity about travel writing: I gag whenever someone casually uses "explore" in any form. For example, "I explored Sweden this summer." Or Twitter bios that say stuff like "I’m an explorer who is determined to visit every country in the world."

OK, I’ll admit that these are legitimate uses of the word, according to the dictionary. But to my ear, casual use of "explore" is self-aggrandizing travel writing ego inflation. I reserve "explore" for those who are the for-real first-timers, those who assume big risks and go places where no signs point the way. Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM – that’s an explorer. Not a kid backpacking in France after graduating high school. The badasses who made it to the North and South Poles first? Explorers. Some dude eating "street food" in Chiang Mai? Not.

explore
This is what real explorers look like, (Roald Amundsen og Helmer Hanssen gjør observasjoner pÃ¥ Sydpolen, 1911 – Photo credit: National Library of Norway)

It’s like being a professional musician. People have paid me to haul my gear to venues, set it up and play. But I never tell anyone that I’m a professional musician. I don’t make my living that way, and just about every studio musician on the planet could hand me my ass on a platter, musically. I’m a decent local musician. I can do stuff on a guitar that most people on the planet will never be able to master – I know this from the small number of people I’ve tried to instruct, and the mind-boggling frustration of watching them flail at riffs I can nail at will. For all that, I’m a hack compared to working pro musicians. I know it, and I respect their abilities and knowledge too much to equate my meager abilities to theirs.

explore
Someone died at the marker to the left during a freak summer snowstorm. But that doesn’t make us explorers.

For the exact same reasons, I never call myself an explorer. I go to remote places, sure. I’ve been to many places where other people died through bad decisions or rotten luck. But signs generally point the way. Someone got there first and did the heavy lifting for us all.

Likewise, I never say that I "discovered" anything during my travels.

Feel free to explore possibilities in your travels. Write all you want about what you discover about yourself. But think twice before calling yourself an explorer, or saying you are discovering Southeast Asia or wherever your next trip takes you. Challenge yourself to find a better word, to accurately represent what you do.

You’ll be a better writer for it.

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So You’re Traveling to Vietnam? Some Straight Truth

going to Vietnam
Motorbikes, carcasses, pollution – they might give you second thoughts about traveling to Vietnam.

So you’re traveling to Vietnam. You have your guidebooks. You’ve read the posts on the big travel blogs. Let me give you a reality check about Vietnam before you drown in travel brochure superlatives.

Here are a few things you really need to know about traveling to Vietnam. I’m basing this on my own experience – just more than two weeks in late 2013.

I spent the first few days wondering if traveling to Vietnam was a mistake.

The Ho Chi Minh City traffic gobsmacked me. When I blew my nose, the snot would be sooty, like when I worked at my dad’s machine shop (yay, particulates!). Walking around on the sidewalks required navigating through a warren of parked motor scooters, sidewalk cafes and people trying to rent or sell you just about everything.

going to Vietnam
Vietnam’s scenery might not pop … but it’s people do – Red Dzao (left) and Black Hmong (right) alike!

Here’s the good news: If you are at all adaptable, Vietnam will start to grow on you. The constant human contact will become more appealing, even as the pollution grows more appalling. Even months after I returned home, my home city still feels empty and distant to me. I still miss eating in places that have four-item menus and serve their meals on tiny tables.

Vietnam has some pretty parts, but --

You’ve seen the photos of Halong Bay Vietnam, and probably some from the enormous limestone caves. All nice. But -- for the most part, there’s a washed-out grayness to Vietnam. It might’ve been the time of year and the humidity and the pollution. It all combined to take the sheen off the colors. Yeah, you can recover some of it in a photo-editing program.

Bottom line: If you’re traveling to Vietnam, don’t expect it to dazzle your eyeballs like Norway or New Zealand. There, the colors explode. In Vietnam, they make a mute little pop.

Traveling to Vietnam is, so far, my most interesting cultural experience.

From Dia de los Muertos to the Haka, different cultures beat me over the head with a cacophony of "I’m important, and you need to learn about meeeee!" It makes me tune so much of it out. If you’re traveling to Vietnam, you’ll find a more subtle enticement to hooking your interest.

traveling to Vietnam
Vietnam at its absolute prettiest.

I found locals and guides less likely to hose me down with facts, and more likely to offer choice tidbits. Those tidbits were enough to get me to ask questions. Whether I was at the Cu Chi Tunnels wriggling through tunnels or poking my nose into a Red Dzao wedding, I heard and saw things to spur my curiosity.

I heard you can be drunk and lazy if you want.

Okay, so you want a typical beach vacation. But you want it someplace exotic that will make you sound more adventurous than someone going to Puerto Rico. Gotcha. I hear that Nha Trang is the place for that. Russians love it, and they flock there for alcohol and sun; there’s even a direct flight from Moscow.

traveling to Vietnam
Nha Trang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You probably underrate traveling to Vietnam.

I was talking with a couple of co-workers; one of them mentioned how he knew a couple that was trying to decide between going to Vietnam or France for their honeymoon.

"That’s a no-brainer," piped the second co-worker.

That pearl of wisdom came from someone who’s never so much as cracked open a travel guide about traveling to Vietnam -- and probably buys into the inflated romanticized notions of western Europe. Vietnam would be a fine place to spend a honeymoon, especially if you get away from the big cities. Your money will go far and let you level up on luxury. It can be very quiet and tranquil. And yes, the beaches can be spectacular. So don’t speak from a place of ignorance – learn about going to Vietnam before you rush to ill-informed judgments.

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Thoughts on the North-South Divide in Vietnam

Hanoi
Soldiers on the move in Hanoi. Could be 1961, could be 2013.

Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.

"Hanoi is 15 years behind."

"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."

"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."

"They’ll steal from you."

"They’re mean."

We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.

Vietnam culture
Soviet-influenced icons are everywhere – north and south – to remind residents and visitors of Vietnam’s past.

And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City is racing ahead – some say it’s leaving Hanoi behind. See them both and decide for yourself.

Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."

So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.

As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.

The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.

There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.

Vietnam culture
Hanoi’s vibe hit me as more relaxed and more European than Ho Chi Minh City.

And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.

There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.

Vietnam culture
I wonder what Ho Chi Minh would make of his near deification – and what your average Ho Chi Minh City resident thinks of it.

Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.

But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City has much of its own “peoples’ revolution” imagery.

In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.

Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.

Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."

There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."

I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.

Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.

Travel in Vietnam – A Few Quick Thoughts

travel in Vietnam
When you travel in Vietnam, chances are you’ll come away with more than just photos of pretty sites. It’s a thought-provoking place.

It’s been one week since I’ve returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’ll have a lot to share with you about what it’s like to travel in Vietnam.

Obviously, a lot of people have asked "how was your trip?" It’s impossible to wrap this trip up with a sentence or two, so I just have to say "It was great." There’s a lot more to it, though.

Here are a few key thoughts from our travel in Vietnam, which I’ll dive deeper into with my future posts:

    • This wasn’t my most high-flying, adventure-packed vacation. But it was, hands-down, my most culturally thought-provoking.
    • Vietnam has some environmental problems, and I think it’s still possible to change course. Quite a bit hangs in the balance for it – tourism, health concerns and the long-term status of resources like the Mekong River.
    • There’s a very interesting divide between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. People in the south have little good to say about the north. Oddly enough, it seems a one-way street: I never heard any HCMC-bashing in Hanoi.
travel in vietnam
I hope Vietnam makes protecting its natural resources – like the Mekong River – a high priority.
  • Speaking of Ho Chi Minh City -- I was surprised to learn that quite a few people there still call it Saigon.
  • People often ask why we decided to travel in Vietnam. Well, it’s because we like the food. I can’t tell you how much pho I’ve eaten in the last few years. We figured that was as good a reason as any.
  • That said, I didn’t eat any pho at all in Vietnam. We learned of many great items that I’d either overlooked on menus here in the U.S., or they just haven’t made their way here.
  • As a kid who grew up in the Cold War and then saw the fall of the Soviet Union, it was really interesting to see the hammer and sickle in so many places.
  • Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere!
  • Suddenly, my home city feels empty and sterile – and stripped of a huge percentage of human-to-human contact.

 

Well, that should give you an idea of the shape of things to come. And yes, I’ll have some concrete tips for planning your own travel in Vietnam. We learned a lot that will help you get even more out of your time than we did.

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Slow Travel Movement – The Truth Path or BS?

Slow Travel Movement
The symbol of the Slow Travel Movement?
I have a message for the Slow Travel Movement and the douchier-than-thou characters who comprise its most-extreme adherents: Worry about how you travel and bring your egos back down from Mt. Olympus.

Some of us can’t travel slow (By "some of us", I nostly mean Americans. Yes, those of us from the alleged capital of the First World. Those of us who have no legally mandated time off. Even Iran has four legally mandated weeks of time off.).

Some of us enjoy fast-paced travel. Flying is part of the fun, for example. I like planning some major must-see points, and letting fate fill in the rest.

I love the logistics. I love the randomness. I love the rock-starrish, live-out-of-a-backpack pace.

So the Slow Travel Movement isn’t for me. I wouldn’t mind slowing down -- gazing into my navel, contemplating locals at work while I watch.

I just hope that, when I get the chance to travel slow, I don’t write stuff like this bit from a Huffington Post (a site that publishes 50 banal, Captain Obvious travel articles for every one decent nugget) article;

Slow Travel Movement
Some of us like to keep a faster pace when we travel.
The more granular you go, the bigger the universe. The meander is the beeline of poets, and we are all poets in some stage of reduction, unwinding the path, like a mountain trail to a spring. And the more we see the more we realize we have yet to see, the paradox of plenty.

Ha ha ha ha ha! That’s rich. Such overwrought, self-important blather. “We are all poets”!

No. I’m not. I’m a guy who needs to unwind and recharge through seeing something new. I could do that as part of the Slow Travel Movement -- or as part of my Warp Speed Travel Movement.

Travel however the hell you please. Fast Travel Movement, Slow Travel Movement – just as long as you’re not part of the No Travel Movement.

However you travel, remember that travel is like music: There’s a genre for us all, and there are so many way to travel because you’re all different. You’re all individuals.

And there’s no reason you can’t enjoy your travel style without being a preachy jackass to those who find what they seek in a different way.

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Why I Turn Down Guest Blogging Offers

Every week, I get several requests for people who want to do guest blogging for my site. I turn down nearly every single one of them. It’s been close to a year since I let someone guest blog here, aside from someone I sought out for a cool Halloween-related post.

Let me tell you why. If you’re into guest blogging, take notes!

You Lie Your Ass Off

Nearly every guest blogging pitch starts with flattery and, often, an  entreaty about why the writer is interest in guest blogging on my site. These are from actual pitches:

  • Your blog “wanderingjustin.com“is by far the most interesting I have come across in the recent past, hands down!

  • I am keeping an eye on your blog since long and found your content very unique and informative. I guess you are working hard enough to get such an awesome content.

  • I am a freelance writer looking to gain more experience and boost my portfolio by contributing to blogs and sites such as yours, http://wanderingjustin.com/  . I loved the articles on your site and would love to be able to contribute some of my work!

Now, when I run across a blog I like, I comment. I give some love. It might even be worth a tweet or a Facebook post. If I don’t recognize the name, I doubt that I’m getting the truth in all the flattery. And notice how two of these look like form letters? That’s an extra sincerity points deduction.

Here another funny one: Sometimes, people sign their emails with names that don’t match their byline. That’s a "dishonest guest blogger" red flag, right there, it surely is.

You Want Me to Lie, Too

A for-real example, and hardly the only one of its kind:

I am working on the SEO campaign for a travel agency, and I’m interested in finding out if there is any possibility of having a sponsored post on your site http://wanderingjustin.com/. I can provide the content, but the live article can’t be labelled as ‘sponsored / guest post’ or marked in any way that indicates that it was paid for.

No. No. No. Nyet. Nein. Dishonest. Unethical. Wrong.

You’re Guest Blogging to Build Links

Businesses hire people who do "guest blogging." The idea: Offer "free" content in exchange for links back to the companies who foot the bill for their efforts. So you’re not really interested in building your reputation as a writer or boosting your portfolio. You’re just building links – and worse yet, treating me like a rube who doesn’t know what you’re up to. There are many bloggers out there who are green enough to foot the bills for hosting and maintaining their sites -- and will still let you take advantage of them. I’m not one of them. Jog on.

You Don’t Show Your Work

When I apply for a job, whether full-time or freelance, my prospective employer/client wants to see what I can do. I even say on my site that anyone interested in guest blogging needs to show some work. I can’t believe that people get even this simple step wrong.

You DID Show Your Work, And It’s Awful

If someone links to their work, I’ll read it. And often regret the misspent minutes of my life. So much guest blogging is generic to the point of depressing ("Have you ever thought of a holiday in beautiful Cypress? This post will tell you all about why it’s one of the most enchanting destinations in the world" -- bleh!).

Your Pitch is Weak

I admire people who speak and write multiple languages. People who can’t master one earn my ire. Guest blogging pitches are often petri dishes for passive voice, run-on sentences, tortured punctuation and so, so many other writing problems. Quality is most important.

Or maybe you asked what I want them to write about. If I have to think of a topic for you, I’m better off writing the post myself.

Why I Hate Being Like This

This all makes me mistrust every guest blogging offer I receive. They’re guilty until proven innocent. Guest bloggers like Rutger, who wrote this super guest post about SCUBA diving, deserve better from me. Quit spoiling it for them.

 

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Blogging Thoughts – Some Re-evaluation

I didn’t post anything on wanderingjustin.com this week – no travel tips, no lists of cool places to go, not so much as a snarky list about the odd courtship rituals of my mountain bike brethren.

That’s because I’m having a blogging crisis. I’m angst-ridden over the disconnect between the real me and the wanderingjustin.com me. For the most part, my writing here doesn’t sound – at least to me – like the guy my friends know.

There are some reasons why I’ve allowed this to happen:

  • I discovered search engine optimization. And I’ve let it run amok. I respect the benefits of SEO and I’ll still employ some of its practices. But I have to write for people. I think this happens to a lot of people in the continuum of their blogging experience.
  • I’ve tried to be too -- correct. When my blog started gathering steam, sites like USAToday.com and The Chicago Tribune would sometimes scoop up my content. That sort of thing is great for traffic and advertising. I wanted it to happen more often, so I started to censor myself. I became very unlike the guy who is the subject of this quote: "It’s not a party until Justin tells a story about his balls."
  • I’ve been lazy. It’s easy to be informative. It’s not so easy to entertain. It takes effort to summon the same energy of a spur-of-the-moment quip into a blog post. I rarely see the same phrasing and rhythm here that I’ll unleash verbally on someone who’s known me a long time. I have to put more energy into blogging. At least, on a post-by-post basis.

There. The upshot is that for awhile I’ll likely post less until I practice being the real me a bit more. I’m aiming for one super-good post every week. In recent months, I was at two – down considerably from the random days when anything could happen.

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Tourism Versus Travel – And My Struggle to Not be a Jerk

Your backpack can be your best friend - or your worst enemy.
I like beautiful destinations – but I work for them.

One of my ongoing travel problems is getting off my high horse – especially about types of travel. This writer seems to go through the same struggle:

When choosing your destination, you need to decide: are you traveling for leisure or culture? I define leisure travel as relaxed and quite a bit like home, but with either service or beauty influencing the destination (ex. beach, cruise, resort, etc). Cultural travel (my kind of travel) is where you set off in hopes to learn, truly experience and open yourself up to a whole new culture and way of life. If you’ve chosen leisure, unfortunately I will have to stop you here, because I don’t think I’ll have much to offer you as far as travel tips that you can’t easily find on some corporate-owned, high-dollar, travel website. While leisure travel is fine and there’s nothing wrong with it, I don’t have much experience sitting on my ass while locals wait on me, so I can’t really pretend to be an authority on the subject. (Emphasis mine)

"Beauty of the destination" is a huge influence on my travel destinations. You could say that Brandon argues that traveling for a destination’s beauty is inherently less valid than traveling to visit a bunch of historic museums. Or that a beach always has more intrinsic eye-candy value than a lava field. But I don’t think that’s what he means. I think he’s traveled enough that he realizes reaching beautiful destinations can involve serious work.

flam norway
Cruises are not really my bag. But … I could be kinder to those who like them.

I think he just didn’t thrust the point home all the way. What I read is that he grapples with the same thoughts about "travelers" versus "tourists" that make me act like a jerk sometimes. I’ve lost count of how many cruise ship passengers and "guided-from-arrival gate-to-wheels up" tour groups I’ve snickered at when I travel.

And I have to stop that. The travel industry is symbiotic: Every traveler of every type is part of a network that creates opportunities for us all to find the experience we seek. I’m glad not everyone wants to eat boiled silkworm larvae; watch a soccer game in a driving Icelandic rain; camp north of the Arctic Circle; or swim into a cave filled with human sacrificial remains. It would get awfully crowded, wouldn’t it?

There are people who just want to escape, clear their mind, recharge their batteries. A beach isn’t a travel destination that will make me happy. But others find solace and renewal in the sand. I get it. The way I travel can be arduous, and I understand why a glacier, a volcano or a cave isn’t a destination for everyone. And I grok why some might want a different dose.

I have no lofty goal when I travel. I just want to do something cool, something different from my everyday life. Call it whatever you choose. No matter what label you tag on me, I’ll enjoy myself doing what I like. You do the same, OK?

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4 Dirty Lies Mountain Bikers Tell Bike Mechanics

This guy has heard all the lies mountain bikers and roadies tell.

Bike mechanics know when mountain bikers have abused or neglected their bikes – just like the dentist can tell that your choppers haven’t seen floss for the last four years. Here are some of the least-believable lines mountain bikers can spring on your local mechanic.

"I was just riding along!"

Your head tube is crumpled, and wood chips are embedded in the creased metal. Yet somehow your front wheel is just fine. The mechanic knows you weren’t innocently cruising along on a sidewalk. The truth? You forgot your bike was on the roof rack, and you drove into the garage. This happens to mountain bikers more often than you’d expect. No warranty frame replacement for you!

"I just put that tube in two days ago, and it popped!"

Flats happen. And thorny flora isn’t scared of new tubes. Any sort of rubber designed to hold air is a crapshoot. Quit trying to say it’s the tube’s fault. Pony up for a new tube and the mechanic’s time. Besides, all mountain bikers should know how to fix their own flats. Oh, and we also know that tires rarely “pop.”

"My friend tried to fix this for me."

If you’ve used this line, you’ve probably said to your physician "I have a friend, and he’s really interested in trying Viagra. I mean, he doesn’t have any problems -- he’s just curious about what will happen. Do you have any samples?"

Any good mechanic can tell when mountain bikers have monkeyed with their derailleur travel set screws, loosened the wrong bolts, hosed their chain with WD40 or sliced their chainstay with a hacksaw to remove the chain. There’s nothing wrong with learning to maintain your bike. But get some help from your local mechanic -- and come clean when your experiments go wrong.

"Um, my wife got it for me."

You walk into the bike shop with a shiny piece of bike bling that you ordered online. It’s pretty and new, but the wrong size. Your blubber out a sob story about how your wife got it here as a birthday gift, but picked the wrong part and lost the receipt. Your goal: Talk the shop into exchanging it -- and installing it -- for free. Legions of mountain bikers have already used the "blame the wife" trick. Don’t expect anyone to fall for it, and don’t deny it when you get called on the carpet.

I originally wrote this for the Trailsedge.com blog. Since that blog is now kaput, I figured it would be a travesty if I failed to give newer readers a look at this fun content.

  • J.r.a.
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Travel Blogs or Guidebooks: Who Do You Trust?

The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.
The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.

It’s one of those days when I feel like torturing a travel guide editor. I imagine stuff involving ants, honey, jumper cables and possibly a Weed Whacker.

“A short, mostly, flat hike,” the guide book entry promised.

Hours ago, I planned for that short, mostly flat hike near Busan, South Korea. I skipped my typical day pack, its 120-ounce water bladder and its snacks tucked into multiple pockets.

I want to find this writer. And bury him up to the neck in sand. Smack him in the head over and again with one of my 24-ounce water bottles … but frozen. Between each hit – “Did you even go there, jackass?!”.

The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.
The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.

I hate being underprepared. I would’ve had my pack, my GPS receiver, probably a windbreaker. It turns into a wonderful hike, from Beomeosa Temple to the forlorn out-of-season Geumgang Park. We have to watch our water, and there’s that nagging “what if we really screwed up?” worry in our heads. We meet friendly Korean hikers – which is redundant, I guess – who show us the way to the highest peak. They also seize our camera and make us pose for a few hundred shots.

As nice as our hike is, this episode marks an important shift in travel preparation. It makes me trust guidebooks less, and bloggers more.

A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.
A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.

If you read Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, you’ll be convinced that guidebook writers can’t make a living without being on the take. And that they can’t possibly do everything they write about. But they have to write about it whether they’ve done it o not.

Which is why guidebooks are only helpful for getting a few ideas. When it comes to activity and seeing the truth first-hand, I say “rely on the bloggers.” Sure, not all bloggers are great. But find one that speaks to your destination, and you have yourself a major leg up in planning your trip.

And that is the point of everything I do here. I want someone going to one of my destinations to search for information, find me, grab some ideas and have the best time possible. At least they can use my writing with the confidence that I’ve been there, for real, and not concocted something to satisfy the publishers paying my bills.

PressReader by NewspaperDirect: A Quick Overview

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Can a smartphone and the right app keep you connected to your favorite news sources – all in one place? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m still burned out on newspapers – even though it’s been about 10 years since I last worked full-time at a daily. My time working for a public relations firm didn’t help.

This is why I viewed PressReader by NewspaperDirect with a certain “here we go again.” I love the notion of newspapers – but online curating and aggregation has left print sprawled and unconscious in the ring. Newspapers have nobody to blame but themselves … or more accurately, gray-haired, jowled shareholders/publishers/executive editors who harrumphed about the passing fad of the Internet (much as people like them did about rock ‘n’ roll, electric lights, the telephone and so on ad nauseum).

PressReader contacted me to offer a few thoughts on its app. I admit my use has been a bit limited, but I can still offer you my impressions.

The Process
I started by entering my credentials via laptop on the Newsreader site. Then I downloaded the app on my Samsung Galaxy S Blaze S. From there, I could select my newspapers. You can search by country, language, favorite status or recently viewed. Scroll through the list, click a paper, select your date, wait and – BOOM! – there’s the edition you wanted.

The Wall Street Journal – a paper I’d like to see in PressReader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading
Not bad at all. No, make that “pretty darned good”. Scroll through using your touch screen. It’s all the same pinch-and-swipe action touch-screen users have come to know. Click a headline, and it opens to just that story. It’s intuitive, even for a reluctant smart phone guy like me. One of these days I’ll be an early adopter for some bit of technology. But this wasn’t one of them!

The Clunky Bits
There are quirks, of course. After I select a source and try returning to the full list, I seem to get a truncated list. I have to hit the “Sources” tab. And be careful about using your phone’s “back” function from any menu: Odds are good that you’ll kick yourself right out of the app.

And the by-country selection needs a better organization system than just alphabetical, which is just too long. I’d suggest a “by circulation” sub-menu before the alphabetical list (Sorry, Boyerton Area Times, but I don’t want to sift through the lightweights to find the The Denver Post.)

There are some notable absences from the list, too. Among the most prominent are The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. I hope they hop aboard.

Keeping Informed Abroad?
I didn’t get to test PressReader while traveling. The PressReader team positioned it to me as a benefit to travelers.

But here’s the thing: No app can really help travelers stay informed abroad. It’s not their fault – it’s just that there is so much rigamarole that comes with staying connected when you travel. You need to unlock your phone, get a code from your service provider and get a new SIM card that serves the region you’ll visit. And yes, this applies to so-called “World Phones.” Until the service providers get their act together, an app – no matter how high performing – will never keep travelers connected through a smart phone. If I’m wrong about this and there’s a cost-effective solution, please-oh-please clue me in!

What PressReader does well is collect a bunch of newspapers that you can read on the go via smartphone or tablet. You’ll get a solid sense of the design asthetic, layout and other X factors that are part of the hard-copy newspaper-reading experience.

Prices range from a per-download price to a monthly subscription of $29.95. I think PressReader should look beyond news junkies and travelers – I predict a very receptive audience in media professionals … people who make a living knowing about newspapers, how they cover the news and what they’re printing.

And I hope the decision makers at print newspapers take a look at how PressReader melds technology with the old-school reading experience. They’ll kick themselves and wish they’d come up with the idea first.

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Cool Content – Top Finds from Other Blogs

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Make a great beer awesome by aging it in an oak barrel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Should you drink your own pee? Well, not recreationally. In a survival situation. That’s main point of the lead story in today’s Cool Content Crypt.

This comes from the blog of survival wiz Cody Lundin, whose topic cuts right through the stream of other recent blog posts to earn a spot here. Cody, a fellow Arizona dude, differs from celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls – now that guy is ready to swill his urine if the beverage cart on a 60-minute flight rolls a bit late. Found out what Cody has to say. And be ready should you run dry of water on your next adventure. Or even if you think "it’s sterile and I like the taste" justifies anything.

Next up, DailyWritingTips.com offers some thoughts on the Most Overused Words of 2012. Lots of links there for those who want further reading. I like writer Mark Nichol’s disdain for the phrase "man cave." While I love the male-centric second-hand store on Cave Creek Road in Phoenix that bears the same name, I stopped thinking that having women around was bad when I was about 12 years old.

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Cool Content – Great Finds from Other Blogs

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You probably won’t see canons in Thunder Bay … but who knows? http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immagine:Subacquea.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the first time I’ve published a post that’s just about other content. I plan to do it more -- maybe once every two weeks. There’s a chance I could wind up doing it more as I find more content.

Alright, I’ve done "innerduced" it enough. Onto my first-ever Cool Content Crypt!

First up is Diving for Shipwrecks at the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary. Rutger, one of the people at BookYourDive.com, introduced himself to me a few months ago and wrote a terrific post about his introduction to SCUBA diving. These days, Rutger is a PADI-certified dive instructor who loves getting newcomers into SCUBA diving. This post about checking out shipwrecks in the Great Lakes is a great motivation. This adventure is an awesome answer to "so, what did you do on your vacation (or make that "holiday" for my friends in other countries --)?"

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Bucket List & Beyond: 6 Gag-Worthy Travel Writing Clichés

As much as I like travel, I dislike most travel writing. Publishing is easy these days, and that allows a lot of hacks to get their voices heard. You get lots of overwritten descriptions and ludicrous praise, all leaning on the same old clichés.

Many decent writers have compiled lists of travel writing clichés. They’re poked fun at them, skewered them, begged other writers to just please stop. But new ones abound! These are some of the latest I’ve spotted floating in the travel writing toilet.

Staycation – The first time I saw this, it was a clever commentary on an American economy that made it hard for many people to travel. Now it’s just a tool for hospitality-industry marketing stooges to entice people in a given city to take advantage of some sort of deal at their properties. Take Phoenix: It has no leisure travel during the summer, so hotels chirp about discounted "staycations" to put swimsuit-clad butts into their pools. And now the travel writing industry is continues to ride it hard.

Bucket list – A movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson inflicted this morbid phrase on us. Now it’s ubiquitous as "My Big Fat Greek (Whatever)”. Not only is it a sign of a creatively bankrupt writer, but it’s also a great excuse to procrastinate. Instead of a bucket list, make yourself a "next trip" list. It’s far more motivating. And you won’t sound like another woolly voice bleating about your bucket list.

Explore – I shudder everytime a travel article exhorts me to “explore” a destination. Look, I don’t care how remote or off the beaten path you travel: If it has signs posted or a travel article about it, someone else discovered, explored, mapped and catalogued it. Not you. “Explore” is a slab of self-aggrandizement marinated in ego. You’re not Admiral Byrd or Sir Edmund Hillary. Get over it.

Top/Best/Most Lists – I’m guilty of making lists. And I’ll own up to using Top/Best/Most/Whatever. But then I realized something: There is no legit way to quantify the best of anything. You might be able to get away with most popular, best attended … or something like that if you have the data. Otherwise, just tell me about 10 great glacier hikes or your 5 favorite themed hotel or 7 overnight hikes I shouldn’t miss.

Savvy traveler – Google this term. You’ll get 217,000 results. “Savvy” means you’re in your comfort zone. Put me anywhere in Asia, and I am not savvy. I’ll get by. But I’ll stumble and bumble and gain some humility. You can’t earn that perspective when you’re in a place that allows you to be “savvy.” And another thing: No travel article can make you savvy – only going somewhere, getting lost, digging your way out and connecting with the place will make you have a clue.

Guilty pleasures – I hate the idea that anyone should conceal what makes them happy for fear of being judged. That defines a guilty pleasure: “If my hipster fans find out I’d rather listen to old Warrant ballads than The Antlers, they won’t think I’m smart and cool.” Bollocks to them, then. If you love going to Las Vegas or going on cruises … well, you and I probably won’t be travel buddies. But that’s OK – there are all sorts of destinations and activities for all kinds of people. Go have fun and don’t worry about what I or anyone else thinks about it. Well, unless you’re making your bucket list and checking it twice …