There was plenty of howling and gnashing of teeth (including myself). Some people wanted the trails restored to their original state. I thought that was a crappy option. I could see the use in the new trails, even if I didn’t like the method. The wide, smooth trails are perfect for runners and wheelchairs. I advocated for building new trails.
And sho’ ’nuff, someone did. It wasn’t the city, that’s for sure. Because these trails rock hard. They exceed the original trails in every single measure. More fun, more challenge — yet beginners like the dudes I met this weekend were undaunted and willing to try their luck (a few pointers from a certain rider helped them clean an obstacle that had stymied them).
The Pivin Loop at a Glance
Some guy on Strava mapped this loop out. I don’t think he actually built it. But he sure as hell staked his claim to history by IDing this 4-mile loop that encompasses all the good that Papago Park has to offer.
There are other new offshoots of the Pivin Loop. None have worn in as nicely, though. None can match the variety and ever-elusive and hard-to-define flow of the Pivin Loop. There are even a few little jumps scattered around to make things more fun.
In retrospect, I welcome the 5k and say good riddance to the old trails. The Pivin Loop thoroughly whoops their ass.
I’d like the city to actually legitimize these trails. Someone did what they couldn’t — faster and inexpensively, to boot. And cities that have offroad trails need to figure out a way to tap these resources. Why not welcome them into the fold to use their expertise and time?
Bureaucracy has a place. But this isn’t rocket surgery. It’s just people having an idea about using the existing resources better.
This week, someone hit me up for money so he could travel to a Third World area and Help The People. Wait – more accurately, a PR person hit me up on his behalf. I couldn’t tell if the PR firm is employed by the wanna-be philanthropic world changer, or by the new-to-me Kickstarter clone that’s hosting his fundraising campaign.
Now, this is nothing new for me. I’ve had more than a few people do this, and the storyline is always the same:
"I went someplace with lots of poor non-white people. I connected and bonded with them. I loved how they live so simply and are so happy with what they have. I wish I could be like them. Better yet, I wish I could Help The People by going back and taking pictures/raising awareness/raising funds/digging wells, even though I’ve never dug a well."
Some of these get into "voluntourism" by paying a third party to make all the arrangements for them to Help The People. Or they go it alone to become a solo fauxlanthropist.
What patronizing, post-colonial, poverty-porn poop.
I’m not dismissing that some people have a desire to help people. And there are definitely some countries and people out there in need. Hell, the United States is one of them! I keep waiting for Swedish aid workers to arrive on our shores to show us that, yes, we really can have 21st Century high-speed rail and ergonomic offices that don’t destroy our spines and spirits. "Those poor Americans -- such simple, backward but good-hearted people. Let’s help them!"
Anyway, back to those who want to Help The People. Their notion to Help The People involves you and me donating so they can buy plane tickets and afford accommodations to be there as a lily-white savior – you’ll notice that many of these characters are white people with a fixation on Haiti.
What I see here, though, is less a desire to help and more a way to make themselves feel good, while traveling for free. Here’s what they’d do if they really wanted to have a positive effect:
They’d start with boring but necessary research. They’d learn about the challenges the area and its people face from a higher perspective. Their time already on the ground is a good start.
They’d figure out who is already out there trying to help. Are their non-governmental agencies or relief organizations trying to help? Are they improving the situation? Why or why not?
They’d identify which NGOs are really committed and effective – and support them, while getting like-minded friends, family and colleagues behind them.
They’d look for companies that donate to their cause or population and support those efforts. It’s called cause marketing, and it’s kind of a big deal right now.
TLDR? They’d support people who know how to help rather than trying to change the world solo or diving into voluntourism.
If I want to improve the lives of a struggling population, I don’t want to pay for a fauxlanthropist’s airfare, room and board. I want my donation to empower people who actually know what they’re doing – who have actual calluses on their hands – who can do something more concrete than "raise awareness" or "raise funds" (how the hell will I know where those funds go? Who will keep things accountable?).
Just an FYI – a lot of developing countries have very unreliable access to power. You can shed some light to combat this problem with MPOWERED, a super-cool company that makes inflatable solar-powered lanterns. You can donate their LUCI solar lanterns to people who need them through MPOWERD.
Despite 2015 being my first year as a parent, this has been a good year for travel. We got the Little Person on her first international trip, in addition to numerous runs around the country; she may have even outflown me with a total of 18 legs to her credit.
In spite of my expectations, I have some really interesting thoughts about my travel highlights. So here’s my Best of Travel, 2015 travel edition.
Considering that I flew two trans-Atlantic flights on a Lufthansa 747-8i, you’d expect Lufthansa to win this handily. All the Lufthansa employees I encountered were as polished as they were personable. They were excellent with our Little Person (let’s not forget the onboard bassinets and stuffed animals), and the economy class seats were the best I’ve flown in.
But not so fast, says WestJet. This Canadian carrier was the surprise of my travels in 2015 – a likeable, eager-to-please, reasonably priced revelation that makes me wish it had a few US hubs. It’s Boeing 737 fleet is honestly nothing special, especially next to the marvel that is the 747-8i or even a newer iteration of 737. But WestJet one me over by having modestly priced upgrades to its premium cabin, which also gets you free food and snacks.
I am bummed that I can’t fly WestJet more. But you can bet that I will go out of my way to get on a WestJet intercontinental flight; they just added some 767s to the fleet. I’m eager to see what WestJet can do on a widebody aircraft on a long flight.
I expected Lufthansa to be great. And they were. I wasn’t sure about WestJet – but they delivered a wonderful air travel surprise.
This is hands-down Orange County John Wayne Airport. It has barely any lines or queues to speak of. It has an open, airy design that makes the best use of natural light. It’s easy to get around.
And in VinoVolo, it has terrific food. Skip all the the restaurants and hit VinoVolo. If you have time to sit and dine, they have an excellent charcuterie platter; though they pride themselves on wine, they also serve a small stash of bottled craft beer.
If you’re in a hurry, go for the to-go picnic boxes. I got a Mendocino Picnic box before my last flight out of John Wayne, which they modified with some pieces of prosciutto for me. I made everyone on the plane jealous with a fine selection of cheese (including an amazing brie), fruit, nuts, crackers and dark chocolate.
My only quibbles were the terrible WiFi and scarcity of power outlets.
In contrast, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is nothing short of the worst of the worst, from taxi times to TSA. Avoid connecting at O’Hare if you can. It truly stinks. I’ve had a lot of things happen at O’Hare, and none of it is good.
When my family travels, we are on the lookout for great breweries. And by far my favorite is Iron Fist Brewing Company. It had everything I like – a warehouse/industrial vibe, a decent food truck and a stellar and varied selection of beers.
If you’re visiting, a flight is the way to go. But do yourself and a few good friends a favor and grab a few bottles of the outrageous Pillow Mint stout.
I also have a lot of great things to say about Noble Ale Works. It’s the best thing happening near the House of the Mouse in Orange County.
If you crack open a travel guide for Germany, you won’t find any mention of SchwÃ¤bisch Hall. I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t have family in the area. So all those "follow the guidebook" people are missing out on a picturesque, storybook example of a German village (pronounced "willage" by my relatives, father included).
You can spend some time shopping in the town center. Or you can head out to the Einkorn ro hike – if you’re there in fall, pick some apples! If you’re a diehard fan of American football, you can also check out the – and I’m not making this up – SchwÃ¤bisch Hall Unicorns, which is one of the stronger gridiron teams in Germany. Be on the lookout for the very amusing sausage-dispensing vending machine.
Oh, and if you’re near the village of Rosengarten and you notice some cool art hanging up in a public area, the odds are good that you’re seeing my Uncle Johann’s work.
So my family rolled into Stuttgart Airport on the German equivalent of a harvest holiday. Everything in the airport before security was closed with three exceptions: A convenience store, an electronics store and a sex shop. I don’t know many people who hit the airport for a ballgag or a flogger – but if you’re one of them, Stuttgart has you covered.
I figure the outfit pictured would make security searches a breeze, but I would want to accessorize with a nice gas mask -- which might cause difficulties at the security checkpoint. So I refrained. (Equality points to Germany for having a male mannequin in the window.)
We absolutely fell for the HÃ´tel BELVUE. But after the events in Belgium following the Paris terrorist attack, I wonder how this wonderful place is getting along. It’s right on the edge of the neighborhood that was a focus for the subsequent investigations.
If you can get past that, you’ll enjoy great architecture, a reasonable price and far more space than the European norm. A few other things add to the Belvue’s cool factor: It’s designed to be energy efficient, and is also used to train people for hospitality careers. I could go on about this, but the Hotel Belvue website says it best.
Best Travel Gear.
I have this Grey Ghost backpack that the company calls the “Lightweight Assault Pack.” So yeah, it’s largely aimed at the military crowd. But me? The only thing I assault is the mundane, the ho-hum, the boring. The Lightweight Assault Pack helps me in that endeavour ably.
I picked up a selection of MOLLE pouches to add to the outside of the pack for different purposes. That makes it really quick and easy to configure it for a pretty serious hike (complete with knife and fire-making materials) or as a perfect carry-on items (definitely minus the knife and fire stuff). It fits beautifully under an airline seat, it wears comfortably and it has plenty of space even before adding external pouches. Great stuff!
Best News Overall
My daughter made her first trip abroad at the age of nine months. She was just about perfect – excellent on the airplanes, willing to eat anything, constantly ready to go for a ride in her Ironman stroller. Here’s a little story about what we did and how it all worked out.
I’ve heard some really silly stuff from TSA employees lately, but this one about my The North Face pants really takes the top prize for being ridiculous:
"These might not be the best pants to wear to the airport since they’ve got all those zippers and a lot going on."
My pants had just set off a false positive on a $150,000 millimeter wave body scanner at John Wayne Airport (which is still an outstanding airport for reasons I’ll address in the future). It thought one of my zippers was not like the others, and alerted the staff. And then the TSA employee – not rudely, or anything – blamed my pants. He was perfectly friendly, but ultimately he still blamed my pants. I think he and the rest of the TSA staff need to think about whether their scanners actually work.
This exact pair of The North Face pants have flown from Asia to the North America to Europe and back with me a few times. They have caused security officials in Asia (Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Tokyo and even Shanghai) and Europe (London, Frankfurt, Stuttgart) exactly zero problems. But they’ve stymied TSA employees in Phoenix and now Orange County.
My friends, the problem is not the pants. It’s not the zippers. It’s an overfunded, under-moraled organization trying to expand its mission and its funding by making banking on fear and security theater.
Read this, and tell me this agency is about keeping you safe. Fly abroad and tell me TSA is about keeping you safe. (One of the most dismaying aspects of security at foreign airports is that its employees are more courteous, better trained and more articulate – in a second language! – than TSA employees in my own country.)
So what’s the point of hammering away at TSA every time its employees say or do something stupid? First off, I want people who reflexively bleat "well, if it keeps us safe --" to open their eyes. And then I want the constant stream of pressure to prompt some reform in the organization so we can also get back to the goal of improving and expanding travel – because travel is the best educational experience that a person of any age can enjoy. It sickens me that there are people so cowed by TSA that they don’t want to board a plane.
Oh, and The North Face needs to give me a ring when it’s ready to design its ultimate pair of air travel pants. In the meantime, I’ll wear the same The North Face pants for every flight because they shrug off stains, have plenty of zippable pockets and fit just right for air travel.
One more thing – I have a great story for those of you who can’t get enough of security shenanigans from TSA.
I don’t usually do photo-only posts. But I snapped a nice shot from the nighttime storm that rolled into Phoenix. I’m not sure if this is actually a monsoon storm or not … but hey, call it what you will. It’s something besides hot, dry and sunny. This shot of lightning over Scottsdale is probably my best storm shot so far.
And look! Here’s some slow-motion video of the lightning over Scottsdale to go along with the still. The photo came from my Pentax K-50. The video is from my GoPro … the original Hero, not any of the fancy new ones!
For the last five years, I’ve predicted that mead will be the next big thing. I’ve expected it to lure craft beer and wine drinkers alike.
But damn, it hasn’t happened. Few people know what I’m even talking about – if you’re one of them, mead is a super-tasty beverage made from fermented honey. It can be tart, it can be sweet, it can be dry, it can even be sour. It can be knock-you-on-your-ass strong, or far gentler than a typical wine. It’s arguably the world’s oldest fermented beverage, too.
Am I discouraged? Nope. Because, if Superstition Meadery in Prescotthas anything to say about it, the Age of Mead is finally at hand. Besides having a mead named Best in the World, Superstition Meadery has also opened what might be the perfect tasting room in the basement of a row of buildings on Gurley Street.
I didn’t take any photos – I didn’t have a decent camera. Here’s the picture: It’s dimly lit and comfortable. It’s a perfect place for conversation. You can get flights, glasses and bottles. The menu is absolute perfection: small snacks like charcuterie, cheese platters, a chocolate platter and what amounts to a gourmet grilled ham and cheese. This is exactly what I want with mead. I wish every craft beer bar had items like this.
The staff is knowledgeable and opinionated, steering mead first-timers and longtime fans equally well. I had a delicious flight of five: the lightly hopped and saffron-infused OM; the dark, hard-hitting Safeword; Maple Stinger; my favorite, the stupifyingly delicious Sweet Mesquite; and one whose name I don’t remember. Unfortunately, neither the Superstition Meadery website nor Facebook page list what’s currently being served. Sweet Mesquite is so good that it gives my personal previous favorite mead, Viking BlÃ¸d, a pretty good run for its money (I just love the slight note of cola I always taste).
This brings me to two minor quibbles. The first is about the Superstition Meadery website. I would love to get into that thing with one of my designer friends to team up – one of us to re-write the content (first, purging that page written in all caps) and the other to make a consistent, easy-to-read look and feel to each page. Oh, and there should always be a list of what’s being served in the tap room – for reference, if nothing else. I also see there’s occasional live music in the tasting room. I’m one of those who believes in separating music from enjoying beverages with friends. When I want to listen to live music, I’m rockin’ hard, and I am not in a frame of mind to enjoy the nuances of a fine beverage and a plate of chocolates. So if you’re like me, visit early in the evening.
These complaints are super-minor. And consider this: No other city in Arizona has a meadery. And this is by far my favorite tasting room. It has atmosphere, excellent service and super snacks to go along with award-winning mead. Go to Prescott, and be sure to visit Superstition Meadery.
I don’t highlight passages in books. I just don’t. First off, it makes a mess on my Kindle screen. And usually, I don’t know -- the spirit just doesn’t move me.
But a passage in They Eat Horses, Don’t They? by Piu Marie Eatwell had me scrambling for a highlighter. Unfortunately, a pen was the best I could do â€“ anyway, the section I highlighted on page 53 made me laugh loud and hard; I won’t spoil the surprise for you, but I will say it involved aÂ McDonald’s franchise in France, bricks, angry French farmers and Roquefort cheese.
Eatwell’s book is subtitled The Truth About the French. She takes beliefs about the French and dissects them based on her research and experience living in France. She gives a conclusion about whether the belief is true or false.
I’ve heard many of these beliefs about the French before, but Eatwell has a access to a few unfamiliar to me -- probably because she’s English.
The myths range from France’s ranking as garlic and cheese consumers, to the alleged style sense of French women. And oh, yes â€“ there is a section on sex. These are all pretty commonly known beliefs.
The beliefs that were unfamiliar to were the "archetypal Frenchman wears a beret and striped shirt and rides a bicycle festooned with onions." That, and the view that France is a very egalitarian society. I’d never once heard that before, and it was something that even my good French friend of more than two decades has never hurled at me in claiming Gaelic superiority. When I think of egalitarian, I think of the Scandi-Nordic countries. Oh, and the belief that the French eat horses â€“ news to me, as well.
Eatwell digs into these many beliefs about the French over about 300 pages; she has a distinct English flavor to her writing -- there’s a bit of almost ironic formality sauced with smirky humor. I really enjoyed her style, and she seems like she’d be an extraordinarily amusing dinner guest.
A Francophile visiting my home earlier this year read some of the book, and agreed with some parts while disagreeing with others. I found many of the objections, though, typical of the over-romanticizing of the French. Americans indulge themselves in this bad habit about a great many foreign countries, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. Eatwell has the advantage of research of the most valuable type: time in-country. Lots of it.
Here’s the best measure of whether Eatwell succeeds with They Eat Horses, Don’t They?: She made me â€“ a traveler who really doesn’t care about visiting France and is content to leave it to the unadventurous â€“ laugh often. I read it straight through with no cheating interludes with other books.
Yes, I love a good adventure. I love the sights, smells and sounds of an unfamiliar city. I love seeing a forest filled with creatures I’ve never encountered before.
But my favorite foods, my own bed and – most of all – my most-excellent cat Noir made my return home a happy occasion.
Unfortunately, Noir will no longer greet me when I return from my next trip. We said goodbye to him last night after 16 years of friendship. Noir turned me from cat-indifferent to the sort of guy who couldn’t pass a cat without trying to pet it. During his long life, he watched me pack for my first international trip as an adult -- he was the cat of the house while Sarah and I hiked glaciers, searched for kangaroos and mangled foreign languages. (Since he lacked opposable thumbs like most cats, our good friend Todd cared for him in our absence. Every time Todd came to visit, Noir treated him exactly like he did Sarah or me. Noir was friendly toward all humans, but he held Todd above the rest.)
During my travels, I encountered many feline friends that made me think of my little buddy back home. If not for him, I wouldn’t have made these new friends. As a tribute to Noir’s memory -- in honor of his long life -- in recognition of the cheer he brought to our home, here are some photos of the cat friends I’ve made around the world!
I’m going to show you a valuable skill today: How to make your vacation photos interesting.
Now, many people these days use Facebook to show their vacation photos. This post assumes that’s your vehicle of choice. Still, even if you do something else, a lot of what I say here will apply.
Alright, let’s get this started.
I don’t care if you took 7,351 photos. I don’t want to see all 7,351. If you want to make your vacation photos interesting, upload the absolute best of the best. Eliminate photos that are virtually identical. Keep group shots where you and a few people are saying cheese to a minimum. And honestly, far better photographers than you have photographed the world’s greatest landmarks – so seriously consider whether anyone needs to see yet another shoot-by-the-numbers photo of the Sydney Opera House. Pitch the blurry and boring. There. Now you’re down to about 84 photos (if you’re anything like me).
Say something about your vacation photos.
Like I mentioned earlier, far better photographers than you have shot the same place. Hell, some of your friends may have already been there. So say something about your experience, and what your photos will offer. DO NOT just name the place. You can be smirky and give your album an Upworthy-like clickbait name like "You Won’t Believe What Happens When I Go to a Thai Ladyboy Show!" Or you can play it straight – "Hiking in Jotunheimen, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been." Just offer a glimpse into what people will see in your vacation photos – and stay away from linear recitations of what you did that day. Nobody wants to read an itinerary.
Caption your vacation photos, already!
I have this one photo I took in VÃk Ã MÃ½rdal. I love the little white church, the towering green mountains and the sunlight filtering through hazy air. But the most remarkable thing about it? I snapped it 10:45 p.m. That boggles the minds of people from lower latitudes. And you’d never know this without a caption – the right caption adds context, humor, information -- something.
Look, we all get lazy and skip the caption. I get it. But captions can make all the difference.
Look for Moments, Not Places
The bucket list mentality equals photos that suck. Tourists file like little ducklings to their destinations, snap their photos and herd themselves back onto the bus when the guide tells them to. They get the exact same photos because they’re thinking about places, not moments.
Let me give you an example -- I was just walking around in Hanoi, and I took a little bridge out to a Buddhist temple in the middle of a small lake. People were praying and bowing before an alter. Incense curled into the air and interacting with the light just perfectly, and I got this cool shot of people praying. This isn’t a landmark like Ho Chi Minh’s tomb or the Cu Chi Tunnels. But there was a perfection in that moment that made a far more interesting photo than you’ll usually get snapping a major landmark. There are ways to be creative with shooting landmarks, though. I’m not much good at this, so maybe you can pitch in with some ideas.
Stop editing the hell out of your vacation photos
Excessive photo editing ruins travel. The Internet overfloweth with jokers who use High Dynamic Range and Photoshop to turn photos into cartoonish versions of reality. And you get excited, book the trip, arrive and then find out it’s not truly a rip in space and time where every color is vivid and every sunset is the color of orange blossom honey.
Edit photos to make them closer to what you saw with your eye, not to exaggerate. Here’s the truth – my photos sometimes need help because I am a hack photographer. Once in awhile, I get lucky with an image like the one I snapped of Elijah on his horse. That came straight out of my camera with not a single adjustment to the colors. This is pretty damn rare for me, especially since I often shoot in challenging light. The thing is, reality is just fine without being turned into a caricature. Nature doesn’t need you to make it awesome. And all that tinkering is a lie. So stop it. Tell the truth with your photos.
Essentially, everything I’m saying is … tell a story. With your photo choices. With your captions. With your album names. What would you add about making vacation photos more interesting?
People call Phoenix and its satellite cities an area without a past, shucked of history, a collection of pass-through transients. The closing of Montis La Casa ViejaÂ on Monday splinters another link to the past -- and the deed will be complete when most of it gets bulldozed to make room for a high-rise development in the landlocked city of Tempe.
I could easily turn this into a rant about developers, greed and a myopic worldview. I’ll resist the temptation – mostly. Developers say they’ll fold the "historic Hayden House" into the new construction. I’m not sure exactly what that means: Keep in mind that the building has gone through about as much adding-on and renovation as a 15th Century Irish pub, to the point where original elements are fused into newer bits that seem inextricably linked. Who knows what will really survive when demolition begins?
But enough of that. Plenty of better-informed people have more to say about it than I do. Let’s instead take a look at Nov. 17, the final night Monti’s served to the public.
My friend Nicole, who likes history and hauntings (and wrote a cool blog post about Arizona hauntings), organized a group dinner among some friends. She’d never had a look inside Monti’s, and the legend of its haunted halls enticed her. We managed to get a seat in the Fountain Room, which is said to be the most-haunted of all the rooms (considering the building sprawls over no less than 11,000 square feet, that offers a lot of ground).
I was there less for the supernatural, and more for the memories. I spent more than a few evenings at Monti’s with friends: We’d have a pre-game steak or prime rib before heading down to Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum to see the Phoenix Roadrunners. In recent years, my good friend Todd and I would gather there to eat prime rib and talk about whatever was on our minds (guitars and music, often enough).
But it was really interesting to just roam the building. It has that enveloping creepiness that only an old, haphazardly renovated building can possess. One particular hallway, in particular, seemed to drink in ambient sound, muffling every whisper or footfall. I overheard one patron claim that one of the back banquet rooms was the scene of meetings of the Arizona branch of the Illuminati (I tried very hard to not roll my eyes -- I may have succeeded somewhat).
One of the more interesting moments: Nicole spied a weathered brass plaque on the fountain in the Fountain Room. It bore the old wishbone logo and mission of Make-A-Wish from its earliest days as a "last wish" organization for terminally ill children (it has since moved on to serve kids with life-threatening medical conditions, the difference now being that many of the kids can survive their illnesses).
For all the fun I had, though, it was just sad. The servers seemed torn about it all. And every person wandering Monti’s with a digital camera clearly wished it wouldn’t come to this.
If you’ve ever wondered "What’s BelizeÂ Like?", the latest entry in my "What’s it Like" series has the answer.
Belize in a Word: Narrow
OK, what do I mean by "narrow?" Well, it means that Belize has a narrow range of appeal. If you’re going there for food or beaches, prepare to be disappointed. I found neither to be memorable. Let me correct that – the beaches were memorable for being strewn with flotsam. Resorts hire people to keep them looking nice.
On the other hand, if you are a caver (please don’t say "spelunker"), snorkeler or SCUBA diver … Belize is heaven. I absolutely loved the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave tour more than I can tell you. If I had more time, I would’ve interrogated locals for non-tour, do-it-myself cave experiences. Belize is practically all limestone, and has more miles of caves than anyone can properly track. And for the water people, Ambergris Caye, BelizeÂ is a perfect base to get you out for snorkel or SCUBA adventures where you’ll see baracuda, octopi, rays and much more.
You’ll note that I went in December. The weather was nice but warm. Though the town of HopkinsÂ was just downright hot, even in December. This is coming from a guy who has lived in Arizona for decades, so pay attention. I mean it.
Don’t bother with Belize City. It’s horrible. Oh, and everybody there wants to sell you souvenirs. They can’t compare to the Red Dzao or Black Hmong in Vietnam when it comes to high-pressure sales … but they make up for it in volume.
Things People Said to Me
"Hey, big guy! Let me braid your hair!"
Other Cool Stuff Worth Noting
I absolutely love the Gaia Riverlodge outside of San Ignacio. It’s a hydroelectric lodge powered by a nearby river. There were no TVs or even hairdryers in the thatched-roof huts. Since my visit, it’s gone all-inclusive and changed names. But the location remains the same, and it’s a serene, quiet place that’s an excellent base for hikes and cycling. I also had a great time visiting the Caracol ruins. Don’t be surprised if you wind up with an army escort to visit the ruins – or if you here gunfire from Guatemalan bandits clashing with the army.
When I Went: December 2007 Duration: 10 Days Areas Visited: Caye Ambergris, San Ignacio, Hopkins, Belize City
Sure, I was only there 10 days. I’m not expert on Belize. But I think you’ll get enough out of this to make some better-informed choices if you’re going to Belize.
People love to say that Phoenix doesn’t have any culture. It’s a notion that people parrot constantly. And it puts me in the mood to brandish a cricket bat in a threatening manner.Â What they really mean is one of of the following:
I’m too lazy to go out and find any culture in Phoenix
The culture in Phoenix isn’t exactly the same as Chicago/Detroit/Whatever Fast-Fading Rustbelt Eastern City I’m From, and is therefore not really culture.
There’s no place where other people can see me partaking of the culture in Phoenix, so I’m not interested.
Well, first off – "culture" is a pretty encompassing word. I can’t address it all in one blog post. But I can address one aspect of it. And I feel like talking about live theater in Phoenix. Over the past few years, Sarah and I have made a better effort to see more live theater. Hollywood has aided and abetted this plan by making a bunch of terrible "reboots" and "re-imaginings" of "franchises"
(known as "movies" to people with an iota of sense).
Then, when my good friend Todd started acting in live musical theater, we had another reason to hit the theater. We haven’t missed any of his shows, and we drop into other shows, too. I’m ordinarily not into musicals, but seeing your friends devote their time to something they love doing is a very cool thing. And it’s part of a cultural scene that we shouldn’t overlook. I’ll admit, Phoenix does not have on-tap the smorgasbord of high-end theater of bigger, more-established cities. The casts and crews are not the polished professionals you see in the big shows.
Perfection isn’t the be-all, end-all of any artistic endeavor. They all put some heart into what they do. And yes, there are also some absurdly talented people on their way up. You’ll actually enjoy them, even if you didn’t pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket. And here’s the thing: If you want more live theater in Phoenix and want more big shows and huge productions, you need to get out and push.
You need to show interest, and that means going to see shows with just 250 other people in the audience – or even just 25 other people! Alright, I’ve stated my case. Now, let me give you a few ideas of where you can see some live theater in Phoenix.
Brelby Theater Company – We’ve made a few visits to Glendale to catch outdoor shows from Brelby Theater Company. It was really cool watching lightning in the distance while enjoying some Shakespeare. The casts have all been very young, energetic and innovative. They do a lot with very little space and very little staging.
Desert Stages Theater – Even before Todd got into acting, Sarah and I enjoyed Desert Stages Theater. It’s a very cool space with multiple stages that can hold audiences of varying sizes. My favorite so far was their version of the Rocky Horror Show – some excellent singing, and great use of space.
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre – We just made our first visit to the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre. And it’s literally fewer than 50 people jammed into a central Scottsdale strip mall. Don Bluth, by the way, is an animation legend who is throwing his energy into this out of honest love for the theater. A very cool way to use his time and resources.
Fountain Hills Theater – I got a nice little surprise from this theater. Culturally, Fountain Hills doesn’t hold much interest for me: no good coffee shops, and no venues for hard-rockin’ live music. But Fountain Hills Theater put on a version of Pirates of Penzance that added a steampunk look to the story. Some very impressive singing here, too. Good fun!
Scottsdale Musical Theater Company – I ordinarily wouldn’t have gone to see The Music Man. But Todd was in it, so I thought "why not?" This was another impressive cast, both in size and ability. One of my favorite parts of it was recognizing so many elements that Matt Groening riffed on in the "Monorail" episode of The Simpsons.
And look, these are all just a start. There are plenty of other theaters around the Valley. Go see a show. Better yet, audition for a part. If you don’t, just realize that you’re why Phoenix doesn’t have the culture you want.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If I didn’t mention your favorite theater, leave a comment and a link. The whole idea of this post is to expose people to cultural opportunities they don’t about … and take away their reasons for not going to a show.
It’s a head-on collision in the making. Two fast-moving motorbikes, a mountainous road slick with rain.
The riders see each other at the last second. They slam on the brakes, fishtail, come to a stop inches from each other. They smile, shrug, get back on their bikes and putter off.
If this happened back in Phoenix, there would be a lot more drama. Some yelling and gesturing at a bare minimum, with a possibility of punches thrown.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Vietnam, though, is that the people are fairly relaxed toward each other – even behind the wheel or handlebar.
I saw it on the first day as Sarah and I perched on a curb, waiting for a break in traffic to cross a street in Ho Chi Minh City. There, traffic seems like chaos. It’s intimidating and stressful. I had no idea what to do. I noticed a local woman start to cross, and I followed her. We walked a straight, slow, steady line. The motorbike avalanche flowed around us. Nobody honked, nobody got mad. I looked over my shoulder, and Sarah was still on the curb.
The local woman noticed. She went back across, took Sarah by the hand and towed her across the intersection. Without saying a word, she taught Sarah -- "This is how we do it in Vietnam."
It makes the Vietnamese sound very friendly, doesn’t it? And they are, but not in the way we associate with Aussies and Kiwis. They’re not really outgoing and jocular. It took me a few days to feel plugged into their mannerisms; once I did, I saw courtesy and humor in many of my encounters.
The streets strike me as microcosm of the culture. I sense that people connect with each other, and give each other the room they need to exist. When one motorbike rider cuts in front of another, nobody gets upset. Everyone just goes around each other, making room for the occasional alpha predator like a bus or semi-truck.
What’s the root of this? Buddhism? Living in close quarters? A period of peace after a long history of conflict?
And what’s the source of the uptight hostility I sense back home? Phoenix is a sprawling place, as are many Asian cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But density accompanies their sprawl, where Phoenix-area people are spread out. It’s possible to walk for a mile in Scottsdale, where I live, and not see another person on foot. Since I’m just a few weeks removed from my trip to Vietnam, my area feels vacant -- especially with the out-of-business car dealerships that blot the southern part of the city.
You won’t see the hostility in every encounter here. People here are relatively polite one-on-one. But controlling a vehicle turns us into impatient, self-centered misanthropes just a minor traffic inconvenience away from fury. That includes me.
My conclusion – our cars and our homes are bubbles. We grow to hate being outside them, and we resent any reminder that there are other human beings out there. We starve for human contact without realizing it. We grow isolated.
I see this as a very regional and varied phenomenon. I consider the Pacific Northwest the friendliest part of the United States. People walk quite a bit more, and the drivers are civilized. It’s not unusual for a local to strike up a conversation with someone.
So is more people walking the answer? No. People walk all over in Washington, D.C. -- and I consider it one of the least-friendly places I’ve ever visited. Consider that I’ve spent well more than six months total in the area, and I consider my view valid.
I have no solution, nor a solid idea of what makes one population so much quicker to anger than another. All I can take away is a bit of awareness -- and a reminder to ask myself “What would a Vietnamese motorbike rider do?”.
I love dogs. It’s just the people who hold their leashes who I often want to boil in a vat of porcupine urine. Or more accurately, it’s the people whoÂ should hold their leashes – but instead feel entitled to turn the whole world into an off-leash dog park.
If you leash your dog in public and (this is important) keep a hold of the leash throughout the duration of your time out and about, I salute you. You know how to be good to your dog. My fellow bicyclists also appreciate your consideration.
Now, the rest of you lot. The people who don’t think they need to leash their dogs. Or better yet, you put the leash on, drop it and let Fido run about. Yes, you.
You are a giant pain in the ass for bicyclists.
You see, I don’t know your dog. Your unleashed, 110-pound ball sniffer might be the sweetest dog on the planet. But -- I just don’t know that. I am unfamiliar with your dog’s personality quirks – the little things that might startle it into an episode involving barking, chasing, biting, stitches and possibly a rabies shot. When I’m on my bike, your dog becomes an X factor, a potential threat. The best way to nullify that threat is to put a leash on your pooch, and keep a solid grip on the leash. Problem solved.
Now, let’s talk about you people with the little dogs. They don’t propose much of a threat to me, aside from making me crash while trying to avoid them.
But I do not want to hurt your dog – not even if it’s a Chihuahua. You are being a bad human to your dog by letting it dart around unleashed. Your job is to protect and care for your dog. A fast-moving 200-pound dude on the trail or in the bike lane is a threat to your dog. Thing is, I’m legally allowed to be there. But I don’t know of a single city where your dog is legally allowed to roam at large. So, you’re breaking the law with your dog as the unwitting accomplice.
So, be good to your dog. Put it on a leash. We’ll all be safer for it.
In the past seven days, I’ve received six unsolicited emails from Phoenix City Council member Sal Diciccio – along with one each from his wife and from fellow council member Peggy Bilsten. Regardless of the name, they all come from the Sal Diciccio re-election campaign. And they all desperately try to convince readers that Sal DiCiccio is not a small-minded, small-time, ethically dyslexic shyster.
As I’ve written before, I never signed up to receive these emails. DiCiccio has never responded to my questions about how I wound up on his email list. Nor did the City of Phoenix public information officer. My suspicion: DiCiccio, in an act of dubious legality and ethics, culled the city’s email system for addresses to add to his personal and political lists. I’ve received numerous emails from groups with ties to DiCiccio – and I didn’t sign up to receive email from any of them.
But hey, that’s just the "how." Let’s talk about the "why."
I’m getting this haboob of emails because Karlene Keogh Parks, DiCiccio’s opponent in the election, scares him. He’s afraid.
That’s because Keogh Parks supporters have done a great job of laying out the truth: that developers and lobbyists love DiCiccio. Even better, Keogh Parks has the backing of Mayor Greg Stanton. I won’t say Stanton is perfect, but I believe he has the city headed in a good direction -- in a direction that DiCiccio would never travel. The only ideas Sal DiCiccio offers are cutting spending (and therefore services) while demonizing honest city workers by spreading half-truths about what they earn. That’s not enough for a city struggling to modernize and re-invent itself as a real community.
DiCiccio is running so scared that he sent out an email blast in his wife’s name complaining about personal attacks on his family. Any hour, I expect a "be nice to my daddy" message from his daughter. (UPDATE: A few hours after I drafted this, I got another SalMail titled "Watch for Children as Back to School Starts. Nothing says "desperate" like a "won’t someone please think of the children?" email. A second SalMail followed about an hour later.)
Earlier this week, I found out my 17-year-old niece is taking her first international trip … without her parents. She’ll head to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, as part of a youth group. There, the group will get its hands dirty with some public works projects.
My official notice of her plans came as a form letter; members of the group are asking friends and family for some dollars for their trip. You probably already guess that my niece asked the right guy. I called her up and told her that I’d not only send some dollars, but I’d also make a run to REI to pick up a few odds and ends that will be handy for her Mexico trip … and any others that await.
So what does an intercontintental traveler/uncle send his first-time traveler niece? Here’s a breakdown of her Wandering Justin travel care package … and how each item earned its place.
Petzl Tikka 2 Headlamp
Light, water and air – you can’t live without them. A Petzl headlight can take care of at least one of them. And I’ve used my Petzl headlamp everywhere … from a blackout-stricken hotel in Dallas to a rainforest in Belize. It’s one of the first things I pack for a trip of any duration. Don’t even think a normal flashlight will do: A headlamp frees your hands, which can be essential when – as Forrest Griffin would say – the shit goes down. And the Tikka 2 has everything you need without any superfluous junk.
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack
There is no limit to the Ultra-Sil pack’s usefulness. Folded up, it’s about the size of a D battery. Shake it out, and it’s a perfect piece of carry-on luggage. Going out for the day and don’t want to lug your full-sized backpack? Throw your stuff in the Ultra-Sil and call it good. If you’re camping (whether in a forest or an airport), stuff the Day-Sil with some puffy clothes and you have a pillow. Perfect for the international first-time traveler.
Remember that water I mentioned earlier? Here’s where you can put it. Breeze through the TSA security checkpoint with your empty bottles, then fill them up on the other side. No forking over $5 for 16 ounces of water for you! Once you’re on the plane, you can fill the Platypus bottle at one of the water taps throughout the cabin (well, that assumes you’re flying something awesome like an Asiana Airlines 777, my favorite plane out there right now). At your destination, carry the Platypus bottles with you everywhere. Drink, refill, repeat. I chose a pair of 17-ounce models for my niece; they’re more compact than the 34-ounce model.
Guyot Designs MicroBites
I remember watching a bunch of Europeans noshing away on a trail in New Zealand. They weren’t eating anything great, but it was better than my energy bars. But I didn’t have utensils to dig into something more substantial anyway. Never again, since I got my Guyot Designs MicroBites. They’re hard to destroy, and handy anywhere from a mountaintop to a hostel kitchen. They wash easily, too. And my niece will have a hard time losing the bright-red set I picked!
Energy Bar Mix
Sometimes, some solid pre-packed foods are just what you need. Airplane food’s too gross (or expensive)? Whip out a good bar. Have a long hike in front of you, and you’re keeping weight and bulk to a minimum? Energy bars, done! I’m hooked on ProBar – I got her a few different varieties including the big high-calorie ProBar Meal. They give you a huge amount of energy while taking up barely any room in your stomach (a very important point when traveling).
I also added a few Rise bars. I brought its entire line with me to Norway, and it powered me through a long, hard hike in conditions from sleet to sunshine, with more than a bit of wind for good measure.
Other Items Worth Considering
I could’ve gone hog-wild equipping my niece at REI. I went for some main essentials, but also gave thought to a few nice-to-haves:
A kid from the Midwest could get dehydrated pretty easily in Mexico’s heat. Water alone might not do it – you need sodium, potassium and other good stuff along with the H20. Dissolve some electrolyte tabs in the Platypus bottle, and you’re good to go. So why didn’t I get some? I don’t know which of the myriad flavors she might like. Me? I love Gu Electrolyte Brew tablets in Peach Tea flavor. Another good point: If the water doesn’t taste good, electrolytes can mask the nastiness. That makes you drink more and stay hydrated.
There are several companies making travel towels. These magical bits of fabric pack into no space at all, and yet the absorb water like a 500-pound sheep. Not a necessity, but handy.
last bit of advice: If you’re travelling solo, be sure to do some research on the destinations before you hit the ground. Websites such asÂ Travel AssociatesÂ have some really great must-read information on places to visit for soloÂ travelersÂ Packing your gear is always easier if you know a bit about your destinations!
During my trip to Finland, I gave Turku too little time. I even stowed my big SLR camera, relying instead on a little point-and-shoot to give some impressions. If I go again, Turku gets more time … even at Helsinki’s expense. It’s a compact, walkable city – and warmer than anywhere else I’ve been in the Nordic countries.
The Aura River makes it scenic … you’ll find paths on both sides of the river (in many places). It’s an easy way to find restaurants, museums and parks.
I’m curious about South Korea -- and it seems South Korea is just as curious about me. From news television crews to young women asking me to pose for photos, I cause a stir everywhere I go. Here are some encounters that will give you an idea of what it was like:
One of my first activities is a climb up Namsan Mountain. Now that’s about 850 feet up, pretty much paved. At the top, two Korean women ask me to pose for photos with them. Then I head down -- and two more want a photo. Then a young Korean man says "Excuse, please -- are you from Italy?" I tell him that I’m from the U.S., and he turns shy and repeats "sorrysorrysorry." After these two encounters, the rest become kind of old hat, an expected part of my day.
My city of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a shopping destination for travelers, especially for snowbirds. Within its borders are the remains of dead shopping malls like the Scottsdale Galleria Â (which is now full of tech businesses). There was also a years-long tussle about how to deal with the Los Arcos Mall; investors bought it in hopes of bulldozing it and building a hockey arena for the Phoenix Coyotes. And now, it’s Sky Song, a mix of cool and stodgy owned by Arizona State University.
Sometimes when I travel, I don’t have long to linger. That was the case when we headed to TromsÃ¸, Norway, for the Midnight Sun Run. We had a wee eight hours or so in Stockholm.
And there’s no way we would accept staying at the Arlanda Airport that whole time. We hopped on the Arlanda Express train – the fastest way from the airport to the center of Stockholm. From there, we did what we always do in a new city: walk.
Besides logging some miles, we ate some reindeer pizza. We people-watched. We shot photos. And we fell asleep in the Stockholm Cultural House.
Here’s what we saw.Â
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