CategoriesTravel

True or False: Europhobia in America

There’s an interesting thread on Quora right now. Someone asked "Is it true that Americans don’t travel to Europe because there is Europhobia in America?"

The answers add up to a definite "no." There’s a great synopsis that brings up the main points of why it might seem that way:

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans; given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively “too short” to reap the benefits.

Let’s take a look at these reasons and their effect on the perception of Europhobia.

Europhobia
I don’t have much art for this post, so you get this ludicrous dog I saw at a cafe in Vietnam.

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to.

This isn’t a reason. It’s an excuse. Compare nine days in Europe next to nine days in Orlando drifting from theme park to theme park. It costs more to get to Europe because of airfare. But factor in daily park admissions and jacked-up meal prices, and I think you’ll be in for surprise: This site quotes a Disney vacation, for example, at about $3,485 (four people, 7 nights) not including the cost to get there. If you’re a good shopper, it is possible to get to Europe for nearly the same price – possibly even less if you head to Eastern Europe.

Another thought: Americans find it in their budget to throw down for all sorts of meaningless, forgettable extravagances – smartphones that will be obsolete before they’re out of warranty, needlessly luxurious cars, enormous cable and satellite television packages, just to name a few. These suck money out of our budgets that could just as easily go toward enriching, memorable trips abroad.

Where do Americans go instead of Europe? Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, to family reunions and to theme parks I mentioned earlier. Those who venture abroad go to England. It’s the top destination.

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

So, let’s see if I have this straight: Driving eight hours is fine, but flying eight hours is just too far. Eight hours is eight hours, regardless of the vehicle. Yet there’s a perception that eight hours in the air is somehow more exhausting and stressful.

Let’s keep in mind, the point of travel isn’t just to see things. It’s also to learn and to add to your perspective of the world.

I am adamant that, to be a truly educated person, you have to see how people in other cultures live. You have to see it first-hand, not through the media. So while you can drive to all sorts of interesting places in the U.S., you’re missing a chance to see other cultures and people. This reason might not by Europhobia, but it definitely seems like BS.

Europhobia
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Many people in the U.S., especially those who do not travel, have an illusion that they have a degree of freedom and standard of living unparalleled in the world. I suppose this depends on how we define freedom. For some, I guess owning whatever sort of firearms they please and being able to drive enormous gas-guzzlers equals freedom to some. But can you really consider yourself free if you’re one medical problem away from bankruptcy, and you’re too afraid to go on vacation because you’re worried you might not have a job when you come back?

So travel isn’t just about seeing things. It’s about figuring out where you and what you believe fit among the world.

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

This is a point of insecurity with Americans. I’m miserable at foreign languages. But I pick up at least a few phrases everywhere I travel (and can sometimes pass myself off as a local for a few sentences anywhere outside of Asia).

best passenger planes
Get onboard one of these and go abroad.

But Americans may be forgetting about this place called England. Where they speak English. That’s really close to continental Europe. Which is part of the reason so many Europeans speak -- English.

It’s completely possible – even easy – to get around in Europe if you only speak English. On another note, the U.S. seems to have a huge problem effectively teaching foreign languages. This is a problem schools in continental Europe don’t have. And another missed opportunity to look to other nations, learn from them and better ourselves through their example.

Again, this doesn’t seem like Europhobia. But it’s a fear of our own shortcomings.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

This misses the mark somewhat. Americans know that flying is safer than driving. Their fear isn’t in the flying – it’s in being uncomfortable. Somehow, we morphed from people that headed west in Conestoga wagons into people who can’t fathom the notion of being less-than perfectly comfortable on a 14-hour flight to Australia.

Europhobia
And I’m out of relevant art, so you get a horse in Iceland. I assure you the horse does not have Europhobia.

That’s a weak, pathetic state of affairs. I’m a 6’2, 205-pound guy whose flown hundreds of thousands of coach-class miles. I’ve emerged physically and emotionally unscathed. I turn on my Kindle or use the on-demand in-seat entertainment and let the miles roll 38,000 feet below me as I enjoy being able to take a safe, affordable journey that spans timezones, cultures, ethnicities, languages, cuisines and landscapes.

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans, and given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively  “too short” to reap the benefits of taking a holiday at all.

This is somewhat legit. The U.S. is far behind the industrialized world in vacation time. As a society, we’ve allowed modern-day robber barons to convince us that we live to work instead of work to live -- yet that our country is somehow also the forefront of personal freedom while we watch our personal time shrink.

europhobia
Americans are reluctant to go abroad, but many of them are happy to overspend on a sanitized, ersatz facsimile of the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Left to their own choices, employers will never change this. They will never voluntarily bring the U.S. level with the other industrialized nations of the world. It will be down to a next generation of lawmakers who choose to represent their electorate and say "this will not stand." The recent increases in minimum wage and healthcare coverage at least give me some hope that the U.S. could be on the way toward a turning point.

Also, discouraging travel abroad is a great way to preserve the venomous notion of American exceptionalism. Just imagine the impact on the status quo if Americans head abroad en masse, witness first-hand European quality of life and start asking uncomfortable questions like “Where’s our work-life balance? Tell me again what’s so much better about U.S. healthcare? Why is high-speed rail so bad? Hey, what’s your beef with free childcare and guaranteed vacation time and a higher minimum wage?” If we collectively start asking questions like this, things change. And there is a tiny, tiny minority of deep-pocketed people who simply don’t want that.

“But wait!” you might say, “What about all the countries out there with a lower standard of living?” Well, maybe those countries should make us appreciate what we do have. But is being better than some what you want the U.S. to be for future generations?

Do Americans Have Europhobia?

So, my European friends, Americans as a whole aren’t plagued by Europhobia. They have some barriers that prevent them from visiting you in your own countries. Some of the barriers are real, but most are imagined or self-imposed through their own poor choices.

 

CategoriesAdventures

12 Great Wreck Dives You Should Visit

wreck dives
The Maru-Chuuk

It seems my old friends from the Professional Association of Dive Instructors are at it again – trying to lure me into SCUBA diving. And they know the right way to do it -- show me a bunch of photos of sunken ships and sharks.

PADI has also compiled a list of its 12 favorite wreck dives in the United States. What I like about this list is that they’re relatively modern wrecks. Each will give you a glimpse of fairly recent history.

If you’re looking at this list and wondering how to get started, it’s pretty easy – get SCUBA certified. There are more than 6,200 dive shops worldwide where you can get a SCUBA certification. Not quite as numerous as Starbucks, but still easier to find than you might imagine.

wreck dives
The Carthaginian

Now, let’s check out the dive sites and see what PADI has to say about them! I added some of my own commentary in italics.

Maru-Chuuk (San Francisco) — This cargo vessel, sitting 200 feet below the water, had six 500-pound bombs rip it open and send it straight down, smashing to the bottom of the ocean floor.  Learn more here: trukodyssey.com

Carthaginian II (Maui) — This whaling-vessel replica rests at 95 feet and was sunk on Dec. 13, 2005, to serve as an artificial reef for marine life such as turtles and stingrays. Learn more here: mauiscuba.com

wreck dives
The Sea Tiger

Sea Tiger (Oahu) — This boat, which was originally apprehended carrying 93 illegal Chinese immigrants was sunk as an artificial reef in 1999 and is just a short boat ride off of Wakiki Beach. Learn more here: wakikidiving.com

YO-257 (Oahu) —This former World War II Oiler Boat sits 120 feet below water and is considered an advanced wreck dive. It is reported that it’s not uncommon to see reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and green sea turtles will often rest on the decks of the wreck. Learn more here: diveoahu.com

wreck dives
Yo-257

We can safely guess that PADI folks will use any excuse to get themselves to Hawaii. I’m not judging --

HMCS Yukon (California) —This ship is a 366-foot-long destroyer which lies 105 feet below water and is the crown jewel of Wreck Alley in San Diego. The best photo op for this wreck is the huge smokestack that is covered with bright-orange and pink corynactis anemones. Learn more here: loisann.com

Destroyer? More than 360 feet long? Wreck Alley? How can you NOT want to dive this?

wreck dives
The Yukon, which is in San Diego – nobody, not even Ron Burgundy, really knows what this means.

Oriskany (Florida) —The wreck titled the "Mighty O" is said to be the Super Bowl of wreck dives.  This 888 feet long ship is the world’s largest artificial reef. On this dive you’ll have the opportunity to see amberjack, grouper, red, snapper, butterflyfish and French Angels. Learn more here: floridapanhandledivetrail.com

Sounds like we have lots of fish – and lots of ship here. I’ll resist the temptation to take a poke at Florida and cite novels by Laurence Shames, Tom Dorsey and Dave Barry as evidence.

Manhattan (Great Lakes) — Lake Superior’s Alger Underwater Preserve contains several wrecks like the Manhattan, containing old nails, chains and pulleys and is a great representation of a 19th century steamer. Learn More here: Diversinc.com

wreck dives
The Manhattan

Well, not all wreck dives can be in warm tropical places. I suppose you could drop into  Chicago if you do this dive and have a nice bowl of ramen at the Slurping Turtle(keeping the aquatic theme) to warm you up.

LuLu (Alabama) — This vessel sank off the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama on May 26, 2013 making it the state’s first artificial reef. Now divers travel 90 minutes from shore to explore the boat 115 feet below the sea’s surface. Learn more here: downunderdiveshop.com

wreck dives
The Lulu

Papoose (North Carolina) — The Papoose was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942 and below water is where it has remained ever since. On a daily basis, five to 10 sand tiger sharks can be seen hanging around the sunken ship. Learn more here: discoverydiving.com

If you like sea creatures as well as wreck dives, I say this is a winner.

USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg (Florida) — A decommissioned U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship, the Vandenberg lies upright in 130 feet of water and is a favorite with divers, due to its large size of 520 feet. Learn more here: divekeywest.com

wreck dives
The Papoose, and a shark!

This one also sounds like a winner – though 130 feet down doesn’t sounds very easy! SCUBA experts, feel free to correct me and tell me I’m just being a big baby!

Spiegel Grove (Florida) — This vessel served in the U.S. Navy and was nicknamed "Top Dog," as this massive warfare ship once carried 330 troops, 18 officers and eight helicopters. Divers have the opportunity to fin through the wheelhouse, find barracuda on the deck and swim through propellers at the stern.  Learn more here: horizondivers.com

I’d be all over a trip into the wheelhouse!

wreck dives
The Hoyt S. Vandenberg

U-352 (North Carolina) — This German submarine had a crew of 40 serving aboard the vessel. Of that 40, 15 remain inside as of May 9, 1942 when USCGC Icarus downed the ship. It now lies 115 feet and the must see for divers include the conning tower, gun mounts and torpedo-loading hatch. Olympusdiving.com

Oh, my! This sounds like a spooky, creepy winner. I have a soft spot for U boats since I visited the U-505 at the as a boy.

wreck dives
Call it the Top Dog …
wreck dives
I can’t resist a U-boat.
CategoriesTravel

Travelling down the West Coast of the US

West Coast US
A look at some of the sights you might see on the West Coast.

You’ve finally decided to do it: see all of the great cities and beautiful landscapes along the West Coast of the US. You’ll travel by auto from rainy Seattle, Washington, the birthplace of grunge, to hot and sunny San Diego in southern California. You could take Interstate 5 all the way down; that’s the fastest route. However, the best way to see the west coast is to take Highway 101 and Highway 1 along the coast. Leave time for sightseeing, plan plenty of side trips, and avoid scheduling your holiday during the winter if you plan to camp or hike in Washington and Oregon.

The adventure starts as soon as you touch down at the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport.

Washington
Washington has the city of Seattle, forests and mountains. Start by spending time in the city. You’ll find delicious locally brewed beer and good food in the pubs. Be sure to catch a gig; Seattle is known for its live music scene, and for good reason. The Space Needle is fun, if touristy, and the Pike Place Market in the city centre may be the longest-operating farmer’s market in the US.

West Coast Portland Weird
Find out why “Keep Portland Weird” is a popular West Coast catchphrase.

The Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains are to the east, and they are absolutely stunning. The best way to experience Washington’s coast is to take Highway 101, which begins in Olympia, south of Seattle, toward the north. It may seem like backtracking, but it is well worth the small amount of extra time it takes. Highway 101 loops around the Olympic peninsula and through a series of stunning forest parks and small towns. Take it all the way to Oregon.

Oregon
Like Washington, Oregon is mountainous and forested. And a highlight of any visit to the West Coast. It has a single large city, Portland, which is well worth the trip away from the coast. Portland is a centre for laid-back urbanists, and it has a sophisticated and relaxed culture. Be sure to visit the city centre, the old town and the Pearl District. After exploring Portland, go back to enjoying the Pacific Coast along Highway 101. If you love camping and hiking, then don’t miss Oregon’s enormous national forests. The 101 will take you straight through the Redwoods National Park, where you can see some of the most majestic trees in the world.

West Coast US
It’s good to be a seal in La Jolla, Calif..

California
Northern California has the state’s wine growing regions and the city of San Francisco. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are just to the north of San Francisco, and the tours and tastings are unmissable for wine lovers. San Francisco is famous for its huge and lively Chinatown, for its food and for its fun, liberal, Bohemian culture. Yosemite National Park is to the west of San Francisco and is worth a visit, if you have time.

Transfer to Highway 1 south of San Francisco so that you won’t miss Big Sur and the rest of the magnificent California coastline on the way down to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, explore Santa Monica and the Hollywood Hills by car. Go on a studio tour, shop the designer boutiques in Beverly Hills or explore the city’s many ethnic neighbourhoods.

Finally, drive the rest of the way down the West Coast to San Diego, on the Mexican border. Visit the famous San Diego Zoo. Enjoy the fantastic Mexican-style food, and don’t forget to spend some time on the beach.

It’s advisable to arrange services such as Avis car rental in the US prior to travelling. Having a car will give you the freedom to choose to stay in a city, in a scenic and out-of-the-way town or in the wilderness. You’ll be able to plan your routes according to the weather, and you’ll have an opportunity to get off the beaten track.

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CategoriesTravel

Travel Writing – Can You Trust It?

travel writing
Auckland – much maligned by locals. Don’t believe them.

Kiwis hate Auckland – and I can’t figure out why. It’s scenic, relatively laid-back, full of stuff to do. So why the hate from everyone outside its city limits – and even many residents?

This makes me question my travel writing. Every single day, I think about how much I liked the cities I’ve visited. And I wonder if it’s just because it’s different. Is Reykjavik that cool, or is it just the unfamiliarity? (To be fair, Icelanders seem to love it, too). Is Sydney just another sprawling metropolis of worker bees and cubicle drones, or is it truly a world-class collective of all that’s cool?

It’s easy to fall in the trap of being just so done with your homebase – especially if it’s like Phoenix … a young city trying to establish itself, all while dealing with a good four months of scorching-hot, sap-your-soul, make-you-crazy heat. Of course Wellington will seem like Paradise. Of course I’ll want to move to Monteverde, Costa Rica. And yes, Portland starts looking better and better.

Another perfect example comes from a comment in my Phoenix Espresso News post: “True espresso in [sic] only in Naples.” That’s such closed-minded thinking. I’ll hear similar lofty proclamations from a lot of American travelers, especially college kids who recently wound up backpacking across Europe. Invariably, they’re just sucked into the glamor of drinking espresso in Italy versus, say, Flagstaff. They’re tasting the stamp on the passport, not the espresso.

Travel writers are also highly susceptible – we got lured into the unfamiliar. Some get so roped in that they’ll extol the virtues of even the most unlovable parts of their destinations (I now read the word “vibrant” as “ramshackle, crowded and dirty” thanks to travel writing cliches). And we want to say something that grabs your attention.

So how can anyone avoid the hyperbole? Like this: Figure out the specifics. What did you see that you wish you could bring home with you? What’s an innovation that goes unnoticed and unconsidered back home? Put the details in your writing. Be specific. It’s a lot better than just calling it great, amazing or beautiful and moving on.

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CategoriesTravel

Travel to South Korea: Three Good Reasons

travel to south korea, hiking
The hiking near Busan – and the mountainous terrain – was a surprise. Great trails!

I decided to travel to South Korea not because of a travel agent’s advice or a guidebook. Nope – an enthusiastic pitch from a waiter at a local Korean restaurant sealed the deal.

My wife and I were eating our way through bi bim bap and banchan when the waiter asked if we’d ever been to South Korea. We hadn’t, so he launched into his spiel. We’d been in many times, so he knew us well enough to have a grasp (mostly!) on things we like.

Here what he said:

Hiking
You might not think of travel to South Korea if you’re a hiker. I know I didn’t. But South Koreans love hiking, and they have trails everywhere. Even in a sprawling ubercity like Busan, you’re a subway ride from more trails than you can hike in a single day. We saw ancient rock walls made to repel Chinese invaders, temples and 360-degree views of a city of staggering size.

travel to South Korea
Grill it yourself South Korean style.

The hiking in Jeju, an island off the south coast, was also a revelation. You can hike to the top of a volcano, and you’ll find many other short hikes no matter where you go. There’s even some underground hiking: The Manjanggul lava tube is also very cool, if overdeveloped. The scope of the cave – a UNESCO World Heritage site – still blew me away, so I’ll forgive the over-paving. And it makes me wonder what other lava tubes lurk out there for those with time, patience and a sense of adventure.

Food
It makes sense: If you like Korean food, travel to South Korea for the real thing. Here’s what I learned: The Korean food is tasty and varied, but the Korean spins on American foods and desserts fall flat.

travel to South Korea
Inside Spa Land, the most relaxing place on earth. (Courtesy of visitkorea.or.kr)

Even on our Asiana Airlines flight, the food was shockingly good -- by a long shot the freshest, healthiest, best-tasting airline food ever. Korean Airlines has a fare special to Seoul (and other Asian cities), and I’ve heard its in-flight meals are great, too.

Once on the ground, we tried the usual staples like bulgogi. But was also ate abalone that had been alive moments before (tastes like ear cartilage to me) and boiled silkworm larvae. Definitely get into into the street food – one of my favorites was some sort of fried dough with what appeared to be black bean paste.

As for desserts, many will look pretty. But they’ll be dry and bland. Just as a novelty, be sure to try something from a South Korean Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s sure to confuse you.

Relaxation
Our friendly waiter insists that spas (aka jim jil bang are a top reason to travel to South Korea. You know what? We agree. There’s a place in Busan called Spa Land that is now one of my favorite places on the planet. It’s a massive glass-and-steel structure packing just about every sort of sauna you’ve ever imagined into several floors.

travel to South Korea
A gratuitous photo of cute South Korean dogs. Just because.

It cost us about $15 for a four-hour stay. I could go on a lot longer about South Korean spas – but my earlier blog post will give you an idea of what to expect.

Karaoke (I didn’t consider this a good reason …)
OK, our waiter friend struck out on this one. Sure, I was in a metal band for nearly a decade. But as a guitarist, not a singer. So you won’t find me singing karaoke -- and I won’t travel to South Korea to hit the karaoke bars.

That said, if karaoke is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of places to indulge yourself. And if you’re Caucasian in appearance, you’ll probably cause a stir and gain some admirers. So go have fun!

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Categoriesfeatured

Why I Won’t Commute by Bike in Phoenix

commute by bike
This is why think Helsinki is a world leader in getting people to commute by bike.

There’s no way I’ll commute by bike in present-day Arizona. A post at the Architecture Travel Writer blog made me think about why it’s not one of my transportation alternatives.

Fellow blogger Nichole talked to Phoenix city planner Joseph Perez about improving bike commuting options. His ideas (bike shares, smartphone apps, consultants and developer input, to name a few) show why Phoenix lags  in the movement to commute by bike.

commute by bike
I don’t expect credible ideas that encourage people to commute by bike to come from Phoenix City Hall.

You’ll notice my lengthier-than-typical comment about an open state of war between motorists and bike commuters. My view comes from my past attempts to commute by bike. Here’s what I faced:

  • Disappearing bike lanes – I’d be in a great lane for a mile or two. And then it would disappear. Transportation alternatives need routes users can count on.
  • Debris-strewn bike lanes – Dirtiness and grit that love puncturing tubes.
  • Openly hostile motorists – I’ve had people throw stuff at me, yell at me, cut in front of me and try to bump me with their mirror. Other cyclists will say the same.
  • Clueless motorists – Some motorists think it’s a good idea to blare their horn as they approach cyclists from behind (hint: we can hear their engines). Then there are others who get to a four-way stop first, hesitate and give the "after you" wave. Guess what? The safest place for cyclists is behind you. Obey the law and the four-way stop protocol – your misguided "politeness" doesn’t help.
  • Other bicyclists – The "don’t give a shit about rules or good sense" variety puttering against traffic, ignoring traffic flow and just general being self-centered jerks. These riders deserve a special place in hell – they make drivers paint all of us with the same brush. They make cycling lose political clout among the transportation alternatives.

Too many near misses put me back in my car. Not the heat, not the lack of bike parking, not the scarcity of showers in most commercial buildings. It was the motorists – the antagonism, or just the casual disregard for a cyclist’s safety over their convenience.

English: Picture shows a bike path or ciclorut...
Phoenix also lags behind Bogota, Columbia, in bicycle infrastructure  En detalle la cicloruta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would get me to commute by bike as one of my  transportation alternatives again? Physically separating bike lanes from roadways as much as possible. The canal bike paths are a great start – Step One would be to widen them. Next, get some physically separated connectors to the canal.

The bike infrastructure in Helsinki, Finland, and its below-grade bike superhighways provide the perfect example. The U.S. is decades away from Finland’s harmonious relationship between motorists and cyclists -- but we can at least separate bike lanes.

Apps and consultants are half-measures to make it look like Phoenix city officials take seriously the need to commute by bike. None will make a true difference – and they’re not meant to. Phoenix revolves around car culture and sprawl – and looking like it’s trying to change while not actually doing so. City officials seem to have no clue about one fairly easy change that could make its streets more pedestrian friendly – how can we count on them to be any better with bike commuting if they can’t implement scramble crosswalks? I offer a vote of no confidence on bike commuting to current and past administrations.

I expect naysayers to sputter “but, but, we can’t.” People, this is nothing next to light rail. It would take a fraction of the time and money. It could happen … if we approach it with a “how?” attitude. There’s a way to do it if we can overcome the lack of political will.

If you want to see other interesting ideas to make it more feasible to commute by bike, check out the Copenhagenize blog.

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