8 Hours in Stockholm

Sometimes when I travel, I don’t have long to linger. That was the case when we headed to Tromsø, 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. 

A bright morning in old town Stockholm.
Church steeples puncture the Stockholm skyline.
Stockholm City Hall – like something from the past.
Inside Stockholm City Hall.
Stockholm residents were happy to enjoy the sun.
The weather finally turned dreary and drove us indoors.

Safeguard Your House While You Travel

Ever worry about your house when you travel? Or get that nagging feeling that something is not quite right as you head to the airport?

Well, my streak of luck ended. After years of problem-free travel, it all caught up: A faulty seal in a toilet flooded our house while we were gone. And it made me write this story for Yahoo! Voices about steps you can take to protect your house.

The big one? Turn the water valves at your toilets off. Some people have also mentioned doing the same at the wash machine. Really, this experience with a house flood makes me dream about just having a yurt and a composting toilet. But check out the rest of the tips, too. You might find something that bails you out the next time you travel.




Music this Autumn: Concerts in Birmingham, England

Symphony Hall Birmingham interior
Music lovers will know how fantastic an experience a live concert can be. Listening to your favourite albums at home is one thing, but seeing your idols on stage is a whole different ball game. The Midlands city of Birmingham is always oozing with gigs from all music genres and this summer/autumn is no different. If you’re travelling from outside the city, or want to make an evening of it, Birmingham hotels from Travelodge can provide you with quality and comfort at amazing value.

In September, pop over to the Symphony Hall to spend an evening with Dave Stewart – one half of the incredibly successful group, the Eurythmics.  If you’re in the vicinity on the 15th September, be sure to book tickets to see The Cult on the Birmingham leg of their tour – playing at the O2 Academy with support from gothic rock band, The Mission and post-punk rockers, Killing Joke. The Cult developed a dedicated following in the 1980s with their post punk singles, such as ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ and broke America in the late ‘80s with some heavier tunes, including ‘Love Removal Machine’. They’ll be sure to put on a great show this September – be sure to go and check them out.

As autumn arrives, the music scene really picks up in the Midlands city. Top indie rockers, Bloc Party, fronted by Kele Okereke, are at the O2 Academy on the 15th October. For tickets, call the venue directly. Pop punkers, Bowling for Soup, well known for the Grammy award-winning song, "Girl All the Bad Guys Want" in 2003, are also at the Academy on the 24th October. If you’re after a musical night filled with fun, this is it. The English singer-songwriter and acoustic genius, Newton Faulkner plays at the academy on the 18th October. His first album released in 2007, Hand Built by Robots, reached double platinum and his new album, Write it on your Skin, reached number 1 in the UK album charts. If acoustic music and rhythmic guitar is your bag, this is the gig for you.

November sees a huge array of spectacular bands going on tour. We have the stadium rockers, Europe, giving their latest rendition of "A Final Countdown" among other well known hits to the O2 Academy on the 21st November, followed by The Levellers on the 23rd. Influenced by punk and traditional English music, these guys always fill the venues and are well worth watching at least once. The classical superstar, Andrea Bocelli, is playing at the LG Arena in the NEC on the 10th November. The Italian tenor will be sure to provide an emotional evening with his awe inspiring voice and incredible personality. If metal music is more up your street, two industrial metal veterans will be playing at the NIA on the 29th November; none other than the multi-talented Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson will be performing on their nationwide "Twins of Evil" tour and are not to be missed.

Whatever music you’re into, Birmingham is home to a huge number of venues that play host to music all over the genres and guarantee an awesome night for you and your mates.

This is a sponsored post encouraging travelers to visit Birmingham this fall to check out some live music.


Traveler’s Overview: The Twin Cities

You’ll see a variety of architecture in the Twin Cities.

Wow, there’s something stinky on this Delta flight. Kind of like a bison pooped around seat 37D, and they used a dirty diaper soaked in Febreeze to clean it up.

This was the Facebook post that brought my trip to Minneapolis to a close. I was the last person off after nearly three hours stuffed in seat 41A of a 757. Other than the funky odor, I had no other complaints about the Delta flight. It was on time, and the crew was pleasant.

Let’s break down the rest of Minneapolis on the double, with more to come in the future:

  • Minneapolis and St. Paul are both good places to grab a regional craft beer. There are tons of local breweries, and they get adventurous with the recipes.
  • The Twin Cities has a first-rate “rails to trails” system. If the Phoenix area had a cycling infrastructure even half as good as this, the time I spend on my road bike would increase 10-fold. Cyclists would love a visit to this area. Well done, Twin Cities.
  • Like your ethnic food? How does copious amounts of Thai, Himalayan, Ethiopian and Chinese sound? I saw less Japanese or Mexican (the latter of which is less “ethnic” and more “default” to a guy from Arizona). The Twin Cities might be in the Midwest, but you won’t eat like you’re in the stereotypical Midwest.
  • Yes, this really is the land of 10,000 lakes. Whether flying or driving, you’ll see all sorts of bodies of water.
  • I noticed plenty of stylish and varied architecture – office buildings and homes alike.

In future posts, I’ll get more specific and tell you where I went, stayed, ate and quaffed. Let’s just say that I’ll give props to Minneapolis and St. Paul for being pleasant summer destinations. I’d recommend the Twin Cities for any quick getaway for anyone eager to escape the Southwest heat for a spell – especially if you’re a cyclist and willing to travel with your bike.


Fighter Pilot for a Day – Top Gun in Scottsdale?

Extra 300L aircraft D-EXFF 2009 03
Upside down is fun – but not really easy on the belly.
[Sept. 15 Update: An alert Twitter user (Yes, I still refuse to say “Tweep”) pointed out an article on Aero-News.net claiming that Top Gun Fighter Combat Adventures is a scam. In short, it sells Groupon offers, but doesn’t have a plane or facility to its name. I will follow up with more info as I dig it up. But since the rest of this post is about the coolness of air-combat maneuvers, I’ll leave it up.]

Groupon often lets me down. I don’t want weekly colon hydrotherapy or enough body waxing offers to be completely hairless for the rest of my life.

But sometimes, Groupon tips me off to something interesting. The latest example: Air combat at Top Gun Fighter Combat Adventures. The chance to be a fighter pilot for a day.

Top Gun at Scottsdale Municipal Airpark gives anyone – even those without previous flying experience – the chance to experience air combat in a real airplane. This isn’t the only place in Arizona where you can do this. I wrote about Fighter Combat International last year on Yahoo! Voices. I think Top Gun’s location is better - on the cusp of north Scottsdale and its wealthy residents. It’s also closer to the upscale resorts and golf courses – vacation is a great time to play fighter pilot.

And a Groupon deal starting at $399 (for 40 minutes of flight time) opens the proverbial canopy to more people.

I’ve never gotten to dogfight. But I’ve flown in the back seat of a World War II-era fighter-trainer and learned first-hand what air combat maneuvering feels like for a fighter pilot. (Be sure to read the link – the story has a twist.)

Even 30 minutes – so short a time on the ground! – will seem like an eternity. If you think a regional jet is small … even if you’ve flown in a Cessna 172 … nothing is like watching the horizon spin. And keep in mind – you’ll be in a propeller-driven airplane flying just a few hundred miles per hour. Imagine being a fighter pilot in the cockpit of a jet that can fly twice the speed of sound. After just a half-hour of rolls, loops and high-g turns, you will emerge from the cockpit sweaty, wrung out and unsteady. You won’t be able to think about eating. I promise, though, that you’ll look back on it as one of the most sensational half-hour slices of your life.

Curling – A First-Timer’s Story

Swedish curlers at Olympics 2010
You won’t get as good as the Swedish national curling team anytime soon – but you can have as much fun as they do.
Curling seems like a sport out of time and place in Arizona. So explain, then, about 50 people who have never curled before trooping to an ice rink near the McDowell Mountains on a Saturday night to try it.

The crowd includes couples. Hipsters. Corporate cliques. Athletes. Couch potatoes.

Coyotes Curling Club members lead them all during a Learn to Curl session. They divulge the history of curling. They demonstrate the techniques, the critical points of the rules and the inherent sportsmanship. Soon, the cat’s purr rumble of 40-pound hunks of polished granite sliding down ice fills the air. Next come the exultations of first-time curlers hitting milestones.

And we hit many tonight … not sprawling on the ice when we release a rock. Getting our first shots to the Hog Line. Putting our first stone into the house. And, for me (shameless bragging, I know), launching a stone 146 feet down the sheet to settle right onto “the button” – that’s curling’s version of a bull’s-eye or a hole-in-one.

I didn’t do it alone. This is a team sport. My teammates, on the instruction of one of our other teammates, swept the ice in front to make the stone go further. The teammate who told them to sweep also told me where to aim, and what direction to spin my rock.

My role – the skip. I’m the last to throw. And for all throws but my own, it’s me telling when to sweep, how hard, where to throw, what spin to put on the rock.

I figured that, since I’d watched the movie “Men With Brooms” about a dozen times, I had a slightly less-vague idea of the game. But this was my first time touching a curling stone. The end result was a low score, but in our favor: We walked off with a 2-0 victory. My team went berserk when we put our first rock in “the house,” the series of concentric circles that marks a scoring position.

Let me leave you with a few parting thoughts:

  • I know what most people think of curling. Every time the winter Olympics come around, people wrinkle their noses and say it’s not a sport. Go to a Learn to Curl session somewhere, anywhere, and tell me if it changes your mind.
  • Curlers love to introduce people to their sport. They welcome beginners, and they are part of the reason why you will have fun if you try curling.
  • Phoenix-area curlers are trying really hard to get the area’s first dedicated curling sheet. Now, they only have hockey rinks. A real curling sheet means a flatter, truer surface … and more intensity.
  • A little fun – The Swedish women’s curling team picked a song from the metal band Hammerfall as their official team song for the 06 Olympics. Hammerfall – being the cheerful Swedish dudes they are – invited the team to help them shoot a new version of the video. See it below.
Final thought: This is the second time I’ve tried something entirely new and written about it. Got an idea for something off-beat that I should try? Let me know and I’ll take a crack if it’s remotely feasible. 

Linnanmäki Amusement Park – 6 Things to Know

Getting some spin on the Salama spinning roller coaster.

When it comes to theme parks, Helsinki is no Orlando. It offers just one amusement park called Linnanmäki (“Castle Hill,” in English). About 1.2 million visited Linnanmäki in 2007 – that’s roughly the number of people in line for Space Mountain at any given time. But an amusement park doesn’t need to be a sprawling city-state to be fun. Here’s what you need to know about Linnanmäki amusement park and why I think it’s so cool.

1. It’s walking distance from the Helsinki central train station. Call it a nice 30-minute walk along a pedestrian/bike path that runs alongside the train tracks (don’t worry, Finnish trains are very quiet).

Some fire makes every roller coaster better!

2. You can ride until you’re dizzy for less than 24 Euros. Just get there after 7 p.m. for an evening pass that includes unlimited rides. You might score an even better deal if Linnanmäki still offers discounts if you sign up for a loyalty card (the employees hooked us up with this advice).

3. The lines are short, so you can walk from ride to ride, just hopping between roller coasters at will. And this was in summertime, which should be high season.

4. There are six roller coasters among its 43 rides. You’ll find some splashy water rides, so beware on a chilly day! My favorite ride was Salama, a bizarre spinning roller coaster. I’d never been on roller coasters where you might face backward or sideways by spinning vertically, no matter where the coaster was pointed.

5. Linnanmäki has the best amusement park food ever. We found Cuisine World Kattila, which had six cuisines from around the world. But it seems Linnanmäki put a Finnish spin on much of it: For instance, I can’t imagine my late Grandpa Tony making his meatballs out of reindeer – but that’s what I had. They were delicious sprinkled with mint. And the server cracked me up by repeatedly calling them reindeer balls (now that, my friends, is the difference between speaking English very well and being fluent!).

6. The nonprofit organization Lasten Päivän Säätiö (Children’s Day Foundation) owns Linnanmäki. Adds a nice bit of feel-good to your plunge down the log flume, doesn’t it?

Social Media for Travel Geeks – About Trippy.com

A few days ago, I started playing around with a social media travel site called Trippy.com. In a nutshell, it lets you organize places you’ve been and places you want to go with a photo to represent each of them. Trippy.com lets you organize them in boards. Let’s say you want a board of cool hotels and the best places to get dessert around the world. Name the boards accordingly, and then search for the place in the Trippy.com database. You can pick a photo that’s offered, or upload your own.

It’s addicting fun, and a nice way for bloggers to get an extra link to their blog, generate buzz, swap travel ideas. It integrates into Facebook.com, and it’s easy to share your boards with other social media sites. I’ve built a few based on cool hotels, stuff to do and flavors of the world.

There’s just one thing that annoys me about Trippy.com: When you sign up, it automatically makes you follow a little clatch of flavor-of-the-moment celebrities. And that shows up on social media sites connected to your profile.

I turned purple with rage at the idea of anyone who knows me seeing "Justin followed Jason Mraz on Trippy.com" on any of my social media pages. I un-followed the pre-loaded celebrities with extreme prejudice – but not before it wound up on my Facebook.com profile.

A "nice to have" would be some way to post updates – just some sort of random, pithy, travel-related thoughts. It might exist, and I just haven’t found it yet; if so, feel free to correct me. The login process is also pretty slow – I’d blame that on all the needlessly cute animation – which add nothing to the experience.

So Trippy.com is good social media fun for travel fiends. It has some flaws, but the Trippy.com team seems open to feedback. I’d expect to see some changes in the near future that will improve the site. I’m for once a fairly early adopter (I think --), and very interested in seeing how this site plays out.

Curiosity Mars Rover: Waste of Money?

Congratulations on wasting $100 million landing a remote-controlled buggy on Mars. Not sure how this helps us poor people here on Earth, but great job.

Nope. These aren’t my words. It’s just a turdy bit of meme humor oozing its way around Facebook. I fixed the punctuation because -- well, it drove me crazy the other way.

But not as much as the vapid message. Yeah, I know – it’s a sarcastic eCard. It’s supposed to be funny, biting commentary to bring us back from the heady excitement of the latest Mars rover. But I absolutely loathe it. Because some people agree. And they see validation in the caustic message.

Tell you what. If that’s the way you feel, I’m here to collect all the technology that came from the space program. You know, that stuff you use every single day that doesn’t help "us poor people here on Earth."

First up, gimme your cell phone. In fact, give me everything that uses rechargeable batteries. Yep, that includes your cordless drill. Oops, I see a bunch of Velcro (or hook-and-loop fasteners, if you don’t like the brand name) on your clothes. I’ll take that. And if you ever wind up in need of a new heart? Sorry, but you don’t get an artificial heart while you’re on the transplant list. And no CAT scans for you, either.

Oh, and cough up your bicycle helmet. Guess where that came from? Yep, the “wasteful” space program. Hey, that’s a great show you’re watching on your SATELLITE FREAKIN’ TV DISH! Hand it over.

And there’s plenty more that I don’t have time, room or inclination to mention. Educate yourself instead: Google the term "technology derived from space program". Better yet, read this great post by Jason Torchinsky on Jalopnik.com. And get a clue.

Let’s not forget another side benefit of the space program and projects like the Mars rover: inspiration. I hope your kids watch the exploits of Curiosity and every Mars rover to follow -- and wonder what it would be like to expand humankind’s knowledge of the universe. Maybe they’ll study hard, get a doctorate, become a test pilot and be the first person to leave a human footprint on Mars.

God, I hope so. Kids need that right about now. I drive down the road and see empty storefronts, people making money by twirling signs, a proliferation of cell phone shops. If we can kindle some interest in the sciences, that can change. The Mars rover can help.

One last point – if you think the space program is a waste of resources better devoted to helping people on Earth, answer this: What’s the last thing you did to better the world around you? And how does it measure up against the people who put Curiosity on Mars?

Norway – First Few Travel Days

Norway from the air.

Traveling to Scandinavia starts with a 9 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Chicago a few Thursdays ago. There, we catch a 4 o’clock-ish flight to Stockholm on SAS. The flight lands at 8 a.m. on Friday.

What do we do with eight free hours in Stockholm? Grab the Arlanda Express train for the 20-minute ride to the city. There, we wander the city. Take photos. Have a few snacks. And notice that Stockholm is not a city of early risers.

Still, Stockholm comes alive. We go to the City Hall building and the palace. We fall asleep in a library, rouse ourselves and head to the airport for an evening flight to Tromsø, Norway. That gets in around 7 p.m. after stopping in Oslo. We grab a bus, which includes a long stretch underground in the tunnels under the city. Cool!

Hanging out in Stockholm
Hanging out in Stockholm

A little more bumbling, walking and cab-riding and we’re at our campsite. We pitch the tent … and for some reason can’t fall asleep until around 3 a.m. It’s that midnight sun messing with us: We’re far above the Arctic Circle.

The upshot? We wake up the next morning. Or afternoon, rather. It’s 3 p.m. I’ve never slept like that. Ever. Good thing we still have time to eat and get ready for the race. I have a 10K, and Sarah a half marathon. I start at 8 p.m., and she’s off at 10. Should be good times!


Our ride to Stockholm.


The library in Tromso – cool architecture!

Norway – A Quick Update

Norway is a good place to be in the summer. But I still wonder how that ‘good’ would turn really challenging in the winter. I’m still getting my head around the experience – I’ll have more to say when I return. Count on some epic photos … and maybe another quick update or two about where I am at the moment.

And I’ll have a lot to say about how worthless smart phones are for international travel. I love how the industry calls my Samsung Galaxy Blaze a ‘world phone.’ Not so much, as you’ll learn in a future episode.

Olympic Games Gone Wrong: The Brand Exclusion Zone

The Olympic Games have gone off their rocker.

The games once celebrated the common bonds nations and their people could find in sport. Sure, jingoism and politics sometimes derailed that goal. But largely, it brought people together and gave a platform to the more obscure sport events.

But now?

Commercialism in its worst form -- a strain of product-hawking lunacy that’s crossed the line into stemming the flow of ideas. Olympic Games organizers call it the “Brand Exclusion Zone.”

If you’re in this Brand Exclusion Zone, don’t show up to a venue with your ticket and your Nike shirt. See, adidas is a sponsor. So they have exclusive rights, apparently, to be the only sports apparel seen in the Brand Exclusion Zone.

Oh, and I hope you like McDonald’s. It will be the only “branded food outlet” in the Brand Exclusion Zone. Kind of an odd pairing with the Olympic Games, right?

Here’s the logic: Brands like adidas and McDonald’s pay big bucks to sponsor the Olympics. Therefor, brands who don’t pony up shouldn’t reap any benefits. This, you get an abomination of the logic/decency continuum like the Olympic Games Brand Exclusion Zone.

The London Olympics Committee is not intelligent to realize something: Heavy-handed attempts to control people results in backlash. There will be guerrilla protests, and you will see a lot of creative people thwart the attempted thought control of Olympic organizers. The Olympics Games and its “Brand Police” will look like wanna be-totalitarian buffoons – Advertising Age has already written that its restrictions are worse than those enacted by China at the last Summer Olympic Games.

And you’ll see those of us who won’t be there do something worse: We’ll forgo tuning into the 2012 Olympic Games.

Look, Olympic poo-bahs and honchos … I’m not asking for a return to naked oiled-up dudes wrestling. But I want sport and culture to come first. I want marketing to come in dead last. If that means less pomp and ceremony, so be it.

I’ll be back when you get it right. And not a second sooner.

American Airlines and US Airways Merger – One Traveler’s Wish List

Coming soon to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport?

American Airlines and US Airways are destined to merge, if you believe the many airline industry talking heads. If the merger is inevitable, it opens many questions and concerns. But I don’t want to go there. Instead, I offer my wish list for an American Airline and US Airways merger. Are my suggestions practical or workable? I have no idea. But they’re food for thought. What would you add?

Follow US Airways into the Star Alliance
When I fly US Airways, I earn miles that I could use on Asiana Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand or even United Airlines. That gets me to a lot of great destinations on highly rated airlines (well, except for United). On American’s OneWorld side, Qantas and Cathay Pacific are the best offerings. Star Alliance just has a bigger, better footprint.

More intercontinental flights from Phoenix
The nation’s seventh-largest metro area has some of the most meager, provincial airline service in the country. It has just one not-even-daily intercontinental flight to London Heathrow. London is a great gateway to the rest of Europe, and there are plenty of London hotels and other attractions. But for other intercontinental hubs, I have to fly to LAX, Houston, New York or Chicago first. That’s intolerable, and the American Airlines – US Airways merger could be a game changer for a metro area of 4.2 million people. More intercontinental flights would take a bite out of a major obstacle for leisure travel: time and stops.

Turn it into a true US flag carrier
When an American flies a national carrier like Qantas, Air New Zealand or Asiana, we get our very first taste of the countries they represent. And next to U.S.-based airlines, they’re a revelation. Look at what our domestic carriers offer visitors from abroad: a bunch of airlines rated at three stars by Skytrax. A merged American Airlines and US Airways should make it their mandate to represent the U.S. around the globe – and they need to aim for airlines that people enjoy flying.

Bring back the 747
The 747 represents American innovation and longevity. Its latest iteration, the 747-8i, is a magnificent piece of technology. Is it not strange that two airlines that name-drop the country’s name don’t have the 747 in their fleets? Bring it back and, along with the 787, the merged US Airways and American Airlines will represent some of the best ideas in commercial aviation.

Re-Brand with a vengeance
Make this a new beginning. Think of this as using existing assets to create a new entity with no bad baggage. Make it destroy pre-conceived notions. New logos, new liveries, new attitudes, new destinations, new mission, new culture. Make this opportunity more than another bland merger.

This post is sponsored by expedia.co.uk, part of the world’s largest online travel company. It features millions of published and discounted fares from more than 450 airlines. You’ll also find comprehensive online destination guides, maps and more and expedia.uk.com.

Arizona Mountain Bike Racer’s Hanoi Bike Tour

hanoi bike tour
Rich Maines tackles the hills and rainy weather. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

Rich Maines is one of the faster mountain bike racers in Arizona. The guy absolutely flies on a singlespeed.

Even better, Rich makes a strong case for me to label him The Most Interesting Mountain Bike Racer in the World (stay hydrated, my friends). Why? Well, he combines cycling with travel. He blogged in-depth about a four-day cycling tour of the mountains west of Hanoi, Vietnam – Hanoi, Son La Province, Phú Yên Province, Tam Đảo – in March. I really admire this since Rich is a local rider, not a superstar in the Hans Rey sort of mold. He’s a regular guy who went out on his own to craft a cool Hanoi bike tour adventure – and he succeeded by any measure. Rich logged 27 hours of total ride time, 370 miles and 22,913 feet of elevation gain during his tour. He also encountered buckets of rain since March is the rainy season.

Rich got his share of awesome views – sugar cane fields, rice paddies, banana treas and enough fields of tea leaves to keep America awake until the next ice age.

Hanoi Bike Tour
Rich gets some carbs and electrolytes during his Hanoi bike tour. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

The route had more hills than Rich expected … which led to some challenges on a singlespeed, fixed-gear road bike. Judging from some of the photos, a mountain bike would’ve been at home.

“I just figured I’d walk what I couldn’t ride. If I couldn’t hit all the planned destinations, no worries, I was there to see the beautiful surroundings and enjoy the experience," Rich says.

Rich’s trip proves the power of the bicycle: Local kids were eager to greet the strange Westerner pedaling through the mountains. He had no shortage of offers for food and invitations to stay and visit.

"The people of Vietnam were very gracious and hospitable, even in the tiny, remote mountain villages,” Rich says. “Getting the opportunity to pedal there was an incredible thrill."

You can – and should – read more about Rich’s racing and riding adventures at his Rich Maines – Endurance Mountain Bike Athlete blog. Just prepared to be jealous since he’s sponsored by cool companies like Ergon, Stan’s No Tubes and Hammer Nutrition. 

Scottsdale Night Run 2012: Quick Race Review

UPDATE (May 13): According to the Scottsdale Night Run Facebook page, someone stole the first water station. I’m still confused about why someone thinks it’s a good idea to just drop a bunch of stuff off for a race and leave it unattended. That’s still on the race organizers. Take care of your equipment and your venue. People count on you. The race results page also seems weird – I started about three minutes late, and my chip time and my clock time are the same. How does that work?

The 2012 Scottsdale Night Run managed to get one of the most important elements of running a race dead wrong: water.

It’s May in Arizona. That means every water station should be in place before the starting gun ever goes off. I ran past the site of the first station, and volunteers were still carrying the table and water into place. It wasn’t until nearly 5 miles into the race that I saw my first water station.

And there? I got myself two cups of air-temperature water. And, again, it’s May in Arizona. Failure. And potentially dangerous for the people who struggle to complete the distance. I’m not exactly a fast runner, and I started the race a good two minutes late. Yet the water station wasn’t ready to go. Some people behind me were able to get some water, though.

More notable problems: There were no mile markers, and there were long stretches of the course that were completely dark … and over bad pavement. And I still can’t believe any race organizer thinks it’s a good idea to route a running race through Scottsdale’s club district … which is generally full of idling, exhaust-spewing taxis.

The water, though, is the biggest problem with the Scottsdale Night Run. If organizers had gotten everything wrong but the water, I could be somewhat forgiving. But I can’t see signing up for the Scottsdale Night Run again. Not without some guaranteed changes. First, water. Then, course.

I feel bad for the Scottsdale Night Run volunteers who probably endured the wrath of people who needed to vent. The paid folks deserve the blame, not the kind people who did their best and donated their time.


Hi Seoul 10K Race – A Running Adventure Abroad

Seoul - a really cool place for a good marathon, half-marathon or 10K.

Being a large Caucasian guy in South Korea is a weird experience. As I warm up for the Hi Seoul 10K run, a TV news crew fixates on me. The camera sweeps over me. Records every move. Captures every lunge, backbend, hamstring stretch.

It’s been like this since I stepped off the bus from Incheon to Seoul. I’ve caught so many glances from the corner of someone’s eye. The Koreans have been discrete. And no look has been hostile. Just -- curious.

The 10k race (and the marathon and half-marathon) brings out the few other Caucasian types – ex-pats who make their living as a English teachers. They stick together in their own cluster before the race.

I’m by myself, though. Sarah went to line up with the half-marathon crew. At 6’2 with a long mop of hair, it’s no wonder the camera hovers inches from a lone white guy like me.

If the TV crew expected me to be fast, they were mistaken. The gun goes off to start the 10K race. I thread my way through the crowd. As the theme from Star Trek Voyager plays, I’m penned into the pack. After about a mile, I can finally reach a natural stride.

The 6-mile route takes me to parts of workaday Seoul. I move to pass someone -- and discover that I’m about to plow over a lad who comes up to my solar plexus. His dad notices that I’ve revved up to pass, and pulls him out of the way.

"Who is this long-haired guy, and what is he doing here?"

Soon, I’m at the finish line. I paw through my race goodie bag -- I find canned spicy chicken and chopsticks. My sweat and the morning breeze make me shiver.

I wait for Sarah to finish her 13.1 miles – and just enjoy being an oddity in Seoul.

Inside a “Love Hotel” in South Korea

love hotel
A look inside a room at Busan’s Queen Hotel

The amenities in a South Korea "love hotel" are not what you’ll see at your local Holiday Inn: flashing colored lights over the bed, a higher-than-average number of mirrors, a "personal massager" for sale in the minibar.

If you travel to South Korea, though, you’ll find some good reasons to check into a love hotel. Here’s what you need to know about the "love hotel" experience:

Why They Exist

In South Korea, it’s not unusual for several generations of a family to live together. Sure, that can make for a close-knit family. But it also detracts from privacy. So when couples feel like gettin’ freaky/frisky/funky, they might leave the family at home and check into a love hotel for a night – or even a few hours.

Why They’re Different

love hotel
An outside view of the Queen Motel in Busan

First of all, a love hotel in South Korea is cheap – as much as half the cost of a conventional hotel. And they’re considerably nicer than hostels or guesthouses: You’ll find a generously sized TV, a computer with Internet and very likely a fancy Japanese toilet that can blast a jet of water a good 12 feet. It’s everything people need while they travel – and then some. Also, you’ll enter through a discreet entrance designed to conceal guest’s identities. You’ll pay through a bank teller-like window (and possibly not even make eye contact with the staff) in cash per day. And I’m serious about the in-room amenities. The staff issues a little care package with things like powdered coffee, tea bags, razors, hair ties, bubble bath gel … and condoms.

Why You Might Think Twice

As far as I could tell, most love hotels allow smoking in rooms. That’s a tough smell to get out of the rooms to nonsmokers’ satisfaction. It took a little arm twisting to make sure it was eradicated from our room – or at least enough to pass muster.

love hotel
A typical love hotel amenity kit

How You Can Find One

It seems love hotels don’t really fly their flag on the Internet. There’s a feeling that the people of South Korea consider them ever-so-slightly tawdry (if necessary). But they stick out in the landscape. Just look for a building that’s on the garish side, likely with a word like "Queen" or "Castle" or somesuch in the name: I saw one called the Wow Motel. If you see neon, fringe and jarring colors, you’ve found yourself a love hotel.


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Aviation Photos – The 161st Air Refueling Wing/Phoenix Sky Harbor

Too big to fit in the frame - a 161st Air Refueling Wing KC-135.

Aviation photographers love any chance to get close to the action. And being on the ground level next to one of the runways at a major airport? Excellent. And if the vantage point is at a military installation? Jackpot!

A few years ago, a work event offered me that chance. The only downside is that I hadn’t yet advanced to using a digital SLR. I took these aviation photos at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, right at the home of the 161st Air Refueling Wing of the Arizona National Guard.

This excursion yielded some great perspectives of the 161st Wing’s KC-135 aircraft. I also grabbed some shots of a 727 and a brightly painted corporate jet. I also got some of the usual 737 sorts of aircraft that are the mainstay of Sky Harbor air traffic – not exactly the sort of thing that excites aviation geeks, I know. But the runway-level perspective turns them into a little something different.

Back from a flight.

My photo friend N. Scott Trimble was also there. I’d love to see what someone with his skills took home from the same place. Of course, with the sheer volume of images a working photographer generates, I expect most of these are long-gone from his hard drives. Then again, he is an aviation geek who might’ve squirreled a few away.

Now that I use a Pentax DSLR, I’d go crazy for another chance at some ground-level aviation photography at Sky Harbor.

The 727 - a blast from the bast.
A cool boulder with malachite - and some little airplane in the background.
The International Jet Dream Chaser takes off.
The tailboom in its upright and locked position.
Two of a kind.

Camping adds Natural Flavor to International Travel

Camping makes international travel better. You won't get this experience in a Reykjavik hotel.

I don’t travel without a sleeping bag – and I even prefer to bring my own tent.

Ever since my trip to New Zealand, I’ve tried to work camping into my travel itinerary. That’s where I first discovered that international travel is a good chance to break away from staying in hotels. And New Zealand’s system of hiking huts in its national parks also impressed me. I regretted that I didn’t think to bring a sleeping bag every time I saw a tent off in some quiet spot.

My Kiwi camping revelation made me re-think the possibilities of where to lay my head at night. My next trip was a summertime jaunt to Iceland. I know – it’s not the first place most people would think to camp. But the days I spent camping in Iceland were some of my most memorable experiences. I slept in my tent near the noses of glaciers at Skaftafell, on the shores of Myvatn, even in the remote highlands along the Laugavegur. Hotels in Iceland aren’t exactly cheap, so I was able to save a fistful of króna while getting a little closer to the landscape.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

For my recent trip to South Korea and Japan, I knew the chances of camping were more remote. Still, my tent and sleeping bag were the first items in my backpack. I didn’t wind up getting a chance to camp, but I was ready for anything.

When I finally get to the UK, my camping gear will go with me. I’ll find some good campsites and be ready for some outdoor fun. Iceland was nearly silent since there’s very little wildlife scampering about – I imagine a forest in Ireland or the UK would be much more alive with the sound of creatures.

Give camping a try on your next trip. You don’t even have to bring your tent. New Zealand, Iceland and the UK all have sites with huts, yurts and other accommodations far more fun than the typical hotel or hostel experience. You’ll save some weight in your backpack and still have a close-to-nature place to sleep.

This post is featured by Pitchup.com. Pitchup.com is your free guide to all types of camping and caravanning in the UK and Ireland – judged Best UK Travel Website of the Year 2011 and Best UK Travel Information Site 2010. With 5,000 campsites and holiday parks (including more than 200 to book), nifty searching and loads of offers, it has never been easier to find and book the perfect site – and rediscover the glee in camping and caravanning.

Camera Tips for Low-Light Photos

Long exposures gather the light and show your favorite low-light travel sights for what they are.

Using a camera in low light is a challenge for travelers. You might wind up in places like dense rain forests or – like in my last post – a lava tube deep underground. After I finished the last post, I realized it could also illustrate some good low-light photo tips.

Let’s say you’re headed out for an epic vacation, and all you plan to take is a camera. But you don’t want to miss a shot. Here’s what you need to know.

Pick Your Camera

You don’t need a pro-level digital SLR. But you need a camera with manual controls. You will absolutely need to maintain some sort of control of your shutter speed. I’d also recommend a camera that allows you to select ISO.

Live off the Land

You probably don’t have a tripod, so you’ll have to innovate. Look for a stable place to plop your camera … someplace flat and secure. You’ve just found yourself a “field tripod.”

Pick your spot for a makeshift tripod and make some photo magic,

Set Your Camera Up

The fun start now. Experiment with 5-, 10-, 20- and 30-second exposures. But even before you get there, set your camera so that it delays before opening the shutter. The longer you give yourself, the more time you have to compose yourself in the photo. Or keep it quick – 2.5 seconds or so – if you are just going for landscape. But do use a delay: If you just click the shutter, that can be just enough jiggle to ruin the sharpness of your shot. Hello, accidental and unwelcome blur.

A slow-shutter look at Majanngul Lava Tube

Get Ready for Surprises

You’ll get interesting effects from long exposures. I love the ghostly images of people walking through long exposures, especially against a sharp, focused background.

Stay Energized

Holding the shutter open can sorely tax your battery power. Carry lots of extras.

Don’t be a Flasher

A flash can work wonders used properly in a cave, a canyon or some other dark environment. Pro photographers and their gear and knowledge amaze me. But if you’re traveling, chances are it’s just you and your camera. Your flash will add harsh, unnatural light ot only the foreground of your photo. It will obscure everything behind. And isn’t capturing that cool background the whole point?