Friday, December 19, 2008

Good News for Trestles!

Its good news this morning for environmentalists in California, the foothill-south toll road has been dealt a fatal blow. The Department of Commerce announced today that it would uphold the California Coastal Commission's decision! Basically, this means that it is illegal under both federal and state law to build a toll road through San Onofre State Park. In a release issued from the Department of Commerce, they "determined that there is at least one reasonable alternative to the project and that the project is not necessary in the interest of national security."

For those of you not familiar with the long disputed project, The TCA (Transportation Corridor Agency) proposed to continue highway 241 south from its current end at Oso Parkway to the I-5 near San Clemente. Here is a map for any one not familiar with the area. The highway's completion was touted as reducing the congestion on the I-5 and as an alternative for Orange County residents. However, the reality was that the proposed plan would have been built directly along San Maeto Creek. According to the Surfrider Foundation "the project would also result in the obliteration of Southern California’s last remaining pristine coastal watershed and substantially degrade habitat that is critical for the survival of at least seven endangered species, including the Southern Steelhead trout."

What I love most about this story is that opponents of the 241 continuation project did not gain momentum from this fact. Instead, popularity was generated from a Southern California institution. Surfing. The 241 extension road project would have directly threatened the world class surf break at and around Trestles. This simple fact started a grass roots movement of unrivaled popularity. Save Trestles became the battle cry and today it is these advocates we have to thank. They saved a beautiful region of our state from unnecessary desecration and I personally hope they take this day to celebrate their achievements!

Be sure to visit Surfrider's save trussels website, the non-profit that has worked tirelessly to win this fight. And if you are interested in reading the TCA's plan click here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Monte Roraima

So I was watching this show last night about a group of scientists that recently were assembled and sent to explore Monte Roraima in Venezuela. For those not familiar with random plateau's in Venezuela, Monte Roraima is one of the least explored places on earth. This table-top mountain, or tepuis, is thought to be the oldest mountain on earth having formed when Africa and South America split apart. Monte Roraima is unique in that it is nearly 9,300 feet tall and is almost inaccessible due to sheer cliffs on all sides. This is the point in this blog post where you all begin to drift as I write about random mountains in Venezuela.... Here's why this place, and this expedition, are fascinating to me: Monte Roraima's unique set of circumstances, and inaccessibility, have long made it a candidate for housing unknown, or even long extinct creatures. The thought here is that when this landscape rose from the ground, it's eco-system was essentially frozen in time, and has not been touched since. This place was what originally inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912 (the inspiration for Jurassic Park and King Kong).

So this random group of scientists set out to explore this place. There is this one guy who is a cryptozoologist. Yep, crypto as in hidden/secret, and zoologist as in animals. This guy was a "specialist" in lost/mythical or unknown-to-science animals. He basically walked around waiting for a pterodactyl to come flying down and eat him (local Indians talk about this species as one of many still thought to reside on the mountain) the whole episode. He was joined by a herpetologist, a couple of cave specialists, a random biologist, and a specialist in tarantulas. Long story short, they find a bunch of new creatures, but no dinosaurs or giant mammals.

I mention all of this because something fascinated me during this show. I began to notice that no matter how remote a tribe, no matter how remote a location, even those on opposite ends of the earth with no contact whatsoever with one another, every single place and tribe have stories of the same type of creature: An ape man. In the Himalayas, it's called the Yeti. In North America, it's been long referred to as (even Native American mythology tells of it) Bigfoot or Sasquatch. In Australia the Yowie, in Central America the Dwendi. In this area of South America, I can't remember what the local tribe was calling it, but essentially it meant "demon-ape." I'm not saying I am going to start believing in Big Foot, but there is something to be said for every ancient culture telling of literally the same creature: A giant bipedal ape/man thing. It's not even that bizarre really. After all, there was a creature that basically was this exact specimen called Giganthopithicus that lived perhaps as recently as 3,000 years ago in SE Asia. Who is to say something similar didn't live elsewhere, and even recently? So my question today is if anyone out there believes in Bigfoot?

Friday, December 12, 2008

To Go or Not to Go, That is the Question

The more I get to understanding people's travel psyche, the more I begin to realize something: People are nervous about visiting most places. It's not uncommon for me to hear, "I won't travel there, it's too dangerous" many times a week in reference to places no where near the State Department's Advisory List. While most of the time I think their concern is off-base, the real question is, as travelers, what do we do with places like Thailand, India, Myanmar and Greece? We've all seen these countries in the news of late for various reasons and while not on Advisory Lists, instances of unrest in these destinations often creates an over-reaction from the general public.

So the real questions are:
Where should we be worried about traveling?
Where shouldn't we worry?
When do people need to just relax, put aside their anxiety, and just go?

Let me start with the obvious: Any destination engaged in some sort of international, civil, or insurgent-led war should be avoided. I think we can all agree that places like Iraq, Afghanistan and to some extent Pakistan are off-limits. Add to this the handful of countries that are so incredibly de-stabilized or lawless that one would be risking more than simply their belongings by traveling there, and we should add places like Somalia, Sudan, DRC, Zimbabwe, and largely Palestine. But what then?

One of my pet peeves is that if you watch or read the news, you'd think that every place on this planet is dangerous; anything international should be avoided:

Don't travel to Thailand, there are people that are protesting the government.
Don't go to London, they had those bombings,
Don't see the Louvre, the French hate us.
Avoid South America, they have all of those drug cartels.
Don't see China, it's near that crazy guy in North Korea.
Watch out for Peru, I saw that story about how Alpaca's will spit at you.
Definitely avoid Egypt, there are terrorists everywhere.
Steer clear of Southern Italy... all of those mobsters.
Don't go near the Mideast, Arabs hate us and will kidnap Westerners.
SE Asia is lawless. I heard that if you go most places there, you'll likely wake up in a bathtub without your organs.
Russia is crazy, after the collapse they lost all of their nuclear weapons, and they could be detonated at any time.
Never Indonesia; a tidal wave will sweep me away.
Nor Turkey. Crazy earthquakes, none of those buildings are built like the Japanese, they'll fall on me.

Ugh. My advice: Relax. Take a deep breath. Look around you. Realize our country has it's own dangers. There will certainly be instances of unrest, crime, natural disaster and pockets of danger anywhere in this world one travels. But ask yourself: How many crime reports do you see on TV here each day? How many streets exist in this country that you wouldn't walk down past dark? How many earthquakes/tornados/hurricanes/floods hit our country every 12 months? Would you ever tell someone not to come to America because it's too dangerous?

Make sure you do your research, and just go! Aside from the few places listed above, the countries in this world are overwhelmingly safe. The people there are overwhelmingly sweet, hospitable, and just like you. Buy a good guide book to steer you clear of the wrong parts of the city, avoid war zones, and just relax and enjoy yourself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

10 reasons to visit Bhutan

I know it has been awhile since I have returned from Bhutan, but I could not help posting something else on this magical country. If you have read any of my other posts, you will realize that I am on the verge of begging the Bhutanese government to let me apply for citizenship. So here is my list of the very best reasons to make Bhutan your next vacation destination.

1. "You went where?" If you go to Bhutan, this is a question you will get frequently. And it feels fantastic. To go to a place that so few westerners have ever heard of proves that you have traveled somewhere unique. That, or American's abysmal lack of geographical knowledge. But, I am going to be optimistic and stick with the former.

2. The Bhutanese People. The sweetest, kindest and most lovely people. They are open and friendly and no matter where you are you will receive smiles with waves of 'goodbye' from the children. (Kids use goodbye as a welcome). So cute.

3. The Tiger's Nest. This amazing site is one of the most sacred monasteries in the entire country. Completed in 1692, it hangs on a cliff at 10,200 feet above the city of Paro. The proper name is Taktshang, which means "Tiger's nest", the legend being that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew there on the back of a tiger. The monastery suffered several blazes from a butter lamp which had fell during the night, but its restoration has been completed and it is back to its former glory.

4. The Takin. What on earth is a Takin you ask? It is the national animal of Bhutan and has been described as a bee-stung moose. This animals association is intrinsically tied to Bhutanese religious history, more appropriately with Lama Drukpa Kunley otherwise known as the Divine Madman. He is credited with having created this animal by taking the head of a goat and attaching it to the body of a cow.

5. Paintings of well....male genitalia. It is not often that we see penis' painted on the side of building or on flags on people's home. It is quite a sight. The historical significance traces back to the Divine Madman, a favorite monk which lived from 1455-1529. This outrageous monk was known for his sexual exploits as well as his ability to help with fertility. He is a greatly loved symbol and these paintings are in reverence to him.

6. Monklettes. Otherwise known as little-kid monks. I hope this made-up term does not come across as disrespectful, they are just so darn cute in their orange robes.

7. Eme datse. The Bhutanese love their chilies. And for the adventurous, try their national dish, eme datse. It is a mixture of chilies and cheese and after eating the most miniscule amount I spent the next 20 minutes sputtering, coughing, sweating profusely and guzzling anything liquid in sight. It is very, very hot. Watching our guides eat this dish without the slightest sign of discomfort, the Bhutanese clearly are born without taste-buds.

8. You will not find a single McDonalds....anywhere. It is a blissful change from the everyday life of continual chain stores.

9. "Gross National Happiness". This is concerned the primary currency of Bhutan and significantly more important than Gross Domestic Product. And the feeling is palpable, everyone is so happy.

10. Druk Air. The best in-flight food you will ever have. And amazingly it is free. Read more...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

7 Bizarre Holidays and Celebrations

I was thinking today that there are some really strange celebrations/holidays around the world. This week is Thanksgiving, and despite all of our affinities and traditions for this holiday, one could just as easily argue that it is a quite bizarre and strange spectacle for those not from the States.

First off, most everything we celebrate on Thanksgiving is in some way, shape or form, inaccurate. The traditional story of course is that this was a celebration between Pilgrims and Indians in 1621. There are many sources though that clearly point to the fact that Thanksgiving was first practiced in 1619 in Virginia, or even as early as the late 1500's in Texas. Second of all, the food: Turkey? Cranberries? Pumpkin pie? Probably not, no and no. The only meat we know for sure that was eaten there was deer. Turkeys and cranberries are really an invention of the Victorians who prepared this food starting in the 1860's (along with Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation that actually set aside two dates for the holiday - one in August and the other in November). How about the funky dress then? You know, the Pilgrims in their black, with their big hats and strange shoes. Or the Indians with their feathered headdresses? Again, no, no and no. These are all later renderings by artists, but not historically accurate by any account. Nevertheless, I love Thanksgiving. It's a great day for family, food, and relaxation. I thought I'd post a list of seven of the most bizarre holidays/celebrations that exist elsewhere in the world:

1. Novgorod, Russia: Maslenitsa
This happy holiday centers around Lent, where in many Orthodox countries, the week prior is marked with a series of celebrations.... in this case a free-for-all boxing match in which there are no rules. In centuries past, the fight ended only when the participates were covered with blood and without clothes.

2. Bunyol, Spain: Tomatina
This one, though near and dear to my heart, is the epitome of strange. Near the end of August this city shuts down as the entire population embarks upon the world's largest tomato fight.

3. Brockworth, England: Cheese Rolling Festival
This traditional day, dating back to Roman times, competitors from all over the world run up a huge hill and then chase a 7 kg round cheese back down. The first who gets to it, keeps it.

4. Eastern Island, Chile: Tapati Festival
A week-long festival begun in the 1970s in an effort to drum up more tourism, Tapati includes a triathlon in which native participates run around the lake of the Rano Raraku volcano carrying a large bunch of bananas. Isn't there an easier way to draw tourists to Chile?

5. Several in Turkmenistan....
The once president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov was a bit odd to say the least. When he wasn't renaming months of the year after himself and his mom, he was creating holidays. In 2005, citizens were given the day off so that they could celebrate melons, and April 27th was chosen as a national holiday to honor horses.

6. Tinku Festival: Bolivia
Each May thousands of Bolivian indians descend on the city of Macha to pick a fight with one another. The 600 year old pre-Hispanic Bolivian festival of Tinku sees villager engage in a slug fest that doesn't stop until blood is spilt on the ground. The blood is an offering to the earth goddess - Pachamama - to ensure a good harvest for the coming year.

7. Antzar Eguna (Goose Day): Lekeitio, Spain
Goose Day dates back at least 350 years, and involves a group of young Spaniards trying to decapitate a dead goose hanging from a rope in the middle of the town's harbor. No wait, it gets better.... the contestants have to behead the goose using only their hands and arms. They try this by approaching the dangling goose in a rowboat, grabbing its neck, then falling into the harbor waters. If one of the guys manages to hold on to the bird despite the best efforts to shake him off (by bystanders pulling on the rope) and also manages to wrench the head off, he wins, and the prettiest girls in town flock into his arms. Totally awesome.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tshechu Festival

When I was in Bhutan I was lucky enough to be in Thimpu to see the Tshechu Festival. It was magical. The Thimphu Tshechu lasts for 4 days during which mask and historical folk dances are preformed in the courtyard of the Tashichodzong. Just imagine a sea of color, everyone dressed in their best clothes believing that their attendance will bring them good merit for the year. The history of this festival is ingrained in Buddhism (the country's main religion) and is in honor of Guru Rinpoche "the precious teacher". This Indian saint contributed enormously to the diffusion of Tantic Buddhism in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan around 800AD.

The Thimphu Tshechu lasts for four days during which mask and historical folk dances are preformed by monks and laymen alike. We were lucky enough to see it this year, the first year they held the festival outside as opposed to the old crowded courtyard that could accommodate only 25,000. The new area held 90,000 and although still crowded we had wonderful seats to see much of the performance and interact with people around us.

The best part of this entire day were the children. They gathered around us to have their picture taken or conversely to take pictures (some of my favorite pictures of the trip). We sat in the square playing games like 'rock, paper, scissors" and (a very, very, gentle) rendition of "slap hands". It was so much fun! These kids almost all spoke a few sentences in English and even if they did not gestures were enough.

This was one of my most fond memories of Bhutan and wonderful introduction into Buddhist life.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Willie and Microfinance, Part I

I met William today. William or "Willy", also goes by ZZ as his appearance to the legendary front man Billy Gibbons is uncanny. He stopped in today and we got to talking for a half-hour or so. As it turns out, Willy has family in Maui having gone to school there and lived for many years, and is trying to find his way out there. Willy had a falling out with his family some years back as his addictions to drugs and alcohol raged.

Willy is homeless.

He'd like more than anything else to make his way back to Hawaii and show them that he's clean. That he's turning his life around. That he's trying to dig his way out. Trouble is, hitching rides may be easy, but getting across the Pacific is another story.

How much is a one-way ticket to Maui? He wondered.

I looked it up.

It's roughly $390.

I almost winced at the amount. $390 is a lot of money to anyone, let alone a homeless man. How on earth to raise the money he wondered? He had a plan.

Willie likes to surf. He hasn't lately, but loves the break here in San Diego - much like Maui, not as warm, but just as peaceful. He has two old boards that have fallen in disrepair. As I understand it, these boards are made by a legendary board-marker. I didn't quite follow who the maker was, nor did I fully understand as he explained their repair. My knowledge of anything surf-related is minimal, and that may be generous. Anyhow, with some work toil and repair, they ought to fetch almost $1,500 each with the right market. In Hawaii, the boards ought to fetch even more as Willie explained the market out there is a bit better than here. Does he have them fixed here, then pay to have them brought aboard an airline?

Depends on the airline's fees for the weight of the two boards. He says thinking out loud.

His next stop, he explains, is the surf shop down the street. They'll be able to give him a good idea of what is costs to transport surfboards. That's step one, but he's afraid the fees will be too high.

Maybe he sells the two boards to someone in Hawaii from here, and then has them pay the shipping? Not favorable, he muses, as people like to see boards before they purchase. He does not want to sell them here, as they'll surely not fetch half as much money as they will in Maui or Honolulu. This is a man who understands economics. He understands the buyer's market. He knows Craigslist is probably his best shot at selling to the largest population, for the cheapest price. He's weighing his options. This man is an entrepreneur.

Willie is working to save the several hundred dollars it'll take to have them fixed first. This of course will take him awhile.

First he has to get his VA benefits to come through.
Then prove he's clean to find part-time work.
Then get a bank to let him open an account, maybe take a loan.
He has no collateral though. And herein lies the problem...

The homeless, the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, those that live in the "ghettos" are not stupid. They're not there because their incapable. Sure, some are unwilling. Some don't put forth the effort. But most of the time, poverty is as a disease: It cannot be shed. It leads only to further despair. These people don't have access to money. Heck, most don't have access to computers. Those living in the deepest ruts of poverty cannot get loans from banks. They cannot start the American (or any other countries) dream. They are limited.

In some ways, the truly poor are the ultimate travelers. They are the ultimate entrepreneurs. These poor souls live on what they can beg for. What they can produce with their hands. What they can produce by collecting cans, bottles,or work here and there. They can live for years, eat, sleep at night, with nothing. They can find their way from one side of the country to the other, for free. They, like Willie, use what they have to buy/sell for a profit. If Willie was loaned the money to fix his boards, could he make $3,000? Good question. Even if he could, could he be trusted to repay it? Good question as well. This is going to be Part I in a series of blog entries about our thoughts on microfinance:

What it is.

Where it is.

Why it works.

And why, with regard to poverty, it might change the world.

To be continued....

Monday, October 13, 2008

1491 - A Book Review

I just finished reading 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and wanted to take some time this week to review this robust and exhaustive study of the ancient Americas.

This review comes fittingly as today is Columbus Day; which as an aside, has to be the the most moronic and unhistorical holiday this country has. What really are we celebrating? Are we celebrating the year that a borderline traitorous European, certainly tyrannical, was the "first" to step foot on the Americas? And by "first" do we really mean "first wealthy, well-funded, European explorer"? As this book points out, the Americas were more populated, and in some ways advanced, than Europe of the same time period. Furthermore, to disregard Leif Ericson's (and probably countless others) landing here some 500 years earlier is questionable at best. But history needs a face, and being that Spain and Portugal ruled the world at the time, Christopher Columbus is that man.

But I digress, the book 1491, is phenomenal. In my eyes, Charles Mann provides one of the most exhaustive and well-documented studies of historical North and South America ever put to print. To capture the findings in this book in a single review would be near impossible, but to summarize I'll do my best. Mann's 1491 title serves facetiously as the account of the America's prior to European "discovery".

I was taught, as every other school child was, that the populating of this country was a direct result of individuals (likely of Asian-descent) crossing the Bering Strait some 12,000 years ago. In turn, these nomads gradually wandered as far south as Chile, gradually populating and creating pocket societies along the way. In turn, we're led to believe that the Americas (certainly North America) had a population of people existing mainly in small, nomadic bands; living sparsely on the land, and that, for all practical purposes, America was still a vast wilderness upon Columbus' "discovery". Further, Columbus "discovered" this sparsely populated, and very unsophisticated, land in 1492. Charles C. Mann makes abundantly clear that archaeologists and anthropologists in the last thirty years have proved nearly every aspect of those assumptions wrong (and in some cases, very, very wrong).

Here are a few random and ground-breaking discoveries outlined in detail throughout this book:
• In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe (likely 10's of millions).
• At Olmec in 30 A.D., use of the zero has been discovered: An invention, widely described as the most important mathematical discovery ever made, which did not occur in Eurasia until 600 A.D.
• At the time of Columbus' landing, cities like Tenochtitl├ín (on Lake Texcoco, outside of present-day Mexico City), were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Tenochtitl├ín, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
• The Spanish conquest and successful overthrow of empires in South America was likely due to the fact that the societies had been decimated by smallpox (introduced by Europeans and spread rapidly), in many cases up to 90% of the populations, allowing the conquistadorss to "win" so easily.
• The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
• In many cases, the mathematical and scientific accomplishments of the Americas preceded those oft credited to European and Asian counterparts. These include many aspects of astronomy, the modern day calendar, farming, the wheel, plumbing, government and writing.
• The first paleo-Indian migration to the Americas could have occurred as early as 25,000-35,000 B.C. arriving in boats, not by foot.
• Large-scale pyramids, with surrounding societies, have been discovered in Peru preceding those built at the Great Pyramids of Giza by several hundred years.
• Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as “man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”
• Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively “landscaped” by human beings.