Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Photo #4: London Gargoyle

Click on image to view full size

London is full of buildings that were constructed in an age when owners where not just interested in throwing up any old edifice, but wanted buildings that would last. Buildings with character. Buildings with charm and personality. Buildings that appealed with their unique individuality.

Imagine the amount of time, effort and craftsmanship – not to mention, money – that went into creating the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of gargoyles adorning thousands of buildings across Britain, and indeed the rest of the world. Will we ever see their like again? Which entrepreneur today; which Board of Directors; which construction magnate will direct their architects to design buildings that are not just functional – but aesthetically pleasing, not just to their owners, shareholders and users, but for generations to come?

Whose imagination sparked this cheeky gargoyle? Whose skilled hands wielded the tools and materials to craft this one individual character? This one, out of countless millions?

Did the artisan delight in the shape and form of this creature? Did he find – or hide – some deeper meaning in its pose and expression? Was he offering a not so subtle comment on the wealth and standing of the building’s owner? It’s eventual occupants?

We will never know. We are left forever to wonder and speculate. And finally, to appreciate and enjoy.

Location: Building façade in Carmelite Street, London, EC4

Photographer: Jim Lesses, September 30, 2008

Note: Click on image to view full size.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Airlines Banned for Poor Safety Standards

~ Sadly, there have been a spate of airline accidents recently, which has prompted me to look into airline safety standards and the organisations that police them.

European Union

While the European Union and its Member States work with safety authorities in other countries to raise safety standards across the world, there are still some airlines operating in conditions below essential safety levels. To improve safety in Europe further, the European Commission – in consultation with Member States’ aviation safety authorities – has decided to ban airlines found to be unsafe from operating in European airspace.

These are listed in a 16 page PDF document which includes all airlines banned from operating in Europe, and airlines which are restricted to operating in Europe under specific conditions.

It is important to note that the civil aviation authorities of Member States of the European Community are only able to inspect aircraft of airlines that operate flights to and from EU airports. As they point out on their website, it is not possible to check all aircraft that land at each European Community airport. The fact that an airline is still able to fly in and out of countries that make up the EU, does not automatically mean that it meets the applicable safety standards.

Here is the current list of countries with air carriers that are subject to a ban or other restrictions within the European Community: Republic of Kazakhstan, North Korea, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Thailand, Cambodia, Rwanda, Angola, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Kyrgyz Republic, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Bangladesh, and Comoros.

Please Note: Not every airline in the countries listed above faces bans or restrictions. Download a PDF file here to see which airlines in the above countries are facing bans and restrictions in the European Community.

United States of America

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established the International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) Program in 1992. Unlike the European Union, the FAA's assessment program focuses on a country's ability, not the individual air carrier, to adhere to international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance. These standards have been established by the United Nation's technical agency for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

By looking at a countries ability to comply rather than an individual airlines ability to comply with international safety stands, the FAA is essentially saying that travellers should be careful with every national airline flying out of say, Bangladesh and Belize – not just some of them.

The full list of countries on the FAA list are: Cote D’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Gambia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Kiribati, Nauru, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, Serbia and Montenegro, Swaziland, Ukraine, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, and as already noted, Bangladesh and Belize.

Click here to download an International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) spreadsheet of countries whose airlines do, or do not meet IASA standards (spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel format).

It is important to note that these lists are updated on a regular basis. Countries or airlines that are currently listed may be removed from these bans, and new ones added. It is important to use these lists as a guide only, and decide for yourself whether to risk flying with one of the carriers facing bans or restrictions.

Image courtesy of European Transport Commission

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

12 Tips for Navigating Airport Security

~ 12 Tips for Navigating Airport Security

With the holiday season upon us, travellers are once again converging on airports en masse. During this time of year, crowds and long lines are the norm, and getting through security can seem like the ultimate challenge. Add a cane, walker, crutches or a wheelchair to that equation and the degree of difficulty increases tenfold. So what’s a disabled traveler to do?

“The best way to make your trip more comfortable is to learn your rights, so you know what to expect when you get to the airport,” says Candy Harrington, author of 101 Accessible Vacations; Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. “In fact,” adds Candy, “with a little education and some advance planning, you can have a relatively comfortable and stress-free security screening experience.”

With that in mind, Harrington suggests you remember the following points as you approach the security screening checkpoint.

  • Allow plenty of extra time to get through security, especially if you wear a prosthesis or use any type of assistive device.
  • If you can’t walk or go through the metal detector, tell the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent. You will be hand-wanded and given a pat-down search.
  • If you tire easily or can’t stand for long periods of time, request a chair during the screening process.
  • Slow walkers should request a wheelchair at check-in. This will expedite the screening process as wheelchair-users are usually fast-tracked through security.
  • Canes and walkers are allowed through security checkpoints, but they will be inspected thoroughly by security personnel.
  • Prosthetic devices do not have to be removed for screening; however the screener will manually inspect the device and swab it for explosive residue.
  • You have the right to a private screening and to have a companion present during that screening.
  • You are not required to remove your shoes if your disability prevents you from doing so. You will however be subject to a pat-down search and your shoes will be swabbed.
  • Liquid medications are allowed through the security checkpoint; however if they are in volumes larger than 3 ounces each, they may not be placed in the quart-size bag and must be declared to the TSA agent before the screening process begins. They must be removed from your luggage and kept separate from items to be x-rayed.
  • Sharp objects or anything that could be used as a weapon will be confiscated at the security checkpoint, so pack your wheelchair-repair tools in your checked luggage.
  • Syringes are allowed through the security checkpoint upon inspection. Although not required, it’s best to bring a doctor’s note when carrying syringes in an airport.
  • If you encounter any problems, ask to speak to a supervisor or call the TSA Contact Center at (866) 289-9673.

In the end, patience is really the key for dealing with airport security; however, if you feel your needs as a passenger with a disability are not being adequately addressed, don’t be afraid to speak up.

101 Accessible Vacations; Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers is published by Demos Publishing and is available from your favourite bookstore or at Visit Candy Harrington’s Barrier Free Travels blog at for more helpful access tips, travel news and information for disabled travellers.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Week That Was #5

Welcome to my weekly collection of The Odd, The Useful, and The Downright Bizarre.

The Odd: The Floor of The Standard Grill, New York City. Their website is nothing to shout about, but apparently the floors are! The image shows a photograph of one of the floor areas of the New York City eatery, The Standard Grill. Located under the High Line, on the corner of Washington and West 13 Street, at 848 Washington Street. The floor is covered entirely in pennies. (Note: click on the image to view full size).

The Useful: Capturing great photographs of your vacation or family holiday has never been easier if you own a digital camera. However, if you want to improve your photographic skills higher than the usual ‘happy snaps’ that pass for most holiday photos, take a few minutes to read through the tips on the following two Microsoft At Home pages, here; 8 tips for better holiday photos, and here, 8 tips for super vacation snapshots.

The Downright Bizarre: The World's Worst Travel Gear. Spot Cool Stuff is a website that examines products and places of interest for the most discerning traveller. Sometimes, though, a product can be so mind boggling terrible that there is something good about the horribleness of it. Like the Shenis, a device that let’s women urinate while standing up - in public. You can even see a photograph or watch a video of the Shenis in action if you are game! Warning: Adult content. Not for the fainthearted!

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing – enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Photo #3: Cypress Hills National Cemetery

Note: Click on image to view full size.
The Cypress Hills National Cemetery at 625 Jamaica Avenue, Brooklyn, is the only United States National Cemetery in New York City. More than 21,000 veterans and civilians are interred here, including veterans of every conflict from the American Revolutionary War of 1812, through to the Vietnam War.
The Cemetery is just a short walk from the 12 Towns/North Brooklyn YMCA – also on Jamaica Avenue. I spent several weeks at the 'Y' during April and May, 2008, and visited the cemetery on a number of occasions.
It was late spring when I took this photograph (and the video footage embedded below). As you can see, the stunning pink cherry blossoms had begun to fall, blanketing the lush green lawns with a fine carpet of eye-catching colour.
There is something intensely solemn about visiting a site like this. It is not a place you can hurry through. You have to take the time to reflect and remember; to ponder the fate of so many veterans and civilians. To question and contemplate. To ask yourself, Why? To also ask yourself, What if…?
The video footage below was filmed at the same time as the above photograph was taken. As I recall, it was a grey, damp, overcast day. The type of day that helps heighten the experience and adds to the overall impact of seeing thousands upon thousands of white marble headstones laid out in perfect formation. It runs for just three minutes. So why not click the ‘play’ button, and take the time right now to reflect, ponder, question and contemplate?

Location: Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Photography and video footage: Jim Lesses, May 2008.
Note: Click on image to view full size.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ten Things for Ten Dollars (more or less)

~ The Hostel Bookers website is featuring a number of cities where they say you can see 10 things for $10. That is, ten dollars per selected attraction or event. Well, more or less.

I’m not sure about the math, and I guess it all depends on the exchange rates you achieve at the time you are travelling, but I like the idea behind the series. It is good to know that not everything has to be a constant attack on your credit card whenever you travel.

There are cheap things to do in every major city in the world, and in fact, using the resources of the internet, you can easily find a host of free things to do in all the cities selected for these online features.

So far, the site has created lists for the cities of New York, Edinburgh, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, and London.

The articles focus on the not quite ‘top tier’ attractions. Sites that might be your second choice, rather than your first. For example: instead of fighting your way through the thousands of tourists swarming over the Forum and the Colosseum in Rome, they recommend a visit to Ostia Antica, the remarkable ruins of ancient Rome’s port city.

In Athens they suggest a visit to the Agora (market) that surrounds the Acropolis, and I agree. I spent several hours exploring this area and was surprised by the many ‘hidden’ treasures this site holds. Developed in the 6th century BC, the Agora was once the focal point of Ancient Greek society. It was here that Socrates first talked philosophy and where St Paul tried to convert people to Christianity.

I can also vouch for the full English Breakfast they recommend on the London feature. I would start each day with the ‘Builder’s Breakfast’, which as its name suggests is a meal fit for the British working man. For £5, you can expect each ‘Full English’ to consist of bacon, eggs, sausage, baked beans, fried tomatoes, toast and a large pot of black tea. It may not be the healthiest way to start the day, but it was cheap, filling, and enough to see you through several hours of brisk walking around London’s busy streets.

I can only say, I wish I had the information in my hands before I visited New York, London and Athens, last year. London especially, I found to be very expensive, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that museums and galleries offer mostly free entry, I’m not sure that I would have been able to see very much at all during my all too brief stay there.

Thankfully, New York was much more wallet friendly, and I was surprised at the range of reasonably priced attractions on offer. Of course, there is so much to see and do in New York anyway, that you could spend days, and weeks, simply walking around that great city before you felt a need to pay to see the major attractions that virtually every tourist or visitor has on their list of ‘must see’ sites.

Anyway, if you are heading to any of the cities listed, take the time to explore the links to your location of choice and see how much money you can save by visiting some of the recommended sites.

Image: Agora, Athens, Greece.

Photograph: Jim Lesses

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Travellers Ten Commandments

~ Travellers Ten Commandments

By Carole Rosenblat

As a Tour Manager and Guide for both inbound and outbound tours, I have heard many travellers lament, "That's not how we do it." "We" being themselves and their immediate neighbours. Sometimes their "we" generalization includes their entire country. Please know this is not exclusive to the American tourist. Through my travels I have met many an "ugly American" but also an "ugly German" an "ugly Israeli" and an "ugly Brit."

While leading tours overseas I have had Americans ask countless time, "Why don't they speak English here?" I have also had an American refuse to stand in a line because he didn't want to get in line with "a bunch of foreigners." Note to those travelling overseas; when you are in another country, you are the foreigner.

Not to be outdone, while leading tours for citizens of other countries I have encountered very similar remarks. While eating an entire bag of potato chips with a candy bar standing by, I had a German passenger comment, "Americans are so fat." I had a British girl complain that she could see through the space between the door and the supporting structure of a stall in a public restroom. This was immediately after she told me that Americans are so uptight. And my favourite? The Israeli who, upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time commented, "We have better canyons in Israel. And it's a smaller country so you don't have to drive as far to get there."

Please know, I only use the term "ugly" as a well known cliché. I prefer to think of these folks as uninformed at the best, and closed minded at worst. So, in an effort to open everyone's minds to the joys of travel, I give you the Travellers Ten Commandments.

Travellers Ten Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not expect to find things as thou hast left them at home, for thou hast left thy home to find things different.
  2. Thou shalt not take anything too seriously, for a carefree mind is the beginning of a vacation.
  3. Thou shalt not let the other tourist get on thy nerves, for thou art paying good money to have a good time.
  4. Remember thy passport so that thou knowest where it is at all times, for a man without a passport is a man without a country.
  5. Blessed is the person who can say "thank you" in any language, for it shall be worth more to him than any tips.
  6. Blessed is the person who can make change in any language, for lo, he shall not be cheated.
  7. Thou shalt not worry, he that worrieth hath no pleasure,
  8. Thou shalt not judge the people of a country by one person with whom thou hast trouble.
  9. Thou shalt, when in Rome, do somewhat as the Romans do; if in difficulty, thou shalt use thy good common sense and friendliness.
  10. Remember thou art a guest in every land, and he that treateth his host with respect shall be treated as an honored guest.

Carole has spent 19 years working in a variety of positions in the Travel Industry including cruise ships, hotels, adventure tour guiding, international tour management and corporate meeting mgmt. She has the inside scoop on the business of travel and the best information on business and leisure travel. Contact her @ Visit her on .

Article Source:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Road Trips: Five Golden Rules

~ The Five Golden Rules Of Cross Country Road Trip Planning

By Tara Waechter

Tara Waechter owns Planning Fun Road Trips - a website that covers every aspect of road trip planning including mapping tips, packing lists, road trip games and songs, trip ideas, recipes, tools, and in-depth articles. Tools offered include a road trip budget calculator and a printable checklist of to-do's to handle before you depart on your trip. Tara has travelled extensively in the United States as well as abroad, and has learned the knowledge she passes on in her website through the "School of Hard Knocks". She is also an office manager and meeting and event planner. She resides in Cary, North Carolina with her husband, Ash.

A cross country road trip is like no other road trip! For most road trippers, it's the Holy Grail of trips. For you, it may just be a long desired vacation or chance to visit family. No matter what your reason, you'll need some tips in order to prepare that are very unique to a cross country road trip. These five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning will ensure that your trip is a success!

Golden Rule #1

Recognize that this country is HUGE. Looking at a map may give you the illusion that you can cross it in a couple of weeks. There is no way you can do that, no matter what any mapping site says. Day after day spent entirely behind the wheel is a hell I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and you certainly don't want to suffer through it. A typical enjoyable cross-country road trip can last anywhere from a month to two months depending on whether it's round trip or not.

Map It. Whether your cross country trip is round trip (from home and back) or one way (a rental or another car you can drop off and fly back), get on a mapping website that will estimate the number of hours it will take you to drive to your destination (and back if that applies). There are tons out there including Google Maps and MapQuest.

Get Real. If you think you can drive for 8 hours a day, you've got another thing coming. For a fun (I hope this isn't some method of self-torture) road trip, you're going to want to spend no more than four hours behind the wheel a day. That will allow plenty of breaks and sightseeing along the way, and you'll need both on your vacation. To make your trip even more pleasant, plan a day "off" from driving occasionally during your vacation. Plan that day to be at a destination where there will be enough to see and do to entertain you for a full day.

Consider Your Destination. Wherever you're going, it's probably somewhere you're very interested in, or you wouldn't be crossing the country, right? Plan at least a few days there to really soak it up before heading back home, no matter whether you're flying back home or driving back.

Golden Rule #2

Spend some time planning out the sights you'll see along the way as well as your time at your destination. Winging it with this can lead to some very boring breaks along your route. Most great things just aren't visible from the highway. Great resources for planning your stops/sightseeing are:

  • Guidebooks on each state you'll pass through.
  • Travel forums - especially ones that address specific areas/states and cities.
  • Websites that specialize in a state/area you'll be passing through or in road tripping attractions

Golden Rule #3

One common question I get is whether to book all the hotels/campgrounds/other lodging and plan each day or just to "wing it" and hope for the best. The answer: you can do either, but there are rules specific to each. For the planner, it's easy - plan! Booking ahead will usually ensure cheaper lodging and will guarantee that you'll have a place to lay your head at the end of each day (winging it can be more dangerous, but there are tricks to make it less so).

If you want to "wing it", you'll still need to do some planning. At the very least, book your lodging in the areas you'll be visiting along the way that are popular destinations. Trying to get last minute reservations near a place like Yellowstone Park in the summer is insanity. It won't happen. Consider the time of year also - New York City in the month of December is a crazy time. Plan accordingly.

Otherwise, "wing it" people can either use their GPS and really fly by the seat of their pants, or they can protect themselves from trouble by doing the following.

Before You Go. Research areas along the way and at your destination that may - or may not - be places you'll want to stay. Make a list of 3-5 lodging choices for each and take down the address information and the phone number. Put it somewhere safe and accessible for your trip (I use a folder).

On the Road. Every morning, make the decision. Where do you want to go that day? Select your evening destination and make calls to your listed lodging choices. Don't put this off until later in the day if you want to guarantee a place for the night. What vacancies exist in the morning will probably be snapped up by the afternoon. Now you can follow your whims every day and still have the security of a reservation each evening.

Golden Rule #4

You'll need to really baby your car before taking a cross-country road trip - more so than for any other road trip. You're about to push it to its limits! Here's a checklist of things to have addressed by your mechanic before you hit the road:

  • Read your manual and have all maintenance that's due taken care of now. Timing belts, tune-ups, system flushes, etc. all fall into this category.
  • Get an oil change unless it was literally just changed.
  • Have your mechanic check the following: hoses, spark plugs, belts, air filter, and all fluids. Also, if there's any problem/weird noise or smell that you've been noticing with your car, deal with it.
  • Tires are vitally important. If they're old, they won't be able to handle heating up as they roll on the road and will probably blow. Replace them now if warranted. Get your tires rotated and alignment checked

Be sure to pack a roadside emergency kit (jumper cables, flares, tire patching kit, jack, spare tire), make sure you renew or get a roadside service membership, and pack extra water, a blanket, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and some emergency snacks.

Golden Rule #5

Packing for a cross-country road trip is all about streamlining. Unlike other vacations, this is not one where you'll want to pack an outfit for every day. The best plan is to have 5-7 pants/skirts/jeans and 7-9 tops/shirts that coordinate well (as well as shoes, underwear, socks.

Stick with neutrals (kaki, white, gray, black, navy, blue jeans) for easier mixing and matching. Add 3-4 sweaters and jackets (more layers if the weather will be colder) that also are in neutral colours. Bring a gentle detergent for hand-washing (or using a machine when your lodging offers it) to make these outfits last as many weeks as your trip lasts. Don't worry about your travel companions growing bored with your wardrobe - most people don't care about your clothes as much as you do!

When it comes to other items, be sure to bring enough of the things you can't easily get on the road (prescriptions for instance). For everything else (drugstore shampoos, soap, shaving cream, etc) just bring what's easy to pack and get more as needed on the road. You don't need to bring everything - you're not going into the wilderness!


If you obey these five golden rules of cross country road trip planning, you'll be well-prepared to experience an outstanding road trip odyssey across the U.S.

Article Source:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Week That Was #4

~ Welcome to my weekly collection of The Odd, The Useful, and The Downright Bizarre.

The Odd: (but interesting) Bird Nest Bonanza. Ultrasonic humidifier? Check. Swiftlet Bazooka Tweeter? Check. Feces powder? Er, check. All you need now is a multistory house with no doors or windows but plenty of holes, and you're almost ready to join one of Southeast Asia's fastest-growing cottage industries: harvesting edible birds' nests. You'll also need birds, of course — lots of them. That's the tricky part. Read more…

The Useful: Healthy Cruise Ships. Anita Dunham-Potter writing for Tripso has some timely advice for staying healthy on your next cruise ship vacation – or on any vacation for that matter. Anita reports how poor sanitation turned a ten-day cruise of a life-time into a one-day nightmare, when the 400-plus passengers and crew were stricken by a suspected norovirus outbreak on a German cruise liner. Her advice: Wash your hands (just like your mother always told you to). Noroviruses can cause severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting over a 48- to 60-hour period. The American Center for Disease Control estimates that 23 million people, or 8 percent of the U.S. population, develop symptoms of norovirus each year. Less than 1 percent of cruise passengers are affected by norovirus, but you don’t want to be one of them, do you? Read more here…

The Downright Bizarre: 20 stupid questions asked by tourists. Yes, as a follow up to last weeks The Week That Was, where we highlighted some of the most bizarre complaints uttered by tourists, this week comes 20 of the most stupid questions asked by tourist, including, "Are there any lakes in the Lakes District?", "Why on earth did they build Windsor Castle on the flight path of Heathrow?", and this doozy from a tourist at Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, "Why did they build so many ruined castles and abbeys in England?" Read more…

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing – enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Image courtesy of the Telegraph Online.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Photo #2: Autumn Creepers, London

Note: Click on image to view full sized.

Taken just a few days before I left London before my return to Australia in late September 2008. I was attracted by the autumnal colours of this wall creeper in St. Bride’s Passage, near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
I am repeatedly attracted to examples of how nature adapts to urban environments and often survives and thrives in the most unlikely places. City workers hurry past views like this and barely give them a second thought – assuming they notice them at all. But for me, it is precisely these splashes of colour (representing nature at its most delightful), that make city living bearable.
It is discoveries like this that make hours of walking busy city streets worth the effort. You never know where the surprises are, or what they might be. And yet they are everywhere, waiting to be discovered by the alert observer.
Location: St. Bride’s Passage, EC4, London, England.
Photograph: by Jim Lesses, September 30, 2008.
Note: Click on image to view full sized.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beating The Post-Travel Blues

~ Julie Blakley is a staff writer for and also maintains her own site at France Travel Guide. She recently wrote an article outlining 10 Tips for Beating the Post-Travel Blues which is worth summarising. Among her suggestions:
~ Immerse yourself in your hometown culture
~ T
ake shorter trips closer to home

~ Write about your trip
~ Start planning your next adventure
~ Remember that everyday life is what makes travel so invigorating
~ Eat your favourite foods from your trip
~ Find a community that is just as passionate about travel or a destination as you are
~ Make a photo album or scrapbook
~ Take a language class or join a conversation group

~ Work on your photography skills

This are all very good suggestions to which I thought I would add my own 2cents worth to some of Julie’s ideas.

Be A Tourist At Home. Pretend you have international visitors coming to stay with you for the weekend. Now make a list of the most interesting places you would show them – and get out and visit them yourself. Or make a list of all those places you have always intended to see ‘one day’ but still haven’t made the effort to visit. There’s no time like the present, as the old adage goes, so get out there and discover the attractions in your own home town.

Don’t Mope – Write! If you were able to maintain a journal while you were travelling, now is a good time to put the finishing touches to it. Or (as Julie suggests) get creative and put together a photo album or scrapbook. Add photographs, ticket stubs, postcards, receipts, menus, in fact anything that helps document your trip. You will be amazed at how much this helps you remember the small details of your journey, and also how it keeps you focussed on your next holiday, even if it is a year or more away. Which brings me to…

Start Working on Your Next Trip. When I returned to Australia last October following my seven month vacation, I was already thinking about the next one – starting March next year – which I am constantly working on and researching. I have been frequenting lots of second-hand books shops, looking for books about America, Mexico and other countries I plan to visit, or hope to visit over the next few years. Becoming knowledgeable and informed about the countries you would like to visit is a great way to prepare for your journey. I am reading travelogues, histories, and books dealing with art and culture. In fact, anything that grabs my attention and helps me ‘know’ the countries I plan to visit long before I get there.

Learn the Lingo. I have written previously (Never to Old to Live And Learn) about signing up for a Spanish language course, or other short courses which will help me as I travel through the American south, and Mexico next year. It doesn’t matter that I won’t be able to speak the language fluently. I have found that often you can endear yourself to the locals simply by making the effort to learn the language of the country you are visiting. It is probably the one thing that sets you apart the most from the bulk of the common tourists who are merely passing through, and who are not interested in trying to connect with the local people in any meaningful way.

Use The Internet to Connect With Like-Minded Travellers. While I have long been aware of, and made use of the reviews on Trip Advisor, I have only recently joined the forums on that site. This has given me a chance to not only help with my own research, but to also offer advice and tips to other travellers who are planning to visit locations I have already been to. Whether you use Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, or one of the many other online sites, connecting with fellow travellers is a great way to keep your travel dreams alive.

Take a Short Course. In the same way that I am preparing for my next trip by taking a Spanish language course, you can also sign up for many other types of short courses as well. In a previous entry (WEA = Life-long Learning) I wrote about the opportunities to broaden your knowledge about a huge range of different subjects via adult classes at local colleges, universities, and other places of higher learning. Whether your interest be photography, archaeology, history, culture, dance, or other creative arts, there is almost certain to be a class or short course taking place in your town or city. Use the internet to research these courses or visit your local library and ask there. Or drop in to your local college or university and make enquiries about summer classes and courses.

Image: United Nations Building, New York, April 2008
Photo by Jim Lesses

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Disabled Travellers and Flying

This is the second in an ongoing series of articles by Candy Harrington, examining travel issues as they relate to people with disabilities, particularly in the United States. If you haven’t done so, you may also like to read, Debunking Myths About Accessible Travel.

According to a 2005 study by the Open Doors Organization of Chicago, 84% of disabled travellers said they encountered obstacles when flying; while 82% reported access problems at airports.

Candy Harrington, author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, agrees that disabled travellers run into a lot of problems in the air. “I get a fair amount of reader feedback,” says Harrington, “and most of the complaints focus on air travel. Access problems range from deplaning delays and subsequent missed connections, to access obstacles in foreign airports and even cases of denied boarding for disabled passengers.”

For over 20 years, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) has been he law of the land as far as accessible air travel is concerned; and thanks to periodic updates it has evolved to serve the needs of disabled travellers. The most recent revisions (effective May 13, 2009) serve to strengthen the law even more and offer greater protection to disabled travellers. Harrington points out some of these important changes, which will drastically improve the quality of the air travel experience for disabled travellers.

  • The updated law legally extends coverage of the ACAA to all commercial flights to and from the US, including those operated by foreign air carriers. This means that foreign air carriers can no longer deny boarding to disabled passengers on flights to or from the US.
  • Foreign airlines operating flights to or from the US must also ensure that disabled passengers can move through the terminal facilities at foreign airports.
  • The law was edited to require the “prompt” deplaning of disabled passengers. The Department of Transportation (DOT) further defined prompt as “no later than as soon as the other passengers have deplaned.” This means that disabled passengers will no longer be left on planes well after the flight crew has departed.
  • Employees or contractors providing airport wheelchair assistance are now required to make a brief restroom stop (upon request) if the restroom is located along the path of travel to the gate.
  • The law also requires airlines to allow the on-board use of all FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators, ventilators, respirators and CPAP machines. The DOT placed the burden of testing these devices on the manufacturers, not the airlines.
  • The updated law specifies the dimensions of the on-board wheelchair storage space as being 13 inches by 36 inches by 42 inches. This eliminates ambiguity and will help passengers determine if their assistive device will fit in the limited priority storage area.
  • If a service animal is unable to fit comfortably at the assigned seat location, the airline must now offer the passenger the opportunity to move to any open seat in the same class, that can safely accommodate the animal.
  • Airline personnel are now required to assist disabled passengers at inaccessible ticket kiosks.
  • Finally, although the new law stopped short of requiring airline websites to be accessible, it requires airlines to offer disabled passengers web-only fares that appear on inaccessible websites, by phone or another accessible reservation method.

Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, is available from your favourite bookstore or at, where Candy also blogs regularly about accessible travel issues.

Image courtesy of Disability Information Website...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

House Swapping for Families

~ This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles about house swapping your home with another family, thereby making the most of your travel experience in another city or country. The first article was House Swaps: The Practical Way To Go; the second article, House Swapping for Seniors, provided practical advice for that age specific group of travellers; and the third House Swapping for a Better World discussed how this concept can help break down barriers between different nationalities and cultures. These blog entries are sourced from, and used with the permission of the Aussie House Swap website.

While virtually every individual and couple can enjoy lots of advantages through a house swapping (home exchange) holiday, perhaps families stand to benefit most of all.

Think about it.

Firstly, there are the monetary savings to be gained: no accommodation costs; cooking "at home" instead of going out for meals; free use of car; free laundry, clothesline, dryer and DYI ironing.

No doubt there will also be other savings. For example, you can't stay cooped up together in a hotel room for long. You'll need to spend a good deal of time out and about for the sake of your mental health. And while you're out, you'll inevitably end up spending money on something.

Besides, there's so much more room in a house and yard. Even a normal apartment will be a lot more spacious than a hotel room. So you won't have to go out for your sanity — just to visit local attractions, go shopping and so forth.

Here's something else to think about if you've got children. Why not arrange to house swap with another couple who have children of a similar age? Then you'll each have the necessary items on hand when you get to your destination — whether it be a cot, a high chair, a stroller, a trike or bike. Plus toys and games, books, children's videos, DVDs and the like. None of which (other than one or two special favourites) you will have to take with you. So you'll be able to travel that much lighter.

Even if you're travelling by car, and have a little more room to take things with you, you won't need to cram every corner to get bulkier items in. You'll be able to travel in a lot more comfort.

You may even find a backyard cubbyhouse and swing set at your destination. (Or maybe you'll be on the lookout for things like this, before deciding on which house swap to choose.)

And what if it rains during your holiday? Staying in a normal house is a whole lot more pleasant for a family than being cooped up in a hotel room, or a cramped guesthouse, caravan or tent.

Having constant access to a laundry and iron will also help you travel lighter, since you can pack less clothes when you're able do the washing more often. Especially kiddie clothes, which tend to need changing more than once each day!

Let's return for a moment to the monetary savings you make through house swapping, which are likely to amount to at least hundreds and possibly a couple of thousand dollars. Instead of rationing visits to fun parks, aquariums, "sea worlds" and the like, you'll be able to afford to take the kids to explore as many of these attractions as you like. And STILL come home with a lot more of your hard-earned cash, rather than an empty wallet or purse, and a credit card that will take months to pay off.

When you add it all up, house swapping (home exchanging) really is tailor-made for families!

How much does it cost?

Aussie House Swap membership is only $65 per year! However, if you do not manage to house swap in your first year we will give you another 12 months membership absolutely free! This is our guarantee to you! For $65 (less than the cost of one nights motel accommodation) you can make as many house swaps as you like within your 12 months.

Article courtesy of Aussie House Swap website. Like our Partner site, Home Away, Aussie House Swap gives you the opportunity to stay in someone else’s home, while they stay in yours.

Image for illustration purposes only

Monday, July 13, 2009

In Review: The Mole People (1993)

~ There were many times during my stay in New York City in the spring of 2008, when I stood on a subway platform beneath the streets of Manhattan, and watched some work detail, or maintenance squad disappear into the dark, dimly lit tunnels of the New York subway system.

I remember thinking how a tour of that subterranean world would make my New York stay an even more memorable and fascinating experience than it had already become. So when I saw a copy of Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People at my local resellers of “quality books” – I couldn’t resist picking it up to read and review.

However, The Mole People is not a story about the thousands of maintenance men and women working for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority. Instead, the book claims to tell the true story of thousands of New York’s homeless who had turned abandoned subway tunnels deep underneath Manhattan into their homes.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth was a 24 year old intern working for The Los Angeles Times when she began researching and writing The Mole People. I say, ‘claims’ because the book was originally met with some scepticism, and Toth was criticized for her lack of precise details regarding many of the locations mentioned throughout the book. Nonetheless, what is not in doubt or in dispute is the fact that there was then – and still are – homeless people living in abandoned and derelict sections of the labyrinthine New York subway system.

On April 23, 2009, the The Coalition for the Homeless released its tenth annual "State of the Homeless" report, an annual assessment of homelessness in New York City. The report finds that currently more than 36,000 homeless New Yorkers, including 15,500 children, sleep each night in municipal shelters. “Thousands more sleep rough on city streets, in public parks, in the subway system (my emphasis), and in other public spaces.”

Jennifer Toth reported that some of the people she met had been living underground for only a matter of weeks or months, while others said they had been living beneath New York’s towering skyline for up to 15 years or more. Some die underground, struck by trains, or electrocuted by the dangerous ‘third rail’. Others die of natural causes or diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and pneumonia, and still more die as a result of violent confrontations with other members of the homeless community.

There has been a concerted effort to clean up the subway system in the years since Toth’s book was published, but it is patently clear from the Coalition for the Homeless report mentioned above, that the system is still the shelter of choice for many individuals.

Some live underground simply because they can not afford to pay rent for even the most substandard housing in New York. Others are on the run from the police, or their abusive parents or (in the case of some teenage tunnel dwellers) from foster parents. Still more suffer from some type of mental illness, or are drug or alcohol addicted. Some stay underground for the freedom it affords them – because they can’t deal with the regimentation associated with staying in emergency accommodation or government run shelters. Despite the hardship they face, some are able to form supportive communities underground, and generally try to look out for each others welfare.

Part melodrama, part exposé; part history, part Gothic horror story; veering between sociological study and classic investigative journalism, Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People is a depressing indictment of modern America, and its inability to help the most vulnerable and most disenfranchised people in the wealthiest country on earth.

But is the book true? I have no doubts that the story Jennifer Toth exposes so graphically, is as accurate as any 24 year journalism intern can hope to make it. In the book Bernard Isaacs, one of the long-term tunnel dwellers, makes the point that the most important truth about underground people is that there is no single truth about them.

“They tell many stories and there is truth in all their stories,” he says. “You just have to find it.”

One can only hope that things have changed dramatically since the book was written in 1993. Sadly, judging by the figures already referred to above in the Coalition for the Homeless report – I wouldn’t count on it.


More Information

The New York Times archives: New York Times journalist John Tierney was one of the first to write about the tunnel dwellers and bring them to the attention of the general public. If you visit the New York Times website and search for "Mole people" John Tierney you will be presented with several articles John wrote as far back as 1990.

On Film: I have tried in vain to find the title of, or information about a documentary I saw many years ago (probably back in the 1970s) which showed some of New York’s homeless living underground. I clearly remember one scene in which a homeless man barbeques a large rat over an open fire before eating it! And no, it was not Voices In the Tunnels: In Search of the Mole People, the 2008 documentary by Vic David. If you want to view the trailer for Voices in The Tunnels, click here…

Other Books: New York Underground, By Julia Solis, and Invisible New York, By Stanley Greenberg & Thomas H. Garver, both shed light on this fascinating topic.

Margaret Morton: Scattered throughout The Mole People, are a number of stark, black and white photographs depicting some of the homeless featured in Jennifer Toth’s book. The images were taken by New York photographer, Margaret Morton. Morton has published several stunning pictorial books documenting the lives of New York’s homeless, and these are available for purchase via the 'Reading List' box on the left, or directly from Margaret’s website.

Jennifer Toth Today: Jennifer Toth continues to write books with strong social themes. Her second book, Orphans of the Living (Simon & Schuster, 1997) examined the system of foster care as it existed – and may still exist – in the United States at the time the book was published.

In 1998, Toth served as the editor of the book, Keeping America's Promise to North Carolina's Children. Unfortunately (at the time of writing this), apart from the title, I haven’t been able to find out any more about the book or its main theme. Just what is “America’s promise”, to the children of North Carolina?

And finally, her last book (as far as I can ascertain), is What Happened to Johnnie Jordan?: The Story of a Child Turning Violent. Billed as “…a riveting narrative of youth violence in America,” What Happened to Johnnie Jordan? was published in 2002.

Finally: More adventurous readers may be inspired by this…


Click image below to purchase The Mole People from Amazon.Com...
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