Tuesday, November 3, 2015

San Antonio's Spanish Missions World Heritage Site

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions – four of them already protected as a national park – are being celebrated as one of the newest United Nations’ World Heritage Sites in a ceremony attended by world dignitaries and local community members. Representatives from the United States, Spain, and Mexico gathered with thousands of San Antonio citizens in a celebration ceremony at Mission San José to formally welcome the San Antonio Missions into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.

A World Heritage designation brings awareness to the “outstanding universal value” and “cultural significance” of these missions as they join the ranks of other important global sites, including the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, and the Giza Pyramid of Egypt. Designation as a World Heritage Site reflects the global interest in and historical impact of a certain location, which generates an increase in tourism to the site.

Below is a statement from Suzanne Dixon, Senior Director, Regional Operations of the National Parks Conservation Association:

“This celebration ceremony is the culmination of nine years of work by this community and its allies to make this designation a reality. The World Heritage List recognizes the most significant natural and cultural sites on the planet, and our missions have secured this prestigious and well-deserved distinction. The San Antonio missions are the country’s largest collection of Spanish colonial resources. They now stand among Earth’s greatest natural and cultural landmarks.”


About National Parks Conservation Association
Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than one million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for future generations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Luxembourg Palace & Garden, Paris, France

View of the Luxembourg Palace and main fountain and boat pond.

The Luxembourg Palace is located at 15 rue de Vaugirard in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. It was originally built between 1615 and 1645 to be the royal residence of the regent Marie de Médicis, mother of Louis XIII of France. After the Revolution it was refashioned into a legislative building between 1835-1836 it was enlarged and remodeled. Since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate of the Fifth Republic. On the south side of the palace, the formal Luxembourg Garden presents a 25-hectare green parterre of gravel and lawn populated with statues and large basins of water where children sail model boats, some of which can be seen in the video below. Source: Wikipedia.

View overlooking the main fountain and central garden

Like many of the other magnificent buildings and palaces around Paris, and indeed elsewhere in France, one can only marvel at the amount of planning, money, labor, and resources that must have gone into erecting this massive palace, and into landscaping and maintaining the stunning gardens on which the palace and other buildings stand.

Today, the palace building is the home of the French senate. During my brief three of four hour visit to the palace grounds, I did not enter the main building itself. In fact, I'm not even sure if the building is open to the general public. However, the beautifully maintained gardens are open, and during my outing they were well patronized by locals and international visitors alike. There is much to see around the grounds including a series of statues of former French queens, saints and reproductions of classical Antiques.
L'acteur Grec (The Greek Actor), by Arthur Bourgeois (1838-1886)

You can wander through an orchard of apple and pear trees, enjoy a performance of the théâtre des marionnettes (puppet theatre), ride on a vintage carousel, enjoy one of the many free musical performances scheduled throughout the summer months, and visit the Orangerie with its displays of art, photography, and numerous sculptures. The grounds of the garden also contain more than one hundred statues, monuments, and fountains scattered throughout the 25-hectares (61 acres), including Frédéric Bartholdi’s first 1870 model for the Statue of Liberty.

Here's a short video compilation of photographs and video footage I put together of my visit:

More Information

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I visited Cambodia early in 2011 and during my stop in the national capital, Phnom Penh, I paid a visit to the complex housing the Royal Palace and the magnificent ‘Silver Pagoda’ which is located next to the Royal Palace.

Gleaming in gold, the Royal Palace is one of Phnom Penh's most splendid architectural achievements. It is home to His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk and Her Majesty Queen Norodom Monineath. The palace was built in 1866 by His Majesty Prince Bat Norodom, the great grandfather to the current King. The Royal Palace is built on the site of the old town. This site was especially chosen by a Commission of Royal Ministers and Astrologers because it had great geographical significance in relation to the King, who was regarded as a direct descendant of the gods. Credit: Tourism Cambodia… 

Among the images in the video are the Stupa of His Majesty King Suramarit and Her Majesty Queen Kossomak. A stupa (Sanskrit for "heap") is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing "relics", typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns, used as a place of meditation. Most of the images are of the ‘Silver Pagoda’ and some of the monuments surrounding the building.

The 'Silver Pagoda' sits next to the Royal Palace. The Pagoda's proper name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.' It has received the common name 'Silver Pagoda' after the solid silver floor tiles that adorn the temple building. The pagoda compound as a whole contains several structures and gardens, the primary building being the temple Wat Preah Keo Morokat and other structures including a library, various stupas, shrines, monuments, minor buildings and the galleries of the Reamker.

The brief video footage shows one of the wonderful Ramayana Frescoes that line the interior of the pagoda compound walls. The murals were painted in 1903-1904 by a team of students working under the direction of artist Vichitre Chea and architect Oknha Tep Nimit Thneak. Over the 100+ years since they were first painted, some sections of the frescoes have become badly damaged and worn. While I was there, a small team of artists were at work on the frescoes conducting the painstaking work of restoring one of the longest murals.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

La Placita Village, Tucson, Arizona

Ok, let me be straight up with you right from the start – La Placita Village, in downtown Tucson, Arizona, is not a traditional village in the old Southwest tradition.

Instead it is delightful collection of adobe, brick, and wood frame buildings designed to resemble a Mexican marketplace.

When I visited the complex on a blazing hot day in the middle of September, there were not a lot of people about, which gave me plenty of time to shoot some video footage, take photographs, and examine each of the buildings with their wonderful patchwork of vibrant oranges, purples, yellows, blues, greens and reds.

The village itself is home to the Tucson Visitor Center where you will find the usual assortment of maps, brochures, and merchandise. 

There are numerous buildings housing boutique shops, cafés and restaurants, and other small establishments, and the Village is within easy walking distance of several excellent museums, a Convention Center, Music Hall, the Fox Tucson Theater, and much more.

During the warmer months, free screenings of classic films are presented on the Village plaza, and other outdoor events are scheduled throughout the summer months.

Here is a short collage of video footage and photographs of the complex...

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La Placita Village
110 S Church Street
Tucson, AZ, 85701.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Greek Island Cooking: Rice Stuffed Zucchini

Another in my “Irene’s Kitchen” series featuring the Greek Island cooking of my sister, Irene Gevezes. This time Irene is cooking Stuffed Zucchini, a very simple vegetarian dish. 

Finding large zucchini (also referred to in some countries as Courgette, or Squash), of the size seen in this video — which came from Irene’s homegrown plants — may be quite difficult in modern supermarkets since they tend to favour short, thin fruit under 20 cm (8 in.) in length.

Look for the larger zucchini at weekend farmer’s markets, or better still — grow your own.

Four large zucchini halved
2 cups uncooked rice
5-6  Spring onions
3-4 Garlic Cloves
Fresh mint
1/2 cup Olive Oil (for frying)

Condiments: salt, pepper, turmeric to taste

Filmed on the Greek island, Ikaria, in 2014. With thanks to Irene Gevezes for her patience, culinary skills, and delightful meals. 

You can see more of my videos online via my YouTube channel...

Monday, September 7, 2015

Five Top Outdoor Adventures In Alabama

By Wayne Ruple

Alabama is a state full of all types of adventures for outdoor lovers - from hiking, birdwatching, cycling, canoeing, and much more.

The Lost Art of Walking
Perhaps the number one outdoor adventure in the state is hiking/backpacking/walking. There are many areas across the state, including rough outdoor trails to paved walking tracks that enable most everyone to get outdoors and get some exercise.

Some of the key areas that make this activity tops is hikes into Little River Canyon along the Eberhart Trail in northeast Alabama where this canyon is actually the deepest east of the Mississippi. Hikers can also check out the nearby Lost Falls Trail in DeSoto State Park. For beginners there is a "starter" 20- mile long Conecuh Trail in the Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia and visitors to Historic Blakely State Park will enjoy the leisure paths there.

The most famous of the trails in Alabama is the 100 miles long Pinhoti Trail that runs from the southern end of the Talladega National Forest northward to Georgia. In highly populated areas there are scenic trails on Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham, 20 miles of trails near Huntsville in Monte Sano State Park and scenic trails in the Wade Mountain Preserve near Huntsville.

Packpackers will enjoy the 14- miles long Sipsey Fork Loop in the Sipsey Wilderness which is part of the Bankhead National Forest and there are spectacular views in the Walls of Jericho area near Hytop.

Just plain ole walkers will find hundreds of places around the state including tracks in their own towns or cities. Other areas include Moundville Archeological Park south of Tuscaloosa, Vulcan Park in Birmingham, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Dadeville, Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden, Natural Bridge of Alabama at Natural Bridge, Shark Tooth Creek near Aliceville, Dismals Canyon at Phil Campbell, Old Cahawba Archeological Park near Selma, the beautiful beaches at Gulf Shores and the 2.5 mile hiking trail at the University of Alabama Arboretum.

Birding has quickly become the number two outdoor activity as more and more birding trails open up around the state. Locations offering birding include the Mobile Bay where there are 50 sites and southward on Dauphin Island are several sites including the 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary. A variety of migratory birds can also be viewed at Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay. The Upper Cahaba River Birding Trail is located in the Hoover area. The North Alabama Birding Trail extends along the Tennessee River.

On the eastern side of the state birdwatchers will find the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge which is home to the American Bald Eagle. The Bon Secour National Wildlilfe Refuge in Gulf Shores offers a variety of migratory birds. In the upper part of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are many locations to observe over 250 species of birds. Tour operators use pontoon boats, air boats and pirogue canoes.

West of Gulf Shores on the shores of Mobile Bay is the town of Fairhope which offers birders elevated boardwalks to view hummingbirds at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Preserve.

Other sites include the Perry Lakes Park in Marion County which provides birders the nation's first birding tower rising above the canopy of trees along the Cahaba River. During the peak summer viewing season, some 200,000 grey bats can be watched as they emerge from Sauta Cave in north Alabama near Scottsboro at the Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside Birmingham, in central Alabama, is Oak Mountain State Park which offers an elevated Treetop Nature Trail providing views of barred owls, black vultures, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and rare white turkey vultures.

Take To The Water
With thousands of lakes, rivers, creeks and Gulf beaches, the sports of canoeing, kayaking and sailing are enjoyed year around across the state. River cruises are offered on the Alabama River in Montgomery, Black Warrior in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee River at Joe Wheeler State Park and around Mobile Bay. 

Canoeists will enjoy the trip up Bottle Creek to Mound Island in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta which is the nation's largest delta. Whitewater paddlers can experience Class II and Class III novice - intermediate water on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River near Blountsville.

Kayakers find the trip down the Cahaba River near Birmingham to be an exciting journey. The Cahaba is considered to be the longest free-flowing river in the state and is home to rare two-foot-tall Cahaba Lilies. Sea kayaking is a popular sport around Dauphin Island and nearby Barrier Islands south of Mobile. The best kayak training river in the Southeast is the Coosa River near Wetumpka with Class II rapids and the challenging Moccasin Gap.

At the bottom of the largest canyon east of the Mississippi flows Little River Canyon which offers advanced - to expert whitewater Class IV and Class V rapids along Johnnies Creek and you will also find Class II rapids on the East Fork of the Little River. Other whitewater adventures can be found near Section on South Sauty Creek that offers Class III and IV rapids.

For a more leisurely paddle, you can take the 44-mile long Loyd Owens Canoe Trail near Heflin on a section of one of the cleanest rivers in the eastern USA - the Tallapoosa River. A second route is along the beautiful Escatawpa River near Wilmer. The less adventurous may rather take a boat ride on Mobile Bay to see the 1885 Middle Bay Lighthouse, take a sailing adventure in the Bay or have fun making the Bay crossing on the Mobile Bay Ferry that moves vehicles between the Civil War fortifications of Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines.

On Ya Bicycle
With a variety of terrain the state offers many places for cycling and mountain biking. Oak Mountain State Park has a three-hour long, 17 mile mountain bike loop. A 12 miles of routes can be found on the Swayback Bridge Trail near Wetumpka and for those wishing to peddle a long trip there is the 56-miles Auburn-Tuskegee-Loachapoka Loop. There is also a 40-mile scenic route between historic Wetumpka and Tallassee.

A tougher route might be the scenic Horseblock/Cheaha Mountain Ride covering 40 miles from Anniston up Cheaha Mountain to the highest point in Alabama. A more leisurely route in the converted rails-to-trails route from Anniston eastward to the Alabama/Georgia line along the Chief Ladia Trail which extends on 27 miles of a paved former rail bed.

In the northern part of the state at Fort Payne there is the 32-mile DeSoto-Mentone Ridge Run with an optional two-mile side trip to DeSoto Falls.

Finally, along Alabama's beautiful Gulf Coast, cyclists will enjoy the 24-mile Eastern Shore Trail which is a winding pedestrian/cycle path from the U.S.S.

Flying High
Skydiving, air rides and ballooning are also among the top adventures with top sites including Cullman at the airport, Elberta at the Horak Airport, Pell City at the Pell City Airport, Tuskegee at Moton Field and hot air balloon rides in Birmingham, Decatur, Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Huntsville, Montgomery and historic plane rides in Gulf Shores/Orange Beach.

For more travel stories, photos and videos please check out Wayne Ruple's Worldwide Traveler site.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The New York Wheel: Myth or Reality

The New York Wheel is a 625-foot (190.5 m) tall giant Ferris Wheel planned for construction in St. George, Staten Island. The wheel will have 36 passenger capsules, each carrying up to 40 passengers, and a total maximum capacity of 1,440 people per ride. Up to 30,000 passengers per day and about 4.5 million per year are expected to ride what is said to be the largest Ferris Wheel in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. A single ride is expected to last about 38 minutes.

The official New York Wheel website states that “The Wheel is expected to begin construction in First Quarter, 2015”, with “a target opening date of early 2017.” As of this post, we are fast approaching the third quarter, 2015, and as far as I can ascertain construction has yet to begin on the proposed site. 

There have been many engineering and architectural renderings depicting the views from the top of the New York Wheel, with the above image being just one of many. Will the New York Wheel even get built? I certainly hope so. I for one would be more than happy to line up for an opportunity to enjoy a unique view of New York harbor, the Manhattan skyline, and Staten Island itself. Apart from the architectural renderings, it is hard to image what an actual ride on the Wheel might be like. However, one enterprising drone operator has recorded a two minute film over the proposed site which seeks to give a realistic view from one of the massive passenger capsules.

The footage seems to have been recorded early one morning as the sun rises over Brooklyn, and one can see freighters entering New York harbor, a ferry entering the St George terminal, distant views of the Statue of Liberty, and of course the Manhattan skyline.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Push Back Against 'The Dying Of The Light'

It was the poet Dylan Thomas who wrote the famous couplet that concludes his poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which many readers will be familiar with: 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Readers may not be aware that while the poem starts with the same two lines, there is an additional line sandwiched between them, so that the first verse of the poem reads:

Do not go gentle into that good night, 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Towards the end of a recent meeting with my financial advisor, the discussion turned from financial matters to grander themes including travel, attitudes to ageing, and making the most of the limited time retirees like myself may have left to us. Somewhere during that chat I talked about an attitude of mine I call, pushing back. That is, pushing back against the ageing process; pushing back against the fears, doubts and insecurities that often make us stay close to home, living what we think are safe, secure and contented lives away from the cut and thrust of the busy world around us. I also keep pushing back against the perception that it is a dangerous world ‘out there’; that no matter how careful we think we are being when we leave our homes, accidents, injuries and even death are lurking just around the next corner waiting to strike us down.

I should say at the outset that I am 66, single, and available… oh, wait…, sorry, that’s an article for a different website! Since my early retirement in 2007, I have embarked on four extended trips away from Australia, and good health willing, I will head off on another journey this year. All four trips have been undertaken as a solo traveller. That is, I travelled on my own. Travelling solo is something I have enjoyed doing for many years. I like the freedom it gives me to follow my own interests, to travel at my own pace, to stay out late and to sleep in even later if I so wish. 

Travelling solo is another way of pushing back. It forces me to rely on my own skills and abilities, to sort out my own mistakes, or problem solve and make adjustments to existing travel arrangements. When I headed off on my first round the world trip in 2008 (after more than 30 years), I made use of a travel agent, and have no regrets that I did. Again in 2010, I used a travel agent to book my main flights around the world, but booked internal flights and accommodations in America and Europe myself. By 2012—and again in 2014—I was ready to go completely solo. I myself researched, booked and organised flights, accommodations, travel insurance, and all other aspects of my trips.

As a solo traveller, taking responsibility for my own travel arrangements has given me the confidence to plan and undertake future journeys, secure in the knowledge that I have already displayed the skills, resourcefulness, self-reliance and self-belief to take care of myself under most circumstances.

During my trips I find other ways to push back. In 2010 I travelled by Greyhound Bus from New York City to New Orleans, a distance of around 2,170 kilometres (1,350 miles). Along the way I stopping in Philadelphia (to catch up with American cousins), and Raleigh, North Carolina (to catch up with expat Australian friends). For many people, travelling by bus in America is probably their last and cheapest option for getting from point A to point B.

I didn’t have to travel by bus, but I chose to do so for the adventure and the experience, for the challenge, for the need to break out of my comfort zone, and for the desire to push back against the fear of the unknown or the perceived dangers. I have written extensively about this bus trip already so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say that the whole trip passed without incident or accident, and that it has been one of the great lasting impressions from that visit to America.

Incentives for pushing back can come from fellow travellers who may be much older than we are. While travelling in Cambodia during 2011, I met a 77 year old German man travelling alone and thought, “Why not? More importantly I thought, “Why couldn’t that be me when I’m seventy-seven?”

I also met an elderly couple from Sri Lanka travelling in the company of their much younger nephew. We met as they were descending (and I was ascending), a steep, twisting, root and boulder covered path that led to a series of stone carvings known as Kbal Spean. Although the climb was only some 1500 metres in length, under the heat and humidity of the midday sun, it wasn’t long before I and everyone else I encountered, were covered with sweat and struggling for breath.

As I recall, the elderly man was 82 years of age, and his wife not much younger. Again I thought, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” Why not, indeed? As long as I am in reasonably good health, there is no logical reason that I can’t still be travelling when I am 77 or even 82 years of age. As long as I can continue to overcome those fears and doubts, I’m sure I will be travelling for a long time yet.

So, don’t give in to your fears and insecurities. Push back. Don’t give in to your aches and pains. Push back against them too. And push back against the idea that you are too old, too slow, or too […enter your excuse of choice here…].

Finally, while I don't normally pay much attention to horoscopes, on the morning of August 25, 2012, as I left New York City on yet another journey down the east coast of America, one of the city’s daily papers, amNewYork had this advice for Libran’s like myself: “Get ready for another great learning experience. If you don't try, you won't know whether or not you can. Go for it! You can always get back on the horse.” 

That is pretty good advice for anyone I reckon, so keep pushing back, and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Serendipitous Life

I was reflecting on the nature of serendipity today, and thought I might as well write about it here. But first here’s one dictionary explanation for the word serendipitous:

serendipitous |ˌsɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪtəs|
adjective : occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a serendipitous encounter. 

So what sparked this post today? I am about half way through reading What The Robin Knows, by Jon Young. Subtitled, How Birds Reveal the Secrets of The Natural World, the book is a fascinating examination of the many signs and clues that birds use in their everyday lives.
A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Jon Young is guided by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds’ companion calls and warning alarms are just as important as their songs.” Source: Amazon.com
The internet, is of course a perfect example of serendipity in action. By following hyperlinks, web users are led from page to page and site to site, following links, interests, hunches and clues that often lead users far and wide across the modern web to places they never expected to go. Such was my discovery of Jon Young and his books, of which What The Robin Knows is just one of many.

Today, while checking through my Facebook page, the image you below popped up on my personal feed. The image was posted on the Facebook page of the Presidio of San Francisco and shared by one of my favourite American authors, Rebecca Solnit. Here is the description provided by the Presido of San Francisco: 
This morning our wildlife ecologist managed to snap a picture of a rare sighting of a grey fox! The last record of a grey fox sighting in the Presidio was in 2004. The fox scrambled onto some branches along with a raven as a coyote prowled around a bush below. Thanks to Jon Young for the incredible picture!
Fox and Raven, by Jon Young
What? thought I. Jon Young? Surely, this must be the same Jon Young that I am currently reading. I immediately headed over to the Presidio’s website and searched for Young’s name, and sure enough, I discovered that Jon had recently completed a free ‘Bird Language Leaders Workshop’ for the Presidio.

Forget ’six degrees of separation’, sometimes only three or four degrees separate us from each other—if not fewer. It is interesting (and probably futile) to speculate whether I would have paid attention to the image if I had not already been reading Jon Young’s book. Interesting too, to wonder about the coincidences that bring these disparate threads together and connect them in ways that seem totally random and unexpected.

Certainly, if I had not ‘discovered’ the books of Rebecca Solnit a year or so ago, I would never have connected with her via Facebook. And if I had not been browsing through iBooks for titles of interest a few weeks ago, I would never have seen What The Robin Knows or discovered the work of Jon Young. It is even possible, if not likely, that given the constant stream of Facebook updates I might have missed Rebecca Solint’s post if I had not checked my page when I did, and therefore missed the reference to Jon Young, and so on and on, and on.

Coincidence? Serendipity? Chance? Dumb luck? Who knows? But since I am writing about Facebook, birds, and the serendipitous nature of life, I will leave you with a video that also turned up on my Facebook stream this week which features a murmuration of starlings. The video is from Paul Tomlinson and at six minutes in length is quite mesmerising and meditative. Enjoy.

More Information

Saturday, January 31, 2015

AirBnB Parisian Style

My room with a view (sort of)
In a recent post Introducing AirBnB, I provided some background information to one of the fastest growing online short stay accommodation services in the world — AirBnB. To date, I have only used the service once—to book accommodation during a two week visit to Paris over the summer of 2014, and despite one or two hiccups, I obviously lived to tell the tale. And this is it. But first, a brief recap.
AirBnB began in 2008 when two designers who had space to share hosted three travellers looking for a place to stay. Today, AirBnB hosts are sharing spare rooms or their homes and apartments in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities.

As a solo traveller on a limited budget, I figured that finding accommodation via AirBnB would be cheaper than staying in a budget hotel, especially if I took into account the ability to supply my own breakfasts and prepare at least some of my main meals ‘at home’, and this in fact turned out to be the case. 

The process for selecting my accommodations was relatively painless, and involved creating a profile on AirBnB, searching through the available listings (using price as my main guide), reading reviews from previous guests, ensuring the location was suitable, the dates available, and the host personable. I should point out that I was in Greece at the time I began researching my Parisian stay, not at home in Australia, and it was from Greece that I flew to Paris. 

Chest of drawers, sofa bed, heater/fan, travel books
Having settled on a small studio apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, I made my booking and got in contact with Philippe my host. He was quick to assure me that everything would be ready on my arrival, and immediately sent me detailed directions for getting to the apartment from Charles de Gaulle airport. I deliberately timed my arrival in Paris for early afternoon. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing worse than landing at night in a ‘foreign’ country where you don’t speak or read the language, and having to make your way to your accommodations in the dark using public transport! It adds a layer of stress to travel that you just don’t need.

Once I reached the building on Rue Chardon-Lagache that was to be my home for the next ten nights, I was quickly met by Philippe and shown to the small studio at the very top of a typical Parisian apartment complex. Thankfully, the apartment had an elevator that was large enough (just) to carry myself, my small case and Philippe the seven floors to the top, although the cubicle was so small that I was grateful I didn’t suffer from claustrophobia.

Chest of drawers with sheets and bedding
To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by just how small the studio apartment was. I would have called it a garret, and as romantic as it is to think I was going to spend some time in a Parisian garret, I would have preferred a bit more space than what was on offer (the phrase ‘not enough room to swing a cat’ comes to mind). However, the room had been paid for, I had turned up as agreed, and there was nothing to do but make the best of a tight squeeze.

As you can see from the photographs illustrating this post, the room contained a sofa bed, a chest of drawers for storing clothes, a small electric stove, a bar fridge, a shower alcove, a collection of cooking and eating utensils, a number of guide books (mostly in French), a telephone and an excellent WiFi connection. There was a clean, shared toilet at the end of the passage which I had to share with one lone resident. During the ten days I stayed at the studio apartment I never heard, let alone saw the elderly gentleman with whom I shared this closet.

Philippe informed me that because I had booked ten nights, he was taking the opportunity to enjoy a short vacation of his own with his daughter, but assured me that if I needed anything I only had to call him. Since I am an independent traveller, I was not particularly concerned that he would not be at my beck and call, and anyway I did not anticipate needing to call him during my stay. Little did I know…but more about that below.

Location, Location, Location
Map of Paris's 16th Arrondissement 
The 16th Arrondissement takes in the Trocadero Gardens (directly opposite the Eiffel Tower), the massive Bois de Boulogne gardens, the Roland Garros tennis centre, any number of wonderful galleries and museums, and numerous foreign embassies.

The apartment was close to both Metro lines and several bus routes. Depending on where I wanted to go, I often jumped on the number 72 bus which provides a virtual rolling tour that takes in sections of the River Seine, the Trocadero (and the nearby Eiffel Tower), the Louvre Museum, the Tulleries Gardens, Place de la Concorde, and Palais de Chaillot before terminating near the Hotel de Ville. The apartment was also close to two Metro lines (#9, Exelmans, and #10, Chardon-Lagache), while the Pont du Garigliano station for the RER C line was also within walking distance of the room.

The well stocked supermarket was a few minutes walk from the studio as were numerous cafes, restaurants, pizza outlets, and other eating houses. I fantastic weekend farmers market took place close by, stocked with a wonderful array of fresh produce including fish, fresh and cured meats, cheeses, and all manner of fruit and vegetables.

Sink and two hotplates above; bar fridge below
Apart from the previously mentioned size of the room, the studio did not have a television, electric kettle or facilities to wash clothing. With regard to boiling water for tea and coffee, I made do by using a small saucepan. Hopefully, an electric kettle has been added to the inventory of items in the studio, even if a television has not. As for washing clothes, since I did not know where the nearest laundromat was located I made do by soaking and hand washing all my clothes in the small kitchen sink, and then rinsing items out whenever I had a shower. I then made sure I squeezed every drop of water out of the clothing before hanging them from a line I had brought along expressly for that purpose.

TIP: My technique for removing water from clothing is quite simple but effective: wring as much water out of the clothing as you can before wrapping each item of clothing in a bath or beach towel; take each end of the towel and twist them together as tightly as you can. Once all the excess water in the clothing has been absorbed by the towel you can hang the item up without worrying about water dripping onto the floor or onto items of furniture. Works for me every time.

[L] damaged drainage pipe       [R] WiFi and storage unit
Late in my stay, I was surprised — to say the least — when I noticed dishwashing water and suds pouring out the storage cupboard below the sink unit. On opening the cupboard door I saw that the ’S-bend’ drainage pipe had come apart. In fact, it had been put together so poorly that I was surprised the floor of the studio was not permanently soaked. I immediately got in contact with Philippe, and to his credit the problem was fixed within a matter of hours.

A couple of days before I vacated the room, I returned from a day out and about in Paris to discover the elevator was not working. By the time I had climbed seven floors to the top of the building my 66-year-old heart was pounding in my chest fit to bust. It was very sobering to learn that I am not as fit as I thought I was, but thankfully I did not need to head back out that night, so I had plenty of time to catch my breath and recover from my exertions. 

Even though other residents in the building must surely have contacted the relevant technicians to get the elevator moving again, I got in touch with my host once more (remember, he was trying to make the most of my extended stay, and had left on a short vacation of his own), and he promised to get someone to look into the problem. By the time I returned from my peregrinations around Paris the next day, I was delighted to see the elevator working again.

Apart from these two incidents, my first stay through AirBnB was a real delight, and as brief as my stay was, I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to live like a Parisian. I also appreciated the ability to prepare a few meals of my own, thereby saving money in the process. From this point of view I am more than happy to recommend that you give AirBnB a try.

However, as already mentioned in my previous blog post, make sure you do your homework, before committing to a booking. Ask questions of your host to be, and read any and all reviews from previous guests. There are always other rooms, so don’t feel you have to take the first option that presents itself. If in doubt—leave it out.

Happy trails.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Some good news out of Washington, DC. President Barak Obama’s Administration has moved to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, widely considered one of the most spectacular and remote areas in the world.

The Department of the Interior is releasing a conservation plan for the Refuge that for the first time recommends additional protections, and President Obama announced he will make an official recommendation to Congress to designate core areas of the refuge – including its Coastal Plain – as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The President’s decision builds upon years of public engagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the Comprehensive Conservation Plan and complete an environmental impact statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by law. The plan will guide the Service’s management decisions for the next 15 years.

Currently, over 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, more than 60 percent of the refuge – including the Coastal Plain – does not carry that designation.

Based on the best available science and extensive public comment, the Service’s preferred alternative recommends 12.28 million acres – including the Coastal Plain – for designation as wilderness. The Service also recommends four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning – for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most diverse wildlife in the arctic, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. More than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home. Lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, tundra and forests make up the remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions.

The refuge holds special meaning to Alaska Natives, having sustained their lives and culture for thousands of years. The Gwich’in people refer to the Coastal Plain of the refuge as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” reflecting the area’s importance to their community, maintaining healthy herds of caribou and an abundance of other wildlife.

Since Congress is the only authority able to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers, one can only hope that Republicans and Democrats can put aside their differences long enough to turn this dream into a reality.

More information will be available at www.fws.gov

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Arizona Time Lapse

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
I am lucky enough to have a cousin living in Tucson, Arizona, and luckier still to have had the opportunity to visit her and her husband during trips to America in 2010 and again in 2012. On both visits I got to see some of the magnificent scenery around Tucson, as well as other parts of the state; namely Sedona and surrounding areas, The Grand Canyon, and Monument Valley (although Utah rightly lays claim to the heart of Monument Valley).

When I saw the video embedded below on Vimeo recently, I was impressed with it enough to include it here. At a little over two minutes in length, this time lapse video titled My Arizona, was created by Drew Geraci of District 7 Media with the assistance of Andrew Breese and Jason Fudge. While it doesn't appear to show the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley, it does provide a very brief overview of some of some of what you can expect to see in Arizona if you make the journey there.

Using a variety of digital cameras the footage was recorded over the course of three days in which the photographs covers some 500 miles. In the process they say, they “…trekked down 3000 foot ravines, exploring hidden water falls, open landscape and the clear night sky.”

x2 Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 7D
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II
Canon 24-105mm f/4
Dynamic Perception Stage Zero

Music by: Gregg Lehrman
Assistance by: Andrew Breese and Jason Fudge

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TED On Tuesday: Turning War Into Peace Through Travel

Aziz Abu Sarah helps people break down cultural and historical barriers through tourism.

When Aziz Abu Sarah was a boy, his older brother was arrested on charges of throwing stones. He was taken to prison and beaten — and died of his injuries. Sarah grew up angry, bitter and wanting revenge. But when later in life he met, for the first time, Jews who were not soldiers, Sarah had an epiphany: Not only did they share his love of small things, namely country music, but coming face to face with the “enemy” compelled him to find ways to overcome hatred, anger and fear.

Sarah founded MEDJI Tours to send tourists to Jerusalem with two guides, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each offering a different history and narrative of the city. Sarah tells success stories of tourists from the US visiting a Palestinian refugee camp and listening to joint Arab and Jewish bands play music, and of a Muslim family from the UK sharing Sabbath dinner with a Jewish family and realizing that 100 years ago, their people came from the same town in Northern Africa.

MEJDI is expanding its service to Iran, Turkey, Ireland and other regions suffering from cultural conflict. If more of the world’s one billion tourists were to engage with real people living real lives, argues Sarah, it would be a powerful force for shattering stereotypes and promoting understanding, friendship and peace.

While I found Aziz Abul Sarah’s talk inspiring for the possibilities he promises, I found this video produced by MEDJI Tours even more inspiring.

If you want to see more videos, check out the organisations collection of short films on VIMEO, and also visit the MEDJI Tours website.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Introducing AirBnB

During 2014 I spent two weeks in Paris, where for the first time I booked the bulk of my accommodations (10 nights) through Airbnb. For readers not familiar with Airbnb, let the company explain in their own words:

“Airbnb began in 2008 when two designers who had space to share hosted three travellers looking for a place to stay. Now, millions of hosts and travellers choose to create a free Airbnb account so they can list their space and book unique accommodation anywhere in the world.”

Today, Airbnb hosts are sharing spare rooms or the whole homes and apartments in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities. Incredibly, since 2008, this company has grown from nothing to one valued at more than two billion dollars! Unlike free accommodation sharing services like Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club, Stay4Free, and others, Airbnb hosts charge a nightly fee for the use of their rooms or homes. Here’s an introductory video from the company:

Airbnb Intro video  

So how did the actual experience of researching, booking, communicating with my host, and the all important stay measure up against the glowing promo material? That dear reader is the focus of this entry.

This is the easy part: decide which city you want to visit, entry your check In and check Out dates (any dates will do, if you don’t know your exact dates), start searching. The screen that appears next should give you the option to rent the Entire Place, a Private Room, or a Shared Room. You will also see a Price Range slider from which you can select your maximum price per night. As you fine tune your selections, links to the available rooms automatically display as does a map showing each location.

At this point it is easy to check out each location, examine the uploaded images, read the fine print, and especially read through the reviews left by previous visitors.

To make a booking you will first need to sign in and register the usual information that all websites can’t seem to do without—even those sites that don’t require billing information. Airbnb, of course, does need billing information so go ahead, register and make your booking. You do have the option to send your host a message and ask questions of them, so if you have any concerns or questions the obligation is on you to ask them before you commit to making your booking.

Watch out for the extras as you are booking your accommodations. These are generally included under the Prices category on the site, but some hosts charge more for extra guests, towels and such like, and these are not always noted under Prices. They are generally mentioned under House Rules or the Description of the property. 

All hosts must provide an email address so that you can communicate with them before and after you make a booking. As far as I am aware, all hosts must supply a contact phone number, although I am not sure if they are obliged to make it available to you before you make a booking.

The best hosts know that open, quick communications with potential or actual guests is always the best way to foster confidence and trust in both them, their accommodations and Airbnb itself. Again, reviews from previous guests are generally a good way to gauge the reliability and trust of potential hosts, so make sure you read all the reviews for a property you are planning to book.

Another Airbnb Video worth watching  

Be Quick Or Be Sorry
I did not start researching my Paris stay until well into July. Since I was trying to make my booking during the height of summer, I found that many of my first choices were booked solid right through July, August and into September. Further, I wanted a minimum of ten nights. By leaving my booking late, those places that did have bookable nights often had no more than two or three consecutive nights available. I began to worry that I had left it too late to find a suitable rental via Airbnb, but thankfully I was eventually lucky enough to find the right place, at the right price, for the right number of nights. However, the lesson I learned was that it pays to book well ahead if you are planning to hit Paris, London, New York City, or any other major metropolis during the height of the travel season.

I have mentioned several times the importance of reading reviews for rental properties. However, there is one potential ‘spanner in the works’ to this and that occurs when a new listing has been added to Airbnb, and the property owner has only one or two reviews, or even worse—none at all. Obviously, someone has to be the first person to book a property and there is no reason why it should not be you, but as always, the obligation is on you to make sure you are completely satisfied that the host and the property are what they claim to be.

If you are travelling alone, your best option may be to simply ignore properties with no reviews. On the other hand, on the basis that there are supposed to be safety in numbers, you might go ahead and rent a property if you are planning to share the accommodation with a friend or partner. Of course, it is entirely possible that a property listing has had guests stay there, but visitors have not bothered to write a review for the host.

TIP: When checking a listing, find the About The Host heading. This includes information about how long the host has been a member. The newer their membership, the less likely are they to have a lot of reviews, or any at all. However, if the property has been listed for three months or more, one could reasonable expect there to be at least one or two reviews, if not more, especially if the property is in a popular destination.

* * * 

UPDATE: I have written about my first Airbnb experience here...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What We’re Reading This Week

12 Small Ways To Travel More
Suzy Strutner writes about travel matters for The Huffington Post. I thought her recent post examining alternatives to major travel was of interest.

I think exploring your own city and nearby locations is always a good idea, not least because it helps to keep your travel bug well fed and nourished while it waits for the longer journeys ahead.

As Suzy writes: "A trip doesn't have to cross continents, span oceans or even leave the house to be a healthy, inspiring adventure that leaves you totally refreshed." 

Here are some of Suzy Strutner's suggestions.
  • Spend one night under the stars (in your backyard, at a campground, on the beach... anywhere!).
  • Take an hour-long drive to a different city, and go out to dinner.
  • Roll out the map, point to a country with your eyes closed, and research a traditional meal to cook for dinner.
  • Go to the tourist spots in your hometown... sometimes we forget why they're famous in the first place.
  • Spend the night in a nearby B&B.

* * *

Parts Unknown: Vietnam 
Photo: Yiannis Apostolakis
I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I know numerous people who have been there, and with one exception they all loved it. If I can make the time, I will make the journey there myself one day, but for now I will have to make do by visiting through the eyes of other travellers.

Yiannis Apostolakis describes his site as “One mans’ blog about travel, photography and digital technology.” And adds: “It all started in Vietnam.” His website is heavy on photographic images, which is always a great way to tell a story and give readers (viewers?), a sense of place. 

I particularly like this image of baseball caps and bags utilising recycled aluminium (aluminum) Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans. Check out Parts Unknown…

* * *

Tips For Women Traveling Alone
This article from Madelen Lindgren provides good advice for men as well as women. Among her most salient suggestions:
  • Read about your destination and learn some basic phrases of the language
  • Research the good and the bad about your destination
  • Don’t walk around in the wrong clothes. Observe cultural norms.
  • Be street smart. Don’t walk in the dark. Don’t flash your money.
  • Follow your gut feeling, trust it, every time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Bridge Too Far?

Barges on the River Seine, Paris, France
I was checking out the Solo Traveler Blog recently, and couldn’t resist adding a comment to a blog post on the site written by Janice Waugh. Titled Bridges, New Perspectives and Solo Travel, Janice writes (in part: “To get the big picture of a city you need to stand back and the best way I’ve found for doing so is by walking a bridge. […] A bridge, by providing some distance, offers new perspectives on a city.

In my comment I wrote:
“Wow! And I thought I was the only 'bridge walker' out there. I have a 'thing' about bridges anyway, but I will always walk across a bridge if the opportunity presents itself. Along with the usual Brooklyn Bridge walk, I have walked across the George Washington Bridge (I can legitimately claim to have walked from New York to New Jersey), and the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. On my next visit to NYC, I hope to get an opportunity to walk across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that links Brooklyn with Staten Island.
Speaking of the George Washington Bridge (GWB), I walked across it a few months after the event referred to as the 'Miracle On The Hudson' took place in January, 2014. I'm referring to the incident in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed United Airlines flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River. Standing on the walkway in the centre of the GWB while looking down river gave me some sense of the view that Cpt. Sellenberger must have been looking at as he flew low over the bridge towards his eventual touch down on the river near Midtown Manhattan. And it was a very sobering view to be sure.
If you are looking for a new perspective on a well known city, do what I also like to do -- hit the water. I never miss an opportunity to take a ferry ride, river cruise, or some other type of water borne transport when I travel. Cruises around the waters of New York City abound, and the views from the Hudson and East rivers bring a whole new perspective to that amazing city. I've taken short cruises on the Mississippi (out of New Orleans), the Mekong River (out of Phnom Penh), on Melbourne's Yarra River, and numerous others. Then there are harbour cruises that can be just as interesting -- if not more so. If you have ever had the opportunity to cruise on, or just catch a ferry across Sydney Harbour you will understand what I mean.”
With regard to harbor cruises in particular, regular visitors to this blog will have seen my numerous entries and updates for the wonderful Hidden Harbor tours organised by New York City’s Working Harbor Committee. These provide a unique insight into the (generally) unseen industry that helps to keep New York City and New Jersey ticking.

A bridge too far? Not far enough in my opinion.

By the way, if you are a solo traveller already, or interested in going solo, the Solo Traveler Blog is a fantastic resource for all manner of information related to solo travel. Check it out and look for the free eBooks available via the site, and subscribe to the weekly newsletter as well. Happy (solo) travelling.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Stop Following The Crowd

Image: www.telegraph.co.uk
In a previous post I responded to 21 Travel Resolutions To Make For 2015, a post by Suzy Strutner, writing for the Huffington Post. Today I thought I’d offer a few more suggestions not covered by Suzy in her post. But first, a word or two from Albert:

“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been before.” ~ Albert Einstein

Using the wisdom of Albert Einstein as my guide, I offer these additions to Strutner’s selection:
  • Break out of your comfort zone and try something different (a new location, food, activity)
  • Travel Solo (if you normally travel with others, or travel with others if you normally go alone )
  • Book and organise your own vacation, don't leave it to a travel agent
  • It's never too early to start planning your next holiday, so start now!
Break out of your comfort zone and try something different
Too often we like to stick to the tried and tested; whether choice of literature, genre of movies, favourite foods, make of car, or travel destinations. The problem with this is that we can miss out on so many exciting, new, and different experiences. 

Breaking out of your comfort zone does not mean you should push yourself to indulge in dangerous activities of either the athletic type, or feel the need to partake in exotic meals of the culinary variety. For instance, you will never see me bungee jumping head first into a river, or white-water rafting down raging rapids. Neither will you find me eating fried Tarantula’s, drinking warm Yak blood, swallowing the raw testes of newly slaughtered rams, or trying other such exotic fare!

There are plenty of other, more pleasant ways to break out of your comfort zone. If you have a tendency to drive everywhere, get out of the car and walk more. If you catch planes—take a train instead. Looking for something to eat or drink? Check out what and where the locals eat and drink. I remember wandering through New York City’s Chinatown district one day, and walking into a small restaurant filled with Chinese diners. Pointing to a selection of dishes on display, I sat down to a full plate of rice, chicken, and vegetables that cost me a mere $3.00. One of the cheapest meals I have ever enjoyed.

Travel Solo
Some people can’t stand their own company! Still others can’t abide silence or solitude. Then there are those who never shut up! A pause in a conversation is a pause too long. It is a hole that needs to be filled, and filled as quickly as possible. Hopefully, you will never encounter these three character traits in the one person, but if you do, make a mental note right now to never travel with them. Better that you should travel alone, or not travel at all, than burden yourself with such a travel companion. 

Personally, I love to travel alone. I delight in the freedom it gives me to follow my own interests, to travel at my own pace, and to stay out late and to sleep in even later. As for silence and solitude, on long road trips I leave the radio off and the CDs at home. This allows my thoughts to float through my head in whatever random order they choose. I also like how solo travel encourages me to meet the locals and other travellers, to pay more attention to my surroundings, and to develop new skills I didn’t think I was capable of (a great boost to my self-confidence).

Book and Organise Your Own Vacation
Be the master of your own destiny! The advent of the Internet puts the ability to research, book and organise a vacation in your own hands. Your planning and organisational skills improve, as does your confidence and ability to deal with actual or potential problems on your own.

When I headed off on my first round the world trip in more than 30 years, in 2008, I made use of a travel agent, and have no regrets that I did. Again in 2010, I used a travel agent to book my main flights, but booked internal flights and accommodations myself. In 2010 and again in 2014 I went completely solo. That is, I researched, booked and organised all my own flights, accommodations, travel insurance, and all other aspects of my trips myself.

This may not seem like a big deal, but as a senior (I’m now 66), and solo traveller, the temptation to leave all the organisation to others is very — um, tempting! As already noted, doing everything myself has been great for my organisational and problem solving skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem. I hope to be travelling for many years to come, and as much as possible I will plan and organise these trips myself.

Start Planning Your Next Trip Now
It’s never too late, or too early to start thinking about and planning your next vacation. In fact, doing so can help you focus on budgeting, saving, and keeping on top of your spending habits and future purchases. Planning ahead—even one to three years ahead—forces you to reconsider every major purchase you might be contemplating. 

Do you really need a bigger television, laptop, tablet device, the latest iPhone/iPad, fancy-schmancy meal, seasonal outfit, or…? Well, you get the idea. For myself, planning and saving towards my next trip starts from the moment I touch down in Adelaide, my home town. In deed, I have taken to telling family and friends that I am back home for a holiday from my holiday.

I find that it helps to quantify your expenses before you spend your hard earned money on the latest iPad, or whatever it is you think you absolutely must have. In my case, my income consists of a fortnightly pension which is supplemented by money from my retirement fund. I try and bear in mind that every one-hundred dollars I spend on non-essential items could instead give me another night in a budget hotel in Paris or London, or several nights in any number of other cities around the world.

As much as I would love to swap my 64Gb iPad 2 for the latest (and lighter) iPad Air, I have decided to forgo the upgrade for as long as possible. Mind you, this decision is made easier knowing that there will always be a newer model in the offing within months of the latest release. So why rush? Besides, the cost of a high capacity iPad Air in Australia—say, a 64Gb model—is around half the price of an Adelaide to New York City return ticket (or Adelaide to almost anywhere in Europe, for that matter). Knowing I have a perfectly good iPad 2 as well as half a return ticket to the rest of the world sitting in my bank account, is a great incentive to keep saving, and to make sure any purchases I do make are absolutely essential.
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