Monday, January 26, 2015

4 Great Winter Destinations Probably Not on Your Radar

4 Great Winter Destinations You Probably Haven't Considered (but Maybe Should)

It's the middle of winter and most people in the northern hemisphere understandably crave a little sunshine and warmth, but I also think this is the absolute perfect time to experience some of the most amazing places in North America - without all the crowds. Sure, they can be cold, but this is also part of their attraction. Winter landscapes can be tranquil, beautiful and even surreal. I'm only mentioning four locations in this post, but really the list is practically endless.

Ice and rapids on the Nantahala River, NC
No, I'm not talking here about the super well-known ski resorts such as Vail, Aspen, Whistler/Blackcomb or Steamboat etc. These are all still places crowded out with teaming hordes and offering all the (costly) amenities anyone anywhere could ever want. What I mean are the places everyone goes to in the warmer summer months where you encounter huge mobs of people, inflated prices and wildlife mostly too freaked out scared ever to be seen.

The places on this list can be accessed to a greater or lesser extent by car and include opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing, and often skiing. The choice of accommodations, restaurants and other amenities won't be as great as in peak season, but there are still more than adequate options and prices will be far less during off-season. Here then is my shortlist, but again there are many more places I think would be equally great in winter.

Leaves and rocks frozen in pools on the Nantahala River, NC

Yellowstone National Park

Situated in the top northwest corner of Wyoming, only the north and/or northeast entrances will be open in winter. This limits access to most of the park, but there are options for exploring a little further afield via snow-cat tours and some back-country snowshoeing or skiing. Yellowstone winter weather conditions can be extreme so leave the back-country stuff to the serious experts. That said, there are tons of incredible things to see in winter. With a blanket of fresh snow, I think this would be a hard place to beat for natural beauty and wildlife spotting opportunities.

Bison playing in the snow..

Drive slowly and carefully because you are virtually guaranteed to see Bison, Elk and other creatures right on the road, or just off of it. My first encounter this past December was at night stopped at the end of a narrow bridge just after I arrived, when I saw a huge shaggy eyeball looking at me from a about three feet away when I rolled down my window. It turns out I had stopped right in the middle of a large herd of Bison just about to cross. They came in from the sides and I sensed them before I actually saw them - so glad I stopped! Just an amazing experience.

The only hotel open inside the park is the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and it's a grand old place. Not the cheapest digs around, but considering its location and history, I think it's worth it. I got there the same day it opened for the winter season (December - March) just before Xmas and got a single room with shared bathroom and shower down the hall for about $65 (although rack rates are around $90 for these). Despite a nearly full hotel, I never had to wait for the bathroom and the room itself was warm and comfy. Access to Yellowstone in winter involves about an hour's drive from nearby Livingston, Montana (anyone remember Jimmy Buffet's song..?). There are also more accommodations, food and services available in the town of Gardiner just outside the park's north entrance before the Roosevelt Arch.

South Dakota Badlands and Mount Rushmore et al.

This area is beautiful and although it can be cold here in winter, if you're bundled up and well prepared you shouldn't have any trouble exploring all kinds of incredible places. Again, I arrived in the early evening at Mount Rushmore and had the most incredible experience. They still had the floodlights on the massive carvings, but there was literally no one else there. I'm sure there were workers or staff around, but I didn't see a single other soul. Given the huge parking area and amphitheater, I'm guessing this place gets just mad crowds at other times of the year. Also, there is wonderful early dawn light for more photo opps of the monument.

Mount Rushmore at night

I stayed a hotel called The White House in nearby Keystone. Not fancy, but clean and about 40 bucks a night. Quiet of course, because almost no else was there. The nearby Chief Crazy Horse Memorial Monument is also a must see. It is still a long way from being finished, but it dwarfs Mount Rushmore by comparison. It has been under construction since 1948 by the  late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his family. Warning - if you want to go right up the actual sculpture, you'll pay a premium for it (the entire project is self-funded), but there is plenty to see at  and from the museum.

The Southern Appalachia of North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is apparently the most popular park in the system, but it gets minimal traffic in the winter despite an immense amount of people coming in to experience the spectacular Autumn colors right up to Thanksgiving and slightly beyond. In fact the whole area winds down in winter, but I think remains just as beautiful as any other season. With blue skies, snow on the ground and icicles aplenty in the many rivers, creeks and lakes in the area, this time of year holds a special appeal for me.

It's a nice time to visit The Eastern Band of the Cherokee and their museum is wonderful. Nearby Bryson City is very cute and their "Polar Express" seasonal theme on the train there attracts tons of people right up until Christmas. The Cork and Bean serves fabulous food and coffee, although they do close for January. Asheville and nearby areas also have many treasures to be discovered and uncovered. Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure have been featured in many films such as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Dirty Dancing." These is so much to see and do in this area during winter that I think even many people  living in places as close as Atlanta, Charleston or Raleigh-Durham often overlook a lot of them.

Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming

If you've ever watched Spielberg's classic movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" then you've seen this incredible geologic feature. Depending on how much time and driving your schedule allows for, this is something that could easily be combined with Yellowstone and/or the Badlands of South Dakota. This is America's first national monument and rises spectacularly some 1,267 feet (386 m) from the relatively flat surrounding landscape. In fact, you can see it for miles before you ever get to the base.

This is another place I visited this December during a cross country drive, not quite corner to corner across the continental USA and into western Canada. Again, I had the place almost completely to myself although one other car showed up (and parked right up close beside me in an empty lot) later on in the day. This has been a spiritual center for the Lakota Sioux and without anyone else there on a cold winter day, it was easy to feel that energy.

Sunset at Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower has some of the finest traditional crack climbs anywhere and it's long been on my list of places to go climbing. For one reason or another I have never been there to climb, but now I have a renewed energy to go back in better weather and experience the incredible unique rock there.

What Are Your Favorite Winter Destinations that Few People Talk About??

Comments below - I'd love to know.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The World's Hardest Job??

The Hardest Job in the World...

So maybe this is just a little tongue in cheek, but really, I have no idea how the power/telephone line repair workers in Thailand make any sense of the terminal spaghetti farms infesting most cities and towns in the country. Some of these impenetrable tangles make the mythical Gordian Knot seem like a child's sneaker laces by comparison.

Seriously, when I look up and see these rain-forest jungles of indistinguishable black wire coming in from all directions to unite in huge chaotic tumors around badly outmatched wooden poles, I'm half impressed and half horrified. I should clarify first that I LOVE Thailand and that although I first noticed these impenetrable forests of wire in Thailand, I have also seen them in other SEA countries as well. It's hard for me to wrap my head around exactly how anyone could find or make sense of anything in these tangles. I think the people who work on them must be equal measures fearless, patient and well-trained.

Since I know practically zero about this subject, I have no idea whether these lines serve both telephone and power (or anything else), but I'm guessing some decent voltage flows through them. If so I wonder, are the workers able to shut everything off before commencing repairs, or do they somehow avoid electrocution through other means? I recall a street in Chiang Rai completely torn up for re-paving and presumably other repairs. In a torrential rainstorm, a large crew of workers were elbows deep in this nest of wiring. There were also wires down all over in the street being sorted out, replaced and fixed. In that case, it looked like power had been turned off in most stores and buildings, but not all.

It did make me think twice before stepping over and around them in the nearly flooded streets. My thought of course being if the power were in fact switched back on, just how well would the water conduct the electricity? How much voltage would there be? At any rate, my fears were not realized and no one got zapped that day. I still marveled at how difficult and demanding it would be to have a job like that. It must not only be extremely physically demanding, but also one of the toughest jigsaw puzzles ever to sort out. Certainly not a job I would want given any choice. Kudos and thanks to the people who do.

What do you think would be the hardest job in the world?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

World's Top 5 Most Unusual Shopping Malls..

My Top 5 List of Strangest Shopping Malls in the World..

...and five honorable mentions...

With one possible exception, every location on this list completely stretches the traditional western definition of "mall" past way past its normal boundaries. However, if you use your imagination a little, you can see how some places of commerce in other countries could be considered the local equivalent of an American style shopping mall. Anyway, it's my list and I'm sticking with it. If you have other candidates for this list, I would love to see em. Please post in the Comments section.

1.) The Dubai Mall

Apparently this is the world's largest shopping mall by square footage. It boasts a bewildering amount of retail shops, entertainment centers, eateries and other shopping flotsam and jetsam. Aside from having an Olympic sized ice rink hiding indoors in the one of the hottest countries this side of a solar flare, it also contains something I've never seen before in any mall. Something I very grudgingly found fascinating. Right there in the middle of the mall, just down the street from all the people sliding around the ice like rocks on a curling rink is just a colossal fricking aquarium. The main wall is simply enormous and it's chock-a-blog full to bursting with marine life.

This isn't Podunk Pete's Wonder Aquarium with a handful of Goldfish and a pissed off Neon Tetra. They have everything in there and it's just bristling. One half of me, the scuba diving, eco-friendly, hate seeing things-in-captivity half, is feeling a little disgusted by it all. The other eight year old half that grew up watching Flipper, Jacques Cousteau and Voyage to See What's On the Bottom is just drooling over all those cool aquatic creatures spinning laps in the world's largest fish tank. Holy Seafood Lovin' Mother Load Batman!!

Are you in there Mom??

One of the other things I saw at the Dubai Mall I'm sure was planted by my family back in Canada - a Tim Horton's Donuts of all things. TimBits is practically a national institution there, even though I think their coffee tastes like wimpy dishwater (donuts are okay though). 

2.) Petra World Heritage Site in Jordan

If you've ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where they all gallop down a narrow canyon (siq) and into a big opening where this incredible temple building (the Treasury) is carved right into a sheer cliff face, then you know what Petra looks like. This is a must see place and if it isn't already on your bucket list, you really should add it in.

Every mall needs an anchor store to bring in traffic. This might be it...

Me, a camel and a sales squad at Petra
There are buildings, temples, burial crypts and other stuff carved into literally miles of rock in one of the most beautiful and isolated places you can imagine.

So what does this have to do with Shopping Malls you ask? Like many such destinations where the local economy doesn't have the same resources as downtown Manhattan or London, many people earn a living selling stuff all over the place inside and out. Being a World Heritage Site does not exempt these places from also being a robust center of local commerce where tourists and travelers are concerned. From even before you enter Petra, you are barraged by offers of horse, donkey or camel rides, jewelry and coins, food, clothes and a zillion other items. It never stops and it doesn't matter how far in you explore. There will be someone there selling something. There will be a manky little table with four trinkets or some hot tea brewing in likely the same kettle used by Julius Caesar's mom.

No sooner do you get through 400 yards of walking and explaining to some guy why you don't want a donkey ride, than the next dude with a donkey is all over you asking the exact same thing. This, after watching the entire "thanks, but no thanks" exchange take place all along from his own little territory. "Oh yeah buddy, your donkey is much better than that last one..." It can be a maddening gauntlet.

Aaahh - there's a tea shop at the end of the world...
How I know it's the End of the World. Just needs a tea shop...

Despite my frustrations and the burnout you can get fending off vendors, hagglers, hucksters and touts all day while trying to take in a truly magnificent place like Petra, I am also sympathetic. If I were in their position, I'm pretty certain I'd be doing the exact same thing.

Location, location, location...

Fine Haberdashery and Dry Cleaning Service... wait, sorry,,, that's the display...

Whenever possible I try to buy at least some stuff locally like this. It might be a few trinkets, a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, but I try to purchase whatever I can to support (hopefully) local craftspeople, artists and artisans. Yes, a lot of it is cheap manufactured tourist crap produced elsewhere, but not all - not by a long shot.

3.) Duty Free Shops in the Colombo International Airport, Sri Lanka

Forget - totally and utterly - ALL the preconceptions you have about Duty-Free shopping in an airport. Forget the usual ho-hum assortment of alcohol, smokes, perfume and chocolates. All that is so... done... done to death... yawn. What you REALLY WANT is a full-size fridge, stove, dishwasher or other household appliance to take along with your cute little Prada Rolling Duffle don't you??

Okay, I'll take the watch, the scotch and that beautiful washer/dryer combo. Will they fit in the overhead bins??

Well, you're in luck, because that is precisely what you will find at the duty-free shopping area in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka's international airport. When I first arrived at the airport there, I had to do a complete double take when I saw the shops selling all these big household appliances. I mean, how do you get something like that into the cab at curbside anyway? For that matter, how do you get it to curbside at all unless you happen to be an Olympic Power-lifting Champ and even then...

4.) Street Kiosks at Angkor Wat World Heritage Site in Cambodia

Hey wait just a doggone minute!!This sounds just like number two contestant Petra up above buddy. Well, it is... and it isn't. Yes, Angkor Wat near Siem Reap Cambodia is also a World Heritage Site and yes it has people selling all sorts of stuff both in and around the grounds, but it also has some significant differences too.

Where'd everyone go??

First off, if you've never been to Angkor Wat or Cambodia for that matter, then you need to go. It needs to be on your bucket list. Cambodia is beautiful, affordable and the people are incredible. I loved Cambodia. I love everywhere really.

Aaahh - there they are!! Can I get that to go...?

The thing that really grabbed my attention as far as this shopping mall topic, are the miles and miles of the same manky little wooden tables with or without disintegrating little thatched roofs. The ones that are open all seem to sell the exact same nine items too, mostly water, soft-drinks and fresh fruit with the odd few other items thrown in. But mostly, they were empty or abandoned. Miles of lonely little tables lining the road between exhibits in the huge expanse of Angkor Wat. I'm not sure if they were abandoned because of the season or because the proprietors couldn't make a living. After all, if every shop in the mall is selling the same stuff as you, how the heck do you compete?

This experience really did feel much like a huge outdoor mall to me driving down the long straight roads. Here and there, you'd come across colorful little intersections where the stalls sold a much larger and more interesting range of goods. At these little knots of commerce, business was much more frenetic and interesting.

5.) A Ton of Beaches in Bali, Thailand and Elsewhere

Imagine you're in Bali and you take a taxi or motor your little rental scootie out to some remote little hunk of oceanfront aptly called "White Sand Beach." near Karangasem. There are a couple of small thatched roof "warungs" or cafe's onsite and maybe half a dozen other travelers splashing around in the warm ocean water, but that's really it. Almost your own private Idaho. You plunk down on the blazing hot sand and contemplate a cool-down playing in the moderate surf. Maybe a snorkel to see the amazing array of marine life just below the surface...

No, no - don't get up... we have trinkets, cold drinks, clothes and artistic nail polish - all at one place!!

But really - what you NEED - crave maybe would be the more accurate term, is a trip to the mall for a good old fashioned shopping experience. It eats up all your thoughts, making it hard to concentrate on the lush tropical setting you've flown 15 trillion miles to visit. Well, fear not gentle traveler for your salvation is at hand. If you can't get to the mall, the mall will get to you!! That's right, all you need to do is sit still for more than 1.2 seconds and someone will be there to sell you whatever you may or may not need. Cold drink? Check. Fruit smoothie with or without sight destroying alcohol? Got it. Bangles, beads, trinkets, lockets, chains, bracelets, henna tattoos? Gotcha covered Mate. New towels, scarves, sandals, swimsuit, scarves or hats? Check-a-roonie Sport. Want your nails painted by a true artist for less money than a bottle of water? No problem. Not now or not sure? No worries Mate - they'll be back!

Seriously though, the local vendors here are pretty respectful and not nearly so numerous as other beaches I've been to. The little family owned warungs have a limited menu, but the food is good and the drinks are refreshing. I also did buy a few very pretty little bracelets for the folks back home that I didn't see anywhere else. This is also where I found the best scam ever to pry you from your money.

It goes like this: Some 100 million year old wizened knot creaks down into the sand right beside your towel and produces a strange wooden tube with finger-holes. "Okay,cool" I think, "he's going for some kind of soothing flute serenade." I almost found myself looking forward to hearing it. I'm thinking perhaps of Paul Horn's meditative flute in the King's Chamber at the Great Pyramid of Giza. But the noise that issues forth from this wretched instrument is somewhere between a car crash and the sounds of wholesale slaughter at a meat-packing plant. "Holy SchnitzenGruben Batman!!! For the love of God make it stop!!!" And then of course I have my answer and Monsieur More Wrinkly Than Beef Jerky has his "sale." Like a fish on a hook, I smile and nod appreciably while handing him way more money than I gave anyone else for anything that day. I paid him off to stop "playing" and simply go the f*ck away. I did and he did. Sanity restored thank you very much. It's totally brilliant though and perfectly legal. Nobody is going to tell the world's oldest living (up for debate) and completely talent-less human fossil to piss off. It would be like smacking your own great granddad upside the head. The only solution is to pay him off or go rapidly insane. I guarantee you wouldn't last long enough to roll up your towel  and run off the beach either.

Honorable Mentions - To Round Out a (free bonus) List of Ten...

6.) Floating Shops on the Mekong River 

7.) Small Bipedal Micro-Malls in Bangkok

Reach for the sky pardner, this is a hold-up.... No, wait sorry, I meant wanna buy a sandwich for lunch...?

8.)  Floating Mall Food Courts in Phra-Nang Beach and Princess Cave

Okay, okay - not even close to being a mall..

9.) Taipei Airport SkyMall with Colossal Hello Kitty Store


10.) Night Markets - Anywhere You Can Find Em (These are Awesome Fun!!)

Night Market in Luang Prabang, Laos 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sex Toys or Bottle Openers in Bali

Sex Toys or Bottle Openers in Bali 

If you ever travel to Bali, particularly in places like Kuta, Legian or Ubud, you are guaranteed to run into an odd intersection (for westerners anyway) of art, utility, fertility, commerce and socio-religious significance. I am talking of course about the ubiquitous penis shaped bottle openers, key-chains, Christmas Tree ornaments, lamps and other "objets d'arte." They are literally everywhere and of course typically painted or decorated with all manner of colors, designs and patterns. Some of the larger ones often have these complex "disco ball" reflective glass designs all over them. Mostly though, they have a bottle opener at one end (the stern rather than the bow I guess).

They hang in huge bunches like grapes or bananas from half the shops and vendor's stalls in any area where there is even a hint of commerce - which is to say everywhere. Some are positively colossal and some are just teeny tiny. I guess this would be an apt reflection of the real world now that I think about it. Regardless of whatever paint or surface patina they each have, virtually all are carved out of wood. The bottle opener and key-chain bits are standard metal however.

Typically, when western tourists first see these phallic souvenirs, they giggle and point and act all embarrassed. I noticed some parents with kids trying very hard to just sort of... ignore them and hope nobody notices these unusual items. No such luck of course, they stick out like a sore thumb, or actually like a bunch of penises at the market. The funny thing is, almost everyone I know who has been there, has also bought at least one and usually a bunch to bring back and distribute as souvenirs to the folks back home. I've also heard stories from some people about interesting conversations with customs and security personnel at the airport during public bag search moments.

This of course is a result of western society's long-held inhibitions and cultural taboos around public discussions or displays of sex and fertility. I am a long way from being any kind of socio-cultural or religious anthropologist, but I have experienced many societies around the world where conversation and expression around fertility and fertility rites are just a normal part of everyday life. Even a cursory examination of ancient Greek or Roman civilizations or art reveals all kinds of similar stuff. For example, the first time I went to Europe not long after graduating high-school, I remember sending back postcards of an ancient Greek statue (of a Satyr I think) where the dude's fully erect "unit" appeared to be about two feet long!

When I first arrived in Bali, my initial impressions with this seemed so at odds with the more modest and religiously oriented society I found there. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali is its own unique blend of Hinduism. It is very different from that found in India or anywhere else for that matter. Religion is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life there. For the record, Indonesia itself is approximately 88% Muslim with Balinese Hinduism making up a tiny two percent of the total.

Gift basket souvenir assortment for the folks back home..
Having said all that however, the prankster in me thinks it would be great fun to decorate a whole Christmas Tree with a kaleidoscopic assortment of brightly colored phallic ornaments, just to see the look on Grandma's face. Then of course, the centerpiece of the dinner table would be a two foot tall disco-ball dildo lamp. Everyone would get their own personalized phallic bottle opener and a cold Bintang beer to crack open with it. In keeping with the theme, how about a penis-shaped turkey meatloaf as the main entree? Yeah, yeah I know - now it's getting silly, but what the heck, you gotta have a little fun in life right? Here are a few more pics to illustrate the point...

Okay, so in the pic below right I Photo-chopped a phallic bottle opener from another photo I took onto a table beside some Bintang beers we were drinking, but the other images in this article are unaltered. They are also just a very, very small sampling of all the similar wares and shop displays bristling out from most every tourist focused shopping area. What you see is what I got...just walking around.

Oh good - a bottle opener...

Would you like us to "Super-Size" that order...?

Expensive art for sale, but hey how about a few impulse items near the front window and cash register..?
While we're on the subject (sort of), I thought it would be fun to share a couple of other pics I took in Bali that seemed like good clean fun. Some things that Uncle Walt of course, never put into The Jungle Book. The first is a large sculpture of two Elephants in "flagrante delicto" as it were. That means "two pachyderms humping" to the rest of us. This photo was taken in a large family-oriented elephant park on the way in or out of their gargantuan buffet restaurant.. A domestic comparison for our USA audience might be a little like Disneyland. For completely other reasons, this was one of the very few places in Bali that I didn't like.

I found this fun little statue shown below at stage right in the Monkey Forest more or less in downtown Ubud. It cracked me up, so had to share on this post. By the amount of moss and condition of the stone, I'd say it's been around a while, but have no idea what its actual age is. Best part is the monkey covering his eyes I think. The impromptu caption going through my mind at the time went something like "Hey whatcha got there little buddy?" See some of my previous blog posts on monkeys for a little more on that subject.

"Oh no, I think I'm going blind!!!"
So anyway, there you have it; a quick look at something fun and interesting in Bali that I seldom, if ever see in the travel brochures and photo galleries of this beautiful place. Too bad though, because it's pretty unique as far as the usual stuff you see in tourist shops most places. Someone also has gone to considerable lengths to paint and decorate them. Some of the designs are really ornate and beautiful. You have to appreciate good art and design, even if the canvas is a little...unusual.