Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's is Upon Us...So I Say go to Iceland!

Here's the thing.  New Year's is tricky.  Most of us tend to stay in these days with the increased pressure to not drink and drive.  If you have a family, you might go to a first night celebration, but most of us are sitting in our living rooms, watching the ball fall in New York City on the television, wondering who's going to take over for Dick Clark and all.  It's what we do.  We get some sparkling wine, because we can't afford, nor do we really like champagne.  As we get older, we tend to work really hard just to stay up until midnight to ring in the new year at all.  Every year we see celebrations around the world with thousands of partying citizens having a great time.  But, the reality is that these crowds make up very little of the populations of the countries around the world.  Most of us are watching them on TV.

New York City is the prime destination in the United States to go if you want to go and celebrate in a huge crowd.  There are several other worthy destinations around the country in each and every state.  But, most of us stay at home.  Most of us are sitting there telling ourselves that it's just not worth the trouble.  Most of us are looking for that unique experience to ring in the new year in a crowd.  What should you do?
Well, first of all, for God sakes, get out once in a while.  Then, if you want something to remember, look for it.  All over the world, there are celebrations each and every year to ring in the new year.  Pick one.  Make this New Year's count.
Go to New Zealand and be first.  Go to Australia and be warm.  Go to Hawaii and be last and get to sleep on the beach.  Do something that rings it in right for you.
Mine is Reykjavik.  Yes, Iceland.  I know, it's really cold and really dark, and how on Earth would anyone know the difference between midnight and noon?  You'd be surprised.

Reykjavik is a dainty little city.  It's beautiful in the winter time with it's pretty constant blanket of snow.  The people here are friendly and most of them speak English.  It's a small town kind of place to visit where everyone is nice and you make friends quickly.  You can take a tour up here where you stay with a family and see how they live.  They show you around and teach you how things work.  And that's why you want to come to Iceland at New Year's.

First, Iceland comes with it's own fireworks.  These are the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights.  They are viewable on many nights in Iceland.  Winter time is best, and New Year's is fabulous.  This natural phenomenon has been credited with good luck, fertility, financial gain, and many other amazing qualities.  It's a great way to start the new year.

For most Icelanders, at least in Reykjavik, New Year's Eve starts with mass at the National Cathedral.  Icelanders are deeply spiritual and this is where a lot of families meet up to start their night's festivities.
From mass, it just gets better.  Families gather and get ready for midnight.  There are no fireworks or fire burning laws in Iceland to speak of.

Icelanders gather around giant bonfires to celebrate the passing from old year to new.  You, as a traveler will find yourself the guest of a local in a New York minute.  The Icelanders love to celebrate and they love to meet people.  You'll be taken in, even if you don't start out as part of a group.

And then there's the fireworks.  Like I said, there are no fireworks laws in Iceland.  Therefore, when midnight strikes in Reykjavik, everyone sets off their own, making one of the most spectacular New Year's displays in the world.  It's estimated that each and every citizen fires off about 3 kilograms of fireworks.  There are almost 200,000 people in the city.  That's a lot of fireworks.
You won't want to miss that.  The best part is, that even though it's very cold in Reykjavik on New Year's Eve, you'll be warm.  The bonfires are amazingly warm and create a wonderful friendly environment.  It's a night you'll never forget.

There are other perks too, if you come from America's East Coast like I do.  Iceland is four hours ahead of where I live.  Midnight feels like 8 p.m. to me.
But, that's just the beginning.  Icelanders love to stay out late anyway. Bars and clubs open at midnight and stay open all night.  So, you can party any way you like.  I advise staying by the fire and making friends.  It's cozy, and that's something that I've only found you can do in Iceland.
Happy New Year!


New Art Lovers...Sao Paulo!

This is Sao Paulo, Brazil.  This is one of the largest cities in the world, and the largest in the Americas.  This place is sprawling, covering far more land than Los Angeles and harboring far more people than New York City.  It's huge.  It's massive.  It has all the perks and problems of a large city.  Well, almost all.

This is the Open Air Museum of Urban Art.  It's an underpass.
I'm not kidding.  It's an official museum.  Brazil once had a problem with graffiti, just like many other cities around the world.  But, at one point, you have to make a decision as to which battles are worth fighting, and in Sao Paulo, they decided that this one was not worth it.  Since graffiti has been embraced as art in this city, things have changed.  Now, an underpass is a museum.  And that's not all.

This is the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo.  Like many other galleries and museums in town, they have some graffiti art on display.  As a matter of fact, Sao Paulo is one of the most noteworthy places that you can visit to see graffiti art on display all over the place.
This is Batman's Alley.  That's the most common name for it.  It's also known as Beco do Batman.  This is an entire street or alley devoted to graffiti art.  It all started in the 80's when someone painted Batman on one of the walls of this tiny alley near Cemeterio Sao Paulo.  In the decades that have followed, the entire alley has been covered in some dynamic and beautiful graffiti art.  It is an open gallery, so it changes a lot.  Any two visits can mean completely different works.


You never know what you'll find.  How does it work?  Are there rules?  Well, as with any other artistic community, this one has some of it's own rules.  Technically, you are supposed to ask the artist of a painting before painting over it.  Does it work?  I don't know, but the art is beautiful and ever evolving.
In Sao Paulo you will find graffiti art everywhere, and it suits them well.  Brazil has long since been known for it's bright and vibrant materials, clothes, art, food, and everything.  Graffiti art fits right in.  It's a feast for the eyes wherever you go.

They even import it from out of the country to put on display.

The variety of styles, artists and locations are endless.  It makes Sao Paulo one of the most colorful and artistic cities in the world.
 This is a far cry from the things that you normally read about in Sao Paulo.  Normally, the most often written about thing in the city is the traffic.

This city is known for traffic jams over 100 miles long.

The perk to sitting in traffic is that the street vendors, which were just recently given their licenses back, will come to you.  You can buy virtually anything you need, from a snack or drink, to clothes and jewelry from the comfort of your car.  This is all if you have the patience and the time to bother to drive in the world's worst traffic.

Or you can go on the fly.  There are over 200 heliports in Sao Paulo, because some of the city's wealthier citizens have had enough traffic.  They just fly right over it.  Does that sound extreme?  Maybe, but since there is an extremely high standard of living in this city, it fits right in.  It's an amazing town.  I've read that you should try and make friends online or get a really good contact before you go there.  It is a primarily Portuguese speaking country.  The city of Sao Paulo has some of the largest groups of ethnic Japanese and Italians in the world outside of their native countries.  It's the biggest and the richest and the hardest to drive in.  That may make it sound like an undesirable destination, but it's not.  It also has some of the best ethnic food, shopping, and oh yeah, the art.

You won't want to miss it.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Christmas Story...From Russia

It's that time of year, when I take a break from recommending wonderful things to do around the world and instead, tell a story.  You all who have looked in on this blog over the last several months probably think that I am either never at home, or that I have never been anywhere.  Well, it's a combination.  I'm not as young as I used to be, and I don't get to globe trot as much as I used to.  I have dreams of going places and doing things, but I have also done some things that none of you have ever done or will ever be able to do.  I say that because they are some things that only happened once.
Above is a picture of Red Square in Moscow at Christmas time.  I do recommend going there to take in the excitement.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  First, because you can have Christmas at home and then take off and go for Christmas in Moscow.  Their traditional Christmas is on January 7th.  That gives you time to do the family thing and go to Russia.  Second, I recommend this because Christmas is new here.  Not truly new, but for 78 years it was not celebrated in public because of the Soviets.  January 7, 1992 was the first Christmas celebrated throughout Russia publicly in decades.
These were the decorations at the Kremlin for that first Christmas in 1992, and I was there.
I had been to the Soviet Union just before the August Coup, and I returned to see what things would look like after Communism.  It was primitive that first year.  There weren't a lot of Christmas lights all over the city, but there were a few well placed Christmas trees outside the Kremlin and on Arbot Street.  It was the awakening of a spirit.

They've come a long way.
So begins my story.  January 6, 1992.  There was a pretty good snow storm in the Moscow area.  The locals didn't think anything of it, because it was normally a lot worse.  I was traveling with a group of students around Eastern Europe, and we'd come to Moscow for the brand new Christmas holiday.
A group of law students from the University of Moscow asked me and my group if we would be interested in going out to a local village to help the local children learn about the meaning of Christmas.  We jumped at it.  We then sat on a rickety old school bus of sorts for four hours through the snow and the countryside in the dark to get to a village that I to this day do not know the name of.
When we arrived, we found a village of a couple hundred people who were all anxious to meet the Americans and see what we were like.  Most of them had never traveled far from home and it was quite an exotic experience for them as well as us.

The method of getting around at the time was mostly by skis for those people, and the building was part of a summer camp that the surrounding villages came to.  That was where we stayed for the night.  It was a lovely accommodation, especially since the weather got so bad that no one wanted to try and go back to Moscow in the middle of the night.
So, the first thing that we went about doing was meeting some of the people who lived there.  They were wonderful and so curious to see what our take on Christmas was.  They were prepared to teach us about how they rang in the New Year, but Christmas was a little bit fuzzy for them.
Everyone crammed into the building which turned out to be set up more like a school in America.  It had a gymnasium with a stage for plays and other performances.  We decided that due to the language barrier that we were all feeling a little bit, we would tell them about Christmas by doing a play.  We felt that even though we all spoke some Russian, the people there were frustrated because they spoke absolutely no English, and our Russian was probably awful.
We did our best to perform the Nativity for them, even though we had no set, and not much to use for props or costumes.  The good news is that they understood us and afterward we were able to show them references in their bibles.
We then set about trying to explain Santa Claus, which we discovered was the part that they had learned before we arrived and called him Father Frost, and then we sang some of our Christmas carols to give them an idea of American things.
The children of the village jumped right into the spirit of the cross cultural education and did a play about their local life, then they did some dances for us.  It was a wonderful way to spend the evening.
Now, it's rude to us to go to a Christmas party empty handed, so we'd all grabbed a toy in the city and brought it for the kids in the village for their first Christmas Eve.

Little did we know that they'd prepared a huge party for us to celebrate the holiday with the entire village.  There was a feast and presents and everything.  It was one of the most fun holiday evenings I've ever had.  We got to talk to everyone and through that language barrier we all did a pretty good job of getting to know one another.  The children were all excited, because it turns out that they thought that this was only going to happen once.  They thought that this was something that they were doing to celebrate the end of Communism.  When we explained that this was a religious holiday celebrated throughout the world every year, they were thrilled.  Their little faces lit right up and stayed that way the whole time we were there.
In this village they had a tradition.  Remember, we were there to learn too.  Since New Year's was on the 14th, and we would be long gone by then, the locals wanted to show us their New Year's traditions.  So, at midnight the locals in that village had a tradition.  You took a piece of paper and wrote down your regrets from the year past and your hopes for the year future.  Then at midnight they all took turns pitching them into a fire that they built outside in the snow.  Then, after you throw the paper in the fire, you're supposed to jump over it to leap from the old year to the new.  We gladly took part in that tradition and it was a wonderful night.  After that, we all danced around the fire until we were so exhausted that we had to go to bed.
In the morning everyone had come back to the building where we stayed and made a pancake style breakfast for everyone and the whole village.  They all brought their presents and opened them as a group.  It was one of the most touching Christmas mornings I'd ever been a part of.
Unfortunately, by noon it was time for us to go.  We were scheduled to go to Red Square for the first Christmas celebration that evening, and we didn't want to miss that either.  It was sad saying good bye to our new friends in the village.  They'd gone out of their way to make their first Christmas special for total strangers from America.  You don't meet people that outgoing and gracious very often.  I don't know who did the biggest favor that night, us or them.  I saw the looks on the faces of the children as we were leaving.  They really didn't want us to go.  In a way, that felt good.
It was very hard to leave that little face, although Anna probably has her own kids by now.
Travel is a wonderful thing.  Don't ever shy away from it, because you're afraid that you won't feel comfortable, or you won't like it, or you won't be able to talk to people, or you're afraid you'll get lost.  Embrace it.  If you never decide to take the plunge and do take that exotic vacation that you've always dreamed about to a place that is completely alien to you, you could miss something that only happens once.  I've always been glad that I went to that little village that day.  It's one of the few experiences that I've had that no one else can really have.  It's special to me, and I have and will always cherish it.
So, that's my story.
I still will say that spending a Christmas in Moscow is going to be an experience for anyone.  They're crazy about Christmas over there, because they were denied it for so long.  So do go and enjoy.
Merry Christmas!


The Canal of all Canals...Panama

Panama is one of the smallest countries in the world, but it's location has made it one of the most important, historically and one of the best known.  The map above is of it's canal, and the reason why this tiny land is so well known world wide.
It started out as a simple idea.  Instead of risking life and limb and wasting a lot of time going around Cape Horn to get to the west, make a canal that goes through the narrowest spot in the America's, and cut that time of travel dramatically.  How to do it was another matter entirely.  The French tried it in the 1800's, but they couldn't get it right.  After a lot of fuss, and a really long drawn out sometimes tragic history of construction, the canal opened officially on August 15, 1914.  Since then, it has been on of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and one of the most famous engineering feats as well.  It's sometimes been called the 8th wonder of the world.

The canal has a little bit of everything to see for the weary traveler.  There are locks such as the Gatun, Miraflores, and the Pedro Miguel Locks.  There are also dredged out natural waterways, man made and natural lakes.  There are some pretty impressive bridges along the way as well.  It's not all one kind of crossing.  It runs for about 40 miles across the isthmus of Panama.
Now that you know something about the canal, why am I suggesting it and what exactly am I suggesting?

While you're in Panama, take a day, buy a ticket on one of the ferries that runs day tour full transits of the canal and see it for yourself.  There are several tour companies that offer this tour.  It's a great way to see an amazing feat of engineering.  Not to mention, the scenery is beautiful.

You'll be surprised at all the amazing sights you'll see along the way.
Panama is one of those countries that you'll be glad you visited.  It's portrayed as a drug lord run wild west type of country, but that's not the whole picture; not even close.

Panama is home to several indigenous tribes who have stuck to the cultures and traditions over the years, despite the countries rush forward into the modern world with it's canal and all that comes with that from around the world.
The Kuna Tribe is probably the best known, because of their applique art.  The women of this tribe are known for their bright clothing made with bright hand sewn tapestries called Molas.  The tribe also will show you their day to day lives and you can enjoy some music while you're there.

The Embera Indians are more known for their body painting than their clothes.  They have some different traditions, and different clothes.  They also play different types of music, chant and dance a lot more.
Either way, you will find that a visit with an indigenous tribe is something that you will never forget.

So come down to Panama, and experience the amazing city life,
beautiful beaches,

rain forest,

indigenous peoples, and of course, the Panama Canal.

Traverse the major oceans of the world.  Go from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa.  Experience the Panama Canal for a day and have memories for a lifetime.

Lanzarote...The Spot for Riding Camels Around Volcanoes in the Canary Islands

Timanfaya National Park is one of those places that a lot of people don't think about, or don't know about.  It's an unusual place for a number of reasons, one of which is that it's in the Canary Islands.  The Canary Islands are just off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic.  The closest port on the mainland would be in Morocco.  It's known as a luxury playground for the Brits, but to the rest of us it's kind of a mystery.  It is a combination of tropics, volcanic activity, and desert tradition.  Odd combination, I know.
What would you come to these islands to do?

That's right.  You would come here to go to Timanfaya National Park and see the volcanoes and the magnificent lava sand land around them on camels.  The island is Lanzarote, and the camels are known as Dromedary Camels.  This is a tour and it only takes a day.  The land where the volcanoes are most amazing and beautiful can get very hot, so camels are the best way to travel on the area.  The camels don't leave an ecofootprint either, which makes the tourists happy.  A lot of people that come to the Canary Islands are strong on saving the planet, and the local companies are right there with them.  So, in some locations around the world, you would take an ATV or four wheel vehicle on this trip, but not on Lanzarote.

The area in Timanfaya is still very active in a passive kind of way.  There are no erupting volcanoes and there haven't been since the 1800's, but there are hot spots and geysers to remind you that Mother Nature could change her mind about it all any minute.

The surreal landscape is something that you won't soon forget.
You can drive through it, or more commonly done, take a tour bus.  The lava sand and the calderas will amaze you either way, but I think that the camel ride is more of an adventure.  Lanzarote is desolate, but beautiful.  It's unique in a lot of ways.  The volcanoes are fascinating.  The geysers are great.

Lazarote and Timanfaya also have some seaside lava tubes that are fun to explore.  There are boats and kayaks for an up close look at them.  They are all inactive, so they are safe and really cool.  It's that one more thing that puts the whole experience of Lanzarote over the top.
Now, Lanzarote is not the only island in the Canaries, but it is the desert and the place to see volcanoes.  This will not take up an entire vacation.  The Canary Islands are also known for their beautiful resorts, surfing, boating, diving, and many of the typical island activities that you hear of around the world.

In many places, it would resemble a trip to any island in the Caribbean.  So, it's not just for the hardy traveler who would like to ride camels around on desolate old volcanoes.  There's windsurfing and beach bumming to be done here.  There are plenty of bars serving Mojitos.  There are plenty of beautiful people relaxing and soaking up the sun.

But if you want something a little different, you'll love Timanfaya National Park.

And you'll love getting to know this guy.

Come and get away from it all on camelback.  Enjoy!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Frankenmouth, Michigan..One of the Best Christmas Wonderlands

Somewhere in there is Santa Claus, just waiting for all the kids to stop by and tell him what they want for Christmas.

Welcome to Bronner's.  This place is a Christmas wonderland all year long.  This is a great place to go if you want a really big Christmas experience.  Frankenmouth, Michigan is it's home, and the whole package is called Michigan's Little Bavaria.

Bronner's has been around since 1945.  It's the biggest Christmas store in the world.  They do everything up right all year long, not just at Christmas.  The place is unbelievable.  They offer 50,000 Christmas ornaments, and that's just the start.  It's a great experience.
But, the best part about Frankenmouth is that it isn't just Santa.  It's not like you would go hundreds of miles, see Santa and go home.
There's plenty to do, in the wintertime in Frankenmouth.
There are indoor water parks.

Big ones.

There's an indoor fun center, complete with mini golf.

You can take a horse and carriage ride, and so much more.
This town is set up for great family fun.  The German/Bavarian theme is all throughout the town, and they love Christmas there.  Thanks to Bronner's, the place is all set for Christmas year round, but at Christmas time, they still make it more special.  That's when it spills out of Bronner's and into the streets, making this little Michigan town one of the most festive places on Earth.

It's a beautiful place to be.

If you love Christmas, and you want to take your kids for the fantasy trip of a lifetime to see Santa Claus, Frankenmouth is your spot.  It's like a little trip to Bavaria, with indoor entertainment, and the world's biggest Christmas store in Bronner's.  Santa is the centerpiece from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve here, when he has to take off and deliver presents for all the children, young and old.  Come, take a carriage ride in the snow, eat some great chicken and wiener schnitzel, and take the kids to visit Santa and buy the best decorations anywhere.
I hope that you find your best experience for the holidays ever.  Frankenmouth is a good one.

So, head a little north from Detroit, not quite to Lansing, just east of Lake Michigan, but past all the dunes.  That's where you'll find Frankenmouth, Bronner's, Santa, and a winter wonderland of family fun.