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Archive for the ‘Experiential Travel’ Category

Jun
20

6 Most Beautiful Places to Take a Leap of Faith

Craving a rush of air, adrenaline and great views? Check out these stunning jump-off spots that will leave you breathless in more ways than one.

1. Bungee jumping at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Located between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world – so it should go without saying it is an ideal place to fall 111 meters with a cord attached to your ankles. We wonder if the fall’s namesake Queen Victoria ever felt the rush of plummeting off this waterfall? We guess not.

Image: On The Go Tours/Flickr

2. Base jumping from the Sky Tower, New Zealand

People from all over congregate to the 328m Sky Tower, distinguished as one of the tallest free-standing structures in the Southern hemisphere. Feeling the need for speed? This base jumping spot is the place for you – jumpers reach up to 85km/hr while on their way down. On top of this fast and extremely high fall, you also have to worry about wind entering your equation. Fortunately, base jumpers use a guide-cable-controlled to avert the jumper from bumping into the building.

Image: Andy Beal Photography/Flickr

3. Skydiving over Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Take skydiving to the next level by flying above one of the last active volcano regions in New Zealand. It is very popular for people to experience one minute of freefalling in this 15,000 feet drop. Also, if you are a skydiver on a budget, skydiving over Lake Taupo is known for low-cost jumps. We’re not sure if this is a good thing or not.

Image: Antoine Hurbert/Flickr

4. Hang gliding the mountains of Bariloche, Argentina

Hang gliding in Bariloche, Argentina is said to be an incredible experience any time of the year, but summer has been recognized as the truly best time.

Image: patrícia soransso /Flickr

5. Zip lining the treetops of Durango, USA

If you are an adrenaline junkie jonsing for the great outdoors, then it is time for you to zip line through the treetops of Durango, Colorado. As you travel high up amongst the trees, you can spot reptiles and birds from an incredible vantage point. Sounds like an ideal day to us.

Video: Gary Gaurdreau/Vimeo

6. Paragliding Babadag Mountain, Turkey

In October the small resort town of Oludeniz hosts an annual Air Games week for all the air lovers around the world. Located at the foot of Babadag mountain, be one with nature as you para-glide through the mountains, cedar forests and shores of the Mediterranean.

Image: babadag.com


Love this topic? Read the whole post on the NileGuide blog

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Jul
22

The amount of travel blogs has sky-rocketed over the last few years, each providing a unique and inspiring perspective on the world of travel. Among the most popular of these blogs are ones where families and solo travelers alike abandon their daily routines and nine to five jobs in favor of traveling the world for an extended period of time. I have yet to catch any of these blogs in their nascent form, to be able to see the inaugural post and watch as extended travel is planned, financed, anticipated and, eventually, executed.

Now I have my chance. Over Yonderlust is an up-and-coming travel blog from a twenty-something couple (Erica and Shaun) living in Austin, Texas, who are planning their first extended-travel journey to South America. Despite a fast approaching deadline of December 26th, Erica was kind enough to answer some questions about her upcoming trip.

Erica and Shaun from Over Yonderlust.Photo courtesy of Over Yonderlust.

Erica and Shaun from Over Yonderlust.Photo courtesy of Over Yonderlust.

You wrote in your blog that your family moved around a lot during your childhood. Did this feed your desire to travel the world? What other experiences or beliefs have driven you to forgo the proverbial “American Dream” in favor of a nomadic lifestyle?

I’m not quite sure that the moving around a lot sparked my wanderlust, but I do admit that it helped with not putting down roots where I am. Oftentimes this can be looked upon negatively, however, it definitely helps with a more nomadic lifestyle. Maybe one day I will find my “home”, but until then, it helps to be mobile.

My mom and dad got divorced when I was 8 so I grew up with a single mother who wanted to make sure we were set up to be “successful”. My mom always told me, “Mija, traveling is only for rich people.” or, “Mija, you need to stop being so independent, you’re scaring the boys away.” While I understand she was looking out for my “best interest”, what she didn’t realize is that her single motherhood philosophy taught me to be fiercely independent. At an early age I thought, “If it’s not working for her, or for so many people, why would I want to repeat the process?”

It wasn’t an instant thing, but a philosophy that has changed over the years. When Shaun and I went to Barbados for our honeymoon, it was then that the fever really took over.

How did you and your husband decide to travel through South America? What places are you most excited to see when you’re down there?

As a forewarning, this is a bit silly.

Shaun and I had wanted to visit Machu Picchu for quite some time. While we always discussed it, we never really made any solid plans. One day I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Ecuador and I thought, “Oh man, I would also really love to visit Ecuador.” And it slowly snowballed after that. “Well, since we’re down there we should visit Colombia, and Costa Rica, and Patagonia… and so on. Shaun is really laid back and honestly is down for any adventure so it wasn’t very hard to convince him.

How much planning is going into this trip? Do you have a tentative itinerary set up or are you two just going to see where each day takes you? Which countries are you definitely planning on visiting?

I am an OCD planner. I am using this trip to try and break away from my normal habits so we’re trying to be a little more flexible in how we plan. Shaun gets a big kick out of how frustrated I can get going by the seat of our pants. But we do have a very general itinerary:

We’re leaving on December 26th to Mazatlan, Mexico to go to my friend’s family’s wedding and staying at his house until after New Year’s sometime. After that we’ll take our time getting to Guatemala where we will be taking Spanish classes for a few weeks. We will then be heading to Honduras and getting SCUBA certified at a diving school there. After Honduras we’re making a beeline for Costa Rica. I think we’re going to try and rent a place for a month or so while down there. Shaun wants to learn how to surf so we’ll probably end up in a surfing town of sorts. After that we really have no clue. I think we’re going to wake up and say, “I’m ready to leave, let’s go to [fill in the blank].” for the rest of the trip.

I know we also want to hit Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and we’re debating Bolivia, Venezuela, and Colombia as well. Although, we have no clue how we’re getting from Costa Rica further south yet.

How have the people in your lives reacted to your decision to drop everything to travel to South America? Why do you think a majority of people react to others’ long-term travel plans in such an unsupportive or hesitant-to-support manner?

Our families have reacted a bit differently. My dad likes to brag about my adventures so he was super excited about our trip. Shaun’s mom/dad and my mom, on the other hand, want to be supportive but don’t know what to make of our decision. Shaun’s family has been through some crazy economic times over the past 10 years so seeing us just drop everything and ditch security for the unknown makes them very uncomfortable – and they make sure to let us know this. My mom wishes she traveled the world when she was younger so now that I’m living her dream as a photographer/traveler, I think she’s a bit sad about what she has accomplished. All of them are waiting for us to “grow up”, settle down, and have the pitter patter of little feet in our home.

I think people tend to be unsupportive because it definitely goes against the status quo. People like comfort and security. The fact we’re “rebelling” against it just brings up emotions of confusion and jealousy in some cases. I think how people react depends on where that person is in their life. We’ve gotten a million different emotions on our trip already and we’ve only started making some of the big jumps.

Can you give us a rundown of what you guys plan on taking on your journey?

We’re going to try and be as minimalistic as possible when it comes to packing. I’m going to take a 45L backpack (or less) and Shaun is going to do the same. I’m a real low maintenance girl so I don’t require much to be happy.

We haven’t set our packing list in stone but I’ll list what we do know:

•    MacBook Pro
•    2 Nikon D80s with 4 different lenses, batteries, etc.
•    2-3 pairs of pants/shorts
•    3-4 shirts
•    Undies and socks
•    Bathing suits
•    A pair of sandals and a pair of good shoes
•    Travel towel/sarong
•    First aid kit
•    As little as possible with soap, shampoo, etc.
•    Eyeliner and mascara (all I need)
•    1 dress
•    Rainproof jacket

If we need anything else I think we’re taking everyone’s advice and buying it while there.

In one blog post in particular, you described, at one time, being plagued with doubts. Are those doubts still in the back of your mind? If they are, do you think they will subside once you are actually in South America?

I still do have doubts about what I’m doing. Even though I officially had my last day at work recently, I still question if I’m doing the right thing.

I think that once we get going a lot of my concerns will be laid to rest. Shaun has been my psychological cheerleader in all of this and it has helped immensely. He has facilitated me leaving my job by putting in more hours into his. He’s awesome.

How have you and your husband financed this trip? What do you plan on doing if you run out of money and head back to the States with out a dollar to your names? Also, while we are on the topic of money, how do you think the travel blogging community is restructuring the way people view travel? [i.e. travel is not just for rich people]

Shaun and I have been saving every extra dollar we have had to put toward this trip. While we are still going to be paying on car and school loans while abroad, this is something we have taken into consideration with our budget. We make a conscious effort to only spend money on what is needed (no new clothes, no house, no new car, etc.). We also cut as many extra costs as we can in preparation of travel; but very few people are willing to make that sacrifice for the impending reward.

In addition to saving money, we are also supplementing our income by utilizing other skills. Shaun worked as a mechanic for several years, so he is offering his services to friends and family for donations. I am also taking donations for my photography prints to which the proceeds are solely going to the travel fund.

Right now the plan is to travel until we’re broke and head home. Shaun’s sister is super supportive and will let us stay at her place until we’re back on our feet. Luckily we have this buffer and plan to take her up on it. We’re also lucky that Austin wasn’t hit too terribly by the recession so getting jobs with our skillsets should be cake.

As for the travel blogging community reshaping the thoughts on travel, I think that they are doing a superb job. The only way to get ideas out and change the world is by sharing. I have already seen how our previous travels have inspired many people. I believe that by reaching out to more people in the blog world, it will make an even greater impact.

What inspired you to start a blog tracking your adventures and what kind of posts can your audience expect once you get to South America?

I currently have a personal blog that documents a self-portrait project I do so it made sense to also document something so near and dear to me. I had seen a few people do the travel blog thing and it definitely piqued my interest.

One of the main goals of my travel blog is to get some on the job training in regards to photography. It is one of my passions in life and I want to make sure that I can use the trip to my advantage. In addition to the posts about our experiences abroad as a couple, I will also be posting spectacular travel photos. Shaun will also be carrying a second Nikon D80 around so I’m very excited to watch him grow.

One quality that sets your blog apart from a lot of the other travel blogs out there is the fact that you’re not promoting solo travel. What do you hope your blog can teach people about traveling with others, particularly a significant other?

I did notice that I was in the minority when it came to couple travel. One of my main goals is to show people how important it is to travel with your significant other as this can help strengthen your relationship. I understand that there can be times of conflict while travelling, but I think that one of the most important things to learn in life and in a relationship is compromise. If you can’t compromise on a location, how can you expect to make long term decisions in the future?

I want to make sure that people realize how fulfilling and fun it can be with someone who is willing to share everything with you. We’re definitely not boring people and can keep up with the best of them!

Any far-off plans for another long-term travel adventure after South America? [Haha, I know you haven’t even left on this one, so this question is a little premature…]

Absolutely! We already have a million things planned after this. I’m not sure what we’re going to do next, but we have Southeast Asia, Egypt and surrounding, and Australia on our list. Too many places, too little time!

In one sentence, what is your travel philosophy?

To learn from our experiences abroad and implement them in our daily life.

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Jun
17

Even though yoga isn’t an activity that is necessarily synonymous with adventure travel, there’s something exhilarating about the thought of traveling to a foreign country to study and practice yoga. Yoga vacations and retreats are an increasingly popular way to spend those hard-earned vacation days, and there is certainly no shortage of options to choose from.

Yoga vacations and retreats are just as diverse as the people who practice. With a little determination and a lot of research, you can inevitably find a yoga vacation or retreat that is tailored to your needs; just make sure you are asking yourself the right questions.

Photo: lululemon athletica

Photo: lululemon athletica

1. What level of yoga are you currently practicing?
If you’re new to yoga or practice infrequently, chances are you won’t want to go on the 15-day intensive yoga retreat in the mountains of Nepal. Some retreats even require that you’ve practiced yoga for a year or more. Look for shorter retreats that specialize in instructing beginners. Also, picking a resort that offers a few yoga classes a day might be a suitable option if you are not ready to dedicate your entire vacation to yoga.

Check out: The Tides Zihuatanejo
Where: A Luxury Mexico Beach Resort in Zihuatanejo
What: Specialized sun salutations are offered daily and guests can book private yoga appointments—perfect for those who may be intimidated by a large class setting.
Why: Yoga isn’t the sole focus of this resort; there are many other activities to partake in, such as organic cooking classes, surfing, golf, fishing and zipline adventures.

For prices and more specifics, visit The Tides Zihuatanejo at www.tideszihuatanejo.com.

Plan a yoga vacation to Mexico on TravelMuse.

2. Where do you want to travel?
Yoga retreats and vacations are available in most places you can think of, so deciding where you want to go is an easy way to narrow down your options. If you live in the United States, don’t think you have to travel abroad to get an incredible yoga experience. In fact, some of the most celebrated yoga retreats are located stateside. If you’re looking to add to your collection of stamps in your passport, there are many exotic and incredible countries that offer amazing yoga vacations.

Check out: The Sewall House Yoga Retreat
Where: A quaint and celebrated retreat house in Maine that offers a personal and intimate yoga experience.
What: Daily morning Hatha yoga and meditation class and an afternoon Kundalini yoga and meditation class, with the option for an evening meditation. Three meals a day are also included. For those looking for a little excitement on the side, hikes, lake tours, massages and other activities are also available.
Why: The Sewall House encourages the exploration of self. Your free time is a great way to get even more out of your practice, through reading, journaling and exploring nature.

For prices and more specifics, visit The Sewall House Yoga Retreat at www.sewallhouse.com .

Plan a yoga vacation to Maine on TravelMuse.

3. What type of yoga vacation or retreat do you want to take?
There are many niches within the greater yoga community. If you are looking for a specific type of retreat or vacation, it’s pretty plausible that you can track one down. From women’s only retreats to yoga classes offered at resorts for gay men, the spectrum is wide and can provide you with another angle at which to approach your yoga practice. A popular retreat/vacation focus is on social contribution and environmental awareness.

Check out: Shreyas Yoga Retreat
Where: A retreat center in Bangalore, India.
What: A stay at Shreyas allows you the option to give back in the following ways: learn to cook, work in the organic agricultural garden or interact with local village school children.
Why: For those participating in the yoga retreat, the following is included: a wellness consultation on arrival, gourmet vegetarian meals, twice daily group yoga classes, daily group chanting / sound meditation class, use of all recreational facilities (pool, Jacuzzi, steam bath, gym), personalized yoga instructional classes, personalized Pranayama class, personalized meditation class, personalized yogic Kriya and a rejuvenation massage.

For prices and more specifics, visit Shreyas Yoga Retreat at www.shreyasretreat.com.

Plan a yoga vacation to India on TravelMuse.

A couple other questions to consider are is there a particular teacher who you’ve wanted to learn from and what style of yoga do you prefer practicing. Undoubtedly, a number of questions will arise when planning your yoga excursion, but regardless of where you end up, it’s bound to be a rewarding and memorable experience.

Namaste.

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Aug
18

Transportation Options in Guatemala by Nicole Fancher

What’s the safest, most reliable way to get around a developing nation like Guatemala? That was my question this past June when I traveled to the Central American country with two friends. The answer, to my surprise: there are a variety of exciting ways!

Guatemala’s transportation infrastructure is well maintained and expansive. You can take a Greyhound-style bus to just about anywhere along the main arterial routes. We took a six-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast for about 65Q (US $8) and experienced only very brief stops, comfortable seats and on-board Spanish-dubbed movies.

For long-distance travel, choose one of several bus lines. Two of the best: Litegua and Línea Dorada.

Another common and safe way that visitors choose to travel is via private shuttle, available to book through all hotels and hostels. Fare is generally more expensive, but you’ll get curbside drop-off and a faster ride (US $12 to $15).

(Important Safety Note: Taking the municipal buses within Guatemala City is absolutely to be avoided. Robbings and murders of bus drivers have been rampant in recent months and years. Take a safe, metered taxi for travel around the capital, and have the address of your destination ready to give to the driver.)

Other fun, cheap ways to travel in Guatemala:

  • Chicken bus: These old school buses from the United States are transformed in Guatemala, painted in bright colors, given names like “Rosita,” and are packed with way too many people and, more often than not, chickens. Great for short-distance travel between towns. Rates vary depending on how far you’re going (15Q to 35Q in general). Note: Hold tight to your belongings! Pickpocketing is common.

3361146582_f7df40d717_m.jpgPhoto: Dancingnomad3

  • Tuk Tuk: Small, golf-cart-style cars that seat three people in the back, and get to a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. Negotiate your price before you ride—be aggressive!

3406166714_10b52d1f63_m-1.jpgPhoto: meckhert

  • Lancha: There are many lakes and rivers in Guatemala, and traveling between the watery communities often requires taking this exhilarating, speedboat ride, which also offers a fresh view of your surroundings. Extranjeros (foreigners) are usually charged more, but try to barter your fare down.
  • Hitchhike: It may sound like poor advice, but really, it’s a common form of transportation in Guatemala. Drivers will often pull over and simply ask if you need a ride. When I hitchhiked, I was traveling with my girlfriends and four people we’d befriended at our hostel, and felt totally safe. The story: We were waiting for a chicken bus to come along to take us to a sightseeing spot several miles up the road, but a giant flatbed semi truck came along first, so we flagged it down. We hopped in the back, and each grabbed hold of one of several stout wooden posts that stuck up around the truck’s edge, and went barreling down the dirt road to our destination. Best hitchhiking experience—ever.

Have you ever traveled within Guatemala or elsewhere in Central America? Please share your experiences.

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May
07

Kama’aina Speak: Key Hawaiian Words and Phrases

The destination features this week on TravelMuse are Honolulu and Oahu. Two of our writers—[Jennifer Hwang|http://www.travelmuse.com/authors/jennifer-hwang] and Dana Young—share below some language tips that may come in handy on your next Hawaiian vacation.


“Howzit Brah? Where you like go grind? Ovah deah, get plenny ono grinds fo’da money!”

Confused? Don’t be. Just know that during a vacation to Hawaii, you might end up hearing locals using a language that sounds like English but is more difficult to understand.

Aloha-Oahu.jpg

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson

Here are some key words and phrases that will help you translate local-speak, aka Pidgin English. But keep in mind—there’s nothing that bothers Kama’aina (locals) more than when tourists mispronounce or misuse the local lingo. There are a few words everyone can embrace, and visitors can easily add them to their lexicon. As for the rest, they’re really more for the locals—and in one case, use at your own risk. (For more phrases, check out Peppo’s Pidgin to da Max (Bess Press, 1981) by Douglas Simonson.)

Safe for Visitors to Say

Aloha — Hello, goodbye. It also captures the Hawaiian spirit.

Mahalo — Thank you.

Howzit — Slang for aloha (hello).

Howzit Brah — How are you, friend?

Brah, Bruddah, Sista or Cuz — What you call a peer. For elders, use Aunty or Uncle.

Ono — Good.

Laters — See you later.

More for the Locals

Grinds — Food as in “Brah, you like get some ono grinds.”

Choke — Awesome, as in “Cuz, da waves stay choke!” Also means a large amount.

Brok’ da mout — Broke the mouth. Really tasty (food specific).

Brah, you like beef? — Do you want to fight?

Chicken skin — Goosebumps.

Talk story — Relax and chitchat.

Holoholo — Go out, as in “you like go holoholo tonight?”

Any Hawaiian words and phrases you care to share? Leave them in the comment section below!

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Oct
21

Getting a Glimpse of Guanaja

I just returned from two weeks on Guanaja, one of HondurasBay Islands. Aside from enjoying plenty of hammock time, great views of wildlife (spotted eagle rays, dolphins, ospreys, magnificent frigatebirds), island food, tropical sunny weather (and some spectacular evening thunderstorms), and visiting friends, I had some interesting “beyond tourist” moments that I want to share.

Anyone can have a “beyond tourist” moment on vacation, and it doesn’t even require getting out of the resort (although it’s nice to do so, in order to see how the locals live). Just spend time talking to the people who live in your destination and get to know them a little. Since I’ve been visiting Guanaja for more than 10 years and own property there, I’m regularly doing things like grocery shopping for myself, buying plants from the local nurseryman and chatting up locals in the bank line.

guanaja+main+street

Here’s a glimpse into the island of Guanaja that the guidebooks don’t cover:

•    While I was shopping in Casa Sikaffy, one of the island’s largest grocery stores (that’s smaller than your average 7-Eleven), the lights suddenly went out. First thought: power outage. Nope. The owner’s sister walked up to me and explained, “There’s a funeral, and the body just passed in the street outside, so we turned the lights out for respect.” The street that she was referring to? A pedestrian walkway that’s only 7-feet wide.

•    Guanaja’s a relatively small island with limited infrastructure. Plastic recycling is something it hasn’t been able to tackle in a realistic way, until now. An ex-pat friend, Mike, showed me the island’s new “bottle crusher,” which takes piles of plastic bottles and presses them into large squares—ready to transport to the mainland for recycling. It’s a great way to get trash off the streets and beaches, and money into the pockets of islanders.

•    I had the chance to talk with a gentleman from one of Guanaja’s families that date from English settlement times, in the early 1800s. Mr. Borden is 80, and he told me about all the property throughout the island that he’s owned over the years. While it’s certainly an overstatement to say that he’s owned the entire island, his property holdings have covered a large amount of territory. It was a pleasure to hear about what Guanaja was like in the “old days” when there were few people, no electricity and the fishing “industry” consisted only of families fishing for their dinner.

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Aug
16

My Beijing trip has been very different from my usual visits to Asia, or elsewhere for that matter, where I pick a new destination and try to immerse myself in its culture and offerings while having a lot of down time to digest everything around me. Instead, this past week has been all about sports: getting to and from Olympic events, going to sports pubs to watch the Games on TV, getting into Olympic parties, figuring out if we can snag tickets to just one or two more events.

Well, duh, I did come over here to attend the Games.

I’m not sure whether because my focus has been on sports, or because I’ve previously spent a lot of time in large Asian cities, but I’ve noticed fewer major cultural differences that stand out compared to previous travels. Or is this the result of continued globalization and 21st century communications?

Nonetheless, here are a few things that definitely caught my eye the past week.

– Waiters want to serve you … fast. When seated in restaurants, the waiter hands you a menu, then stands and waits for you to order. It’s a little distracting and uncomfortable and makes you rush through the items (or at least it causes me to), which increases the chance of ordering errors—such as when I thought I had selected shredded chicken for lunch one day when I actually had inadvertently ordered chicken feet.

– Lines are kind of useless. I’ve experienced this in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, but it’s really noticeable in population dense Beijing. Doesn’t matter if you’re standing right behind a person buying a subway card, in front of the door of the train, going through a security check or trying to buy an entrance ticket to a venue, someone, or several people, will inevitably push you aside and get ahead of you. Accept this beforehand, and you’ll keep your cool longer.

– Big brother is watching. Security checks, police and cameras are everywhere, including every subway stop. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put my day-pack through a scanner and had it subjected to hand searches where every zipper and pocket was gone through. Much of this is because of the Olympics being in town, surely, but also saw a statistic in the China Post the other day that New York City plans to add 3,000 security cameras around town while Beijing currently has 30,000 of them keeping an eye on things.

– People don’t let anything go to waste. While this is not specific to China, the people here give utility and recycling a new name—which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. This topic can be broken into subcategories:

Food. As has been well documented over the years, no part of any animal goes to waste (see chicken feet, noted above). Rodents and insects are at risk of being turned into dinner dishes as well. Even cooking oil is reused.

Recyclables. People on the streets collect paper for recycling—you’ll see wheeled carts piled sky high with discarded cardboard and other paper-based products being pulled down the street by individuals; others carry around large bags full of plastic bottles and come up to you on the street while you’re drinking from one, and wait for you until you’ve finished, then ask for it.

Electricity and water conservation. In the apartment building I’m staying in, lights in the lobby and hallways won’t go on unless you whistle or make a loud noise, then they go off automatically after a few minutes. This is common in many of the new high rises going up all around the city, I’m told. Individuals also will repurpose water—if washing dishes, they’ll collect the water in the basin when finished and use it to water plants, or collect water coming out of faucets while waiting for it to warm up and use that for cooking, hand washing or, again, watering plants.

– Children are allowed to relieve themselves in public. While this practice is not encouraged, I was told that it’s common to let kids go whenever and wherever they happen to be. Sure enough, the day after I heard about this I was walking through the Tiananmen Square subway stop during rush hour when I noticed a father balance his young daughter over a grate in the floor of the walkway while her mother lifted up her dress and the little girl squatted to do what she needed to while crowds rushed past. (No, I did not take a photograph.)

– Kite flying. People love it here! Any time I’ve been near a park, I just look up and will see dozens of dots in the sky. People go all out and buy big colorful and multi-tiered kites to soar over the city. When I see them it never fails to put a smile on my face.

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Aug
10

Upon arrival at the beautiful new terminal at Beijing airport, we were greeted by costumed Fuwa characters (dolls of blessing), the five cartoon figures that are the official mascots for the Beijing Games, one for each ring of the Olympic symbol. They are named for prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good fortune.

Fuwa+airport2.jpg

I’m not prone to appreciating cuteness, but couldn’t help but smile at the figures, especially since so many passengers, particularly the kids on my flight (there were many), ran to get their pictures taken with the characters.

Transport

Express Train

If you’re traveling solo, the easiest way to get to the heart of Beijing is to take the Express Train. For 25 RMB (roughly $3.75), you’re just one or two stops from the city center and transfer to the Beijing subway system. The train is new and the cars are state-of-the-art with electronic signage in Mandarin and English, air conditioning and smooth, smooth rails.

Subway

The subway system is super easy to use, clean and safe. New required bag checks, using x-ray machines similar to those found at airports, began a few weeks ago. And security cameras are everywhere. Three new lines opened just a few weeks ago, one of which is the line I use (Line 10) for the apartment I’m staying in. Each ride costs 2 RMB ($0.30).

China has stationed Olympic helpers on each train, if not every car, and throughout each station, so if you have any questions, someone who knows English is there to help. There also are groups of official Olympic helpers stationed throughout the city on streets. They sit in groups of three or four and wear official t-shirts and arm bands. They’re located not just in the main tourist areas but also throughout the city, even in random residential areas where there doesn’t seem to be much foreign foot traffic.

Taxis

So far all the taxi rides I’ve taken have been with my friend Maggie, who speaks Mandarin, so I haven’t had to try to give directions yet. The rides are cheap: The most we’ve paid for a fare has been about $7 or $8 for a cross town jaunt. Will have to try a solo trip soon and let you know how it goes…

Air Quality

No doubt about it, the air is thick and hazy. Woke with a massive sinus headache day one, but day two am okay. The image here was taken from a rooftop Friday evening, about 30 minutes before sunset.

Hazy+skyline.JPG

This shot is as clear as it’s been since I’ve arrived. From what I’ve read and heard, it’s a vast improvement over conditions four or five years ago. Yikes! The funky shaped building in the picture is the CCTV (China Central Television) headquarters.

Energy of the People

What’s been really terrific is the overall excitement and energy in the city for the Games. The nation as a whole is extremely proud and happy to be the host of the 2008 Olympics, and it shows just about everywhere. Those volunteer info guides I mentioned earlier? About 10 times the number of people (500,000) needed applied for the available positions (50,000). There are several sites with large screens set up for people who couldn’t get tickets to events to watch the Games. The couple I’ve passed have been packed with locals.

Everyone has been extremely friendly as well, which isn’t a surprise since that was my experience several years ago when I traveled through Southeast Asia for eight months. Asian hospitality is hard to beat. Whether I’ve been walking down a street or sitting on a bench in a park, people will walk by and smile and say ni hao. When trying to order food, buy something in a store or, say, drop a jacket off for dry cleaning, they’re very helpful and so far have understood my travelers sign language, just as I’ve begun to understand theirs.

Breakfast.JPG

Will dedicate an entire post to food later in the trip, but for now here’s a shot of me enjoying a breakfast treat from a local street stall in South Chauyong, the section of Beijing I’m staying in: re bing (meat and egg cake), with jian bing (pancake, egg, onion, sesame, sauces) on the counter. Tasty!

Okay, am off for a new day of exploring. Next posts will cover my first tourist scam encounter (I knew it was happening and happily played along), peaceful Ritan Park, the hip lounge Bed, Tiananmen Square and watching the men’s basketball game (U.S.-China) in a crowded Beijing sports bar.

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