Archive for the 'Travel' Category

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On the Border

I thought I saw down in the street
The spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.

– Al Stewart

According to physicists and astronomers, the Universe has no boundary. It’s not infinite, but it has no end or edge.  Beyond the Universe there is no time, and if there is no time, there is no “there” there.

Back here on Earth (a sphere with no boundary), we have plenty of borders. Boy, do we.

Prior to the Roman Empire, there weren’t any real borders. Nation states had a hazy understanding of how far their influence extended, but the “border” was usually a natural obstacle like a river, mountain range or forest. With such porous borders, people moved freely if they had the inclination. Greeks and Parthians and Celts came and went, thither and yon.

Then came Rome. In order to maintain a statistical grasp of their empire, the Romans established borders. Some were hard, some were soft, but the borders of the Roman empire were strictly observed. It helped keep the tax structure logical, kept the serfs in one place and controlled unwanted migration.

Border patrol, ca. 65BC.

The outcome of war defined the edges of the empire and many a Roman administration fell when territory was lost. Such changes required cartography,  and maps created a whole new way of looking at the world. Romans even began issuing “passports” to people seeking to traverse the empire.

Border enforcement became the quintessential definition of a nation. You could have all the kings and lords and slaves you wanted, but if you had no border control, you were just a tribe. By the early Middle Ages, borders described the civilized world, from Spain to China.

Nowadays, borders are observed so closely that Croatia is still bickering with Slovenia over a 1.5 mile stretch of salt marshes. They cannot join the EU till it’s settled, and there is no end in sight to the disagreement. Canada and Denmark are in protracted arbitration over a teeny tiny shitbag island off the coast of Greenland.

Disputed island is tiny dot inside red circle. KILL! KILL! KILL!

Borders have become a theater of the absurd.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States.

People used to love visiting America. We have all kinds of cool shit and a tolerant and friendly population. But since 9/11, we’ve made sure visitors feel as unwelcome as possible. First, even if a visa isn’t necessary, you have to register 72 hours before arriving. You’ll be assessed a $14 entry fee, $10 of which goes to (now get this) promoting foreign tourism.

At the airport, you’ll be isolated and questioned. Better not fuck that up, or you won’t be getting on the plane. Of course, you are subject to an invasive search and you can’t carry on a carton of juice or other such terror weapons. When you arrive, you’ll be questioned again and fingerprinted. Joy.

Europeans have grown weary of the new Stalinist approach to American borders and have stopped visiting by the millions. After all, there’s a fucking Disneyland in France nowadays. Why bother with America?

What 21st century international tourism looks like.

Of course, our neighbors to the south still come to America in droves – some legally, some not. And believe it or not,  visits from the Middle East have gone up while visits from Europe continue to dwindle.

America just isn’t fun to visit anymore. And since we’ve clamped down, other countries have seen fit to return the favor. Brazil now requires visitors to be fingerprinted – but only American visitors.  And Canada? Oh my God, Canada…

Don’t get me wrong: I love Canada. I’ve lived in spitting distance of the US-Canada border for 17 years. I love British Columbia and Vancouver is my favorite city in all of North America. But since 9/11, crossing the border into Canada has gone from fun to trying to exasperating. Why? Because we’ve done even worse to Canadians visiting America, and the Canadian authorities feel we deserve a taste of our own medicine.

"Children of a Common Mother" - and both are brats!

The Peace Arch stands on the border between between Blaine, Washington and White Rock, BC. Its capacious open gate signifies the history of the world’s longest undefended border. A border of peace that extends from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  A border whose 200 year history is slowly unraveling in a heap of bureaucratic stupidity.

Visiting Canada used to be a lark. We’d load up a car and head north to see some rock show or weird movie that wasn’t showing in the States. The Canadian guards would glance at a driver’s license, see the Bellingham address, ask us when we were coming back and wave us into the land of maple syrup and fuzzy toques.

After 9/11 turned Americans into a bunch of paranoid pussies, things started changing at the border. Canadians coming to Bellingham to buy gasoline and TV sets started getting hassled. The Border Patrol would tear their RV’s apart, searching elderly Asian Canadians for bags of dope or pipe bombs. Canada responded in kind by requiring local Americans to carry either passports or birth certificates. No more waving ’em through with a drivers license. Cars were searched and any hint of profiteering on Canadian soil was investigated with ruthless efficiency.

Don't try to visit Canada in this. Really.

Rock bands touring the west coast all but gave up on doing shows in Vancouver. The border guards and customs agents made their lives a living hell. If you plan on performing in Canada and (God forbid) selling a T-shirt or a CD, you better bring an immigration lawyer with you.

Eventually, the fascism at the border started affecting yours truly.

It started when I had to go to my company’s sister office in Vancouver to calibrate a bunch of gear. I had all my stupidly expensive calibration gear with me, along with a laundry list of all the items, signed by our logistics manager. Not good enough, apparently. I needed actual sales invoices of every device, every cable and every probe. After all, I could be trying to sell oscilloscopes in Vancouver’s underground nerd market.

After much animated debate, I was allowed to pass, but from that day on Canada had my number. I was persona non-grata in the border database. Each successive visit became increasingly burdensome, until I just gave up and stayed away.

Then, last June, I found a camera bag online I really wanted to try. I could drive to Seattle or cross the tiny, quiet border at Abbotsford, BC and visit a Canadian camera shop to check out the bag. With my well-stamped passport in hand, I headed north.  Little did I know what I was driving into…

Portal of Peace or Gate to Hell?

At the border, the guard asked the usual questions and I responded earnestly and honestly. I was heading to SevenOaks mall to buy a camera bag.

“A camera bag? Can’t you buy that at home?”

“In Seattle, yes. But it’s much farther away and I like visiting Canada.” (big smile)

“Pull over there.”

Smile FAIL. I waited at the drug-check area until a guard took me by the elbow and led me inside. I was asked to step away from the line while my passport was scrutinized. After 10 minutes, I was called to the window.

“Ever been arrested, sir?”

This is the big one. Americans visiting Canada with ANY arrest can be turned away. No conviction – just an arrest is enough to get you booted back to the USA.

“No.”

This was, in a legal sense, true. When was 20 years old, I got into a legal disagreement with the State of New Jersey regarding an insignificant amount of banned intoxicants. I was given probation and a fine how-do-you-do. Because I really wanted to live an honest life, I paid a lawyer a princely sum to have the disagreement expunged from my record. It was expunged forthwith. But it wasn’t expunged from Super-Secret FBI records, which left me in a pickle at the Canadian border.

“When did you leave New Jersey, sir?”

It was so long ago – a lifetime ago – that  I wasn’t exactly sure.

“Hell, I think I was 22. Or 21. I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?”

“That was over 25 years ago. Geez. If I had to guess, I’d say I was 21. That would have made it around 1985. Wow.”

“Wow, sir?”

“Yeah, wow. That was a LONG time ago! Before you were even born!”

The young guard smirked. That was  a bad move on my part.

“So you’ve never been arrested? Not convicted or anything – just arrested. Never?”

I remembered what my expungement lawyer told me.

“No, never.”

“No DUI?”

“Certainly no DUI. No arrests at all.”

With that, I was led to the “guilty fuckers” area while high-ranking border guards started to swarm around my passport. I thought about what a drag it would be to go back to Bellingham with my tail between my legs, sans new camera bag. I thought about it for a long time.

After a good 20 minutes of careful consideration, I was called back to the window.

“Enjoy your stay, sir.”

I was free to enter Canada and spend ridiculous amounts of money on fancy camera bags. But all the joy was drained from me. I knew damn well that Canadian shoppers suffer from this crap more often and more brutally than us Americans, but that didn’t lessen my sense of disenchantment. Canada was dead to me.

Enjoy it while you can, kids.

I harbor no ill will toward Canada. I adore Canada. I would love to live there and wear a furry cap and eat poutine and trash talk Americans. Short of that, I’d love to visit there as often as I could, watching movies at their fancy megaplex, day tripping in Gastown, winking at pretty Chinese girls on Davie and Robson, dodging junkies on Hastings and watching the amazing international fireworks competition from Stanley Park. Canada: I love you.

But my love is unrequited. I have no intention of going back unless I have to. I have become the European disenchanted with America. I have become the Russian no longer welcome at a Greek resort. I am persona non-grata, all because of a superfluous legal disagreement I had over 25 fucking years ago.

Oh, Canada, where did our love go?

Just remember this, Canada: you’re not the only one that I enter. Oh, no. There’s plenty of others.

Regular readers know that last September I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I crossed from Croatia into the Serb-held territory of Bosnia known as Republika Srpska. This is an antagonistic ethnic enclave, a festering sore of ethnic hatred whose very existence was nearly snuffed out in 1995 by repeated American attacks on their army as well as merciless bombing of their historic capital, Belgrade.

And here I was, an American, heading across their border. The guards looked at my shiny blue passport, shrugged and let me in.

That’s right, Canada. It’s easier for this American to enter a nation that we nearly bombed out of existence a scant 15 years ago than it is for this American to enter Abbotsford, BC to buy a camera a bag. Think about that, Canada.

Maybe one day, our respective governments will come to grips with our neuroses and return to the days of mutual admiration and respect. I look forward to that day. Until then, I’ll be driving my sorry ass to dreary old Seattle. They may not have gleaming green skyscrapers and pretty girls in lush public parks, but they won’t treat me like a Russian at a Greek resort.

My Balkan Summer Vacation

View from atop Doboj fortress, Republika Srpska

When my friends travel to Europe, they typically go to the west: UK, Ireland, France, Spain or Italy. Sometimes, they might visit Germany. If they’re really adventurous, they’ll try Norway or Portugal. Me? I’m fascinated with eastern Europe, and specifically the ex-Yugoslavia.

It’s a unique place. It was a communist country, but unaffiliated with the Soviet Union. It leans West but speaks a Slavic language.  It has beautiful landscapes and bustling cities. And of course, it was recently embroiled in a hideous series of wars.

While gawping at bullet-ridden buildings and artillery-burned houses may seem interesting, it wears thin pretty quick. I didn’t go here to see how badly the place was affected by war. Instead, I went to see how well the region is rebuilding.

You want ruins of war? They got 'em. But they're boring.

I wanted to see the legendary mountains of central Bosnia. I wanted to see the noisy streets of Sarajevo. I wanted to see the walled cities and the stunning coastline of Croatian Dalmatia. I wanted to see something beautiful, not something ugly. If Germany could attract visitors in 1960, why can’t Bosnia attract visitors in 2010?

The Bosnian and Croatian landscapes are hauntingly beautiful, as are the Bosnian and Croatian women. More and more folks are finding Bosnia to be the next gem in the Balkans (after Slovenia and Croatia). It’s still split along ethnic lines, but signs of warming continue. I am convinced that today’s Bosnian youth will be the peacemakers that unite the country.

Croatian kids fooling around in Dubrovnik.

This year’s travels took me and my travel buddy Mike to central Croatia, across the border to Republika Srpska, through central Bosnia, then south back into Croatia, where we enjoyed an amazing journey up the Dalmatian coast.

We’ll look at each stop, then I’ll add a slideshow of some of my best photos at the end. Here we go!

Zagreb, Croatia

A quiet moment in Zagreb's Jelačić Square

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and was our official ingress/egress point. It’s a cosmopolitan city, a working city. You can find touristy stuff, but for the most part Zagreb is a staid, stately city in the central European mold. Watching folks emerge from trams and wander off to their workplaces reminds me of Prague or even Vienna. While much smaller, Zagreb has similar architecture and its people are similarly disposed.

I really like Zagreb.

Osijek, Croatia

Osijek's traingular main square.

This town surprised us. We planned to use it as a convenient crash spot after a day’s drive, but rather than bore us as a middling provincial capital, Osijek impressed us as a cool, modern town. I was surprised by the huge number of young people everywhere. Fact: fresh young faces really brighten up a place. You can idle in the Centrum, walk along the riverfront with its many pubs and clubs, or gawk at the three centuries of architectural history on Ulica Europska. I wish I had more time to spend in Osijek.

Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Muslim girls getting awesome fountain photos.

Tuzla is the second-largest city in Bosnia. When Marshall Tito was still running Yugoslavia, he turned it into an industrial city, replete with nuclear power plant. The plant is still running and while the long, ugly industrial strip leading into the city may be a turn-off, the city itself is surprisingly neat and very busy. Prices are cheap and life is good here. Signs of ethnic integration are everywhere despite the horrors of the recent war.

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Sarajevo peeks out from morning clouds.

Bosnia’s capital is known to everyone as “war-torn” Sarajevo. This is unfair. In 1960, was Hamburg, Germany called “war-torn” Hamburg? No? Then shut the fuck up.

Sarajevo is a jewel of a city. Successive waves of leaders, architects and civic engineers created in Sarajevo a fantastic blend of bold Ottoman design, stately Viennese solemnity and crass modern excess. You’ll find Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs living together peacefully (for the most part) as they have for centuries in this Neopolitian mix of cultures. Sure, resentments still linger, but Sarajevans seem more interested in creating a better future than dwelling on an awful past.

Our guide showed us the city sites and took us into the mountains for a celebration of small-scale organic farming at a tiny Bosniak village. Mike and I were treated like honored guests at this place, and I will never forget the kindness and good humor of these people – people who had lost everything and now struggle to get back a piece of what they once had.

Don’t write off Sarajevo as “war-torn”. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful and inspiring cities.

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Mostar's famous bridge, all fixed up.

I am ashamed to admit that we treated Mostar like everyone else does: as day trippers with no interest in staying long. Mostar deserves better. Its famous bridge was built in 1567 and was, at the time, the widest man-made arch on Earth. It stood for 427 years, until the Croats destroyed it with artillery fire in 1993. After the war, divers retrieved as much of the original stone as possible and the bridge was rebuilt brick-by-brick in the exact same design as the original.

The bridge is very beautiful, as is Mostar itself. Its old town has stunning stonework and a compelling skyline. Unfortunately, the old town is also crawling with day trippers, most arriving by bus from Dubrovnik. They bring lots of money for trinkets and lunches, but they also poison the environment by being…day trippers. I think Mostar is a romantic place, and lovers everywhere could do worse than spend a weekend there.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Holy. Freaking. Crap.

Dubrovnik is among the best-preserved walled medieval cities in the world. Imagine Venice without the canals, and you’ll get an idea of how strikingly beautiful this place is. As the center of the Ragusan maritime empire, Dubrovnik carefully danced between Venetian, Ottoman and Hungarian domination.  Their independent streak continues to this day.

Mike and I scored a hotel with a huge veranda just outside the eastern gate. It was fucking fantastic! Of course, being the jewel of the eastern Adriatic means lots of tourists. But unlike Venice, the circus of humanity was more of a crowd than a crush. I felt comfortable walking the city and I got a bazillion amazing photographs.

Before you die, see Dubrovnik. Period.

Split, Croatia

It's good to be the retired emperor of Rome.

Split, the second biggest city in Croatia, is famous for two things: the palace of Roman emperor Diocletian and the soccer team Hajduk Split. Diocletian’s palace is an enormous walled complex and I was happy to score a hotel within the palace walls. It isn’t often you can walk out of your hotel and turn the corner into a scene like the one above.

We hired a tour guide for the palace area. She was wonderful and informative and patient with my photo-crazy ass. After the tour, I took a hike into the enormous park that rises high above the city. I was rewarded with a sudden rainstorm, but I kept my spirits up by drinking lots of espresso and avoiding loud Americans.

Split was another surprise, like Osijek. It was much more beautiful and interesting than I had expected. One day, when I’m rich, I’ll build a villa just north of Split and live the good life.

Zadar, Croatia

A beautiful city on a beautiful day.

Few people are hip to Zadar. Most Europeans know the place exists, but few Americans have ever heard of it. It’s not a tourist mecca like Dubrovnik and it’s not a famous capital like Sarajevo. Instead, Zadar sits quietly on the Adriatic Sea, minding its own business. And business is good, considering that the city was all but cut off during the recent war.

Zadar has plenty of Roman, Venetian and Austrian history for tourists, but the city seems more interested in its core: being a powerful maritime port city. They’ll take your tourist dollars, but they’d like it better if you opened new offices here and maybe parked a yacht or two. If you need to site your import/export business on the Adriatic, Zadar would like to have a word with you. And you should listen because this city is pretty damn cool.

Gallery

Here’s some photos from the trip. Enjoy.

Click on image to cycle through the slideshow.




Hotel Hell

How was your stay?

Hotels are a highly personal service. Unless you’re separating from a spouse, you usually prefer the familiarity of home to the strangeness of a hotel. After all, where the hell are your slippers and why is it so awkward to turn the lamp on?

Hoteliers go to great pains to make their rooms as generic as possible so the largest number of people will feel secure. They want you to enjoy your stay – not because they like you, but because they can’t afford to have bad feedback hurt future business.

Well, most of them want you back. But not all of them.

Like most young people, when I was a 20-something adventurer I was more than happy to stay in any crappy Motel6 or hostel that saved me money. Now that I’m older, I’m not as forgiving of crappy beds, noisy neighbors and clogged drains. I can’t afford Presidential Suites, but I won’t abide roach-filled crap-holes, either.

My hotel requirements are somewhere between these two.

As a middle-of-the-road hotel customer, I have the most daunting task when booking hotels. Let’s face it: the two opposite sides of the spectrum are easy to find and easy to book. The huge middle bulge of the market is harder to gauge.

Respected guidebooks like Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s are helpful resources and are generally trustworthy, but a nod from them usually means the suggested hotels are fully booked unless you plan way ahead. I use these guides as…guides. They are helpful, but are not my sole sources of information.

To avoid Hotel Hell, I employ a multi-pronged method of attack: geographical/online/published.

Geographical

It’s the oldest saw in real estate: the three most important aspects are location, location and location. Download and install GoogleEarth and check the More > Place Categories > Lodging button. Now when you zoom into a city, little bed icons will appear that have weblinks.

Here’s a test: we want a mid-priced hotel in Prague for late September. GoogleEarth: ENGAGE!

Hotel Rott! Sounds good!

I moused around the central district and clicked on the first one that looked well-located. It linked to the hotel website. Looks like they’re having some specials in late September! Double-rooms for €100! That’s about $130 a night! Not bad for a 4-star hotel in a European capital in summer!

Online

Of course, their website shows beautiful rooms and glowing descriptions of the property.  For all I know, the place is actually a vermin-riddled dump run by a troglodyte.  What’s the web say? Tripadvisor has a solid 4 dots out of 5. Most people from around the world liked the place, while a couple Americans bitched about stupid stuff that reflected more on them than the hotel.

So far, the Hotel Rott is looking good.

The Rott: rotten or a riot?

How do I know the TripAdvisor 4/5 is earned? Maybe the Hotel Rott staff stacked the numbers with fake reviews.  Booking.com, hotels.com and Virtual Tourist produced similar results. One common thread: the staff had a tendency to tack on charges during checkout. This isn’t good, but it’s something that can be overcome by verbal threats and intimidation.

So, it passed the Internet test. By a little red pubic hair, but it passed.

Published

So, what do the snobby experts say? Well, the Hotel Rott didn’t make Frommer’s and didn’t make Fodor’s Choice, either. This means they’ll never make the Michelin guide. Lonely Planet is a stupid waste , so we’re at a crossroads here. We’ll have to weigh the following:

Pro:

  • Cool 13th century building
  • Perfect fucking location
  • Reviews are good, mostly 4/5
  • Prices seem OK

Con:

  • No established expert opinion of the place
  • Some visitors complained of being gouged

Conclusion

If I had my druthers, I’d book this one.  Its location is spot-on. You can get roaring drunk in Wenceslas Square  and stumble right into your hotel, no problem. The building is attractive and historic. According to reports, it may suffer from some street noise and the staff may try to renege on billing, so you must bring earplugs and a binding agreement at check-in. Not too hard.

I hope you enjoyed this object lesson in avoiding Hotel Hell. If you have any comments, add them.

What you'll get when you ignore my advice.