American Samoa, Disaster News and Travel

The beautiful pre-tsunami Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa
The beautiful pre-tsunami Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa

If you have been paying attention to the news the last several days, you have probably heard about the tsunami which struck American Samoa. If you are also like most people, you have heard absolutely nothing about American Samoa in the news, maybe your entire life. Most Americans are probably not even aware that American Samoa is a territory of the United States, that they have a non-voting representative in Congress just like Washington DC, or that they have the highest percentage of people who enlist in the military of any state or territory in the US.

I don’t blame you if you don’t know these facts. Honestly, there is little reason to know them. I bring them up only because American Samoa is one of many places which are totally invisible to everyone until something bad happens. Afterward your perception of that place is forever tainted.

Many people are scared of traveling because the only thing they know about foreign countries is what they see and hear on the news. The news from American Samoa is microcosm of what is happening all the time, but is so subtle we are seldom aware of it. If the news involves a war, killings or terrorism, the impression which is left in the minds of people is even worse.

I write this because I’m one of the few people who have actually been to American Samoa. Samoa (both American and Western) is a beautiful place with some of the most generous, peaceful people you’ll ever meet in the world. Despite their fame in football, rugby and professional wrestling, most Samoans would never hurt a fly. When I see the photos coming out of American Samoa I’m not just looking at pictures of devastation, I’m seeing places that I’ve been. When I heard the news I had an idea of what might have been damaged and where. The shop I purchased my lava lava from might have been damaged, the restaurant I ate tuna sushi in was probably destroyed, and the McDonald’s near the industrial park was probably not touched at all. My perception is probably really different than yours because I’ve traveled there.

My point is that you should always keep in mind, a place is not the sum of the stories you hear on the news. Prior to Monday, people lived, worked, raised families and died in American Samoa and no one heard a peep about it on the news. Now most people only know it as the place that was hit with a tsunami. Whether it is a natural disaster, civil war, murders, riot or famine, don’t let your opinion of a place be formed solely by the headlines in the news.

Point Roberts, WA: America’s Appendix

Satellite image of Point Roberts
Satellite image of Point Roberts
In 1846, the United States and Canada signed a treaty to finalize their border. It set the 49th north line of latitude as the border from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota/Manitoba to Puget Sound in Washington/British Columbia. As part of the deal, the British were able to keep Vancouver Island south of the 49th parallel. For the most part the border worked as advertised, except for one thing. Just below Vancouver there was a bit of land on the tip of a peninsula which dipped below the 49th parallel. As per the terms of the treaty, that hunk of land was United States territory and today is Point Roberts, Washington.

What makes Point Roberts is that it is totally cut off from the rest of the United States by land. To get there, you have to drive 30 miles through Canada. The total size Point Roberts is only about 4 square miles and it has a population of about 1,500 people. It seems to have created a niche for itself as a place for Canadians to get cheap gas and to set up post office boxes to get mail which can’t be shipped to Canada. Despite its small size, Point Roberts has five gas stations and four places where you can get a post office box outside of the actual post office.

Welcome to America!
Welcome to America!
Given its proximity with Canada, there are several things you’ll find there you will not find anywhere else in the US.

  • All of the gas stations quote prices in liters, not gallons (the lady working the counter where I purchased gas said that 60% of their business was from Canada).
  • My iPhone was unable to pick up an ATT signal, so if I wanted to make a call I had to pay international roaming charges, even though I was in the United States.
  • The cash registers I saw were able to handle both US and Canadian currency on the fly. I’m told Canadian currency is used more often than American currency in Point Roberts.
  • The physical border has no fence. The backyards of houses in Canada literally emptied into the US. I saw swing sets, gardens, and hammocks a few feet from the border line with nothing between it and America.
  • That small curb is all that is stopping an Al Qaeda horde from storming across our border
    A small curb is all that is stopping an Al Qaeda horde from storming across our border
  • There is a special card locals can get for getting through the border with no hassle. Residents of Point Roberts have to go to Canada for almost everything, and everything has to come through Canada.

There is one other hunk of American soil you have to drive through Canada to get to, and that is at the other end of the 49th parallel border: The Northwest Angle in Minnesota. I went there several years ago and the border is even less controlled than Point Roberts. You see a sign indicating you are entering the US and a video phone booth you are supposed to use to contact immigration. The phone didn’t work when I was there.

Point Roberts is truly America’s appendix; a tiny dangling, vestigial leftover of a time long forgotten.

3,127 Miles Later

I arrived in Vancouver today after grossly underestimating how long it would take to get to here from Banff. It wasn’t the distance so much as the roads and how fast you can go on a winding mountain highway. I also ended up pulling over to sleep for an hour in the middle of the day because I was so tired from driving. I’ve never had to do that before.

The Canadian Rockies are beautiful, especially Lake Louise. Trying to take photos when you are surrounded by mountains can be challenging because the sun is either blocked by the mountains, or shining right down on everything. I had to schedule my visits to a few places just to make sure I was there when there was quality light.

The license plates in British Columbia say it is the most beautiful place on Earth, and I don’t think I can argue with that assessment too much. The drive through the Fraser Valley is, in my opinion, one of the best drives you can take in North America.

In Alberta I was able to visit three more World Heritage Sites: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Dinosaur Provincial Park, and the Canadian Rockies. This puts my total of World Heritage Sites visited since March 2007 at 98. Numbers 99 and 100 should be Olympic National Park in Washington and Redwood National Park in California.

From Vancouver I’ll be heading south by way of Victoria Island, then taking the ferry to Washington, head over to Seattle and then go south to Portland, Crater Lake, Redwood and San Francisco. I’ll then take a trip to Yosemite and probably drive to LA before arriving in Las Vegas for Blog World Expo. If you are in any of those cities, let me know if you’d like to meet up when I am in your town.

Putting the ‘Gary’ back into Calgary

I’m in Canada now. I crossed the border next to Glacier National Park yesterday and stayed the night in the burgeoning metropolis of Fort MacLeod. Today I’ll hit up two World Heritage Sites nearby: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Dinosaur Provincial Park. I should arrive in Calgary sometime on Saturday. I’ll be leaving Calgary and visiting Banff on Monday and should arrive in Vancouver on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Glacier was absolutely beautiful. It is probably my favorite national park in the US so far. The only thing that could have made it better was timing the time of day I was in certain parts of the park to improve the lighting.

The border crossing was a bit more involved than past crossings I’ve had into Canada. They made me get out of the car and asked me a bunch of questions, whereas in the past they would just wave me through. I haven’t been paying attention to the Canadian exchange rate, but it is up compared to what it was a few months ago. It is around US$0.93 to the Canadian Dollar.

My photos are starting to back up so I’ll need to take a break at some point to catch up. I hit a point in Glacier where I ran out of space on my memory cards so I had to pull out my laptop along the side of a mountain road just to get the photos off the camera and free up some space.

If you are in Calgary or Vancouver or any points in between and would like to meet up this week, please contact me. Email or a message on Facebook is probably the best way to get a hold of me.

June in Paris

June in Paris
June in Paris
During the course of the last two years, I’ve met countless people. Most have been completely forgettable and some have been what Tyler Durden in Fight Club called “single serving friends”. Someone you might talk to for an evening or hangout with for a day and then you and them go your separate ways. At best you might friend each other on Facebook. Most probably, you will never see or hear from them again. There is a good chance you never even got each others names.

Most of the people I meet I never mention because there isn’t really anything to say. Some like Arun in Oman, Peter in Cairns, Susan in Fiji, and others deserve special mention. As it is usually the case now, most of the people I meet are readers of the blog or follow me on Twitter. Occasionally, however, I meet someone special, totally unexpected and out of the blue. That was the case in Paris when I ran into June.

June admiring the water lilies
June admiring the water lilies
June just happened to be standing in front of me in line for tickets at Versailles. If there had been another person between us in line, I never would have met her. The line was exceptionally long and after some point we started up a conversation. June is Chinese and immigrated to Australia several years ago to pursue her masters and PhD, which she recently completed. She is currently teaching at the University of New South Wales and spent three weeks traveling around Europe. Paris was her last stop. The day I left Paris was the day she flew back to Sydney. Like most Chinese who have to deal with westerners, June is not her given name, (real Chinese name is Zhiqiong) but most English speakers can’t pronounce it properly, so I’ll stick with June.

After getting our tickets and standing in line for 90 minutes, we ended up spending the rest of our time in Versailles together taking photos and just chewing the fat as we walked around the gardens desperately trying to find out where and when the water show was taking place. (we ended up missing it). After that we took the train back to Paris and ended up getting dinner at a French/Vietnamese fusion restaurant with her friend Gordan who was also from Australia and who was in Paris for a conference. She poured us water while explaining that in China it is the woman’s role to pour water for the men, which of course made us both pour water for her later on which she didn’t object to at all.

The line we avoided by walking up the Eiffel Tower
The line we avoided by walking up the Eiffel Tower
We agreed to meet up again the next day at the Eiffel Tower at 10am. Avoiding the enormous long lines for the elevator we walked to the first and second levels of the tower and eventually went up to the very top. After visiting the tower we crossed the river and had lunch near Avenue President Wilson where we talked about China. She was an attorney in China before moving to Australia and I learned more about China during an hour of lunch than I had on the rest of my trip, even though I think she was frustrated trying to explain things to me at times.

After lunch we walked towards the Louvre and visited the Musée de l’Orangerie to look at Monet’s Water Lillies and had a chocolate crepe with banana. Afterword, we headed to the subway and we each went to our respective hotels. I didn’t have a cell phone so she couldn’t contact me and I couldn’t contact her. I was kicking myself for not arranging to meet up with her for dinner that evening.

And that was it.

Total time from running into her at Versailles to parting ways in the metro was bout 30 hours. It was a friendship with the lifespan of a mayfly, and sadly it couldn’t have been any other way. If circumstances were any different, even slightly, we never would have met. If I had taken 30 seconds more in getting from the train to the line in Versailles, we would have missed each other. If she had stopped to pick up a coin, she would have been in a different spot in line.

The most memorable things you experience when traveling are the things you can’t plan for. You can check off all the places in your guidebook, but the things you will remember most are the ones which are the result of serendipity.

The Quick and Dirty Guide to American National Parks

Mount Rushmore National Monument
Mount Rushmore National Monument
This guide is for both Americans who are looking to explore their own country, and for those from outside of the US who are looking to make a trip to America. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but it should answer some of the obvious questions and give you a place to start your planning.

The National Park System

Parks in the United States can be very confusing. Every level of government has their own parks. Cities (Central Park in New York), states (Redwood State Park in California) and federal (Yellowstone) all have their own park systems. The National Park System is a division of the Department of the Interior and is responsible for the 391 locations in the National Park System.

Entrance to Wind Cave National Park
Entrance to Wind Cave National Park
They should not be confused with the National Forest system which is run by the Department of the Agriculture (yes, trees are viewed as a crop). National Forests are often run like parks but with important differences. They usually are not as developed for tourism, often allow hunting and fishing and limited firewood gathering. National Parks seldom allow hunting (none that I am aware of), and does not allow the collection of firewood and rocks. The National Park Service also manages historical sites as well as the city park system in Washington DC.

Park System Naming Conventions

The National Park System includes not only national parks, but monuments, historic sites, battlefields, recreation areas, preserves, seashores, lakeshores, trails, scenic rivers, and other designations. Officially, there is no difference between the titles given to locations. Unofficially, locations given the designation of “National Park” are usually considered the premier destinations in the system.

Sometimes a site might be upgraded from a preserve or monument to the status of a park. Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge was upgraded to a national park in 1978, for example.

Ellis Island National Monument
Ellis Island National Monument

What Is And Isn’t In The Park System

Many of the famous landmarks in the United States are not part of the National Park System. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign in LA, The Smithsonian Museums, Mount Vernon, and Monticello are not part of the park system. The decision process of what is and what is not part of the park system is often a matter of politics. Only a few block from Independence Hall in Philadelphia is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. Who is Thaddeus Kosciuszko you ask? Exactly. It was basically a bone thrown to the Polish-American community.

There is a National Park Service location in every state and US Territory including Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Crown Jewels in the Park System

You are probably aware of the top attractions in the park system. The big three are usually considered to be The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. After this, there are a large group of second tier parks which outstanding in their own right, but just don’t get as much attention. These include: Death Valley (CA), Galcier (MT), Denali (AK), Rocky Mountain (CO), Grand Teton (WY), Zion (UT), Sequoia (CA), Arches (UT), Great Smoky Mountains (TN), Acadia (ME), Everglades (FL), Volcanoes (HI), and Olympic (WA). You will notice that all but three of these (Acadia, Everglades and Smoky Mountains) are located west of the Rocky Mountains.

On a related note, most of the major historic sites in the park system are located in the east: Statue of Liberty (NY), Independence Hall (PA), Gettysburg (PA), Valley Forge (PA), National Mall (DC), Gateway Arch (MO),

National Park Passport and Season Pass

One other thing should be noted. You can purchase a small passport book in any bookshop in the park system. You can then collect stamps (rubber stamps with ink) at every park service location. It is great fun for kids and adults. I’ve collected over 100 stamps so far in the 10 years I’ve been doing it. In fact I’ve purchased three books because I’ve been to locations and forgot to bring my book. While I have read of people who have visited every national park, it is something which would be difficult for most people to achieve in a lifetime.

You can also get a year pass to every national park location for $80 per year. If you do a lot of traveling it can quickly pay for itself. Each entrance to Yellowstone for example is $25 and most large parks have some sort of entrance fee. Some parks do not have an entrance fee but do charge for parking, which is not covered by the pass.

Conclustion

With 391 locations in the National Park system, there will probably be something in the area no matter where you travel in the US. Take the time and do some research before you make a visit. The US National Park system is arguable the best in the world and worthy of exploration.

Historic Center of Siena

World Heritage Site #72: Historic Centre of Siena
Historic Center of Siena: My 72nd UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for the Historic Center of Siena:

Siena is the embodiment of a medieval city. Its inhabitants pursued their rivalry with Florence right into the area of urban planning. Throughout the centuries, they preserved their city’s Gothic appearance, acquired between the 12th and 15th centuries. During this period the work of Duccio, the Lorenzetti brothers, and Simone Martini was to influence the course of Italian and, more broadly, European art. The whole city of Siena, built around the Piazza del Campo, was devised as a work of art that blends into the surrounding landscape.

Siena is an easy train ride from Florence. I spent the day there taking photos and strolling around the city. While it is definitely touristy, it is a far cry from the tourist levels you will see in Florence or Venice. In addition to the center of town, the cathedral and side streets are also worth exploring.

Overview

Historic Center of SienaSiena is a city belonging to the Tuscany province of Italy. It is also the capital of the Siena province.

The historic center of Siena is recognized by UNESCO as an important cultural heritage property. Hence, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy in 1995. The historic center is not only recognized for its cultural value but also a notable tourist attraction. In fact, it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Italy with more than 163,000 international visitors in 2008. It is a city famous for its medieval cityscape, cuisine, museum and arts.

How to Get Here

The Historic Center of Siena is located the heart of Tuscany and is surrounded by several other top destinations in Italy such as Pisa and Florence. Hence, it is easy to get to Siena for those who would like to explore this UNESCO property.

If you are coming from outside Italy, you need to take a flight to Aeroporto di Firenze in Florence or Galileo Galilei Pisa Airport. From the airport, you can take a bus or coach transfer service to the nearest train station with a route to Siena.

Historic Center of Siena

If you travel by train, you can do so from Rome, Pisa or Florence. But if you want a more convenient ride, you can chose to travel by bus since the train station in Siena is located 2 kilometers outside town. Hence, it will take some more travel from the train station to get to the historic center of Siena.

If you plan on taking your own car, you need to know that the historic center of Siena is a car-free zone. Therefore, cars are not permitted in this part of town.

About the Historic Center of Siena

Historic Center of Siena

The historic center of Siena is known for its culture and arts. It is also known as a university city and is popular for its cuisine. Its location is the primary reason for its popularity; being located amidst the Tuscan hills, you can get spectacular landscape views.

Cliché as it is, the Siena that is frequented by tourists now seemed to have stopped its time. It feels like walking into a time machine and going back to the 13th century, a time when Siena flourished. This is also part of the reason why UNESCO recognized it as a world heritage site since it was able to preserve its heritage and cultural identity.

According to the UNESCO listing, Siena is the perfect “embodiment of a medieval city”. During the height of its success, it competed with neighboring cities such as Florence and Pisa in terms of urban planning. Over several centuries, Siena has retained its Gothic appearance from the 12th and 15th centuries. Indeed, the works of the Lorenzetti brothers, Simone Martini and other notable artists within the town of Siena were highly prominent in the city. In fact, these works of architecture not only shaped Siena’s identity as they blended in with the surrounding landscape but also influenced much of Italian architecture, as well as the rest of Europe.

The historic center of Siena features a distinctive Gothic style with a notable Sienese arch to it, due to the influence from the Crusaders. Eventually, the Sienese arch was evident in the town planning and architecture that were developed during the Renaissance era. To this day, the medieval character and distinctive style of Siena is still evident. It was undeniable the kind of impact that Siena had during the Middle Ages in terms of how other Italian cities approach art, architecture and town planning. For this reason, history buff tourists will be in awe at how visiting Siena would make you feel like going back into time.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

World Heritage Site #71: Piazza del Duomo, Pisa
Piazza del Duomo, Pisa: My 71st UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa:

Standing in a large green expanse, Piazza del Duomo houses a group of monuments known the world over. These four masterpieces of medieval architecture – the cathedral, the baptistry, the campanile (the ‘Leaning Tower’) and the cemetery – had a great influence on monumental art in Italy from the 11th to the 14th century.

Most people have heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but most people have no idea of the context of the tower. It is actually just the bell tower for the Pisa Cathedral. The entire cathedral complex is as impressive as the tower. The cathedral is a mishmash of old bricks from previous buildings and has strong Arab influences. The best part of going to Pisa, however, is watching tourists take photos of themselves trying to hold up the tower.

Overview

Piazza del Duomo, PisaThe Piazza del Duomo in Pisa is one of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is located in Pisa within the province of Tuscany and was inscribed in 1987. The monumental cathedral and leaning tower of Pisa is famous worldwide. Hence, it does not come as a surprise that UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site. It served an important purpose in the ancient world being a civic center; to this day though, it continues to be an important part of Pisa and is also one of Tuscany’s most famous tourist destinations.

The duomo is also known as Piazza dei Miracoli or Piazza of Miracles. It is unique from all other piazzas in Italy because it is not paved but rather consists of grassy field that is dominated by three of the city’s most monumental architectural features: 1) Pisa Cathedral, 2) baptistery, and 3) campanile. You will learn more about the history and function of these three structures below.

History

The Piazza del Duomo, Pisa is a unique attraction in Italy as it is home to four grandiose Medieval architectural structures. In fact, the architectural style is so unique that it gave birth to a new style called “Pisan Romanesque” architecture. Historically, the cathedral complex is located near a river port. The central location was specifically location and was used to showcase the grandeur of Pisa during the epoch in which it was built and founded.

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

The whiter-than-white structures are recognized for their unique beauty and style. The Cathedral is made up of five naves with a transept and is surrounded by a splendid dome. Meanwhile, both the lateral sections of the cathedral’s façade feature elaborate decorations made out of marble. In the panels of the cathedral, there are some Arab influences that were interspersed here and there.

One structure that is also located within the property of Piazza del Duomo is The Camposanto. However, this structure got damaged during the World War II. It offers a picturesque scene and is located right across the Piazza. The site is actually a cemetery but the beauty of the structure is undeniable and the architecture impressive.

What’s in Piazza del Duomo, Pisa?

The UNESCO site of Piazza del Duomo, Pisa consists of three important and culturally valuable architectural structures. You can learn more about each structure below:

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

The leaning tower of Pisa is the most notable structure within the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa. It is also one of the most visited by tourists who like to take the famous shot of the leaning tower. It is a freestanding bell tower that stands behind the Duomo. It is also the third oldest building within the Piazza. The tower started to lean soon after it was constructed in 1173. The tower took 199 years until its completion.

The Duomo

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

The Duomo is located at the heart of the piazza. It is a medieval cathedral that was designed by architect Buscheto. The Duomo was constructed in 1063 but was completed by 13th century. Even though the tower is most notably known for its leaning structure, this cathedral is also actually tilted. However, the tilt is not as noticeable as in the tower.

The Baptistery

This Romanesque building within Piazza del Duomo, Pisa is the work of architect Diotisalvi. It was constructed in mid-12th century and was completed by 14th century. The Baptistery is the largest of its kind in Italy and was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

All three of these structures and their respective functions were merged into one. However, they continue to be recognized as individual structures and as individual entities.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

Oh Dakota! Update On My Tour of the West


Buffalo in Theodore Roosevelt NP
Buffalo in Theodore Roosevelt NP
I’m writing this at a Taco John’s with free Wifi in Sheridan, Wyoming. The last several days since I left Minneapolis have been busy. Very busy. My days have consisted of driving, taking photos, editing photos and sleeping. Today I’ll be crossing the Big Horn Mountains and should arrive in Yellowstone in the later afternoon.

Despite the hectic schedule, I’ve seen a lot of amazing things. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota I was able to gets some great closeup photos of bison, mule deer, prairie dogs and wild horses. It is a really under appreciated National Park and one which I’ll be writing more about soon.

Mule deer buck at sunset
Mule deer buck at sunset
From North Dakota I traveled south to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The drive was really interesting as I was able to get off the interstate and get a much closer look at the farms and prairie of the western Dakotas. In the Black Hills I did the obligatory pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore and drove through Custer State Park and visited Wind Cave National Park. I also was able to get some great photos of cowboys on horseback herding buffalo in Custer.

The biggest thing for me so far has been being able to take wildlife photos. This is something I’ve never been able to do well, and honestly, I still don’t think I have the lens to do it properly. All my photos have been taken near my car and on the road because my lens only goes to 200mm and isn’t very fast. I’m hoping I can add some elk to my collection in Yellowstone.

I’ll be in Yellowstone/Grand Tetons for about 4-5 days before heading up to Glacier and then to Calgary/Banff. So if you are in Calgary and would like to meet up, you can sort of figure on me being there in about a week.