Traveler Sunday: The Lost Girls

This website has been close to 100% Gary-centric since I started it. I don’t accept many guest posters and I don’t write about things which don’t pertain to what I’m doing or places I have been. I take all the photography and I write almost all the articles. Hell, I don’t even run advertisements.

Surprisingly enough, there a lot of great stuff going on around the inter-webs which has nothing to do with me (shocking I know). In particular, bloggers and other travelers who are doing great things and launching exciting projects. I’ve been thinking how I could better integrate what they are doing into my blog and I’ve finally settled on devoting every Sunday to other people. I’ll be doing reviews, interviews or other profiles of bloggers and travelers who I think are doing great things and who I think everyone should be aware of. There is no shortage of interesting travelers and exciting projects which are being launched, so I should have no problem finding something to publish.

The first travelers and blogger which I am going to feature are the Lost Girls: Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner. The three friend from New York set out in 2006 to travel around the world. Continue reading “Traveler Sunday: The Lost Girls”

Return to Thailand!

I’m back in Thailand!

Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I’d be leaving the country when I took off for Niagara Falls/Seattle/Hawaii. I had entered a competition for bloggers to visit Thailand for medical tourism and I sort of forgot about it. Just before I arrived in Hawaii I was notified that I was one of 12 finalists and would be flown to Thailand.

…and here I am!

The trip is sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to increase awareness of Thailand as a medical tourism destination. The 12 bloggers drew lots and were sent to various locations throughout Thailand: Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Phuket, Bangkok and Ko Samui. I drew the most medical intensive trip in Bangkok and traded with a woman who works in the medical area for the trip to Ko Samui. I’m not complaining.

I’m writing this in Ko Samui where I just landed about an hour ago. I’ll be here for three days before returning to Bangkok.

Every time I’ve been in Thailand I’ve considered going to the dentist here or look into getting LASIK surgery done on my eyes, so this was a decision to come here and check it out. At a minimum, I’ll get my teeth cleaned while I’m here.

Also, because I’m here, I’ve decided to just stay in Thailand for a few weeks to do some of the work I was going to do in Hawaii. I’ll be here until the middle of December when I will start to work my way back to Wisconsin to be with my family for Christmas. I’ll be returning via Tokyo, Honolulu and San Francisco.

If you are in Bangkok the next few weeks, please drop me a line.

8 Facts You Might Not Have Known About Hawaii

I’m in Honolulu this week so it is time for my next installment of 8 Facts You Might Not Have Known:

Oil Slick from the USS Arizona
Oil Slick from the USS Arizona
  1. The USS Arizona is still leaking oil. Sunk on the December 7, 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona has been leaking oil for almost 70 years. The leak is obviously small and the fuel tanks were full when the ship was sunk. No one has any idea when the leak will stop.
  2. Hawaii is growing every day. About 55,000 dump trucks worth of new Hawaii are being created everyday from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Since 1990, 540 new acres of land have been added to the Big Island. The vast majority of the new volcanic rock ends up in the ocean and falls to the sea floor. There is in fact a brand new island being created under the water off the coast of the Big Island, called Loihi. It will rise above the ocean surface in about 10-100,000 years. [*] [**]
  3. Hawaii boasts 11 different climate zones. Because of the mountains on the islands, precipitation and temperature can vary dramatically over short distances. On the big island alone you can find rainforests, deserts, grasslands and even an alpine climate on top of Mauna Kea. The east side of the Big Island averages 20 inches of rain per year and Mt. Waialeale on Kauai averages 486 inches a year. The record high temperature in Hawaii (100F, xC) is the same as the record high temperature in Alaska. [*] [**] [***]
  4. Continue reading “8 Facts You Might Not Have Known About Hawaii”

The Futile Quest for the Authentic Experience

One reason people claim travel is to have an “authentic experience”. They envision traveling to a foreign country and living, eating and doing the things which locals do in their native culture. I have exchanged emails with people ready to set out on a long adventure who see themselves living with tribespeople in the African bush or in South East Asian villages.

Most likely, they are in for a disappointment.

The problem stems from the expectations people have before they go. The experience they are looking for is more often than not a stereotype they have of the place they are going, not reality. When I was in Samoa, I was talking to a woman from New Zealand who had been driving around the islands. She sounded disappointed and a little bit upset that Samoans had television sets. She lamented the destruction of the Samoan lifestyle and blamed it on western countries. She then went on a rant about how wonderful it was being able to live a self-sufficient life in a village.

A Samoan FaleI pointed out the inconvenient fact that Samoa is not in fact self sufficient in food. No Pacific country is. The most popular foods are instant noodles and corned beef. The biggest part of the Samoan economy are remittances sent back home from Samoans living abroad. The current population of Samoa would be almost impossible to sustain by methods used in the 19th Century.

She got upset and ended the conversation.

She had an idea of what Samoa was, and more importantly, what she thought Samoa should be.

Her Samoa was closer to the Samoa of the 19th Century or the Samoa of Margaret Mead. She was denied her authentic cultural experience because Samoans (how dare they!) were watching TV and using electricity. Samoans just weren’t Samoan enough for her.

Even though she would never state it as such and would bristle at the accusation, she wanted Samoa to be a cultural zoo where she could go and look at the locals doing their cultural thing.

The problem, of course, wasn’t with Samoa, it was with the woman. She believed several fallacies which infect many travelers from western countries.

These beliefs include:

The myth of the noble savage

This was explained in great detail by Steven Plinker in his seminal book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Their belief holds that prior to the arrival of western civilization, people everywhere lived in peace and harmony with each other and with nature. This is far from the truth. If anything, even despite the horrific wars of the 20th Century, humanity has become more peaceful over time. Early humans were very warlike and did their damnedest to harness nature, which was the biggest threat to their survival. They just didn’t have the tools to do the damage we can. Sun Tzu didn’t write the “Art of War” as a thought experiment. It was estimated that prior to the rise of civilization and agriculture, 60% of males in some regions could expect to die at the hands of another person through warfare, murder or execution. Mass burning of land was a common way to flush out animals. People in developing countries are neither innocents nor scoundrels. They are just like anyone else.

Applying Different Standards to Other Cultures

South Korean McDonald'sWhen an ethnic restaurant opens up in a western country, that’s diversity. When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, that’s cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn’t it good for others? Preservation of culture is considered an asset when practiced by other countries, but a liability when practiced at home. There are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Wendy’s and KFCs….COMBINED. I don’t think anyone is worried about a Chinese cultural takeover of America. A few McDonald’s and Starbucks overseas is hardly an invasion. Author Rachel Laudan noted the response by one of her Mexican friends who was criticized for serving Italian food; “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”

Confusing Modernization and Westernization

Through the power of guns, germs and steel, the first part of the world to modernize was Europe and North America. As other countries modernize, many people confuse this technological advancement with becoming more western. In the above example, Samoans have TV, but they mostly still live in traditional fales and have strong village and family ties. Japan is a fully modern country, yet it is most definitely not western. Technology isn’t culture. While there are some groups that resist technological change, the vast majority of humanity has quickly grabbed at any innovation which will make life easier. The classic modern example is cell phones, which have found their way to some of the poorest and remote places on Earth.

Japanese Temple

A static view of history

If you take a very long view of human history, it can be thought of as nothing but a flow of people, ideas, and cultures. Empires rise and fall. Religions come and go. Trade routes open and ideas and technologies are exchanged. The clothing, dances, and music of a country can really be considered fashions and fads of a particular era as much as pillars of particular cultures. The design of the Ming Dynasty in China is different than that of the Chin. When you hear the traditional music of a people, that music may only go back a few hundred years, if even that far. The arrival of Buddhism in SE Asia dates back to about the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Prior to that Hinduism was dominant. When you visit a monastery in Thailand, you are not seeing something which has been there from time immemorial, you are viewing something with a definite beginning only a few hundred years ago. Expecting everyone you meet in a country to be wearing traditional dress is like expecting everyone in the United States to be wearing stovepipe hats and bonnets. Cultures and tastes change over time.

Taking photos too literally

Ever see a photo of a thatched bungalow on stilts over the water in a turquoise lagoon? It makes for a great photo and many people fantasize about staying in an over water bungalow. They are a marketing gimmick. Water bungalows are not authentic in the slightest. They were created several decades ago as a way to attract tourists. What the photo doesn’t show you is that you very well might be sleeping over mud when the tide goes out (with the corresponding dead fish smell), or that the bungalows probably have killed all marine life below them because they block sunlight. I have spoken in the past of travel porn. What you have to keep in mind is that just like porn, what you see is often fake. Don’t get your heart set on it.

White Man’s Burden

Kids in Sarawak, MalaysiaYou will be hard pressed to find anyone who would explicitly say there is a “White Man’s Burden” in the 21st Century, but you can find tons of people from Jeffery Sachs to Bono who think “we” westerners can solve the problems of Africa and other poor parts of the world. There is a belief that with the correct policy, plan or organization we can solve the problems of other people. The emotional desire to do something in the face of extreme poverty is understandable, but you’d be hard pressed to find any examples in history of a people rising out of poverty on the basis of the aid from another country. Go listen to the African speakers at the TED Africa conference. They don’t want pity or for us to solve their problems. They understand they must be solved by them and can only be solved by them, on their terms in their own way. I am not saying you shouldn’t volunteer when you travel, but you should be realistic about what can be achieved and don’t look upon the people you are helping as objects of pity.

The Traveler Quantum Effect

One tenet of quantum physics is that the simple act of observing an event will alter the outcome of the event. Traveling is no different. When we have a guest over at our house we tend to clean up, dress nice and be on our best behavior. One thing any true “authentic” experience would have is the lack of tourists taking part. The very act of being somewhere means that you are changing the environment and removes the possibility from having a truly authentic experience.


If you are searching for an authentic experience, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. The world is what it is and you have to explore it on its terms, not yours.

No matter what you expect to see when you visit a new place, the reality you will find will be different. You are traveling in the 21st Century, not the 19th. Do not expect people to be caricatures or stereotypes of something you have in mind. View the people you meet as neither cultural superiors or objects of pity. Moreover, whatever you think is authentic was developed without having experienced it.

Change your expectations and you’ll find that every experience is authentic to itself.

Aloha From Hawaii Via Internet

I’ve finally arrived in Hawaii for my long awaited work vacation. I have holed up in a hostel a block from Waikiki Beach where I plan on getting face cancer from my laptop over the next 10 days.

It has been over three years since I was last in Hawaii. My previous trip was the interregnum between my South Pacific and North Pacific adventures. After a marathon day in August 2007 where I went from the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Fiji (and having denied entry to Kiribait which was the cause of the whole day from hell) I holed up in Honolulu for two weeks before setting off to Guam.

When I was thinking of a place to go to work, Hawaii immediately came to mind. I have good memories of being here and I wanted a place where I could just relax. The last several months I’ve been moving constantly, meeting with people and for the first time in a long time I can be by myself with no obligations, meetings or people to deal with.
Continue reading “Aloha From Hawaii Via Internet”

My 11 Most Memorable Hotel Stays

I don’t usually write about hotels on this site, because I don’t want to get into the business of doing hotel reviews. I have been prodded by many people to at least give a list of my favorite places I’ve stayed in the last 4 years, so I figure I’d give it a go. I also don’t normally do lists, but considering this is a list made up of things I’ve actually done, I figure I’ll cut myself some slack.

I should note upfront that these are not necessarily the “best” hotels. I have not done an extensive review of hotels in any city. This is a totally subjective listing based on my personal experiences.

None of these hotels would be considered a luxury or 5-star establishment. In fact, in one particular case, it was down right nasty. What they all have in common is that they have stuck out in my mind over time. Sometimes it might be the location, sometimes it might be the people I met and other times it might be the management of the hotel which made it memorable.

You will notice a heavy bias towards properties in the Asia/Pacific region. There is a good reason for this. I try to find the cheapest place I can that has wifi and where I can get a private room. In Europe, the private rooms in hostels are usually more expensive than just getting a room at a cheap hotel, so much of the communal experience of a hostel was lost on me in Europe. Also, the European hotels weren’t so cheap as to really stick out.

I can’t guarantee that you will have a similar experience if you visit the same place. In fact, some of these properties have negative reviews on TripAdvisor. I would, however, gladly return to stay at any of the places I’ve listed.

I should also note that I paid for every one of my stays in each property listed. None of my nights were comped or were part of a media trip.

In no particular order: Continue reading “My 11 Most Memorable Hotel Stays”