Posts Tagged With: tourism

Vietnam on the Horizon

  In about three weeks we depart for 17 days for a certain long, skinny Asian nation that was the focus of an awful lot of people’s attention — and an awful lot of bombs — from the early 1960’s till the mid-1970’s. I turned 18 in 1971, during which time Vietnam was the place to avoid going to for my demographic cohort (and just about everyone else). The war’s peak years — as measured by the number of American soldiers deployed there — were 1967-1969; that era saw roughly a half million US troops on the ground.  By 1971 that number was down to about 150,000, which was pretty good news to me and my fellow 18-year-olds. The draft worked on a lottery system based on your birthday; you were assigned a number between 1 and 366 (for leap years!) and each year Uncle Sam announced that everyone with a number below some threshold would be called up.  In the peak years the highest number that they reached was 215, i.e. nearly two-thirds of 18-year-olds! But by 1971 they were only getting down into the 80’s or so, and my number was something like 126.  So I did not come particularly close to being declared cannon fodder and having to get out out of it by limping into the draft board on my non-existent bone spurs.

(Fun personal historical fact: when I registered for the draft upon turning 18, I did not have my own car and so my mother — who was dead set against the whole thing — drove me to the draft board. The registration office was on the 3rd floor; I took the stairs and Mom took the elevator. A few minutes later I hear an alarm bell ringing. Mom is stuck between floors on the elevator, and the fire department has been called. Thus did my introduction to the Selective Service System become a Marx Brothers comedy.)

Anyway, these days there are still tons of Americans on the ground in Vietnam, only now we shoot money at them and they don’t shoot back, which works out pretty well for everybody. And oddly, the numbers echo 1969: in 2018 there were roughly 600,000 American visitors to the country. It’s one of the leading tourist destinations in Asia now: 2018 saw 15 million international visitors, about half of them from China and South Korea. (For reference, the population is about 95 million.)

As we have five times in the past seven years, we are once again traveling in a group of 16 people organized and led by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), who do this sort of thing awfully well. They’ll be taking us pretty much down the whole length of the country, as you can see by our route, marked in blue on the map. (The blue line is a little misleading since some of the legs are by air; the country is about 1000 miles long.)

Our itinerary is:

  • Hanoi
  • Halong Bay
  • Hué
  • Hoi An
  • Nha Trang
  • Dalat
  • Ho Chi Minh City (neé Saigon)

There are assorted side trips to villages and such along the way, and our stay at Halong Bay includes an overnight boat cruise. I’ll provide details about all these places as we come to them, internet access permitting.

This, of course, is assuming that we get there at all. One additional fact that I have not yet bothered to mention is that in order to adjust to the 11-hour time difference we are currently scheduled to spend 3 nights en route in …. wait for it …. Hong Kong, currently the site of more than a little unrest as everyone attempts to piss off the Chinese jus-s-s-s-st enough but not too much. At the moment I am content to let OAT sort that all out, either by (1) sending us straight to Hanoi; (2) diverting us to, say, Singapore instead of HK; or (3) adding a special Tear Gas Cultural Event to our itinerary.  Stay tuned, and we’ll all find out together!

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Cozumel

I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.

It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.

The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.

Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.

Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.

The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”.  The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar.  And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.

But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).

Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.

That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)

Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most  beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.

The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.

Cozumel Playa Sur-6211

Cozumel Playa Sur-6186

Cozumel Playa Sur-6210

Cozumel Playa Sur-6220

Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.

But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.

We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.

Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.

Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Our Japan Photos and Videos — the Website!

I have been peppering the blog with several photos from each of our stops in Japan. Now that we have been home for a month I have finally sorted and edited the main photo collection as well as a number of short videos (a kimono demo! a sumo match!) and posted all the appropriate links on our website. You can check out the complete set of photos and videos at http://www.isaacman.net/japan2016/japan2016.htm

Our next sojourn will be a return to Hawaii in mid-January. Aloha!

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Arizona (Not Japan)

Yes, yes, I know I said our next trip was to Japan. And it is, if by “trip” one means a journey of longer than 4 days. But, as we do about twice a year, we have just returned from a 4-day weekend with our old and dear friends Larry and Jean in Scottsdale, Arizona, and since Arizona is such an photogenic and unusual place I decided it was worth a blog entry. It is the kind of place where you can walk into a bar and actually see this:

One of these customers will be Donald Trump's vice president.

One of these customers will be Donald Trump’s vice president.

I was disappointed at the lack of a tinkly, off-key piano, that would of course fall silent the moment we walked through the door. I think they traded the piano for the computer terminals.

In case you’re not up on the geography of Arizona, Scottsdale is an affluent and scenic suburb about a half hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Like all such population centers in the American southwest, it is basically a very attractive crime against nature: the greater Phoenix area, (which includes Scottsdale) hosts over two hundred golf courses, each of which requires about elenvty gajillion gallons of scarce water to maintain. People — including many, many retirees — flock to Scottsdale for the sun, the golfing, the snazzy malls, the desert scenery, and the convenient location of several Mayo clinics.

Arizona is divided into 15 enormous counties, several of which have more area than a number of the smaller US states though they are on average very sparsely populated. Scottsdale and Phoenix are in Maricopa County, one of whose biggest claims to fame is its controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “controversial” in this context meaning “racist, autocratic, and fascist”. Good old Sheriff Joe has been hanging in there since 1993, getting reelected like clockwork every four years despite having cost Arizona taxpayers something over $140 million to date defending himself against assorted Federal civil rights lawsuits and investigations. It has gotten to the point of the legislature having to invent brand new ethnic groups for Joe to discriminate against and oppress, having used up all the known ones.

But we are not here to talk about Joe Arpaio. We are here to talk about Jerome.

Who?

That’s the wrong question. The Jerome of interest is not a “who” but a “where”: Jerome, Arizona, population 444.  The view from its main street looks like this:

Arizona 2016-001

Jerome is a former gold and copper mining town, located 5200 ft (1600 m) up in the mountains about a 2 hour drive north of Phoenix. It got its start in about 1880 after the first mining claims were staked and enjoyed about a 50 year heyday until about 1930 when the Depression caused the price of copper to collapse. At that point it had reached its peak population of about 5,000, then entered its decline.  Mining stopped completely in 1953, at which point the city fathers decided it was going to be tourism or nothing if the town was to survive. On the strength of its mining history (which included a great deal of labor unrest including violent strikes), the town was granted national historical status in 1967 and has more or less remade itself as a local tourism center and art colony since then.

So now it’s the kind of place where the street (about three blocks long) is lined with art galleries — some quite good — while the former gold mine has reopened as a gift shop, so kitschy that even the many flies buzzing around it are wearing poor-taste teeshirts. It is difficult to straddle the line between artistic modernity and an “Old West”, so you get a bakery that looks like this:

Arizona 2016-006

…and a post office whose boxes look like this:

Arizona 2016-003

…and you attract people from a different decade who drive VW Microbuses decorated like this:

Arizona 2016-004

My favorite place, though, was the kaleidoscope store. I love kaleidoscopes, and so an entire kaleidoscope store is definitely where I want to spend my time in a place like Jerome AZ. So I’ll close with a few photos from it:

Arizona 2016-009

Arizona 2016-013

Arizona 2016-011

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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