The Top 10 Best Things To Do (Pretty Much) Anywhere

September 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Travel

rows of numbers

I’ve talked about travel lists in the past, like the kind that won’t do you much good and how to make the most out of generic ones. It’s not the format that’s not informing, but often the overwhelming subjectivity many are written with and the extensive watering-down that leaves them bland. Yet, despite all the lists you may come across, most are pretty much giving you the same travel advice in a different form, some version of the following.

These are things you will probably enjoy while at the same time enhance your experience…pretty much anywhere. I’m guessing most of you like a side of objectivity on your travel plate but sometimes, you’ve just got to turn the dial as far as you can in the other direction to see if you’ll end up where you started.

1. Eat The Local Food

There are widely varying degrees to what consists of “local” but chances are what’s cooking in a hotel lobby isn’t it. Hotel buffets and bland hostel breakfasts (and not all of them are) might give you an idea, but that’s far from the real thing. Fortunately, hotels and hostels almost always have staff who probably eat too. They can be a good resource to guide your stomach, just be sure not to ask what the establishment recommends. One trick that has served me well is to ask, “where do you like to eat?”

2. Talk To The Locals

A few words beyond, “do you know where the bathroom is” can show you more than your eyes can see. Whether it’s asking Bulgarians about communism or Egyptians what they think of Hosni Mubarek’s ousting, each story will give you a palette with which you can begin to paint a cultural picture. And don’t make the mistake of thinking some places don’t have culture – that’s an inherent human quality – where you have people have ethnology. And most of the time, people can’t wait to tell you about theirs.

3. Leave The City Limits

Although it’s not always possible or feasible, seeing what’s beyond the center of town typically gives you a good comparison point about peoples and the land they inhabit. Land that’s not covered over with concrete and horizons that aren’t invisible due to apartment complexes – along with the effect both have on mood traveler as resident alike. Within 3-5 minutes seeing nature can make you happier, reduce stress, and improve how you feel about a place [PDF].

sandikli turkey

4. Try New Things

What sounds as insultingly basic advice isn’t always the easiest to follow because it can hard to notice complacency creeping into your mindset. Whether it’s travel burnout, business travel burnout, or a combination of the two, much of the world has its routine but is not boring unless you are.

5. Take Pictures Of The Place

Your friends will probably want to know what you’re up to in Las Vegas and what the bright lights look like from your lens. In addition, in 10, 20, or 30 years from now you might want to remember the excited expression on your face because studies show you’re probably overestimating your memory. Including yourself in a few photos will also make them better at some point so don’t forget that intrepid explorer (you) when snapping away.

6. Learn Some Of The Language

Even differences in dialect in your own language can be worth noting but assuming it’s completely different, picking up a few phrases will help you get around. Aside from these 4 sets of very practical words, language can give you better insight into that culture word I’ve been swinging around liberally. Other added bonuses: learning languages increases gray matter, slows aging of the brain, and may protect you from Alzheimer’s.

men talking in gothenburg sweden

7. Walk Around

Cars are convenient and bikes are a greener alternative but both can move you around a bit quicker than is ideal for a dose of travel chaos. That wonderful seed of randomness, bumping into a cafe, person, or museum you might not have seen otherwise. At an average of 230 calories per hour, walking can also keep many of those wonderful local foods off your belly as well.

8. Be Prepared With The Basics

2 of the 4 things every non-planner should be prepared for happen right after you physically arrive somewhere new. Find out how to get from the airport, bus station, etc. to the place you’re staying ahead of time, noting how much that and other routine services should cost in local currency. You don’t want to get lost or ripped off your first 5 minutes upon arrival so check out these 3 online tools for prevention.

9. Have Backups Of The Essentials

Parts of any good travel security plan is to have a backup when it fails. No security is absolute so be sure to have a way to get access to emergency money, pay for a broken leg, and backup your laptop data far and wide. To put it simply, have a backup for the critical things that will really screw up your vacation if they disappear. A stolen pair of socks? No big deal. No wallet or passport? Problem.

10. See The Things You Really Want And Damn The Lists That Might Tell You Otherwise

Make your travels your own, everyone has their own unique travel list when everything is said and done. Yet, as guiding and useful as travel lists can be, even if every single one tells you not to visit the pyramids in Egypt – you should if you really want to. There’s quite a bit out there that will surprise you and even if something does suck when you get there, at least you found out in person, perhaps with an added story to tell.

taj mahal

In The End, It’s Your Top 5, 10…However Long You Want It To Be

Those top 10 lists try to rate, organize, and boil down something that will inevitably be rewritten by you. There’s only one top 10 that matters in the end, the mental one you come up for all the reasons you loved a place (or didn’t) so much.

[top photo of numbers by: e y e / s e e]

What’s In That Pipe And Who’s Smoking It: An Introduction To Shisha Around The World

September 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Air, Culture, Health and Fitness

shisha in dubaiThe tobacco water-pipe, nearly 600 years old known as a hookah, shisha (many parts of the Arab world, including Egypt), argile in Syria, nargile in Turkey, and galyan in Iran, is an integral part of Middle Eastern cultures whose misty clouds of smoke are often a mystery to visitors. No, they’re not getting everyone high on the streets Cairo – well, not technically – and each puff isn’t quite the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes. While shisha (the term I’ll stick with for the rest of this post) contains plenty of nicotine, it’s not what hooks it into life around the Arab world; it is something entirely more addictive about that culture in general.

Shisha – What It Is Exactly And Are There Drugs In It?

Shisha’s fundamental components consist of a (specialized) charcoal at the top that heats flavored tobacco beneath it; both separated by a piece of aluminum foil. The downward force for the heat is provided by two dedicated human lungs sucking in tobacco smoke through a hose. In a public setting, the tip of the hose is capped with a removable plastic piece, so you’re not sharing germs with others who’ve been smoking the same shisha. Traditionally, the tobacco air isn’t inhaled, but rather enjoyed more like a cigar, by keeping the fruit-flavored smoke in your mouth before exhaling. Cigarette smokers and others though do inhale the smoke however, which often produces a slight buzz and a lightheaded feeling, primarily due to carbon monoxide (CO) accumulation in the blood. That effect typically lasts 3-4 hours, the approximate half-life of CO, in the body at most altitudes.

It’s not so much hearing about the mild woozy effect that leads many to conclude there’s marijuana in shisha, but rather the appearance of the water pipe itself, which many associate with a bong.

I was quite perplexed last year while smoking shisha (nargile in Turkey) by the Mediterranean waters off Fethiye‘s coast to notice an entire British family wide-eyed starring at me. They were looking at me as though I were a green alien or had 7 arms. I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering if I had forgotten to wear pants that day and eventually asked the waiter what was going on. He told me the family was wondering if I was getting high and what exactly I was smoking. They seemed quite disappointed to find out it was tobacco only. Especially the mom.

Although you can put marijuana or hash (very popular in Arab subculture) in shisha, it’s not part of the usual mix. That’s not the traditional allure of the pipe which has roots in places from Nepal to Morocco and is spreading worldwide via seeds of Arab immigrant communities.

hookah in the middle eastSmokey Shisha Bonds The Cafe Culture

The peoples of the Middle East – not just Arabs – are generally cafe cultures. Spain has its siestas and Oman has its shisha to get through the working day. Sips of tea and puffs of shisha at cafes typically crowded with men (though that is changing across much of the Middle East) is where you exchange the troubles of the day, exhaling both literally and metaphorically. You smoke a cigarette for the quick nicotine fix but a shisha for the conversation, relaxation, or both.

Gaining Ground Where It Was Once Found, Now All Around

While shisha as been quite popular throughout most of the Arab world (with a few notable exceptions publicly in places like Saudi Arabia), it’s prevalence elsewhere has brought it back to life in places more familiar with it. The hookah, it’s mostly agreed, was originally invented during the 1500s by the Persians, in what is today northwestern India. Since that time it became passe over the mid-to-late 1900s in places like Turkey and India, something considered too arabesque for rapidly modernizing societies. Shisha and the cafe ambiance around it, continued to spread during that time as Arab communities established themselves in many parts of the world. Popularizing shisha across South Africa, the Philippines, and (especially) Europe – pretty much anywhere you have Arab or southeastern immigrant populations, it has come back strong in places looking west but reexamining their eastern roots.

What we eat says a lot about where we came from and as cuisine travels around the world, so does the history, culture, and people whose tale it tells. Apparently the same is true of what we inhale as well.

alexandria egypt cafeSome Prevalently Common Shisha Myths

Aside being packed with marijuana, there are some rather common myths about shisha not matter how familiar its smoke is to you.

  • Smoking One Shisha Is Equivalent To A Pack Of Cigarettes – One hookah can last a very long time coal after coal so it’s important to define a typical smoking session; they average about 45 minutes. Now, in terms of equivalency, there are many things in cigarettes that are bad for you, including 4,000 chemicals and 50 carcinogens – a pack generally consisting of 20 cigarettes. We’ll focus on three things – nicotine (not a confirmed carcinogen), nicotine-free dry particulate matter (NFDPM – basically tar and other crap that sticks around in your lungs); and finally, carbon monoxide which is toxic to all forms of life that depend on oxygen to survive.

So, in one 45 minute session of shisha smoke you inhale about 2.25 milligrams (mg) of nicotine, versus the average 6mg per packet of cigarettes. As for NFDPM, it’s roughly 245mg per shisha session and 120mg per cigarette packet. Lastly, when it comes to carbon monoxide via shisha you’re getting a total dose of 42 parts per million (pm) CO and a heavy smoker has about 35 ppm on average.

To add things up, a shisha session (where you inhale) gives you less nicotine, more NFDPM, and about the same CO as a pack of cigarettes according to current research.

  • Smoking Shisha Is Ancient – No, it’s not, no matter what the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is doing, it’s about 600 years old. Remember, tobacco was only introduced to Asia about that time, so while it took off quickly, it did not take off before.
  • One Shisha For The Group – Although getting a shisha for the table is common in Western countries, generally it’s one shisha per person in the Middle East and Asia with the occasional sharing.
  • Shisha Isn’t Bad For You – I think we’ve covered that well above but the consensus is that while it’s not good for you, people tend to smoke them less frequently than cigarettes or vaping, and that’s kinda good.

rhodes panorama

Perhaps the biggest myth about smoking shisha is why it’s done in the first place by the peoples who enjoy it so much and often.

Conversations Around The Coal

Much like eating paella in Spain, drinking raki in Turkey, or fika in Sweden, it might be the food, alcohol, or caffeine that brings you to the table but it’s company that keeps you there. Ordering coal after coal (free without charge – you pay for the hookah once) people help their shishas keep up with the conversations gently blowing into the air all around them.

Gray Hat Travel Tech 101: Everything You Need To Know About Unlocking Your Mobile Phone

September 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Tech

Unlocking your mobile phone has become ubiquitous with a travel-tech thing you should do but is a process not nearly everyone understands completely. There’s actually quite a bit of confusion as to what “unlocking” actually accomplishes, how it’s done, and why you might even want to bother doing it at all. So today, as part of a series on tech hacks that break warranties but not laws (hence, “gray hat”) I’ll give you a crash course on unlocking phones, breaking them out of jail, and enough to win $1,000 on Jeopardy if the category ever comes up.

close up of keyWhy You May Need To Unlock Your Phone

Although things are changing in the United States, the primary group of people needing to unlock their phones have service in that country. (North America in generally where you’ll find locked devices.) Basically, the cell phone providers like T-Mobile, AT&T, etc. ship phones that can only be used with one provider – themselves. Thus they “lock” in the phones to their service, which means if you’re traveling outside of the US (or simply want to take your phone to another company) you can’t. Your options at that point are either use the expensive international service the companies offer, or simply unlock the phone by restoring the software it was designed to run.

Once unlocked, your phone can use SIM cards from any provider around the world locally, which can save you a considerable amount of money on international roaming phone calls and data usage.

How To Unlock Your Phone (Oh, How Little Effort It Takes)

Most standard ‘dumb phones’ (aka. not-smart-phones) are easily unlocked by getting to their maintenance modes through a series of codes typed into the keypad. For example, Nokia security code cracks are notoriously prevalent (unlock your Nokia here) and Samsung is a walk in the park – either method taking about 5 minutes each.

  • Keep in mind you’ve got about 5 chances to unlock in many cases, after which a hard reset of the device is required. That means a cable must be connected to the phone and reset via a laptop or other specialized device. For about $20-40 around the world you can get most unofficial mobile phone vendors to do this for you. It’s also an alternative if you don’t want to mess with unlocking yourself.

When it comes to smartphones, things are a bit different and since they have more complex software, the unlock is slightly more involved…but not much.

The Difference Between Jailbreaking And Unlocking (And Rooting)

This is the biggest point of confusion when it comes to modifying your phone for travel so let’s clear it up right now with the essentials.

  • Unlocking – The process of allowing a phone to be used on multiple carriers. (e.g. Having an T-Mobile contract in the New York and being able to use Orange mobile in London).
  • Jailbreaking – The process of installing 3rd party applications on an iPhone, iPad, or any other Apple iOS device. Jailbreaking lets you bypass the App Store and it’s a process required to unlock the iPhone as well.
  • Rooting – The same thing as jailbreaking, except it refers to Android devices.

Now, just like unlocking, jailbreaking and rooting breaks most manufacturer and mobile phone provider warranties. We’ll get to keeping your warranty intact shortly, but first, let me show you how to free your phone from its corporate shackles.

How To Jailbreak Or Root Your Phone

There’s a lot you can do with a jailbroken or rooted phone (these are 25 good examples) but we’ll stick with the feature we’re after – unlocking – for now. The most important thing to remember about unlocking a smartphone is you need to get the hack for the specific version of phone software you’re running. Phones are updated all the time (like an iPhone via iTunes) and hacks are usually released a few days after.

Either of these processes have potential pitfalls – like potentially locking up your phone or erasing data – if you take a misstep or simply have bad luck. You’ll want to backup your data and settings in case that happens so you can reset your phone to the way it was.

cild daydreamingHow To Keep Your Warranty From Going Bad After Unlocking

Manufacturer’s warranties against defects typically last only a year and if you’ve had your phone longer than that you can probably skip this section, although this concept is quite useful for most gadgets you hack. Start by checking both your manufacturer’s warranty (quick check for iPhone users) and any added ones you may have purchased, including any your mobile phone provider may have given you.

Remember, the only time a company is going to check your device for tampering is when you give it in for repair, recall, or if a defect is found. Never admit to modifying your phone anytime you cross paths with the manufacturer and don’t tell a travel insurance company if you’re filing an electronics claim either. It’s not necessarily lying if you never bring it up in the first place.

To insure that your warranty or insurance isn’t denied on your unlocked phone should you ever happen to need it, backup your phone’s data, and reset it’s original program.

  • How To Reset An iPhone
  • How To Reset An Android Phone
  • To Reset A Nokia – The process varies by individual model, but both Google and Youtube should have the answer for you by typing “How to reset a Nokia [model number] to factory settings”; the same goes for Samsung and other phone brands

That’s the general warranty rule to follow for any electronic you’ve modified or hacked – never admit to anything and reset what you can to its original state before turning it in.

The Benefits To Your Wallet And Social Life

Even though companies like AT&T are now selling unlocked iPhones for a cool $649 in the US, you can purchase a used or regular one with a contract for less than a quarter of that price by unlocking it yourself. Generally, for most people, on your first unlock you might be nervous that your phone will completely be unusable if you screw things up. At worst you may end up having to reset your phone, or visit that slightly-shady mobile phone store down the street to get things right, but nearly always it’s going to be cheaper than making international phone calls as you travel around the world.

[key photo by Jillian Anne Photography, photo of child daydreaming by ZeRO`SKiLL]

In Pictures: The Costumes Of The 2011 Las Vegas Star Trek Convention

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Culture, Pictures and Video

Those of you who’ve been following me anywhere online for any length of time have probably come to know I’m a huge Star Trek nerd fan. I attend conventions on occasion but had never made it to the largest one in the world held every year, over 4 days in Las Vegas, Nevada – until last month.

I’ll be writing more about this convention in the coming days (and here’s a beginner’s guide to the whole thing if you’ve got no clue what I’m talking about.) Basically a Star Trek convention is where fans of the shows meetup to hang out, meet the actors, and…yes, dress up in a variety of costumes. The Star Trek convention in Las Vegas this year was held at the Rio All Suites Casino and Hotel, and well, there’s nothing like watching a group of Klingons play craps while three drunken Vulcans gamble at the blackjack table next to them.

Enough people dressed up as various aliens at this convention (more than 1,100) to break a Guinness World record for most Star Trek costumes in one place and celebrate the show’s 45th anniversary. (Yesterday in 1966 was the first time Star Trek aired on television.)  Sci-fi fan or not, a convention certainly changes the visual landscape, even in a city where unusual dress is often hard to define.

A Ferengi

This guy’s species might be able to teach you a thing or two about bargaining and getting a good deal anywhere on Earth.

Two Andorian Females

These ladies actually come from one of the best planets in the galaxy to visit if you’ve got a vacation coming up and have a thing for skiing and snow.

Two Klingon Warriors

These two were the nicest Klingons I’ve ever met and actually had a different Klingon outfit for each day of the convention.

Orion Slave Girls

Admittedly, Orion slave girls aren’t something I come across frequently in my travels.

…so when I do, I figure I should say hi.

The Tallest Vulcan I’ve Ever Seen

Who is also holding a My Little Pony doll. I’m as confused as you are.

Thanks, But I Just Got A Haircut

To be honest, I don’t know what episode from the original series these two are from but I didn’t tell them that until I was out of extremely-large-crazy-blade range.

A Borg

This gentleman won the costume contest that was run during the convention, netting himself $1,000 to assimilate.

Where The Costumes Come From

Many (like the above Borg) are homemade and generally the most creative, but standard uniforms are on sale at most conventions.

A White Alien Gorilla With A Horn…Duh

From the ever cheesy episode A Private Little War, and the other guy is dressed as Captain Kirk in that same episode.

Legos In Space

Anything in Lego form is better. Never forget that.

Alien Phenomena

This guy gets points for creativity and you get nerd points if you get, and chuckle at it.

Starfleet Is Pet-Friendly

And so is the Rio All Suites Casino and Hotel.

Ladies In Command

Starfleet seems to have a pretty liberal wardrobe policy.

Klingons Don’t Mess Around

That bat’leth (Klingon sword) isn’t plastic by the way, so be sure to stay on her good side.

A Romulan

Hope he didn’t get too close to the Klingons, especially the ones that were armed. Which was pretty much all of them.

More From The Costume Contest

I wish there were a tutorial somewhere on how to photograph aliens because I just couldn’t get it down over the 4 days. It was much easier to get a photo of Max Grodenchik without his makeup from Deep Space Nine, above.

The Following Runs Deeper Than The Surface

So much of what brings people to conventions (originally a fan grass-roots effort to keep the show alive after it was canceled) is creator Gene Roddenberry’s bright vision for humanity’s future. One brought on through exploration and the understanding we are all much more alike than we are different. In Star Trek, it takes aliens landing on Earth for humanity to realize what we can already simply by traveling more of our own planet.

For a few more aliens and the rest of Las Vegas, check out my album here.

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