What The Mayan Afterlife Looks Like: A Photo Of Cenote Zaci In Valladoild, Mexico

December 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Culture, Green, Pictures and Video

Cenotes are freshwater pools formed when limestone beneath the Earth’s surface dissolves or collapses exposing the water table. Invisible until some of the rock ceiling caves in, the most famous cenotes like Zaci are large: 80 meters deep (265 feet) and 45 meters (148 ft) wide. Crude numbers that don’t capture how visually surprising Cenote Zaci is at first glance at the end of its narrow staircase entrance.

Mayan communities often centered themselves physically and culturally around cenotes as these freshwater supplies were believed to be windows to the afterlife. Valuables (plus the occasional young woman) were ritualistically thrown into them to appeal or appease any number of Mayan gods. These days only tourists toss themselves gently into the chilly waters from steps leading into them; while a blogger’s cold toes recommended they instead snap photos from higher above.

Globally cenotes are usually isolated formations, but on the Yucatan Peninsula over 6,000 connect along what happens to be part of the 565 kilometer (350 miles) Chicxulub Crater‘s edge. A massive hole caused by a 10 km (6 mile) wide asteroid (or comet) which sent most dinosaurs to the reptile afterlife 66 million years ago. Cenote Zaci is a window to that world as well, watched over by dinosaur’s last living descendants we call birds, who swirl in flight at the entrance above the caves.

My Top 5 Best Cities For Street Food

December 10, 2013 by  
Filed under Culture, Food

This post is kindly brought to you by Summit Vacations who invite you to stay with them during your next ski trip to Breckenridge, Colorado. [What is this?]

best street food in the world

There is something about food being prepared without walls, under a sorry excuse for a roof barely out of traffic’s way, that’s perversely enticing. Plumes of smoke accompanied by sounds of crackling grease and popping animal bits call for you to enjoy one of the simplest forms of cuisine where chef, ingredient, kitchen, and customer are all within arm-length.

At its worst street food is a low budget equivalent of a colonic – at its best the most memorable of calories we can consume on our travels. I obviously haven’t been to every city or country (although I’m working on that) but to answer a question I get often, these are the places where I’ve had the best street food.

5. Manila, Philippines

The Philippines introduced me to a number of new tastes and although it’s probably most famous for its unfertilized duck fetus balut, I would recommend starting out slower with kwek kwek. A version of tokneneng (fried hard boiled eggs), kwek kwek is a quail egg fried in orange batter, often served with a side of vinegar sauce for dipping. Follow that up with a sweet like banana cue – deep fried banana coated with brown sugar served on a stick – and then continue eating with these 12 must-try street foods in Manila.

filipino flag

4. Oaxaca, Mexico

The foods of southern Mexico are colorful and much like Manila, Oaxaca’s standout street fare is chapulines, simply because many visitors aren’t used to eating cooked grasshopper. Although chapulines shouldn’t be avoided (especially if you’re on a low carb diet) you can indulge your protein needs with other meats on top of a tlayuda. (Vegetarians can substitute eggs or squash.) Similarly stuffed with various ingredients its dough can barely handle are Oaxacan empanadas; a thin slice of Oaxaca’s cuisine.

oaxaca street food cart

3. Austin, Texas

Although almost all of the outdoor food here is sold from a cart, the uniformity stops there. The city’s motto, “keep Austin weird” really means keep it unique; which is why you don’t find chains of carts selling the same foods. It is hard to roundup the street eats in Texas’ state capitol where there’s a food cart or trailer on every corner you’re likely to be on. Many tourists end up on South Congress Avenue where Serious Eats recommends these 6 trucks and for everywhere else, consult Austin Food Carts for lunch, lunch, snack, and dinner.

austin texas capitol

2. Singapore

In a country whose workers put in more hours than most other nations and enacts a strict legal system, Singaporeans rebel among foods served by enthusiastic stall vendors. Open-air food markets like Newton Circus Food Centre are surprisingly chaotic as touts from over 50 stalls rush to offer you cuisine from all over Southeast Asia. It’s best to do a quick walk-through first so you don’t make any snap decisions; generally the center of the markets are calmest. (But hardly calm.) But if you do end up making a quick decision for the most part, it’s hard to go wrong.

singapore newton circus food centre

1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


petaling street kl street food

Rove around Kuala Lumpur’s shopping district Bukit Bitang, wandering right behind the expensive malls to find SB Corner, an inexpensive but impressive Malay buffet. There you’ll find Indian and Chinese reminiscent foods with Arab and Thai influences whose combination are really the essence of Malaysian cuisine. Mixing cultures is something that defines this religiously tolerant nation – as is food on a stick – like at my favorite nameless stall on Petaling Street.

mexico street foodFind The Best Street Food With Your Eyes

Stalls, especially those with less-than-hygienic appearances can be intimidating when you first arrive in a new city. To avoid illness the simplest advice I can give is to eat where you see a long line of locals. (Long line of tourists – do the opposite.)

Sub-par vendors can get away with giving temporary visitors diarrhea but wouldn’t last long by sickening their regulars. Order what everyone else is eating while keeping in mind to save a little space for the next appetizing dish that might be along your path.

Where’s the best street food you’ve ever had? Don’t forget to post links to any specific places we should eat at (if you’ve got them) in the comments below!

Why Americans Travel A Lot More Than You (And The Rest Of The World) Might Think

October 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Culture, Money, Travel, Travel Unravel

american flag forest background

It’s a commonly held belief that Americans don’t travel nearly as much as their jet-setting counterparts in Europe or Australia, preferring to stay safe at home while more adventurous nationalities explore the globe. You’ve probably heard or even made arguments as to why Americans stay put, however these debates rest on a faulty premise: that Americans travel significantly less than citizens of other developed countries.

When it comes to traveling (or not) American patterns follow those the rest of the world does. How much you travel has less to do with your nationality than it does with the size of your pocketbook and proximity to the nearest border.

Where Does The Myth Come From?

Likely a holdover from the early 1990s, when in 1993, out of an eligible population of roughly 253 million, only 17 million – 6% of U.S. citizens – held passports. Today that percentage has risen to about 40% and the media’s fuzzy math hasn’t quite caught up. According to the State Department in 2012 there were 113,431,943 passports in circulation out of the 283 million possible. (313 million people live in the United States but approximately 20 million legal and 12 million illegal non-U.S. residents are ineligible for American passports [PDF].)

Why You Don’t See Americans Out And About Internationally

First of all, even with 113 million potential travelers, they’re not all going to the same place at the same time so you’ve got to spread the total number pretty thin. Also, baby booming American travelers tend to hover around the older and younger demographic – the former not likely to book accommodations at a hostel.

loncheria el amigo casiano valladolid mexico

But really, we can blame our Paleolithic brains. We have evolved to be drawn to others like us, called in-group bias, where our bodies pump out feel-good chemicals when we’re near folks we can relate with. (Additionally, those chemicals highlight events in our memory so after our trips those “people like us” are more easily recalled.) There’s also something called observational selection bias we succumb to, pretty much us noticing in others what we notice in ourselves and thinking the frequency of said thing has increased. “Hey, I’m a traveling Australian, there are other traveling Australians over there! We must be everywhere!”

So traveling Europeans have a tendency to perceive more traveling Europeans, not to mention that there are roughly 2-3 times as many Europeans in the world than Americans. (Depending on where you define its borders.) We perceive there are more people like us traveling because our brains are primed to focus on them, plus they then trick us into believing the reverse (i.e. people who aren’t like me don’t travel).

mexican skeltonDistance Plus Income Equals Travel

Although the World Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requiring Americans to show passports upon entry to Canada and Mexico was enacted in 2007, something more significant has happened since 1993 to encourage travel. The GDP of the U.S. has gone up by a third with Americans now having more disposable income than any other county. (People worldwide tend to spend the same percentage of their disposable income on leisure travel.) Young people are also spending more bling on backpacking – like $217 billion annually – than ever before. Currently America is an average of 6.8 years younger than Germany and getting younger while the rest of the developed world ages.

According to the market research organization GfK Austria, Germans are one of the most internationally traveled people in the world. Approximately 65% have been outside of their borders at least once. Yet, only 20% have ever left continental Europe. Compare this to the United States, where only 20% have ever traveled internationally, but roughly 65% have traveled once domestically for leisure purposes. That seems surprising at first, until you consider that continental Europe is relatively the same size as the lower 48 United States. Well what about Australians, whose country is about 80% the size of the US? They have about a 20% international travel rate as well.

Take a look at this map of passport holders by state, courtesy of The Expeditioner, and you’ll notice those with the highest percentages are generally along international borders with Canada or Mexico.

passport holders by us state

Then look at this map of GDP per state in 2010, see the similarity?


In Russia, the biggest country in the world with one-half the GDP of Germany, 15% of their population has traveled internationally at least once [PDF]. And the Chinese are catching up fast, about 8% international travel in 2012; double what it was 5 years ago when China’s GDP increased by 25%.

Travel Patters Are Surprisingly Human

As I mentioned above, research published in the Technological Forecasting and Social Change journal shows people worldwide spend around 13% of their disposable income on leisure travel with 80% staying in comfort zones of 1,750 kilometers (~1,090 miles). How far we travel transcends local culture, as well as local vacation time. A critical factor on how thick the average passport is has more to do with how close the nearest international border happens to be, especially if we have the money to cross it. Generalizations that Americans are scared to travel or Australians are fearless vagabonds don’t tell the real story, that globally, we all happen to be a little of both.

Tibetan Seeds Of Calm Amid Chaos: A Photo Essay Of Dharamsala, India

September 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Culture, Food, Green, Pictures and Video

Sitting at the base of the Himalayas in northern India, far from the crowded streets of New Delhi and the border ballet in Wagah, is the city of Dharamsala. Home to a fluctuating population of approximately 19,000, Dharamsala is often the first stop for Tibetan refugees escaping Chinese occupation. Numbers are unclear but by some estimates, up to 1,000 Tibetans annually make the dangerous 6-12 month trek through rugged Himalayan terrain.

The lucky who survive the elements and Chinese troop patrols make their way to McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, looking for assistance from the Central Tibetan Administration. The CTA helps relocate Tibetan refugees to other parts of India and the various nations around the world that accept a quota of Tibetans per year. Despite the chaos and uncertainty that inevitably hangs around the political and personal situations of many people in Dharamsala, it is absolutely one of the most peaceful, relaxing places I have ever visited.

Dharamsala’s most famous resident however is undoubtedly the Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. Living in McLeod Ganj since 1959, the Dalai Lama is only here for about 4 months each year due to his nearly continuous travel schedule.

The presence of Tibetan Buddhism is felt everywhere in McLeod Ganj from its epicenter – the small temple in front of the Dalai Lama’s gated home. These prayer wheels are filled with sacred scrolls which are believed to be amplified when spun.

Prayers in Dharamsala come in many forms…

and hope, as it should, in child-sizes.

Contrasting India’s typical tongue charring chilies, Tibetan cuisine is shy on spice, not on noodle. Not that I would ever argue with Gakyi’s recipe, whose owner treats every dish like a favorite child.

The kind of winter comfort food you can feel giving you an insulating belly of love as you sip in its heat. For the right amount of black pepper to break into a cold sweat, I recommend Norling.

To bring the flavors back home with you, the secret is somewhere in these bags.

Secrets you can uncover with a 1 hour cooking lesson at Recommended Lhamo’s Kitchen, which is literally, his kitchen. You’ll learn to turn this:

Into momos.

Aside from traditional cuisine, efforts are made to retain many aspects of Tibetan culture.

At the Norbulingka Institute, a 20 minute car ride from McLeod Ganj, various crafts are taught and cultivated to slow the dilution of Tibetan traditions.

These prayer flags are strung up throughout the mountain paths of Dharamsala to bless those who walk them – especially in a strong wind.

The sound of Tibetan monks chanting and the tourists watching them chatting.

Whether in groups or alone however, none of the worshipers seemed to notice.

Dharamsala is almost as refreshing as the cool mountain winds that chill bones and beers perfectly in the evening hours – especially for travelers needing a break from India’s crowded festivals and cities. In a deceptive way, Dharamsala can also make you think Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are content without Tibet or within their current predicament. Until the shops close down for a few days in honor of several more who’ve died of self-immolation to protest occupation, it feels as though peace that was never lost, has been achieved.

You can see all of my pictures from Dharamsala in my gallery here.

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