February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

A day that only happens once every four years is worth a post, eh? Thus I dedicate my Leap Year to a beloved animal that I have yet to meet in person, the Okapi. I recently saw (a dead, stuffed) one at the Natural History Museum and felt so inspired that I got a little choked up. The Okapi looks so gentile; with such awkward gazes, big ears and it's zebra-striped bottom, how can one not be endeared towards this creature? Everyone has their little list of animals they want to see in the wild, and the Okapi is one of my top ten. Alas, it lives in the DRC which is about as dysfunctional home as you can have (if only animals could vote or form militias). If the 15,000 remaining Okapi can hold out until I get to Africa next, I shall be eager to try and spot one. My target destination will be the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. And they even have a blog!

February 28, 2008

I'd Rather Be Diving

Another recap from my last trip; one of the best dives of my life thus far. This is somewhere in Honduras, but I won't say where because it's too perfect: a 10 mile-long reef and only four divers on it, including me. All the coral was alive and happy, with huge barrel sponges and amazing fish life. One giant yellow tailed snapper followed me for the entire 45 minutes, often putting his lips right up to my mask. Wow. Connecting with a fish is one of the most curious and odd feelings I've ever encountered. He followed me as I ascended and was sad to see me go. I was sad to have to resurface. Yeah, I love to dive.

February 26, 2008

The Dumbest Thing I've Ever Done

Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, about a month ago. I've never seen real lava up close so I had to just get that bit closer. Had to see if I could touch it with my walking stick, you know, to "touch lava". Well, in about three seconds the stick burned up and I singed all the hair off the right side of my face just for the sake of this picture. I learned for myself the great primordial lesson that lava is really, really hot. Don't try this at home.

February 25, 2008

The Joy of Being Quoted

Iceland Review is a gem of a magazine and when I'm in charge of all media I'm giving them the prize for layout--they do the best layout and graphics of any print publication I've seen. Really. Of course t's all mutual admiration as they quoted me in their most recent issue which you can read here. Here I am waxing poetic about the town of Siglufjörður in the north of the country (which happens to be a great little edge-of-the-world place to escape to):

“This is the kind of town where nobody locks their doors, where everyone knows each other, but where outsiders are as welcome as the sun.”

“A most remarkable trek crosses the eastern mountains at the Hestskard Pass and down into the untouched Hédinsfjördur or “heathen’s fjord”. Free of roads, traffic, people and towns, this may very well be the most pristine fjord in the whole country.”

February 22, 2008

In Praise of Sharpies

I'm not a corporate shill, but when I like something I say so; and I like Sharpie pens--the intoxicating permanent black markers made for autographing and writing on your skin. Anyway, yesterday I was at the Embassy of Iceland signing fifty copies of my book for all the honorary consuls here in the US. I was a little light-headed by the end of it and felt drab writing 'with best wishes' over and over again, followed by my scribble. Really, I wish most people the best most of the time. For someone about to read my book, I think it would be more appropriate to say: "Feel free to take lots of breaks" or "Don't feel obligated to read this cover to cover." Many thanks to the Icelandic embassy staff and to the kind Ambassador who took me out to lunch.

February 19, 2008

Japan is our Friend

I've never been to Japan and that is a major regret: I love sushi, the idea of Zen Buddhism, and spooky avant-garde Japanese horror movies. I spent my childhood in the 1980s, with everyone in Ohio fearing the Japanese industrial invasion and then being grateful when it came. I passed my driver's test in a Honda and drove a Nissan to my last day of school. I played Atari with my family and from the colored bits and blobs on the screen I imagined a fairly intense video world. Back then, all of us were slowly turning Japanese.

On that note, here's a favorite song from The Spinto Band, the state of Delaware's finest musical export this century. College band or no, they wax poetic with a line about Japan assimilating other cultures "to make their stuff". It's a line remembered from my youth, oft spoken to express America's inventive superiority over Japan. Nowadays we say the same about China and in response all I can say is yes, please. A sudden influx of Chinese culture may not be a bad thing. Such are my thoughts.

February 15, 2008

Extreme Makeover: NGM edition

Yesterday marked the launch of National Geographic Magazine's new website. I like it: all white background and simple, simple, simple with lots of pretty pictures. Also, a devotion to perfect squares--square text and square pics. Plus a better use of online ad space, which is vital. I get so tired of annoying in-your-face ads that ruin a site (i.e. CNN). Anyway, it's nice to see someone get it right online. So many publications try to recreate print online and the results are tiresome. The internet's a totally separate media with refreshingly different capacities. Forgive the comparison but I feel like I'm witnessing the renaissance when there were so many centuries of established medieval art and then someone figured out perspective. And yet folks like the NY Times, Washington Post, etc. all want to keep painting pretty two-dimensional medieval scenes. NGM's figured out their own way to adapt and garner a Web 2.0 following. I like it.

A separate thought: I've noticed how in recent years, NGM has made a decided shift towards all things imagery. Yeah, pretty pictures is what they do best, but it's not the only one way to tell a story. Conservation porn is only one broad brush in the painter's box, and I'm afraid that these days a lot of people are using it. I'm guessing that once upon a time, some 10-year-old kid in Kansas got a big thrill from the world of stunning photos that arrived in his mailbox every month. These days though, ten seconds on Flickr gives you the same, filtered out of an infinite photo library of semi-professionals and talented amateurs who grew up with the magazine and are now copying its style with aplomb. Yes, NGM has that X-factor of je ne sais quoi that sets them apart, but my two cents is that in the long run, photography is a medium to an end, and not an end. Unless you're just an art gallery.

P.S. The polar bear pic is Creative Commons, yanked from Flickr. And it's adorable.

February 13, 2008

Not Just a Door

In response to one of the questions from the audience of "The Insider's Paris" I'm posting a pic of this door in Montmartre. The address is N 1, Place du Calvaire in the 18th arrondissement (just off the very touristy Place du Tertre). This was the final home of the artist Maurice Neumont (1868-1930), a friend of the renowned art nouveau designer Hector Guimard. I remember standing at this spot a few months back and being surrounded by dazed tourists staring at the Sacre Coeur. When I began taking pictures of this door, they all crowded me and followed suit. The mob photography instinct is a common albeit annoying phenomenon among travelers. I love this door--the peephole is covered with an iron grille spider web and the carving is classic Guimard. As for Maurice Neumont, his artistic fame lies in a single, propagandistic piece from the First World War, entitled On Ne Passe Pas!

February 10, 2008

A Sad Day

My favorite bookstore is closing, boo hoo. Candida's World of Books was the best thing that ever happened to my neighborhood in Washington, DC. The shop opened right when I moved here and was only two blocks from my house. Candida herself loves travel, books, and languages, and her bookstore offered up dazzling quantities of each. Her bookshelves represent the entire globe divided by country, continent and isle. Instead of just carrying travel guides, she carries everything for any particular place: language guides, maps, literature that takes place in the country, literature in the original language, and top notch travel writing. For instance, I know no other bookshop in America that carries a Marshallese dictionary. It was the ultimate browsing bookstore and the place where I started planning all my trips.

In the 4 years that Candida's was open, she hosted two of my book signings. She was set to host another for Iceland and was always so encouraging to all the authors that came into her shop. I know I am not alone in regretting the end of such a perfect little store. Kinda makes me wonder about the state of independent bookstores everywhere, as well as the priority of travel.

So to all Washingtonians out there, get ye down to 14th & Q Streets, NW post-haste. Candida's selling off all of her fabulous merchandise; all things you'll be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Here's a list of things that I bought yesterday:

- The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
- The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
- A Zoo in My Luggage by Gerald Durrell
- 501 Russian Verbs
- Eyewitness guide to French Cheese
- Map of Djibouti
- Map of Peru
- Map of Central Asia
- Learn to Speak Basque book & audio
- Chinese character-a-day calendar
- Spanish Dictionary

February 5, 2008

Paris, Paris

Thanks to all who sent in their Paris recommendations. I'm gonna give it another week to collect a few more, then I'll compile everything and send it out. Until then, here's the video clip of the 9 minute 43 second Louvre visit from the film Bande à Part by Jean Luc Goddard (1964).

February 4, 2008

My Favorite Scrabble Word

Tonight I won at Scrabble which doesn't really happen too often. I attribute my victory to the clever implementation of the two letter word ZO. According to some dictionaries (very few actually), a ZO is a hybrid animal of a domesticated yak and a female cow. It's more common spelling is DZO which makes more sense, given that it's a Tibetan words. Anyway, thank goodness for simplified Tibetan dipthong transliterations and triple letter squares.