Tag Archives: travel

Travel while you can

But don’t fret, you’ll still be able to travel later.  It will just be more crowded.

In the year 1500, the world population is estimated to have been less than 500 million.  It took 300 years for that figure to double to one billion.  In 1960, the world pop was three billion.  By the year 2000, 40 years later, it had doubled to six billion.  You could call that explosive humping.  Today we are at 7.5 billion.  The rate of growth has eased a fraction, but still, given current trajectory, simple math puts us around 10 billion by 2050, a short 30 plus years from now.

When I first visited Cancun, Mexico, and Phuket, Thailand decades ago, they were beach outposts, minus the proliferation of high-rise hotels and the antiseptic feeling of an overrun tourist destination.  Similar outposts are fast being built to attract newer avid travelers.  And they will come.  Most major airports around the world are bursting at capacity, thick with worm-hole lines to check-in, security, customs, and immigration, while short of gates for arriving planes.  Many flights are delayed for takeoff because of congestion at the destination airport.  When I flew out of LAX in April, as we were sitting on the runway approach going nowhere, the pilot announced that we were number 12 in line and it would be another 20 minutes or so before takeoff.  As we turned the corner to liftoff, there were another 12 behind us.  

Chang Mai, Thailand

There are may places in the world, like the Inca trail between Aguas Calientes and Manchu Picchu, in the Andes of Peru, a typically four-day hike, that was independently treck-able not long ago. Because of its mushroomed popularity, the only way now to hike the old stone path built by the Incas a millennium ago is with a guided group tour. (It is still a spectacular hike)  

Not only will we be adding another 30% to the world’s population over the next generation, but consider also that two most populated countries, China and India, together more than 1/3 of the world’s pop, have been experiencing highly dynamic economic growth during the last decade resulting in hundreds of millions rising out of poverty and joining the middle class.  Tens of millions in these two countries are now financially wealthy.  These millions with new money will eventually be looking for destination feathers to stick in their travel hats.

A couple of generations ago, those who traveled wrote letters, books, or passed their travel exploits by word of mouth.  Today we have instant information streaming at our fingertips for virtually every spot on earth, complete with photos and detailed instructions how to get there.

Instant gratification for all

By adding up the following:

  • the earth’s ballooning population of homo sapiens resulting from our relatively recent insatiable urge for planting human seeds 
  • instant access to information about anywhere
  • significantly improved infrastructures coupled with more developed trade relations among most countries
  • the swelling class boom in China and India and their eventual yearn to spend,

and a solid long-term business may be owning a hostel or hotel in a lazy, soon to be overrun, tourist ghetto.

The day the new Dubai airport opened it was already too small.

a week in New York City

Mail piles up after three months.  Having a residence in the USA inevitably attracts an abundance of paper mail, junk and otherwise.  Not that envelopes, magazines, and catalogs were spilling out of the mailbox, (GV kept neat and organized file piles), but there were tax documents to organize and submit.  It doesn’t matter your income level, filing taxes, whether you owe them or not, is a federal law, an obligation much less painful when it’s not in the delinquent category.

climbing out of Penn Station at Madison Square Garden after the long flight from China

climbing out of Penn Station at Madison Square Garden after the long flight from China

Those who are not from the USA don’t understand the big deal about the annual tax filing ritual.  Suffice it to say, filing by the tax deadline of April 15, no matter where in the world you live, is the path of least resistance.

walking down from my apartment toward Soho, Washing Sq Park with new Trade Center in background

walking down from my apartment a day later toward Soho, Washing Sq Park with new Trade Center in background

Yes, I could have done the mail and taxes remotely albeit with more effort, but a change of scenery for a few days keeps perception in check.  What I hadn’t planned on the day after I arrived was having my identity hacked.

next day walk along Hudson toward Battery Park.  Statue of Liberty in background

next day walk along Hudson toward Battery Park. Statue of Liberty in background

On top of an already packed week, I was forced to close all my bank accounts (business and personal) and open new ones, file a police report in person at the local precinct (yes, it’s like you would imagine from tv), notify credit agencies, and run around trying to retrieve my hijacked cel phone number which I’ve had for 14 years.  Someone evidently hacked my laptop, gained access to my bank accounts, and was also able to move my phone number to another carrier.  It was, and still is, rather tedious.  The world has no shortage of scheming mf’s.

happened to catch an interview of actor/director Ryan Gosling at Soho Apple Store

happened to catch an interview of actor/director Ryan Gosling at Soho Apple Store

In any event, the week back in New York City was, no joke, a breath of fresh air.

Union Square Green Market, 4 times a week, local meats and produce

Union Square Green Market, 4 times a week, local meats and produce

walking home one evening after dinner at Pio Pio, excellent Peruvian food near Upper West Side

walking home one evening after dinner at Pio Pio, excellent Peruvian food near Upper West Side

street fair near NYU

street fair near NYU

last Sunday was fortunate to take a 30 mile ride over GW bridge to New Jersey, Palisades Interstate Park

last Sunday was fortunate to take a 30 mile ride over GW bridge to New Jersey, Palisades Interstate Park

Green Street, Soho

Green Street, Soho

last Saturday on the west side, near Chinese Consulate

last Saturday on the west side, near Chinese Consulate

good a goo peak at the new Apple Watch, displayed lower left

good a good peak at the new Apple Watch, displayed lower left

 

New York to Shanghai

It’s not a bad flight, at least the direct, non-stop.  The two cities are not geographically polar opposites, but they are on opposite sides of the earth, exactly 12 hours apart.

Working for a larger corporation, flying long-haul flights as a company expense was made significantly more pleasant in executive type cabins.  But pulling cash out of your pocket for airfare makes it a little tougher to spring for the extra service.  The difference between economy and business class on this flight is a whopping $6,500, all for the pleasure being able to get horizontal (which is huge), and food served in courses.  Over a 15 hour flight, that difference equates to about $430 per hour.  For that price, most people who foot their own airfare are content sleeping upright and scarfing down some form of aluminum foil wrapped chicken or pasta.

The cabin crew always seem like they are in a hurry when they are in serving mode. Perhaps because, like most businesses, airlines have  learned to do more with less.  Not long ago, this flight was maintained by 16 crew members.  These days they down to 11, sometimes less, which is why food service is wham bam thank you ma’am.

Even though the aircraft and employees are United Air Lines, the merger agreement with Continental a couple of years ago stipulated that crews stick with their “metal.”  In other words, since this flight was originally a Continental flight, only prior Continental employees can work it, not other United employees.  Strange (or not) how a company can be strangled to operate less efficiently  because of union contracts.

On prior direct flights between these cities I thought we flew either east or west, depending on winds.  The flight maps make it look that way.  But actually, the flight heads north then south — up almost directly over the north pole and down the other side.

northbound to the north pole

northbound to the north pole

Leaving home at 7 am and arriving at my other home at 7 pm the next day, makes this 24 hour door-to-door commute not something anyone but a flight attendant would want to do every week.  The physical cost factor of flipping nights and days is payment enough.

There are lots of longer flights out there, but if you’ve got to get half way around the world sitting upright, then fill your carryon with plenty of entertainment or bring your heavy eyelids.  And if you happen to fly between New York and Shanghai, in either direction, it’s hard to beat this flight.

and back down the other side

and back down the other side

Bangkok oddities

Every city, like every person, develops its own character, its own charm and unique quirkiness.  Bangkok, or BKK as it’s known, is a large, dense city, roughly the same size as NYC.  Contrary to the city I wrote about last week, Bangkok is considerably more livable.  Why?  Like NYC, the city never sleeps.  It’s colorfully vibrant, relatively safe, its people friendly, and the food incredible.  But more importantly, it’s a walking city with a fairly good public transportation system.  You could easily live there without owning a car.

street-side alterations to the jeans I bought in the weekend market.

street-side alterations to the jeans I bought in the weekend market.

There is so much going on in Bangkok that I could only do a smidgen of what I had hoped to accomplish during a three-day layover on my way back to NYC, not the least of which was the Chatuchak market, where I happily spent both days of last weekend.

I could fill a couple of pages with all that I like about Bangkok, but at the same time, it has certain quirks worth noting.

Skytrain and Metro

Most large cities have them.  A few, like Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru, both capitals of their countries, managed to royally mismanage their public transportation systems.  Mobility in those cities is so bad that traffic congestion is a good reason to scratch them from living consideration.  Chennai, India, is another city to scratch for the same reason.

on a BTS platform as train approaches the (almost) modern station

on a BTS platform as train approaches the (almost) modern station

Both the elevated skytrain and below-ground metro make getting around Bangkok a relative breeze.  But unlike the systems in many cities where fares are set regardless of the distance, in BKK, the fare is dependent on where you get on and off, and you need to know that before you get on.

Therefore, prior to entering the system, you must select your destination and purchase a ticket for the specific price to that destination.  For the Sky Train, you can only purchase the ticket from machines, which do not take paper currency.  The ticket booth attendant is there, for the most part, to exchange bills for coins, because unless you arrive to the station with a pocket full of coins, you queue up to get them.  Then you queue up to use one of the few machines to buy the ticket.  Two queues for the price of one.  At least BKK’s metro and airport ticket machines accept paper bills, but not the machines for Skytrain.  For such a modern and otherwise well-run system, it’s, well,….odd.

at a BTS station waiting in line to change bills into coins, to get into another queue for the ticket machine.

at a BTS station waiting in line to change bills into coins, to get into another queue for the ticket machine.

Trash Cans

Most cities have systems for keeping themselves clean.  In NYC there are publicly maintained trash cans on every corner.  In Medellin, Colombia, for example the city maintains several refuse cans on each block.  In Bangkok, they are virtually nonexistent.

There is so much delicious street food, tasty thai coffee, fresh cut fruit, cold coconuts, that after you are finished, there are precious few places to discard the packaging.  I’ve carried around so many empty coconuts, having thoroughly enjoyed the cold, sweet water inside, only to be left with the quandary of where to ditch the shell.  There must be a hidden army cleaning up the debris left in discrete corners.  The city is not dirty.  Still, it’s odd.

Motorbike Helmets

It must be a law in Bangkok for operators of motorbikes to wear a helmet.  The city is filled with motorbikes and a large portion of them are ‘for-hire,’ as designated by the orange vests they wear.  Every motorbike driver wears a helmet.

these guys have helmets, but none for the passenger

these guys have helmets, but none for the passenger

However, the passenger is not required to wear one.  That means when hiring a motorbike as a taxi, which makes a lot of sense when traffic is at a standstill, you simply hop on the back.  The drivers don’t carry extra helmets.  The head protection is aimed clearly at the driver.  Passenger be warned: your head is not as important.

One evening last week I wanted to go not so far from where I was and it seemed like a motorbike was the most expedient.

passengers head not so important

passengers head not so important

Before I knew it I was weaving in and out of traffic on a highway, my hair blowing in the breeze.  It was exciting, but not that comforting.  I shouted to the driver to get off the highway.  He laughed.  But then he could, his head was protected, mine wasn’t.  Odd.

Taxi Meter

My first visit to Bangkok was pre-metro and sky trains.  Traffic was worse in the late 80’s then it is today.  Getting around meant hiring a tuk-tuk, of which there were thousands.  Or, you could hire an air-conditioned taxi.  Hiring either involved a negotiation.  No taxis had meters.  After hailing a taxi, you told the driver where you wanted to go, he would give a ridiculous figure, about two or three times the normal fare.  Then you would give a ridiculously low figure and hopefully arrive at an agreed fare somewhere higher than what a normal Thai person would pay.  It was a tedious game, especially going somewhere new with no idea of distance.

korean apples in bkk?  yes, of course, apples grow better in the colder climates

korean apples in bkk? yes, of course, apples grow better in the colder climates

Several years back on a pass-through trip I was delighted to learn that BKK passed a law requiring all taxis to have meters.  Getting around was so much less tedious without the back-and-forth game.  Now sadly, many taxis have gone to switching off their meters.  Several times I wanted to take a taxi to different areas of the city, only to hop into the cab and have the cabbie quote me a ridiculous price, while refusing to use the meter.   When I asked at the hotel why, they said it’s turned into the luck of the draw.  Some taxis use their meters, but many choose not to, knowing that non-locals will end up paying more.  Odd.

Bottom Line

…if there is one.  Bangkok is diverse and rich in vibrancy.  Sure, it’s crowded, polluted and humidly hot.  But the color trumps what some might otherwise consider the downside.  And some of its oddities may even add, in a strange way, to its attractiveness.

Huaxi, richest little village in China

That is its claim (without the ‘little’).  Located in Jiangyin, in Jiangsu Province, just a hop, skip and jump from where I’m living, Huaxi was transformed from a dirt-poor farming village in the 1960’s to a model-for-industry, corporation-city worth billions (usd), and listed on the Shenzen stock exchange.

This past Thursday, October 1, began National Holidays in China.  Officially, many take off for one week.  But industries like apparel making can only afford two days of celebration.  Luckily, the weather was good so a small group of us (ex-pats) took a leisurely bicycle trip to Huaxi.

on our way to Huaxi

on our way to Huaxi, courtesy of wide relaxed bike lanes

Home of the 15th tallest building in the world and 7th tallest in China, Huaxi is acknowledged by many as a model socialist village.  The residents are expected to know and understand the value of hard work and contribute to the greater good.  There are roughly 2,000 registered residents, each corporation shareholders.

coming into Huaxi.  they purposely capped the size of China's 7th tallest building out of respect to Beijing's building height.

coming into Huaxi. they purposely capped the size of China’s 7th tallest building out of respect to Beijing’s building height.

Huaxi — the good

All registered residents receive dividends which normally exceed their job earnings.  Every family is given rights to a mini-villa, every adult allotted enough for a luxury car, and all are entitled to free health care, education, and cooking oil.  They have average household incomes of better than 100,000 euros and maintain at least 250,000 euros in their bank accounts.

to remind the residents, and those who visit, the primary state of mind

to remind the residents, and those who visit, what Huaxi is ultimately about

Huaxi — the bad

Most residents are required to work seven days a week.  There are no bars, clubs, or internet cafes for social mingling as residents are expected not to have time for such leisure.  Corporation share prices could dive, reducing primary dividend income.

Huaxi — the ugly

Residents who decide to leave or move elsewhere loose everything. It’s understood that residents are encouraged not to talk with foreigners or the press.

To help power Huaxi’s industrial engine, 10’s of thousands of migrant workers live in surrounding dormitory housing and enjoy none of the local resident benefits.

where the residents live

resident villas

As far as the bicycle trip, what better way to spend an otherwise normal workday afternoon than peddling with a few coworkers, sharing an excuse to roam new roads, knowing we circled through China’s richest little village.

on the way, from left, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman, FS

a hidden temple stop: from left, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman, FS

 

from right: Dheeraj, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman

a short mingle with the field grass, from right: Dheeraj, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman

stopping for a respite by a small stream, heading back home

stopping for a respite by a small stream on the way back home.  From left: Karthik, Selva, Dheeraj, Usman, Shiv

what bike ride would be complete without noodles with peanut sauce and soy beans?

what bike ride would be complete without noodles with peanut sauce and soy beans?

and a few dumplings from a local dumpling shop

and a few dumplings from a local dumpling shop