Walking through Taksim

Posted in Travel at 11:17 by RjZ

The shuttle dropped us off early in the morning after an overnight bus ride back to Istanbul. The cheap hotel was around here somewhere, or so the bus service thought, but as we walked through Taksim square, quiet in the too early morning, we felt a bit lost.

Taksim in in the Morning

Even early in the morning the square is busy, but not with pedestrians; rather with cars buzzing around the complex intersection of several streets all radiating out in different directions. This is downtown, modern Turkey, and unlike graceful mosques and traditional cafés, Taksim looks like many cities around the world. It’s a striving to get to work, coffee in hand, we’ve got stuff to spot, with tall buildings, noisy traffic and bus stops.

As we made our way through the square and down the main shopping street, the remnants of a party, celebration, football victory, or just last night, were everywhere. City sanitation workers were making their way in the opposite direction picking up the mess of spent beer bottles, and fast food wrappers. It was quite a mess and we never discovered whether this was a rare event or just another night in Istanbul’s party neighborhood.

We made our way through the trash and through some shadier parts of town finally arriving, too early, at the hotel to stash our backpacks and see more of the city. Maybe the overnight trip wasn’t so convenient after all…no one was even awake to let us in.

Famous Taksim, so important to the Turks, left little impression on me. I just didn’t experience it the night before, likely a good time to understand why they think of it as the heart of the city. There are few interesting sights here for the tourist. Most of the famous mosques and landmarks are on the other side of the bridge a few kilometers from here, and I didn’t feel like a Starbucks coffee, so it had little to offer at 6 in the morning.

Yet, walking through it is more important than that. It’s easier than ever to see vibrant images of current events happening around the world, right in your internet browser, and doing so brings home the reality of our shared human condition. It’s also easier than ever to fly around the world and visit the places first hand. Maybe I was unimpressed by the local landmark during my short walk across, but it is one of the great values of travel that just brief visit can bring alive those vibrant pictures from the news and bring the people in them that much closer.

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Traveling blind

Posted in Travel at 10:42 by RjZ

I am in the waiting area, getting ready to board a flight to Israel. All around my is an enthusiastic group of Americans, most with pleasant southern accents and a polite smiles. They’re chatting excitedly with each other and many are wearing an ID stick of the “Hello, my name is…” type so that they can get to know the rest of their tour group. Standing next to me is an amiable gentleman who is stuck behind me and thus slightly isolated from his group. So I ask him, about his trip.

It’s his first time to Israel and he’s very happy to see everything there. The tour is going to be busy, but great. I ask about what they have planned and he rattles off a typical list: “Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Sea of Galilee, oh, and the Wailing Wall of course.” “Oh, that’s right next to the temple mount too,” I add. “The what?” comes his puzzled response. “Um, it’s the site of the Dome of the Rock, from which Mohammed is supposed to have ascended to heaven on his horse. It’s one of the holiest sites of Islam, right next to the holiest site in Judaism and walking distance from the spot where Christ is to have been crucified.” “Oh. I don’t know if we’ll have time for that…” he trails off.

His tour was arranged by a southern Baptist ministry and, obviously, will be concentrating on the Christian sites. I suspect they will see the Wailing Wall in passing (it’s hard to miss) and, who knows, the tour guides might have a different view about the golden dome of the Temple Mount, his sadly myopic view is embarrassing at best, and more likely, a bit sad.Religion has an uncanny knack of separating us into individual tribes yet even the modern internet makes it easier than ever before to put blinders on, sorting news for us so we don’t even have to learn about what we’re not interested in.

And it keeps the peace

Officially, Jews can’t visit the Temple Mount area. They can’t visit any churches in Jerusalem either, because, according to the rabbinical authorities Christianity is polytheistic (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and all). Normally, they’re allowed to visit Mosques (as Muslims and Jews vigorously agree about their being just one God), but the Temple Mount sits atop the site of the Second Temple, which traditionally houses the holy of holies, the Ark of the Covenant, the star of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today, many agree that this particular ban is actually good for peace, reducing inevitable friction between Jews and Muslims in tense Jerusalem, but some folks shared with me they wouldn’t visit any Mosques anyway, “as a Jew, I don’t feel safe there anyway.”

Each of the Abrahamic religions may teach “Love thy neighbor,” while their followers travel half way around the world or live right next door, and yet still can’t get to know each other.

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Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you

Posted in Society, Travel at 15:58 by RjZ

“When we were young,” my Israeli colleague told me “we lived in an apartment with both Jews and Arabs.” This is around 1993, after the first intifada in Israel and my colleague was about 9 or 10 years old at the time. He told me that the house superintendent was an Arab and, for the most part, an amiable friend to the families living in the apartment together. One day, alone with my colleague, the older man told the boy “if this were my country, I would kill you.”

Regardless of what you think of the the ham-handed responses of the Israeli government, even if you’re sure the Israeli army has waged war on innocents in southern Lebanon, and although Israeli’s themselves will admit that Arabs in their tiny nation are not always treated fairly, one thing remains clear. It’s easy to criticize, without having to experience living there.

Has Israel treated the Palestinians with fairness and respect? Perhaps not, but imagine living within rocket firing distance from the Gaza Strip. Israel is slightly smaller than New Jersey. What happens at the borders is local news! Even rioters in the streets of Los Angeles aren’t equipped with rocket propelled grenades or suicide bombing vests. Can you imagine an American, brought up with American exceptionalism and rugged individualism, not to mention liberal freedoms to possess guns, even considering just leaving things up to the government? Who knew? The average Israeli is the picture of moderation!

I’ve sometimes wondered why Israel doesn’t exercise its superior military power to simply eradicate its neighbors. Of course this would make them an international pariah for some time, but couldn’t the country, arguing it’s very existence, justify such a vehement reaction to the threats that surround them? I put this question to my colleague. He brushed it aside. In Israel, military service is obligatory. “We don’t want more war. People will die on both sides.” “But, Israel is certainly stronger than its neighbors,” I protested. “No one wants more people to die” he simply insisted.

Remember, this is the same man who, as a boy, was threatened by his neighbor. Can you imagine yourself reacting with so much restraint?

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Travel Photography – shoot like a pro, without taking the time

Posted in Photography, Travel at 15:29 by RjZ

I take pictures when I travel, but don’t travel to take pictures. Too bad. I’ve practiced the theory that if you go to pretty places and snap enough shots you’ll get some interesting photos, and that’s worked pretty darn well, but the really nice shots are just luck that way. Nothing wrong with that, but it can be frustrating to look at your photos upon return and wonder “what would it have taken to take some of those really amazing shots you saw before your journey?” I’d love to tell you, but the fact is, I don’t know and neither of us is likely to take the time anyway.

Instead of reminding you to stake out a location, discover the best angles and perfect light, and wait for just the right cloud bank, here are some ideas you can do without ruining your trip. Unless someone is paying you to travel to a far away place expressly for photography, then you too, likely have something you want to do during your visit, aside from watching the whole trip through a viewfinder. You could get those amazing shots by doing your homework, but amateur travel photographers, are almost always, first and foremost travelers, not photographers.

Out-and-back again

You’ll rarely have the time to really scope out a location and discover the best shots and the right framing. Often you’re doing the best you can with the lens on your camera when you happen to walk past something. If you’ve got multiple lenses you might notice a shot would be perfect with your telephoto, but moments later, the walk-around has to go back on the camera. All this lens swapping will slow you down. Instead, most outings, can be some sort of out-and-back deal. You walk around the church, or museum, or monument with one lens on, and walk back with another. During the first walk, snapping happily at whatever strikes your fancy, you giving a bit of thought to the other lens you’re going put on for the way back. It’s like doing a mini site review, and your traveling partners don’t even have to notice. The only caveat is that if you see something you think is interesting, by all means take the shot! You can’t be sure you’ll always get back, but you can always delete a few extra photos.

Plan dinner

There are times of the day when nearly everything is a winner. That time, right after sunset, for example, when a well exposed shot turns the sky a deep azure blue that contrasts so well with warm glowing spot lights on monuments. You’ve got to eat, but can’t it wait just a few minutes? It is truly a shame to be sitting at dinner when you could be out getting lucky snaps, over and over again. Maybe it’s not the best light for this location, or you haven’t found the perfect angle, but just delaying dinner a half hour can make all the difference in shots you’re proud of.

Never leave home without it

Most professionals may plan, and sit, and wait for the perfect shot, but they still get lucky now and again. You can’t take a lucky shot with your camera in the bag or back in a hotel room. I stay in hotels too cheap to trust with my camera, so I have the thing strangling me for the entire trip. The upside is that no matter what strikes my fancy, the camera is always ready.

More controversial is how much you drag with you. Rare is the traveler who is comfortable looking like a wedding photographer on assignment, with backup camera and extra lenses swinging from every limb, but, for the same reason that leaving your camera home means you’ll never catch a lucky shot, I suggest everyone weigh just how horrible it will be if they take a tripod, flash, or extra lens. It’s up to each person, and balancing your photography with your experience is a challenge, but remember, these things won’t do you any good at home. Mini tripods and sandbags are easy to pack and a heck of lot better than nothing.

Read a comic

Great scenery takes great patience, and loads of time which you don’t have. Instead, take advantage of how you and your friends will see the bulk of your pictures these days: several at a time. It takes time, planning and loads of talent/luck to make a single picture capture a story, but it’s way easier with three or four shots to tell same story . Instead of framing a single shot of something gorgeous you’ve come to see, imagine a page in a comic book, where  few well chosen panes capture the scene completely. You need an establishing shot, some action, some detailed close up, and if you’re lucky, some result of your scene. Maybe it’s you and your travel partner eating an ice-cream. An establishing shot of the street and ice-cream stand, a snap of your partner buying a scoop, a close up of the ice-cream, and finally, a couple of empty bowls. None of these shots is necessarily so amazing, but together, chances are you’ve made a charming vignette from your trip. Either way, you did have ice cream. Mmm, ice cream.

Professional planning takes time and experience, but even a little can go a long way and all these are can be ad hoc each day of your trip. You can capture both the fun you had and a bit of local culture all at the same time. Have the gear you need (and are willing to carry) and have it ready all of the time. Think just abit about what you’re taking a picture of and how it will look flattened out on paper or a computer screen, and you’ve already stepped up form taking snapshots. Finally, at the end of the day, or end of the trip, telling stories is what photography is about, even if you need the crutch of four shots and one walk-around lens to accomplish half of what the greats can with time, planning, patience and a Leica range finder or a medium format box camera. Most of them, didn’t have any sightseeing to do!

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Long way down to the desert

Posted in Travel at 15:13 by RjZ

In Patagonia I had a choice between “Mini-Trekking” and “Big Ice.” Even though it would later become clear that the difference between these two amounted only to more time looking at the same cracked expanse of glacier, there wasn’t really much question which one I was going to choose. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my father used to say each time I ordered food in a restaurant. Clearly I am still ignoring the lesson.

I had a choice in Rajasthan, India too. You could ride a camel to the middle of the desert and camp; you could go on a three hour tour of the local village and surrounding desert, or you could just ride one for a about ten minutes around the village. I was only in India and Nepal for a total of three weeks, so, my obvious choice would take too much time. I had to settle for only a few hours, since clearly, one couldn’t really get the feel of true camel riding in ten minutes. For that, you need three hours. Three hours is enough.

Camels are tall. You don’t really notice that when you see one walking by. You think: “It’s like a horse.” It’s big and it can carry a load or a person or two; it’s just an oddly shaped horse. In real life, they’re almost two meters (more than six feet) tall at the shoulder and you sit a bit further back on a stack of blankets packed over the hump. Camels are known as the ships of the desert because of the way they pitch forward and backward, as they lurch across waves and waves of dunes. It’s probably quite possible to become seasick riding of the back of a camel. It’s smooth for them, with long necks absorbing the swaying and rocking, but the hump is moving around like a carnival ride. Behind me each of us on our tour is a colorfully dressed Rajasthani, often smoking a local herb cigarette (no, not that herb; more like burning leaves) out of corner of his mouth like a stereotypical carny-ride operator.

My camel, we’ll call her Alka, was a lovely lass with poor teeth and an unpleasant looking stick through her nostrils. Alka was driven by a quiet man in an orange turban and cream colored robes. He would bark at her so that she’d bend down on her front “knees” and I could climb up and then tug on her nose stick a few times so that she would rise again. This trip upwards to a standing position seemed to take a great deal of effort for Alka and the other camels, because each would gargle and growl the whole way up, bitterly complaining about having first to kneel and now to stand and couldn’t this guy make up his mind? The bobbing and bouncing as Alka ascends to what feels like the second story is the second most thrilling part of the carnival ride (the first being her stooping back down on her “knees” to get off).

We walked slowly through the village with some locals looking at us with bored stares. We looked into some homes feeling a bit awkward about our strange and staged glimpse into village life, and then made our way into the scrub desert. Alka stepped lightly over the desert scrub which seemed so distant, down there. Occasionally the guide behind me would tug on her stick and she would gargle back at him, sometimes taking a moment to spit or turn around and give him a long-eyelashed evil eye. Gripping tightly with my knees to the blanket, there’s no saddle or stirrups, the whole thing started to seem rather monotonous pretty quickly. Only two more hours, I thought.

This isn't Alka. Actually this is another camel from Jordan.
This isn’t Alka. It’s another camel from Jordan.

“Can she go faster?” I asked. “Can we trot a bit?” “She’s old,” my silent guide whispered. But then, he kicked her lightly and barked at her and Alka began to trot. A trot for an animal with legs each two meters long is remarkably fast. The desert began to fly by and the balls of black brush moved past like irregular lines on a lonely highway. Suddenly, Alka tripped. She must have missed footing somehow with a front leg because now the ground was rushing up to me at incredible speed. I could see that I’d crash next to her twisted neck while piles of blankets, a large Rajasthani man, and about a half a ton of camel landed on top. Instead of becoming a pile of tourist attraction about an hour into the desert, Alka caught her self and and stumbled to a more a less normal gait. The guide said “harumpf”, and I squeezed even harder with my thighs against the coarse blanket for the rest of the trip.

We returned to the village and Alka lowered us once again, groaning, growling, and gargling as much as before. I released my leg-grip on the blanket and disembarked. The next morning we left the village and I could see some other tourists getting ready for their cheesy ten minute tour on the back of a camel. Smugly, I knew that their brief experience wouldn’t compare to my true adventure. Sure, aside from imagining myself being crushed by a camel and having to breathe in the smell of a burning-leaf cigarette for an extra two hours, there wasn’t much difference between their ride and mine. But, you know, no ‘mini-camel trekking’ for me! Would they really get to know Alka on a first name basis? Would they get to share a near-death experience with her? Would their legs hurt as much as mine did now from trying desperately to hold on for two hours? I didn’t think so!

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Whirr, click. Next slide please.

Posted in Photography, Travel at 17:06 by RjZ

How many of us even remember the whirring sound of the slide projector and the clunky clacking as it progressed from one image to the next? Slideshows used to be made with, well, slides. Individual, analog, pieces of celluloid that best captured the color and saturation of photos taken from some far away journey or remote location. All that saturation was likely wasted on the crappy screen or dying projector lamp, but it made the purists feel good that it was there, recorded in the image forever.

Even if you’re too young to have experienced the archtypal slide-show, you may still have had to sit through friends showing you pictures, one-at-a-time, and describing every detail of each image in what eventually becomes a droning blur. Actually, (depending on the speaker, I suppose) that doesn’t bother me at all, which goes a way in explaining my own style of blabbering for an hour long presentation of, what essentially, are only vacation photos. I can see how others might be scared off.

After most trips, I sort through a few thousand digital photos; carefully winnowing them down to, maybe a few thousand – 10; and research a bunch of things I should have known during the trip about the sites I’ve recorded. Then I send out an e-mail to local friends, inviting them to come over and sit in a dark room for an hour or more and look at my pictures while I talk over them. Snacks are included. It’s a wonder anyone ever comes, and even more surprising that they’ve come more than once.

Showing off your pictures to a dozen friends and hoping they won’t hate you for asking them to come, changes bit about how you take pictures. I’m learning to strike a balance between styles. There’s documentation snapshots: this is a picture of the pyramids, look, you can see the pyramids there and they’re big. Then, there’s the arty: just look at the bokeh (yeah, that got mentioned) in this shot of a chinese door knob. How do you know it’s in China? Um, well, it looks kinda Chinese and, um, the date on the photo’s EXIF data is during my trip there, so it’s gotta be from there. Nice shot, don’t you think?

I don’t go for the one-slide-at-a-time mode of presentations. People have seen movies. Regressing to anything less than 20 frames per minute is too slow for our attention starved world to tolerate. I wouldn’t see it as a compliment if people had time to look at their phones and text while I was telling them useless facts about how high that mountain is or how old this temple. The slides tick on by with my discussion about what we’re seeing. Sometimes it works well, sometimes I can’t finish a story in time, but hey, how much rehearsal do you want? You’re not paying for this!

As a result, I can afford to show a load of images (a thousand photos at four seconds per is still just a bit over an hour). I can document, with snapshots, and have a few pretty ones hoping for the coveted ooohs and aaahs, but what I am (all too) slowly teaching myself is to be a journalist. A good photo, even if up there for only a few seconds, captures something about the place; it tells a story; a unique story.

People connect, above all, with people. When I first started capturing snapshots I always waited and waited until people had finally left the frame. I still do it, but more and more, I’ve realized that people make nearly every shot better. Cerro Torre? beautiful. Cerro Torre with a solitary hiker making her way to the glacier? Beautiful and interesting. (No, I didn’t capture that!) I don’t yet know how to record good stories in a single frame. Today, I keep the camera with me for the whole trip and try to think about that slideshow later. I try to build up a story around the site: what was it like to get here, how did we travel, what did we eat? I can’t be sure if this is working, but somehow people do ask when the next show is going to be, so I’m on the right track. No matter, I am confident that having a purpose for my photos improves my photography. Or maybe people come by for the food. It could be the food.

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Voluntourism: what do they want?

Posted in Society, Travel at 18:39 by RjZ

Voluntourism is emerging as an important and growing alternative to traditional tourism. Wealthy and priviledged people are now flying half way a across the world armed not only with cameras, but with hammers and nails. They are building houses and trails, schools and sanitation sanitation systems. These journies enable busy people to become more connected with their world and the people in it; even if they’re not in our backyard.

Like a Peace Corp volunteer just two-weeks at a time, doing morally good and rewarding work; it’s pretty cynical to search for a downside in such an endeavor. Yet there is room for concern. Author Paul Theroux writes at length in his book Dark Star Safari of the harm honest charities do to societies they are only trying to help. The sheer volume of wealthy westerners searching for rewarding, short term experiences must raise a questioning eyebrow.

How many simple, two week, tasks are available in any given region? Are these activities replacing earning opportunities for the locals with free labor from the well-off? Religious charities may be confident that, even if they’re not effective in helping people, at least they are offering them the opportunity to see the light of their chosen religion. That seems like a good idea until the helped return to proselytize the missionaries. How will the people of Louisiana feel when wealthy Iranian muslims come to minister to them while rebuilding hurricane damage?

When Charles Darwin first visited the naked, nomadic Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, he thought of them as “miserable, degraded savages”. He wrote “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man” The ship’s crew took three Yaghani back with them to Merry ol’ England, taught them English and enlightened them from the Good Book. They were returned to the tip of the world with new clothes, and given a huts to live in, hopefully to minister teachings of civilization to their people. A later visit found our English speaking Yaghan happily naked, his hut deserted and in disrepair. It seems that even after a year of English luxury, they had even been introduced at the royal court, they preferred their original, ‘primitive’ lives. Offered the chance to return England the native is reported as saying he had “not the least wish to return to England” as he was “happy and contented” with “plenty fruits,” “plenty fish,” and “plenty birdies.”see page 216)

According to Voluntourism.org, most participants return from their journeys feeling that they were the “benefactor, altruist, servant…whereby ‘riches’ flow to the recipient from” those they had come to help. Voluntourism is described by participants themselves as “life-changing”, “transformative” , “they changed my foundation.”

Phrases like that ought to be red flags. Not because there is anything wrong with getting a personal benefit from our actions or that there should be anything at all wrong from having selfish reasons for your trip. Indeed, I think these may be the real and valid justifications that will someday make voluntourism a successful endeavor for everyone. Like Theroux, I don’t question the sincerity of travelers or charities. Instead, I just wonder how carefully we’ve analyzed our intent to do good compared with all the unintended consequences of our actions. The real work of the budding voluntourist must begin long before the journey begins; doing one’s best to weed out the ethically dubious tour operators, ego-stroking guides, and western biases from the growing choices that will enrich our lives and share our wealth. It might be easiest to start at home.

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Posted in Travel at 14:14 by RjZ

Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu sùshí shípǐn ma? That’s what I was trying to say. It’s supposed to be Chinese for “Do you have vegetarian food?” (Actually, I was leaving out the formal greeting”Ni” at the beginning and the question word “ma” at the end because that’s what my guide book said.) Who knows what it actually sounds like when it comes out of my mouth because it almost never worked. I tried shortening it to “no meat, please,” figuring that I was messing up pronunciation somewhere and so fewer words would mean fewer chances for mistakes. I’d tried similar strategies to request food without meat in other countries like Thailand and had similar lack of success, once receiving a plate of meat only.

Nearing the end of my trip to China I met a British expat who gave me a new phrase which actually worked! (Of course, I can’t remember it, so I’ll be back to picking out the meat during my next visit to China.) The funny thing about the new phrase is that it was longer and more complex. I took a step back when this jumble of syllables came out of his mouth the first time, explaining my strategy of simpler being better. Actually, more is better, he countered.

He’s right. Language and communication is like a data transmission with error correction protocol. A checksum is a chunk of transmitted information that is sent in addition to the intended data which makes it possible to verify that what they sent is what you received. We transmit more data to ensure that anything gets through at all. The same is true for the NATO phonetic alphabet. November-Oscar Mike-Echo-Alfa-Tango is much harder to say than “no meat,” but the extra information ensures that the data is accurate. It’s particularly valuable when the information isn’t words, but data, like a map quadrant or serial number.

Imagine a foreign speaker of English who asks only “weh tooret?” You might guess from context he needs, very urgently, to pee, but asking for something out of the ordinary like vegetarian food (hey, I was in China!) isn’t obvious even if after a series of hand gestures. The more words we mis-pronounce, the better chance we have of guessing what was intended by deciphering the words we actually did understand. The extra words, even badly pronounced, are like checksums for the the mess we’ve made of the language transmission.

It might be a bit counter-intuitive to some, but when trying to communicate in foreign language, it’s often best to plow through, saying whatever you can, in as many ways as you can, instead of dwelling on one or two words that the locals clearly don’t understand. The same is surprisingly true when all you can do is speak slowly and clearly in English and hope folks have seen enough Hollywood movies to pick up a word or two. They’ll have a better chance with more info than less.

Looks like computers can teach us more about about human communication than just confusing online translators. (If you actually speak the language you used Google translate for, you’d likely never actually use what comes out of it!) Think of all your extra gibberish as an error correcting checksum. Maybe you’ll even get what you ordered next time.

Edit, 7 Feb 2012: Stephen Wolfram agrees with my speculation here. Describing how Apple’s Siri works with Wolfram Alpha, Wolfram describes how spoken requests have more information and are thus easier to parse.

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Best ice cream ever

Posted in Travel at 12:34 by RjZ

Even compared to Italy? That’s what everyone says when I say Argentina has the best ice cream in the world. Yup. Italian ice is amazing. And it’s served in more extravagant concoctions than ice cream from an Argentine heladeria (ice cream shop). Argentine ice cream is obviously influenced by the Italian variety, but where Italians rarely serve their sweet confections in a cone, opting for artful glass bowls and adding cookies and toppings, most heladerias stuff a waffle cone full and then swirl another flavor on top in a staggeringly tall cone of goodness, and that’s it.

Argentine Ice Cream
Argentine Deliciousness

Shops offer dozens of flavors, including multiple variations on Argentine favorite dulce de leche. Most are handmade in the shop and, while it’s possible to find Ola and Nestle and other world famous brands of packaged ice cream at convenience stores, it’s not clear why anyone would want to.

Ice cream is just as popular in hot and humid Buenos Aires as it is at 11:00 at night in cold and windy Patagonia. There doesn’t seem to be a time or reason necessary for ice cream and we saw kids and adults wandering in shops or sitting down to enjoy a lick any time they could. Once we’d tried it, we could see why.

But why? It’s smooth and creamy and never icy. Where U.S ice cream (which is quite good, thank you very much…nobody has more flavors than Americans do!) often separates into a bit of water and melt if you don’t eat fast enough, Argentine helado which was soft enough to easily scrape out of the the buckets was also consistent enough to remain unmelted the whole time. The helado was sweet, of course, but fruit flavors like Patagonia’s famous Calafate berry (legend states that once tasted, you must return to Patagonia) were aromatic and tart, while ubiquitous dulce de leche tasted of warmth and baking.

Or maybe it’s the way it’s always stirred and swirled, like American chain Cold Stone. Or maybe it’s all natural and homemade? Or maybe it’s all the terrible industrial chemicals and polymers that they have yet to forbid in latin American? All I know for sure is that this is stuff you just sit there marveling at while eating and wondering if maybe you should order another couple of cones and just skip dinner!

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Because UNESCO told me so

Posted in Travel at 17:40 by RjZ

I feel sorry for Uruguay. I didn’t see very much of it, and I am quite sure it’s a lovely place with friendly people, untouched beaches, and plenty to do. And heck, they clearly have some very effective people doing their public relations, because Colonia del Sacramento sure gets raves. It’s even a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Except, I really can’t see why.

Charming 18th century facade in
Colonia del Sacramento

That’s not to say the tiny town isn’t worth visiting. The barrio histórico (historical neighborhood) is lined with original cobbled streets and 18th century houses. The town is historically interesting as a pirate’s den and black market trading zone and even today celebrates it’s history a free trade zone and an extremely popular destination for ferries from Buenos Aires.

The thing is, it costs $128 for two people to take the ferry over and you either have to arrive and leave the same day with only a few hours to visit (this is what you should do) or spend the night so you’ll have enough time to take in the multiple museums in this, like I said, UNESCO World Heritage site (do this only if you have a long trip and time to kill).

While we were deciding between those options I was considering all the World Heritage Sites I’ve been to. On this trip, we’d just been to Los Glaciares National Park and walked on a river of ice moving two meters per day. (Tour not withstanding, the Perito Moreno glacier is not to be missed.) World Heritage Sites don’t disappoint. A complete list of sites shows some of world’s unmistakable destinations.Khajaraho, India is on there. Regensburg, Germany is there. Angkor Wat made the list as well. So lofty is the list that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t make it. Neuschwanstein Castle doesn’t rate either. With that in mind, the bus price and a night’s stay make sense, and at the end of the day, I figured it would be cheaper than making it up to another UNESCO site, Iguazu Falls. One site is as good as another, right?

That’s why, after about an hour walking through the town, I started to wonder who paid off the folks at UNESCO to include Colonia? According to UNESCO, sites have to be nominated and then they are selected based a list of criteria. The best I can figure, Colonia get’s un under the wire based on:

2. to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

Not that the town was “planned.” It was handed back and forth between the Portuguese and Spanish half a dozen times but I suppose that exchange represents a “significant interchange of human values.” Colonia is now doubt important to Uruguay and to its history. No wonder school children were roaming its streets on field trips. That’s fine! And I can’t knock them for promoting the little town, it was, indeed, fairly charming. It’s just that I expected a bit more from a UNESCO registered site and had I known, I might have spent less time, or just forked over the cash for the Iguazu Falls.

So go. Have lunch, enjoy. If you’re in the area, and there wasn’t much chance I’d be in Uruguay any time soon, I’d even recommend it. Just know what you’re getting. While you’re there, see if you can tell me who they had to pay to get listed. ‘Cause I’m thinking Louisville, Colorado needs to be included too!

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