Category: Travels

Claims made by intelligent Alaskans

I am not endorsing these, or claiming these propositions are the entire story, but I heard a number of interesting claims during my trip.  Here are a few:

1. Ranked choice voting has worked relatively well for Alaska, by encouraging more moderate candidates.

2. Faculty at U. Alaska are not rabid crazy, because the locale selects for those who are into hunting and fishing, and that keeps them from the worst excesses of academic life.

3. The oil-based “UBI” in Alaska keeps down government spending, because voters feel that any money spent is being spent at their expense.

4. Health care costs are a major problem up here, mostly because there is not enough scale to support many hospitals.

5. When air travel shuts down, due to say ash from Russian volcanos, the local blood bank runs into problems either testing its blood donations or getting out-of-state blood.

6. East Anchorage has perhaps the largest number of languages in its high school student population of anywhere in the United States.  Some of this stems from the large number of different kinds of Alaska Natives, some of it stems from having many Samoans, Hawaiians, Hmong, and other migrant groups.

7. Resources for Alaska Natives are often held through the corporate form (with restrictions on share transferability), rather than tribes, and this has worked fairly well.

8. Starlink has had a major impact on the more remote parts of Alaska, which otherwise had internet service not much better than “dial up” quality.

9. For a while there were direct flights from Chengdu to Fairbanks, due to Chinese interest in the “Northern Lights” phenomenon.

10. The population of Anchorage turns over by about ten percent each year, with only some of this being driven by the military.

11. For a human, a moose is a greater risk than a bear.

Personally, I observe that the university in Anchorage is more pro-GPT than other academic groups I have had contact with.  Might this be due to their distance from the center, their frontier mentality, and the possible scarcity of skilled labor here?

Travel philosophies for the well-traveled

How should you choose your next trip?  I can see a few general philosophies on the table:

1. Prioritize those countries and regions you haven’t visited yet.  For me that might mean Montenegro, Lithuania, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.  But the downside is waking up one morning and saying “Hey, what the hell am I doing in Sardinia!?”

2. Get to know some of your favorite places truly in depth, most of all major cities that are easy to reach and often are connected to free or paid invitations.  For me that would imply more trips to London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin — you get the picture.  Under this view, the returns to variety are diminishing.  And have I ever regretted stopping in on those places?

3. Try to visit “events,” especially temporary events.  Right after the Berlin Wall came down, I did a big car trip around Eastern Europe.  Loved it.  Perhaps these days I should be stopping in at Neom, flying to Lviv, and so on.  Those historical moments will never be recaptured.  And usually such trips are memorable.

4. Do more trips with the friends you value most, and go wherever will maximize their interest and participation.  You already know the world, people are what make life special, and now it is time to “give back” your expertise.

How to decide!?  WWGPTS?

There is also the approach I discussed with Nabeel:

5. Figure out, within the bounds of safety and reasonable expense, where you really don’t want to go.  Then go there!  Expectations and surprise are everything, right?  And how else are you to develop a truly diversified portfolio?  Won’t you this way learn the most?

I am indebted to Ben Casnocha for a relevant conversation here, though without holding him liable for any of these views.

Addendum: GPT-4 opts for #3:

As an experienced traveler, if I were to pick only one of the philosophies, I would choose to visit events and historical moments (Philosophy 3). The reason for this choice is that it allows for unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that capture the essence of a particular time and place. Such trips often become memorable stories that you’ll cherish for a lifetime.

By prioritizing events and historical moments, you immerse yourself in situations that reveal the true character of a destination and its people, as well as provide valuable insights into the forces that shape societies and cultures. Additionally, this approach can lead to a greater appreciation for the world’s interconnectedness, as you witness firsthand the impact of global events on different regions.

While this philosophy might not cover all aspects of a well-rounded travel experience, it offers a powerful way to engage with the world and create lasting memories that will enrich your life beyond the confines of a single trip.

What should I ask Jonathan Swift?

Yes, I would like to do a Conversation with Jonathan “G.P.T.” Swift.  Here is Wikipedia on Swift, excerpt:

Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, author, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet, and Anglican cleric who became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, hence his common sobriquet, “Dean Swift”.

Swift is remembered for works such as A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729). He is regarded by the Encyclopædia Britannica as the foremost prose satirist in the English language.[1] He originally published all of his works under pseudonyms—such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M. B. Drapier—or anonymously. He was a master of two styles of satire, the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.

His deadpan, ironic writing style, particularly in A Modest Proposal, has led to such satire being subsequently termed “Swiftian”.

So what should I ask him?  I thank you in advance for your suggestions.

My excellent Conversation with Paul Salopek

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic fellow who, at the age of 50, set out on foot to retrace the steps of the first human migrations out of Africa. The project, dubbed the “Out of Eden Walk,” began in Ethiopia in 2012 and will eventually take him to Tierra Del Fuego, a distance of some 24,000 miles.

Calling in just as he was about to arrive in Xi’an, he and Tyler discussed his very localized supply chain, why women make for better walking partners, the key to crossing deserts, the most difficult terrain to traverse, what he does for exercise, his information prep for each new region, how he’s kept the project funded, why India is such a good for walkers, which cuisines he’s found most and least palatable, what he learned working the crime beat in Roswell, New Mexico, how this project challenges conventional journalism, his thoughts on the changing understanding of early human migration, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: What’s true is true. How is it that you crossed the desert? You’ve been through some of the Gulf States, I think.

SALOPEK: Yes, I’ve been through several deserts. The first was the Afar Desert in north Ethiopia, one of the hottest deserts in the world, and then the Hejaz in western Saudi Arabia, and then some big deserts in Central Asia, the Kyzyl Kum in Uzbekistan.

You cross deserts with a great attentiveness. You seem to want to speed up to get through them as quickly as possible, but often, they require slowing down, and that seems counterintuitive. You have to walk when the temperatures are congenial to your survival. Sometimes that means walking at night as opposed to the day. It means maybe not covering the distances that you would in more moderate climates.

Deserts are like a prickly friend. You approach them with care, but if you invest the time, they’re pretty inspiring and remarkable. There are reasons why old hermits go out into the deserts to seek visions. I was born in a desert. I was born in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, so I’m partial to them, maybe even by birth.

COWEN: Do you find deserts to be the most difficult terrain to cross?

SALOPEK: No, I find alpine mountains to be far trickier. Deserts can be fickle. Deserts can kill you if you’re not careful. Of course, water is the most limiting factor for survival.

But alpine mountain weather is so unpredictable, and a very sunny afternoon can turn into a very stormy late afternoon in a very quick time period. Threats like rock falls, like avalanches, blizzards — those, for me, are far more difficult to navigate than deserts. Also, I guess having been born in the subtropics, I don’t weather the cold as well, so there’s that bias thrown in.

COWEN: What do you do for exercise?

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Newfoundland notes, St. John’s and environs

“Canada’s youngest province and Britain’s oldest colony” is what some of them say.

About 60 percent of St. John’s is Irish in background, and most people in the city above age 45 have a noticeable Irish accent, albeit with some Canadianisms thrown in.  Those accents are close to those of Waterford, Ireland, and many Irish from the southeast of the country came over in the 1790-1820 period.  The younger residents of St. John’s sound like other Canadians.

If you walk into the various pubs and houses of music, of which there are quite a few, you are most likely to hear offshoot forms of acoustic Celtic folk music.

The scenery of St. John’s reminds me of the suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand.  On top of that, many of the homes are Victorian, as in the Wellington area.  In St. John’s the row homes are called “jellybeans” because of their bright colors.  They are in a uniform style because of a major fire in the city in 1892.  A jellybean house near center city now runs between 300k-400k Canadian, the result of a big price hike once some offshore oil was discovered.  The city is hilly and the major churches are Anglican, even though the Irish migrants were almost entirely Catholics.

Indians and Filipinos are playing some role in revitalizing the city.  Not long ago about one thousand Ukrainians arrived.

In the Sheraton hotel the old mailbox is still “Royal Mail Newfoundland” and not “Royal Mail Canada.”  Newfoundland of course was a dominion country of its own from 1907-1934, and a legally odd part of Britain 1934-1949, when it joined Canada through a 52% referendum result.  In 1890 a NAFTA-like trade agreement was negotiated with the United States, but Canada worked Great Britain to nix the whole thing.  A later agreement in 1902 was in essence vetoed by New England.  Newfoundland had earlier rejected confederation with Canada in 1860.

Newfoundland ran up major debts in WWI, and tried to relieve them by selling Labrador to Canada.  Canada refused.

Apart from the major museum (“The Rooms”), there are few signs of the indigenous.

Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message on Signal Hill on December 12, 1901.  In the 1950s, Gander was the world’s busiest international airport, because of all the planes that could not cross the Atlantic directly.

As you might expect to find in a small country, but not in a small province, you regularly meet people who seem too smart or too attractive for their current jobs.  Many head to Calgary, but a lot of them don’t want to leave.

It has the warmest winter of any Canadian province.

Terre is the place to eat.  The scallops are excellent everywhere.  Fish and chips are a specialty too.

I would not say it is radically exciting here, but overall I would be long St. John’s.  If nothing else, it makes for an excellent three-day weekend or nature-oriented week-long trip, and I hardly know any Americans who have tried that.

Amritsar is underrated

The Sikh Golden Temple is for me India’s best sight, far more appealing than the Taj Mahal.  Would you rather see a mausoleum or a living, breathing site full of human joy?  The buildings are remarkably well done and most beautiful at dusk.  The site is clean and largely maintained by volunteers, a triumph of Sikh civil society.  More people should come here!

The surrounding shops in the pedestrian zone are appealing, and the primary touristy element is directed at Sikh and Hindu pilgrims, not to Westerners.

The food is first-rate, even by Indian standards.  Lentils, spinach, mustard leaves, and kulcha soaked with ghee are some of the local specialties.  You can eat butter chicken as it was intended, or fish fry.  The lassis and raitas are almost as good as those in neighboring Pakistan.  Kesar da Dhaba would be my top pick for a restaurant.

And you can stay in a five-star hotel for about $100 a night, excellent swimming pool and restaurant to boot.

How good is the food in Cali?

The guidebooks say that Cali has worse food than Bogotá or Medellin.  Two people I know, both from Cali, wrote to tell me that Cali has worse food.  It is true that Cali does not have the fine dining culture of the two larger cities.  And yet…  When I visited the food market in Bogotá, about half of the stalls were serving Mexican food.  The rest seemed decent but uninspired.  The two meals I had in the food stalls in the Alameda market in Cali were perhaps the two best (and cheapest) meals of the whole trip, and original too, at least to me.

n = 2 does not suffice for inference.  And yet…

Cork notes

It is a lovely town to walk in, seems to have better weather than Dublin, and Honan Chapel is to my mind Ireland’s single greatest sight.  Most of the time, you can look around in any direction — not just the best direction — and see pleasing sights.  So I can heartily recommend a visit.

But I am puzzled by the near-complete absence of restaurant food, at least in the city centre.  You can walk for half an hour and maybe see only one or two places you would even consider eating in.  Especially at lunch time.  So many places open at five.  Other places close at three.  I’ve not been looking for “a standard mid-level pizzeria,” but at times I would have settled for one but I never saw one.  Not once.  There are a reasonable number of coffee places that serve some sandwiches.  Only a small number of pubs serve much food.  I saw two Chinese restaurants, neither of which seemed appealing.  I walked for at least ten minutes from the main cinema down a main street — nothing, not one place to eat.  Many neighborhoods, whether residential or commercial, seem to have zero restaurants whatsoever.  No fish and chips takeaways either.

I looked for Indian food, and was pleased to walk by Eastern Tandoori across from the opera house.  The wooden sign out on the street says they open at 5 p.m.  But they don’t, and if you dig deep enough on the web you will find they are closed until July 1.  I didn’t find any other (actually open) Indian restaurant to eat at.  I ate at Ignite (Pakistani, and quite excellent).  Their Facebook page says they open at noon, but alas no they open at 5 p.m.  Many other restaurants exist on paper but seem to never open, and this is in a prosperous and bustling town.  It is easier to find a barbershop here, or a book store.

The English Market, the main place to buy raw ingredients in town, is excellent.  It has one OK cafe upstairs, and that closes well before dinner time.  It is fine for a chowder and some smoked trout spread, but not too much more.

Nor is the city inundated with American fast food.  Nor does Dublin have this problem.

Within an hour of Cork city centre, there are numerous excellent restaurants, including with Michelin stars.  Cork is set in the heart of Irish food country, believe it or not.  Breads and cheeses are excellent.

So what gives?  Why are the corporate entities here so reluctant to sell me cooked food?

James Person’s Hawaii bleg

Could you please recommend or ask your readers’ recommendations for books about Hawaiian history and culture? I am visiting the state for the first time and like to approach my travels with a deeper understanding as you exemplify in your MR travel posts. Thank you for your time and help and especially for MR and Conversations!

Your assistance for James would be much appreciated!

Notes from Tavira, Portugal

The so-called “Lisbon earthquake” of 1755 in fact occurred near Tavira, which explains why so much of the city was rebuilt in a relatively consistent Portuguese Baroque style.

The best parts of town are scattered along the edges of the center, not in the center itself.  The overall Moorish feel remains, and oranges are grown in the surrounding countryside.

There is in fact nothing to do here.  That said, the town is consistently lovely and you will find few chain stores or fast food outlets.  The real problem is that Portugal is depopulating, and within depopulating Portugal Tavira is itself depopulating in both absolute and relative terms.  Many buildings are uninhabited and they are beginning to fall apart.

I am not sure I have seen an older town, and that includes a variety of stints in Japan.

It is very difficult to use one’s credit cards here, and it is not because they have leapfrogged to some more advanced means of payment.

For dining, I recommend the snack bar attached to the seafood market, on the far left corner as you look at the market.  They serve what is perhaps the best broccoli I ever have had.  It is also full of “characters,” salty men of the sea types.

More generally, I recommend the orangey snacky pastry thing, famous locally.  Pork and clams is a classic regional dish, cod to me is overrated.  Garbanzo beans are deployed profusely.  The seafood is excellent in quality, though too often it is put in a decent but not really interesting tomato broth.  It is worth a cab ride to the food market in nearby Faro, a larger town.

There are numerous Indian restaurants, but I haven’t run across a single Chinese locale, nor seen a single Chinese person here.

Visitors to Tavira do not regret it, but neither do they say “I wish I had come many years earlier!”

Patagonia, Argentina — St. Martin de los Andes

One of the lovelier spots on the planet, and with excellent food.  Thise town has about 35,000 people, and architecture based on Swiss chalets and northern German churches.  It is a jumping off point for exploring the surrounding countryside, but very charming in its own right.  And there is no larger population center anywhere nearby!

Now I am back!