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How to Travel Without Embarrassing Your Country

“Don’t be a dick, kids. Don’t be a dick.” — Wil Wheaton

I’m not going to name names in this post.  The events being referred to, however, may seem familiar. I’m going to start out with this simple statement: When you travel, you are a representative of your country. You are an ambassador for your people. You are a guest in someone’s house.  You don’t have to be a high-profile celebrity to make us all look bad on an international stage. You just have to forget the common sense and manners your mama (hopefully) taught you.

Here a few quick examples of what not to do in a foreign country to avoid making the rest of us look like total d-bags.

Don’t Touch the Art!

The American tourist who sparked outrage in Florence after he snapped a finger off a priceless 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary in a museum was today revealed to be an emergency surgeon from Connecticut.

This goes for any museum, but especially ones with priceless 600-year-old statues. I don’t care if you want to get a closer look. I don’t care if you’re a doctor. You don’t just risk breaking the statue but robbing us all of a chance to see a priceless work that has survived generations of wars and turmoil that could have blown it to bits. Your thoughtless, selfish action is an insult to all the sacrifices that have been made to protect that statue over the years.

Respect the monuments and cultural heritage of your hosts. It doesn’t matter how hot it is; do not go swimming in a public fountain in Rome or anywhere. I understand that some one may fall in or there might be a spontaneous act of love like Forest Gump and the Reflecting Pool. But when you dress in a bathing suit and take a dip in a fountain that in many ways is still a public water source you are making an ass out of yourself.

Don’t Try to Be Impressive (Because You’re Not)

We witnessed this one in person.  A single dude staying at our tented camp on the Serengeti was sitting at a table with another group of travelers waxing on (and on, and ON) about the “circle of life” as if he stumbled onto that concept all on his own. He sounded like a pretentious d-bag.

Please, Don’t Break the Law

I think this last one goes for anywhere, at home or abroad. Don’t urinate in public, don’t trash a gas station bathroom, and don’t lie about it to the police.

When you behave badly you make the rest of the respectful travelers feel embarrassed to say where we are from. I want to say with pride I’m from the USA. I once lied while traveling and said I was from Toronto because of a recent (and particularly bad) incident on the part of a fellow citizen. Most of the time when someone asks I say I’m a Marylander.

/rant

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Otakon 2016 preview

The end of the more than decade long run of Otakon, an anime and Japanese pop culture festival, in Baltimore is coming to an end. The three day long festival is moving on after 17 years at the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon will open its doors one last time in Charm City before moving down the road to Washington, DC. The convention that once ranked in the top three anime conventions in the U.S. lost its title because it needed more space to grow. Otakon has found that room 60 miles to the south with its eyes on regaining its leading role in the Anime Convention community.
“We want to grow because the more people that attend the more money we are able to spend creating a better convention experience,” says John C. Gluth, Otakon’s 2016 Convention Chair.
We know from experience that Otakon is an amazing celebration of Otaku culture and this year we are going to have one hell of a party saying goodbye to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.  You can still register at https://www.otakon.com/

The convention is packed with something for everyone who loves anime, manga and jpop culture. The Otakon pregame on thursday night is an outdoor music festival with a Yukata contest, to select their version of a Miss Otakon. A yukata is similar to a kimono, but made from cotton and not silk. The contestants will be judged on the beauty and design of the yukata and the poise  to which its presented. The convention will have all sorts of panels to attend as well, from favorite shows of the 80’s to feminism in animation.  You can also attend meet and greets of voice actors of your favorite anime.  Have you ever wanted to experience the life of the rich and have a maid wait on you hand and foot? Well you can by stopping by the maid cafe (reservations needed) where costumed maids will serve you tea and call you master.

We think one of the best parts of the convention is the “Artists Alley”.  A large room at the convention center filled with talented artist from all over the area  showing their skill and selling their work.  You don’t have to love anime or manga to appreciate their talent.

If you don’t want to go to the convention but still want to get a taste of what it is like just hang around the Inner Harbor this weekend to see a constant parade of cosplayers.  The costumes created by fans can be extremely simple of very complex and intricate.  A great photo spot is by the fountains near the convention center. If you like some ones costume just say so, they’ll enjoy the complement. If you want a picture more than often they will oblige.  I’ll be there Friday, Saturday, Sunday making all sorts of amazing new friends.

Andi Gilbert -as prof. Bun-bun (Otakon 2015)

Andi Gilbert -This cute little bunny has a blood lust, so be careful. (Otakon 2015)

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Olympic Introduction

The 2016 Olympic games kicked off on Friday night and along with that the parade of nations.  Olympians march into the stadium under their flag and full of pride. I was also surprised that there were a handful of countries that I’d never heard of. I consider myself pretty good at geography, and for an entire country to be off my radar is embarrassing.  So, here is a shout out and a little respect to some of the lesser-known nations.

Benin has six athletes in the Olympics in events like Track and Field, Swimming, Judo and Fencing. It’s a west African country that has is roots in the 1600s. The area of the country is about 70,000 square miles, which makes it just a little bit smaller than Pennsylvania. The economy revolves around subsistence agriculture, cotton production, some small offshore oil fields and regional trade. The population of 10 million makes me embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it before.

Benin

Benin

 

Comoros a small archipelago of islands in the Mozambique Channel of the east coast of Africa. Their Olympic team includes two in Swimming and two in Track and Field. The collected area of the islands is around 12 times the size of Washington, DC or 862 square miles. The collection of islands is home to 780,000 Comerons. The country is one of the poorest in the world with a limited infrastructure and few resources.

Comoros

Comoros

Sao Tome & Principe is fielding three athletes, two in track and one in canoeing. The small island nation is located in the Gulf of Guinea off the western equatorial coast of central Africa. Sao Tome & Principe became an independent country (from Portugal) in 1975. Its 190,000 citizens live in an area of only 372 square miles. You’ll thank them if you ever meet them; their number one export is cocoa.

Sao Tome & Principe

Sao Tome & Principe

Nauru, the world’s smallest republic, is fielding two athletes: one in Judo and one in weightlifting.  The origin of the Nauru people is a mystery since their language and genetics are not similar to any of the other people in the south pacific. The island nation is eight square miles, or 1/10 the size of Washington, DC. Its 9,540 citizens make their living exporting phosphates and fishing.

Nauru

Nauru

Be honest. Had you ever heard of these countries? Better yet, have you visited any of them? If you have, please share your experience!

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With Disappointment Often Comes Opportunity

From the Uffizi Gallery you can see the Vasari Corridor as it snakes its way toward the Ponte Vecchio.

From the Uffizi Gallery you can see the Vasari Corridor as it snakes its way toward the Ponte Vecchio.

I’m sure we’ve mentioned our love affair with Florence, Italy before. We’ve mentioned how we began our romance there, honeymooned there, and spent our five-year anniversary there, each time staying in the exact same hotel room “our room” at the Pendini Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica.

We were deeply saddened when we went to book our upcoming trip and found that the hotel was booked solid. I did everything short of offering bribes to get our room for our 10th anniversary trip. Alas I failed. Amanda, being a little more level-headed at the time, had me research several other hotels and present them to her as options. We looked at a handful of hotels in historic Florence and only found a few that seemed to match our location and budget as well as the Pendini. The others in the area of Piazza della Repubblica could cost as much as $400 a night and the less expensive ones  just didn’t seem to fit our personal tastes.  So we cast a wider net and still didn’t find one that would give us the something special we felt we were missing.

We decided to try something radically different and forget the hotel concept (no, we’re not ready for AirB&B just yet). We expanded our search to short term apartment rentals, the kind that cater to vacationers. I mean, my parents have been renting a cottage at the beach for years on weekly basis — so why should this be any different?

We searched the Apartments Florence website and came across a beautiful apartment with a view of the Ponte Vecchio. The rental didn’t even need to be for a full week, which is good since we are starting our trip in Rome with a side trip to Pompeii.  We’ll be able to stay five nights for €842 or $940.  The best part is we are only spending $100 more compared to what we spent to stay at the Pendini five years ago and we’ll get a lot more space, free wifi and a view. That’s something we never had in our sentimental room at the hotel.

We look forward to admiring that view after making morning coffee and planning our day on the balcony. We can’t wait to tell our readers about this new experience in detail when we return.

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A Wet and Wild White Water Weekend

We woke up last weekend in need of a distraction from the stress of the workweek (yes, this has been a theme lately). With a few quick phone calls we had reservations for a white water rafting tour in nearby Ohiopyle, PA. We had just enough time to throw on some river-worthy clothes and shoes and hop in the car for a 90-minute trip.

Well. It should have taken about 90 minutes. We’d been warned that map apps had trouble finding the gathering place, but we were also given a few landmarks to guide us the last couple of miles. We knew we were on the right road, but somehow 188 sat several miles away from 113 — and with a lot of other numbers in between.

We were able to check in with our raft trip company, White Water Adventures, in the nick of time. We were fitted with our life jackets, issued paddles and loaded up onto a bus for a short trip to the put-in. The group was large, at least 15 boats, and only a handful of guides. We were informed that our guides would be in kayaks and each boat choses a captain. I was quickly chosen as captain because of my experience (I spent about six years as a guide on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers) and we settled in for the trip talk. I guess it doesn’t matter where you raft or where you guide, the trip talk is always the same. You talk about safety, how to grab a throw rope, and even tell the same jokes like the explanation of “Summer Teeth.”  I don’t doubt that somewhere in south America right now there’s a guide explaining that if you’re carless with your paddle you’ll give someone Summer Teeth. That’s a cosmetic condition when you hit someone in the face with a paddle and some of their teeth end up in the water and some in the boat.

We carried the boat with our crew mates, another couple named Alison and Ken, down to the water and began our journey.  The lower Youghiogheny River trip takes about four hours and is composed of class three and four rapids. The classification of rapids is on a 1- 6 scale, one is basically flat water and six is extremely dangerous — even pros should think at least twice (if not three or four times) before attempting a six.

If you want a fun first trip and are in shape with no medical problems, classes three and four are okay. The rapids have names like Dimple Rock, River’s End and Cucumber, and come at a pretty quick pace. You don’t have to worry about a lot of flat water leaving you bored. The river is recommend for ages 12 and up with little or no experience in white water. The company provides a light snack about halfway through as well. I’d suggest that you bring some water in a container that can be fastened to a raft’s D-ring as well as put on plenty of sunblock BEFORE you depart for the boats.

A light lunch of wraps provided at the half way point

A light lunch of wraps provided at the halfway point

I was amazed at how easily things came back to me. I was able to read the water, steer, and shout commands loud and clear.  We didn’t lose a person out of our boat once, even on the class fours that the guides explained multiple times how to enter and navigate. The guides at a couple points would go on ahead and stand on nearby rocks and give us hand singles on how to paddle.  I’m not really a fan of that system, but it worked.

Amanda had never been rafting before, but took to it quickly. It was a good distraction from work; you can’t be stressing out about your day job when you’re busy trying to stay firmly planted in a raft. I did have to encourage her to *stop* paddling a few times; she turned the raft in a complete circle on her own at least once.

White Water Adventure

White Water Adventure

The trip was fun and we had the chance to unwind and be distracted from the other stresses in life during our adventure.  I could barely move the next day, and my voice sounded like I was gargling with gravel from all the shouting, but I did it. In the moment I guided a trip an didn’t lose anyone out of the boat. I think that is something to be proud of.  I’m happy we went. I wouldn’t mind going again and Amanda did so well we could go on the Upper Youghiogheny, which is full of class four and five rapids. I loved the few ours of reliving my youth, and the pain the following day was well worth knowing I’ve still got it. The price is $70 per person April through October.

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When Words Fail

Give For France

Give For France

I have tried to start this post several times, attempting to find an elegant way to talk about such an inelegant thing as the attack in Nice this past Thursday. I thought I’d just be analytical and explain how tourism in Europe, especially France, has fallen 13% as people have stayed away. I thought I’d talk about how terror won’t dictate our travel to foreign lands. I thought I’d compare the odds of being killed in a terror attack (1 in 20 million) with the odds of being killed by a gun in the U.S. (3.4 per 100,000).

I thought of putting the attacks in a historical perspective, reminding us that France has been there before and carried on like after the 1961 bombing of the Vitry-Le-Francois train bombing carried out by the OAS. The attack killed 28 and wounding more than 100.

I thought I could tell you how you could help the victims by texting “Nice” to 20222,  that’ll send $10 to Give For France, or donating to the French Red Cross, or how you can look into helping the UN’s mission to help victims of terrorism through their information and donation portal. I thought of speaking mournfully in solidarity with the people of Nice, and France as a whole, offering our condolences and heartfelt wishes for peace. Yes, that’s what’ll do. We’ll pray for those touched by the attack, offer our support, and hope for peace.

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Pittsburgh 200: A Celebration of a Milestone

Fort Pitt, 1759

Fort Pitt, 1759

The land that would become the city of Pittsburgh was first occupied by European fur traders in 1717. The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers became a vital trade and communications route between Quebec and French Louisiana. The Seven Years War (French and Indian War) lead to a succession of forts built by both French and British forces in order to command that communications and trade link. It was during the war that General John Forbes named the British fort Fort Pitt in honor of British statesman William Pitt. The town of Pittsburgh was incorporated in 1771, which might make you wonder how it’s just now celebrating its 200th birthday.

The answer is Pennsylvania is weird. Pittsburgh was founded in 1758, the township was created in 1771, and became a borough in 1794 with an act of law by the Pennsylvania. It wasn’t incorporated as an official city until 1816, making this its 200th year as a city.

Pittsburgh celebrated that 250th anniversary eight years ago. This year’s celebrations commemorate the 200th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s incorporation as a city.

If you want to dive further down this rabbit hole, we can bring Allegheny City into the mixture. The area of modern-day Pittsburgh now called the North Shore was once a separate city, founded in 1788, which lived side by side with Pittsburgh, much like Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota, until 1907. That’s when, in my opinion, Pittsburgh forcibly took over the city by having state law tinkered with in order to annex its neighbor city. But that’s a history lesson for another time.

What this side story means is that Pittsburgh as we know it didn’t really exist until 1911 when the annexation became official; so you could say the city is 105 years old.

Monongahela River, 1857

Monongahela River, 1857

But I digress. The point of this post it to remind folks about the celebrations going on downtown to mark this milestone.

City Celebrations

A parade will be held Saturday morning in downtown, beginning at 11 a.m., starting at 11th Street and Liberty Avenue and continuing to Point State Park. Saturday evening, there will be a concert at Point State Park at 6 p.m., followed by fireworks (’cause they love their fireworks here in PGH) at about 9:30 p.m.

Schenley Plaza in Oakland is covered in tons of sand as sculptors compete to create Pittsburgh landmarks in honor of the bicentennial. The “Sand City Spectacular,” where massive, sand sculptures have been created in honor of the city’s history, will continue through Sunday.

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