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Finding Authenticity in Fiction Writing via Travel

The protagonist of my mystery series, Carol Sabala, usually dashes to her murder mystery adventures in Santa Cruz, California—a town often known for its surf culture, oceanfront Boardwalk, and attempts to push back against the mainstream and “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” Locals who read my books are treated to mentions of familiar sights and stops, while those who have never stepped foot in this part of California can get a feel of the place I call home. Life in Santa Cruz is a cornerstone of much of my writing, but so has been my experiences traveling.

After spending a month in Cuba in 2010, I knew I had to use this colorful country as a backdrop. I sent Carol to the island in my seventh book, Black Beans & Venom. Fellow crime writer Allen Eskens said: “Set in the vibrant and gritty back streets of Cuba, this cat-and-mouse hunt for a missing woman is full of intrigue, suspense and authenticity.”

Intrigue and suspense are what get a mystery writer’s brain humming. Authenticity can be more elusive. My trip to Cuba was worlds apart from previous experiences I’ve had visiting Latin American countries. Cuba is electric and memorable, and if you have the chance to visit, you’ll find that you don’t have to explore back streets to encounter the gritty.

a young Cuban boy rides a makeshift bike
The people of Cuba are resourceful. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

If you want a Starbucks on the corner and memory-foam mattresses, Cuba is not for you. The long-standing embargo has created many shortages, compensated for by great resourcefulness.

Cuba beckoned my husband and me—a non-stop flight to Cancun and then an hour hop to Havana. Fairly simple travel to be in one of only two places in the world without Coca-Cola. Our trip, unencumbered by a sanctioned tour, was illegal.

We purchased our flight tickets via a Canadian travel agency. Americans can enter Cuba with a special visa instead of the normal passport stamp. Reentry to the United States is the sticking point. It is against the law to lie to a Customs Official about one’s travel. Fortunately, when we returned—my husband camouflaged with his new Cancun cap—no one asked where we’d been. My private detective heroine adopts this same ploy.

a fruit cart loaded with bananas in Havana
Bananas are a staple in Cuba. Photo © KWphotog/iStock.

The two of us stayed in casas particulares, private homes that rent out rooms and provide a breakfast of bread, coffee, eggs, juice, and the fruit grown in Cuba—guavas, pineapple, mangoes, watermelon, and small, firm bananas. While the menu doesn’t vary much, the quality does! We were served everything from rotten bananas and instant coffee with powdered milk to sweet fruit and strong Cuban coffee.

Propaganda billboards line the main highways. One announces that Cubans eat Cuban pork. Fish with cristianos and moros—white rice (imported from Vietnam) and black beans provided our standard fare. Steak is practically none existent, and with chicken, expect only dark meat. White meat is reserved for higher-ups. You have two choices for beer—light or dark. Rum, however, is abundant!

Tourists don’t use the same money as Cubans. The two economies segregate visitors from the locals. For example, Cubans can ride on the air-conditioned busses available to tourists—if they can afford them. But they’ll most likely be traveling on hot, crowded buses, or trying to hitch a ride from someone who owns a car. People with cars are, by law, required to pick up hitchhikers.

Vinnie Hansen pioses with a bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway memorabilia abounds. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

Although Americans have been restricted in their travel, people from all over the world flock to Cuba. Like me, some are drawn to the Hemingway memorabilia—“his room,” in Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana; the Floridita bar, a Hemingway haunt, also in Havana; and the perfectly preserved Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula.

We visited Cuba in December to catch the International Jazz Festival, procuring tickets for ten dollars on each night of the performances. While we loved listening to the world-famous pianist Chucho Valdez, we encountered some of our favorite rhythms on the streets.

a man in a hat and sunglasses playing a guitar
Some of the best music can be found outside of festivals. Photo © Vinnie Hansen.

The clave beats we associate with Cuban music are derived from the drumming of Santería celebrations. The Santería influence abounds in Cuban life. In 1992 Cuba revised its Constitution removing references to the country as Marxist-Leninist, opening the door for a resurgence of religious worship. Santería has grown in popularity since that time. One can see initiates dressed in white strolling the cobblestoned streets of Havana or Trinidad.

In Trinidad, we visited a Santería church where altar objects reflected the complicated mix of Catholicism with beliefs imported from Africa with the slaves.

In Black Beans & Venom, the missing woman, seeking a cure for her cancer, visits a babalao, or babalawo—a Santería high priest. For this scene, I relied on a friend’s first-hand experience, right down to the sacrificed goat and pigeon on the altar.

According to Eskens, Black Beans & Venom delivers “readers completely and believably to another world,” so if you can’t make a trip to Cuba, or to California, you can explore both places in my Carol Sabala series!

Moon & Mysteries: California Book Giveaway

10 Incredible Road Trip Routes Across America

There’s nothing quite like the great American road trip. National Geographic compiled its own list of 50 Ultimate Road Trips around the world, and of those included, 39 are actually situated in this country, from Alaska’s Seward Highway to Maui’s Back Road to Hana to the Cherohala Skyway in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A sprawling network of interstate highways, bumpy back roads, and everything between makes it easy to craft the perfect road trip for your particular interests and timetable. And then there are the tried-and-true routes, those must-sees for road trip aficionados. Here’s a look at ten of my all-time favorite road trips across America.

Champlain Valley. Photo © Stephanie Murton/123rf.
The Vermont Cheese Trail passes through the scenic pastures of Champlain Valley. Photo © Stephanie Murton/123rf.

1. Vermont’s Cheese Trail

Ever since my first visit to Burlington, I’ve been an ardent fan of Vermont’s sharp cheddar and artisanal cheeses. If you’re a passionate cheese fan, too, you’ll appreciate this 280-mile loop (via I-89, Route 100, and Route 7) from Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge, to the scenic pastures of the Champlain Valley.

2. The East Coast’s Journey Through Hallowed Ground

The East Coast offers a number of amazing sights for history buffs, including the 175-mile route known by preservationists as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. Commencing in Charlottesville, Virginia, and continuing toward Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you’ll encounter such presidential landmarks as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland, and James Madison’s Montpelier, not to mention Gettysburg National Military Park.

Map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

3. Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys

There’s nothing quite like the 113-mile drive through the Florida Keys, via the aptly named Overseas Highway (U.S. 1). Along this picturesque route–a series of bridges and land-based stretches–you’ll encounter several unique islands and attractions, including the state parks and dolphin facilities of Key Largo, the spas and diving museum of Islamorada, Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys, and a plethora of bars, eateries, art galleries, and museums in Key West, the country’s Southernmost City.

View of the Flagler Railway and Bridge at Bahia Honda State Park. Photo © Fiona Deaton/123rf.
View of the Flagler Railway and Bridge at Bahia Honda State Park. Photo © Fiona Deaton/123rf.

4. Louisiana’s Creole Country

You might be surprised to learn that northern Louisiana is as much worth a look as is southern counterpart. Starting in Natchitoches, you can take a 70-mile loop known as the Cane River Road, or the Cane River National Heritage Area, where you’ll spy moss-draped live oak trees, small riverfront communities, and several plantations, including Oaklawn, Cherokee, Beaufort, Oakland, Melrose, and Magnolia.

5. The Hill Country of Texas

Interstate 10 isn’t the most thrilling route to take through western Texas, but the state’s famed Hill Country is another thing altogether. Defined by wooded canyons, spring-fed rivers, and rolling terrain, this pastoral, offbeat region is one of the loveliest areas in the Lone Star State. Starting in San Antonio, this scenic loop will take you through small towns like the German-settled Fredericksburg and curious landscapes like the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Travel map of The Hill Country, Texas
The Hill Country

6. The Southwest’s Four Corners

This is a strikingly beautiful region of the American Southwest, so named because the corners of four states–Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah–converge here. Beginning in Flagstaff, Arizona, this 525-mile route (via I-40, U.S. 191, etc.) will take you through such wonders as Petrified Forest National Park, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde National Park, and the ski resort town of Telluride, Colorado.

7. Pacific Coast Highway

Indeed one of the most scenic routes in the country–and one of the most accessible–is the Pacific Coast Highway, known regionally as the PCH. The 522-mile stretch between Dana Point and San Francisco is particularly beautiful, offering access to numerous beaches and state parks, several sun-loving towns (such as Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and Monterey), and various historic sites, including the San Juan Capistrano Mission and Hearst Castle. It’s easy to break the highway down into more manageable chunks, such as five days exploring Oregon’s Pacific Coast or two weeks on the California coast.

A two-lane road along Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
The remote Olympic Peninsula features thick rain forest, a wild coast, and gritty towns. Photo © welcomia/123rf.

8. Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

Situated just west of Seattle, marked by snow-capped mountains and old-growth forests, and protected, at least in part, as Olympic National Park, this majestic peninsula is still one of the most untamed regions left in America. Starting in Seattle, follow the 330-mile loop (via Hwy. 101 and Hwy. 12) to explore quiet towns and gorgeous destinations, such as Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, and the Hoh Rain Forest.

Maps - Washington 10e - Olympic Peninsula and Coast
Travel map of the Olympic Peninsula and the Coast of Washington

9. The Black Hills of South Dakota

For a history buff and outdoor enthusiast like me, the southwestern corner of South Dakota offers a surprising number of Wild West towns, historic landmarks, and dramatic landscapes. On a circuitous, 350-mile route that mainly follows I-90 and Highway 16, you’ll find places like Badlands National Park, the Mount Rushmore National Monument, and the once-legendary town of Deadwood.

10. Michigan’s Shipwreck Coast

It’s easy to be enamored by the windswept beaches, massive forests, and multicolored cliffs of the Upper Peninsula. By following a series of small routes along unforgiving Lake Superior (where hundreds of ships have met their end), you’ll encounter several worthy attractions from Marquette to Whitefish Point, including the Marquette Maritime Museum, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Which road trip route would you add to this list? One of the 29 others suggested by National Geographic–or another route altogether?

10 Incredible Road Trip Routes Across America

Enjoying Southern Comfort Food in Nashville

View of the fire grill in Husk Nashville.
Inside Sean Brock’s Husk Nashville. © Andrea Behrends

Even before Nashville became the foodie mecca that it is today, it always excelled at one particular kind of cuisine: Southern comfort food. It took awhile for Music City to warm to small plates and ethnic eats, but there was never a time during which you couldn’t find a warm serving of grits or the perfect flaky biscuit. As the diversity of Nashville restaurants has expanded, so, too, have the choices where you can fill up on Southern specialties. You can fill up at meat-and-threes (Nashville-style eateries that serve an entrée plus three Southern vegetables/side dishes). But you can now find top chefs offering their interpretations of the regional dishes that were served on in their grandmothers’ kitchens.

[pullquote align=”right”]Loosen your belt buckle and satisfy your craving for Southern comforts.[/pullquote]
Loveless Cafe is perhaps Nashville’s best-known Southern dining spot. Since 1951 it has been a must-stop—first for travelers along Highway 100, now for locals and visitors alike. The wait times for a table can be long, but the biscuits are fluffy and buttery, the ham salty, and the eggs, bacon, and sausage are just like Mama made.

There’s no shortage of fried chicken in Music City; even so, people often clamor to one of Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant’s locations for what some say is the area’s best. The downtown outpost offers stick-to-your-ribs comfort food in a location that will get you in and out in time to see a show at the Ryman. Unlike many Southern food favorites, Puckett’s has a full bar.

Sean Brock was known as a Southern culinary standout thanks to his Charleston, SC, restaurant called Husk. Fortunately for Music City, Husk Nashville has lived up to Brock’s reputation. On the menu for brunch, lunch, and dinner are dishes made with local, seasonal Southern ingredients (although they may not be strictly Southern dishes).

Inside Sean Brock's Husk Nashville. © Andrea Behrends
Inside Sean Brock’s Husk Nashville. © Andrea Behrends

Grab a $10 bill and head to an easily missed red cinderblock building on the southern edge of downtown. Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a cafeteria-style meat-and-three that is one the city’s stalwarts. “Entrees” (i.e. meats) change daily, but for “vegetables,” you’ll always find the likes of Jell-O salad, sliced tomatoes, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, squash casserole, macaroni and cheese, and corn bread.

With chow-chow, macaroni and cheese, and fried green tomatoes on the changing seasonal menu, Lockeland Table has Southern comfort food down. But with a mission to bring farm goods to city tables and to connect to the surrounding neighborhood, Lockeland Table adds a hip, trendy vibe to its Southern (and other) delicacies.

Everyone from politicians to country music superstars has dined at Swett’s, an old-school cafeteria that has been in business for almost 60 years. There’s nothing fancy here, but that’s true of the best comfort food, right? Expect beef tips, macaroni and cheese, and other entrees and vegetables, plus excellent pie for dessert. There’s also a Swett’s at the airport, but it lacks the cafeteria’s ambiance and plethora of choices.

If you can’t decide where you want to sample the best Southern food, taking the new Walk Eat Nashville tour is a good way to have the decisions made for you. These tours involve about 1.5 miles of walking and six different culinary stops in East Nashville. You’ll get a helping of context and history along with good things to eat.

Encountering the Khmer Smile in Angkor Wat

Author Tom Vater at the Angkor Archaeological Park at dusk.
Angkor Wat at dusk. Photo © Tom Vater.

A “trip of a lifetime” is not a journey undertaken easily. It’s a journey of the heart and the soul. It need not be a trip to the end of the world, but it does perhaps need to be a trip that will linger in the memory long after one has returned home. For me, the very first time I visited Angkor Wat was such a trip. It was my first visit to Cambodia; the country had just come out of a long civil war and there were few tourists. I flew into Siem Reap, the town nearest to the Angkor temples, on an ancient passenger plane that threatened to fall out of the sky.

[pullquote align=”right”]Two small ponds lie just in front of the temple building in which the towers of Angkor Wat are reflected amongst blooming lotus flowers.[/pullquote]In Siem Reap, I rented a motorbike. Visitors approach the world’s largest religious building via a long avenue lined with huge, ancient trees. Monkeys sat in the middle of the road challenging each passer-by for whatever food they might carry. Twelve kilometers out of Siem Reap, the road hits the temple’s moat, which is two kilometers long on each side. One does not quite see anything but the temple wall yet, which I followed around to the east. I stopped in front of a giant causeway, parked the bike, and crossed this wide, beautifully restored ramp to the outer gate. Once through the gate, the view was simply breathtaking.

Two small ponds lie just in front of the temple building in which the towers of Angkor Wat are reflected amongst blooming lotus flowers. I sat there for twenty minutes before the next person came along. That person happened to be one of the temple guards, a young woman in a rather austere grey uniform. She spoke no English and I spoke no Khmer, but she smiled at me shyly, happy for me to be there, and then went on up the temple steps. That was the moment: a moment in time I will always remember. I fell in love with Cambodia there and then.

For me, a “trip of a lifetime” is always a combination of things—a great location, a foreign culture, perhaps an amazing structure or spectacular view of nature, a unique ambience, and a human encounter.

A Budding Travel Writer in Bangkok

View overlooking the city at night where the Bayok Sky Hotel towers into the sky.
Bangkok at night. Photo © Dmitry Kushch.

When I was 19, I traveled independently for the first time. I visited Thailand, a country that encapsulates some of the best tourist experiences the world has to offer—as well as some of the worst. In the bewildering metropolis of Bangkok, we were taken on a whistle-stop tour of the Buddhist temples by a very enthusiastic taxi driver who then proceeded to take us to tailors and jewelers to make purchases that would have cleaned out our entire six-week budget.

It was then that I realized that travelers need advice from experts in order to navigate their way through unfamiliar countries. I had a guidebook with some helpful advice but I felt that there was a lot I could add to it. I began to keep a diary of my experiences and, in particular, my observations about the idiosyncrasies of both local people and other travelers. I experienced so much on that backpacking trip—temples, paradise beaches, and lush hilltops during the day, and freakish full moon parties and a darker type of tourism at night.

It occurred to me that, while I was on holiday, working life continued for everybody else in Thailand. I was determined to travel with my eyes open and ensure that those glimpses of fantasy were tempered by reality. That’s what led to me to become a travel writer.

Get inspired to take a Trip of a Lifetime with Ben’s latest guidebook: the First Edition of Moon Galápagos Islands.

Learning Patience on a Trip to India

Moon author Margot Bigg stands in the foreground with the stunning form of the Taj Mahal behind her.
Moon author Margot Bigg at the Taj Mahal, what she calls “undoubtedly the world’s most romantic and stunning monument to love” and a location worthy of being a “Trip of a Lifetime.” Photo © Margot Bigg.

My first trip to India completely transformed the way I saw the world. I’d already spent a fair bit of time traveling abroad by the time I first set foot on Indian soil, but except for a trip to Egypt and a night of drinking in Tijuana, I had very little experience with the developing world. I’m also a very impatient person; I talk fast, walk fast, and am most comfortable when things happen with speed and efficiency. However, in India things happen when they happen, and time and time again people would tell me to “just chill.” Circumstances consistently forced me to relax and go with the flow much more than I ever thought possible.

[pullquote align=”right”]Circumstances consistently forced me to relax and go with the flow much more than I ever thought possible.[/pullquote]During this first trip, I rode in the non-air-conditioned section of an overnight train from Varanasi to Jaipur. The already long train ride ended up being delayed by an additional 20 hours. Had this happened in the West, people would have been furious or demanded alternative transportation. While there was certainly a fair bit of annoyance on the part of my fellow passengers, people were accepting of the change of fate and took the time to catch up on sleep, read or socialize. This experience, and the many seemingly frustrating experiences that would follow, taught me that patience, acceptance and a general ability to roll with the punches can make difficult situations easier to deal with.

My family played a major role in turning me into a serial traveler. My father is British, and I spent much of my childhood going back and forth between the US and the UK. Long-haul flights on the now-defunct Pan Am feature heavily in my early childhood memories, and my transatlantic youth provided great training for a lifetime of globetrotting. At an early age, my mother taught me how to live out of a carry-on, how to minimize jet lag, and how to communicate with people with whom I didn’t share a common language. It’s to my parents that I owe my curiosity about the rest of the world, and it was they who instilled in me the confidence to go out and explore this incredible planet of ours.

A Southern Girl’s Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone

Laura bundled up and ready to ride on a snowmobile.
Laura snowmobiles for the first time at Yellowstone. Photo © Donnie Sexton.

Ever since my first post on this blog – “Greetings from an American Nomad!” – which I wrote on July 1, 2009, I’ve relished the opportunity to share my passion for travel and my love of this multifaceted country with you, my fellow travelers. Along the way, I’ve offered my own travel tips and experiences as well as the advice of other travel experts, plus a few relevant product and book reviews, too, and no matter what I wrote, I always hoped that it would help someone, at least in some small way.

That said, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic today. After all, this will mark my last post as Moon’s American Nomad, and I’ve long been wondering what my final words should be. So, after racking my brains for the past week, I’ve finally decided to highlight one of my new favorite destinations in America.

Of course, it wasn’t easy to choose just one place in this amazing country. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, then you know that I’ve traveled quite a lot around America, and some of my favorite locales include New Orleans, Michigan, and the Florida Keys – the subjects of three of my Moon travel guides.

Back in January, though, I was fortunate enough to be invited on a press trip to Yellowstone National Park – and even though my husband, Dan, who just happens to be my favorite traveling companion, wasn’t able to join me on the trip, it was truly a memorable excursion into a fascinating winter wonderland, especially for a Southern girl like me whose only exposure to cold weather has been limited to her college years in Chicago and a few brief visits to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

As I wrote on one of my other blogs, Laura’s Simple Pleasures, it would require several posts to describe all that I saw, did, and ate while away from home for a week. So, I thought that it might be more interesting to note some of the “firsts” that happened to me during that memorable excursion. After all, it was the first time that I’d ever seen Montana or Wyoming – much less Yellowstone – in my life. It also marked my first roadside encounter with a wild bison and my first long-distance view of a snoozing wolf pack (both of which occurred in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley), the first time that I ever strapped on a pair of snowshoes and attempted to hike uphill in them (not a bad way to experience the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces), and the first time that I ever floated between a freezing-cold river and scalding hot springs (in the Boiling River, to be exact). Along the way, I also experienced my first ride in a snowcoach (the only way to traverse most of Yellowstone National Park in the winter months) and witnessed, for the first time, a bellowing river otter get sucked beneath the icy surface of a near-frozen river (not the most pleasant of memories, true, but certainly fodder for conversations with my fellow writers during the rest of the trip). In addition, I got the chance to make my very first snow angel (not far from some wild bison on a geyser plateau) and snagged my first look at Old Faithful blowing her top (a particularly beautiful sight in the winter, when the billowing steam makes this stately, ever-punctual geyser seem even taller and more grand).

While the entire trip was spectacular, I particularly enjoyed the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone National Park, which is not only gorgeous during the winter months but supposedly much less crowded than it is during the summer. In addition, although all of the accommodations experienced during this particular press trip were notable in their own unique way – the Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, for instance, boasted a wonderfully refreshing pool fed by natural hot springs; the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel reminded me of the Overlook in The Shining; and the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone had a rejuvenating hot tub in the room – my favorite was indeed the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins, where the furnishings were modern and comfortable, the on-site Obsidian Dining Room served delicious bison short ribs, and the dimly lit ice-skating rink became the site of my first solo ice-skating experience (without rails, surrounded by snowdrifts, and beneath a canopy of stars).

But Yellowstone National Park wasn’t the only focus of this trip. On the second-to-last day, we ventured via snowcoach to West Yellowstone, where I experienced yet another “first” – the first time that I ever wore a snowmobile suit (as pictured above) and, yes, rode a snowmobile, which, save for my near-capsize on an unruly snowdrift, was as exhilarating an experience as I’d always hoped it would be.

So, if you’ve ever considered venturing to Yellowstone and its environs during the winter months, I’m here to tell you that it’s definitely worth the cold temperatures, the layers of clothing, and the potential for discomforting frozen nose hairs. Although I’ve heard that Yellowstone is marvelous in the summer – something I certainly plan to observe for myself someday – I can also attest that it’s truly stunning in the winter, when the small bison herds stand out amid acres of blinding-white snow, against a backdrop of dramatic geysers. No wonder, then, that it’s America’s first national park.

If you’re still curious about my wintertime adventures in Yellowstone, don’t despair. I’ll soon be sharing a few more details on my new American Nomad blog (along with a wide range of other travel topics, tips, and stories) – after all, it’s never too early to start planning your next wintertime vacation. Until then, though, I want to thank you all for reading my posts over the past four years – and for sharing your own adventures with me. I hope that you’ll continue to explore this wonderful country – and may your travels always be safe, happy, and memorable!

Taxing the Tourist: Argentina’s AFIP Aims Low

Front of the AFIP building in Malvinas.
Photo © Wayne Bernhardson.
Many times recently I’ve touched on the topic of exchange rates and, in that regard, I have to say that it’s so much easier to write on Chile or Uruguay, whose juridical and macroeconomic stability make it relatively simple to inform potential visitors of what they’ll encounter. Argentina, though, is a challenge, and there’s always the risk that details may change between the moment I finish writing and the time I post it.

Still, it would be negligent of me to ignore Argentina’s 20 percent surcharge on foreign travel – including airline tickets and tour packages – that the AFIP tax agency decreed that even non-resident foreigners will now have to pay. That’s not quite so alarming as it might sound at first: if you’ve purchased your plane ticket and other services before leaving home, it will not affect your travel within or beyond Argentine borders. If, however, you purchase a flight or other service that takes you beyond Argentina – say, for instance, the Buquebus ferry to Colonia or Montevideo – the Argentine provider will charge you that additional 20 percent. Cross-border bus trips, to Brazil or Chile for instance, will be at least 20 percent dearer than those to Argentine border towns.

That’s significant because, even if you have changed your foreign currency on the so-called “blue” market, where the dollar rate skyrocketed above eight pesos this week, the ticket will cost you 20 percent more than the official rate of five-pesos-plus. That’s still a pretty good deal, as the breach between the official and informal exchange markets approaches 70 percent, but it’s obviously not so good as it was before. It’s a really bad deal if you’re using a credit or debit card, as you’ll be paying the official rate.

In theory, AFIP will reimburse you for the hassle. When Argentines fill out their annual tax returns, the 20 percent surcharge will supposedly be deducted from any balance due and, if there has been an overpayment, they will get refunds. The same applies, in principle, to non-resident foreigners, with AFIP stating that they will be reimbursed for the full 20 percent. To me, that falls into the “I’ll believe when I see it category,” and I would also be reluctant to provide the personal information – my US Social Security number – that AFIP is asking for.
That’s the scenario at present but, as matters advance, I will do my best to keep readers informed about a country that continues to make things up as it goes along.

Moon Handbooks Chile in Los Altos

Early next month – April 9 at 7:30 p.m., to be precise – I will offer a digital slide presentation on Chile in the Los Altos Library (13 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos 94024, tel. 650/948-7683). Coverage will also include the Chilean Pacific Islands of Rapa Nui (Easter Island and Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe), as well as southernmost Argentina (Tierra del Fuego and the vicinity of El Calafate) that appear in the book. I will also be available to answer questions about Argentina and Buenos Aires. The presentation is free of charge, but books will be available for purchase.

Fortress Falklands: A Book Review

In early 1986, shortly after arriving in the Falkland Islands for my dissertation research under a Fulbright-Hays research fellowship, my wife and I took a hike into the hills west of Stanley, the Islands’ capital and only town. Hoping to glimpse the panorama of Stanley Harbour and the East Falkland countryside, we ascended the flanks toward the summit of the 1093-ft (333m) Mount Kent but, as we approached, we found our way blocked by polite but firm British squaddies. After the 1982 conflict in which Argentina invaded the Falklands, only to be dislodged after 74 days, the mountain had become home to a Royal Air Force radar station that was not open to the public.

Whether the squaddies would have been quite so jovial had they known my wife was an Argentine – she traveled to the Islands on her US passport – I rather doubt. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of that when, as I read Graham Bound’s Fortress Falklands, the author regularly bemoaned his lack of access to the British military command and the RAF’sMount Pleasant facilities, which also serve as the Islands’ international airport.

It’s not as if Bound might be an Argentine agent – Falklands-born, though he now lives in London, he’s served as a military correspondent for the BBC and has worked in far riskier environments such as Afghanistan. Certainly he has the credibility to make judgments on the Islands’ defenses without giving away any confidential material but, as the sensitive 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion approached, he apparently got stonewalled and had to rely on retired military and his own online research for that specific topic.

That’s unfortunate, but it barely detracts from a book which, despite a rather sensationalist subtitle (“Life Under Siege in Britain’s Last Outpost”) focuses as much or more on a distinctive people who have inhabited their insular homeland for up to nine generations. In fact, he is one of them, descended from a family that arrived in the 1840s; he founded Penguin News, the Islands’ only newspaper, and there’s probably nobody better qualified to present an insider’s viewpoint while simultaneously providing an outsider’s critical observations. He is also a longtime acquaintance of mine; though I haven’t seen him face-to-face since 1995, when he made a speaking tour to present the Islanders’ case to Argentines in Buenos Aires), we have remained in somewhat irregular communication.

Since the 1982 war, the Falklands have become a prosperous place, thanks to fishing, tourism and (potentially) oil, but Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s irredentist jingoism continues to trouble a population that would welcome constructive engagement with a country that, among other measures, has prohibited charter flights over its airspace, harassed Islands-bound cruise ships and fishing vessels, and withdrawn from marine conservation efforts that were mutually beneficial.

At the same time, he even-handedly discusses both the achievements and weaknesses of local society, where the standard of living has risen dramatically since the 1980s but, while some local entrepreneurs have earned previously unthinkable fortunes and unemployment is virtually non-existent, there is still a notable economic inequality. As the traditional rural way of life on sheep ranches has declined, the lifestyle has become more sedentary, and health problems such as obesity are becoming a concern. The oil industry is a potential threat to the abundant wildlife and maritime resources, but the Argentine government’s withdrawal from fishing agreements menaces the migratory Illex squid stocks on which the Islands’ prosperity depends.

Until the recent selection of Pope Francis I in Rome, last week’s Falklands referendum in which Islanders overwhelmingly affirmed their desire to continue as a “self-governing British territory” made huge headlines in Argentina, where president Fernández and her administration went out of their way to dismiss its legitimacy – to the point of declaring that Falkland Islanders did not even exist. In his book, Bound stresses Islanders’ concerns that Argentina will continue to make things difficult and could even take military action; certainly, the Argentine government is deaf to the worries of a people who were outnumbered at least five to one during the 1982 occupation. To get an idea of what the Islanders experienced then, imagine Argentina occupied by the entire population of Brazil.

It’s not just solidarity in the face of occupation by Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship that suggests the Islanders are a people. In one chapter, Bound posits a “soul of the Falklands” to describe an hospitable lifestyle that, despite the dramatic changes since the 1980s, still survives. That began to change when I lived there, as some farmhouses became guesthouses for tourists intrigued by penguins, elephant seals and other wildlife – until then, it would never have occurred to anyone to charge a guest for room and board.

I would have liked to see him analyze some other traits that characterize the Islanders such as, for instance, their distinctive speech. While not everybody speaks with a thick Falklands accent, there’s no doubt it’s unique: one Islander who worked on ships around the world told me that people often inquired about his accent, but no one was ever able to guess his origins. Difficult even for some native English speakers from other countries, it’s probably closest to New Zealand or Australian speech, but even that’s misleading, and there’s a local vocabulary that takes some learning.

As it happened, Islanders voted by a margin of 1,513 to three to continue their current political status. On the basis of my own experience there, I would say this near unanimity was a legitimate result, though it led to speculation or even gossip, in a small community, as to the dissenters’ identity. It’s worth adding that “No” votes not did not necessarily favor Argentina – rather, the voters in question may believe in independence or some other option not on the ballot.

Personally, I know quite a few Islanders, some of them mentioned by name in the book, and I consider the near-unanimous results credible. In fact, I can think of at least two Argentine residents (with dual nationality) who I would be pretty sure voted “Yes.” The last time I was in Stanley, there was even one Argentine woman in the local police force.

While some Islanders and Bound himself consider Argentina a military threat, I am less convinced. President Fernández mistrusts the armed forces and has reduced their budget to a shoestring, to the point where one mothballed warship recently sank at the Bahía Blanca naval base. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, a congressional report has noted than fewer than 20 percent of its air force planes are in flying condition. On one expat newsgroup, I read the following sardonic assessment of Argentina’s military capabilities:

“For all practical intents and purposes, Argentina has no military. Yes, it has the legal entities representing the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively, but that is it. Those are just empty shells. Its ships can’t sail, its planes can’t fly and its army has no ammo or fuel. To get troops to the Falklands, Argentina would have two choices: 1) The Argentinian invading forces could all take a bus to Santiago, Chile, and from there book a flight on LAN to Port Stanley. It would probably take several flights to get a significant number of troops over there. So the soldiers that arrive there first would probably have to book rooms at the local hotels and wait, which would add additional costs to the invasion. Also, the AFIP [tax agency] would need to approve the expenses in advance and provide the currency, which can also be an issue.”

Even given the obvious hyperbole there, I view any Argentine military action as improbable and, in a recent email, Bound agreed that he may have overstated the small probability of another invasion. Argentina will continue to try to isolate the Islands, though, perhaps even withdrawing permission for the weekly LAN Airlines flight from Chile (Bound mentions a surprising local proposal to seek an alternative airlink from Miami, which could avoid overflying Argentine air space).

Still, any rhetorical retreat on Argentina’s part is unlikely, at least in the near future. As Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel might say, the volume may go up to 11.

For readers in the Southern Cone, Fortress Falklands is available in translation as Fortaleza Malvinas, at least in bookstores in Uruguay, but not in Argentina.

Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning

A Kennedy Space Center Tourbus with the launch platform visible in the distance.
Photo © Carl & Peggy Backes.

People all around the world dream of traveling to exotic destinations. Even those who live in enviable places—such as Hawaii, Paris, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, just to name a few—probably long to see other cities and landscapes that are markedly different from their own. For instance, I might be from New Orleans—a town that many people include on their travel wish lists—but while I appreciate the uniqueness of this place, that certainly doesn’t keep me from dreaming of other locations, from Ireland to Japan.

So, it’s no wonder that the Internet is rife with travel contests, sweepstakes, and giveaways of all kinds. In fact, just this afternoon, a random Google search netted several disparate results, from Virginia’s “I’d LOVE to Go There!” Vacation Sweepstakes to the Cook Islands’ “Win a Romantic Week for Two” offer to the Travel Channel’s Trip of a Lifetime.

On any given day, the list of available travel contests could go on and on. I recently discovered two, however, that I thought my fellow explorers my appreciate.

NASA’s “Why Space Matters?” Video Contest

It’s no doubt that space exploration has inspired and challenged the human race for more than five decades, spawning everything from satellites to medical devices to better versions of Velcro. To celebrate this fact—and the possibility of space exploration in the future—the Coalition for Space Exploration and the NASA Visitor Centers Consortium have launched an expanded version of the Coalition’s existing “Why Space Matters to the Future” video contest. In essence, the contest urges U.S. residents (who are 13 years or older) to envision what life would be in like 10, 25, or 50 years if humans continue to explore the vast unknown and push the boundaries of space travel.

“Some people think the U.S. space program is ending,” said George Torres, chairman of the Coalition, “which couldn’t be further from the truth. This contest engages the public during an important time, giving them a powerful voice to our nation’s leaders.” After all, according to the Coalition’s website, “NASA and the space industry are currently developing technologies, systems, and strategies to explore space beyond Earth’s orbit.”

To enter the contest, you simply need to submit a short video (of one to two minutes) that encapsulates your reasons for why space exploration matters and how it will benefit future generations, from the ability of humans to migrate onto other planets to the development of as-yet-unseen technologies. In other words, consider how space has influenced or inspired you, outline the values and benefits of space exploration, and justify our continued efforts to explore the endless vastness beyond Earth’s orbit.

Entrants can upload their videos and share them online from now until April 7. Public voting will then occur April 8-14, so it’s important that entrants ask their friends and relatives to vote. A panel of judges will use several criteria, including the number of votes accrued, to determine three winners on April 17. Beyond the fact that the winning videos will be shared with the public as well as national leaders, the three winners will each receive a VIP trip for four people to one of three of NASA’s visitor centers: the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama, or the Space Center Houston in Texas. The prize includes travel and accommodations—not too shabby for a die-hard space lover.

My Destination’s Biggest, Baddest, Bucket List

As the name indicates, this is one doozie of a contest. Dubbed the “ultimate travel competition,” My Destination’s Biggest, Baddest, Bucket List invites travel lovers of all shapes and sizes to vie for a chance to venture around the world for a whopping six months (from June to December 2013), during which the lucky winner will experience more than 25 destinations (of his or her choosing) on six continents. Not only is this “trip of a lifetime” of the all-expenses-paid variety (meaning that all flights, accommodations, food, and activities will be taken care of, up to $50,000, which, incidentally, includes $10,000 of spending money), but the winner will also receive a $50,000 cash prize once the trip is over. As a bonus, it was recently announced that 10 lucky finalists will enjoy an all-expenses-paid, weeklong trip to the United Kingdom, where they’ll meet the My Destination team as well as guest judge Ben Southall (the winner of Tourism Queensland’s 2009 “Best Job in the World” campaign). From this pool of fortunate finalists, the grand-prize winner will be chosen.

To enter the contest—which, besides My Destination, is co-sponsored by, Travelex, and Viator—you simply have to prepare a short video (of up to three minutes and with you featured) about a destination for which you’re passionate (whether you live there or not), write a brief tale (between 200 and 500 words) about a memorable travel experience, and provide three photos to accompany said tale—and do all that by March 31. For all of the above, passion, enthusiasm, and originality happily matter more than technical prowess. The only “catch” is that the winner will be required to write blog posts, take photos, and film short videos about his or her experiences in each destination, from riding in an Austin rodeo to learning to surf in Bali to visiting a Bollywood movie set in Mumbai; lots of Tweets and status updates are also encouraged.

But, seriously, that’s more than a fair price to pay for such a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and what’s even cooler is that the winner doesn’t have to travel solo. Besides the fact that he or she will be meeting new friends along the way, it’s also possible for the winner to bring along a partner or spouse—whose accommodations will be taken care of and whose other expenses (such as food and local transportation) can be covered, in part, by the $10,000 spending money and/or the $50,000 post-trip cash prize.

As I said, the application process closes on March 31, after which 10 finalists will be selected by April 8. In what I consider to be a pretty fair method, five of these finalists will be chosen by the contest judges and five will be based on the most top-rated videos—so there’s a chance that people could win a finalist spot even if they don’t rally votes from every person they’ve ever met. The finalists’ week in the U.K. will begin on April 20, and the grand-prize winner will be announced on April 26, after which he or she will start planning their own personal “biggest, baddest, bucket list.”

Both contests, while obviously very different, could lead to some amazing experiences. If you’re interested in entering either or both, just check out the websites noted above for more details and caveats. Seriously, what are you waiting for?

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