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Arriba, Arriba: Why Swine Flu Means Mexico NOW

Monday, May 4th, 2009

This probably won’t come as a surprise to any regular CT reader.

We have canceled our CT Annual Meeting, scheduled for August 7 -22 in Northeastern Iceland.

We were planning to take advantage of Iceland’s financial meltdown – we were seduced by the crippled krona, tempted by our love for glaciers, geysers, Vikings, and cheap air fares. We were getting very excited about a week of biking the fjords of Northeast Iceland (a rarely visited pocket of the country), followed by a few days of fly fishing near Akureyri, two-days of camping in Myvatn, the Yellowstone of Iceland, and a night of madness in Reykjavik.

But that’s so two weeks ago.

As soon as Lael Powell Rushing emailed us with the April 25 wire story “Mexico Races to Stop Deadly Flu,” we unanimously agreed.

Iceland can wait.

Lesson #1 of Contrarian Travel

Follow the Pandemic

For those of you, unfamiliar with this, please see Lael Powell Rushing’s seminal case study — SARS, circa 2003, and The Motherlode of Contrarian Travel. (If it’s not archived, we’ll bug LPR to post it)

Obviously, as soon as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization started raising the “P” word, not to mention that half-cocked remark by Vice President Biden…. the Mexican tourist industry was in serious trouble.

This is sad news, for sure, if you’re the manager of Senor Frogs in Cancun. If you work in the Zona Rosa in Mexico City. If you own a t-shirt shop near the place where the Cunard ship docks in Cozumel.

But this is obviously great news for the CT community.

Mexico will be cheaper, emptier, friendlier.

In brief, and this may sound impolitic, the swine flu — rather the perceived fear of H1N1 - will keep out the riff raff.

Here’s just a sampling of what’s happening to Mexico’s $13 billion tourism industry as of Cinco de Mayo…

The Christian Science Monitor “Mexico Tourism Braces for Swine Flu Showdown.” The Washington Post “US Travel Alert for Mexico: No Help to Tourism.” Advertising Age “Swine Flu Endangers Health of Mexican Tourism Industry.” MSNBC “Swine Flu Reshapes Mexican Tourism.”

Last week, MSNBC reported that the Mayor of Acapulco told tourists to go home.
That was, repeat, last week.

Already, the initial hysteria that swine flu=global pandemic of Stephen King-like level is beginning to subside.

We’ve already heard reports that Cancun hotel owners are literally begging for tourists.
SO… in sum, all of us at the CT agree: as much as we hunger for eternal sum, and a nice hike around a landscape pocked with boiling mudpots… we can’t waste this chance.

Lesson #2 of Contrarian Travel:

Always be prepared to audible

Yep. This is the time for Mexico. There may never be another swine flu.
So last week, we dispatched our first responder to start searching for Swine Flu Opportunities. How is H1N1 impacting Mexico?

A report from Max Grinnell, the Urbanologist, is pasted below. As you’ll see, the news is not great yet. Yet. It’s very early. (As most CTers remember from the SARS outbreak of 2003, it takes time before the full benefits of pandemic hysteria fully manifest themselves.)
The Urbanologist’s Report, May 1, 2009

Grinnell spent about 30 minutes searching two of the most popular travel search engines: Orbitz and Expedia, for cheap deals to Acapulco from Chicago and Boston.

1. Acapulco – from Boston.

A quick search on a long Memorial Day weekend (May 21-26) yielded prices in the $630 range (hotel and air) from Boston for the solo traveler. The Urbanologist has seen better deals. Last May he scored a 6-day trip to Barbados for $620, including airfare and a peaceful guest house with innumerable hammocks here: http://www.seaubarbados.com.Max’s conclusion: “We aren’t in the land of pandemic prices yet. “

2. Cabo San Lucas – from Boston or Chicago.

Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja.. What better place to get one’s mind off the World Health Organization, sanitary face masks, wide-spread school closures, and a 30 percent drop in your 401(K) …

The Urbanologis, a Baja enthusiast, adds of Cabo. “Nice breezes in them parts and you can channel your inner Izaak Walton by chartering a boat and seeing your way clear to bagging a dorado or a mountable marlin.”

After some searching on Orbitz and Expedia, the Urbanologist found some six night type packages from Boston or Chicago priced at around $700.

Again, this is not the pandemic pricing we’re looking for. But Grinnell pleased on what he found is thinking about going for it. “Not a bad way to spend a few days, and if you look quick, you might see Sammy Hagar when you’re down there.”

Next Up in SWINE FLU WATCH…

Lael Powell Rushing will take a look at the H1N1’s impact on Mexico City and – one of our favorite places on the planet – Oaxaca. Rob Jordan will take a look at eating and drinking opportunities in border towns - from Tijuana to Juarez to Mexicali.


The State of the Contrarian Travel — The NEW CT Manifesto is Revised

Friday, March 21st, 2008

As is CT tradition, each year in mid-March, much like the celebration of Groundhog Day, the Alpha Contrarian deliver a review of the state of Contrarian Travel to other Contrarians. Here is an abridged version of his report.

THE STATE OF CONTRARIAN TRAVEL - 2007

It’s been a brutal and complicated year for contrarian travel. Many contrarians have called it “The Nightmare Year.” Others, such as Lael Powell-Rushing have been even more pessimistic. Last month, Lael suggested that 2007 is the beginning of the “Contrarian Travel Apocalypse.”

Reasons for pessimism are obvious: favorite destinations are being ruthlessly exposed at an alarming rate. In September of 2007, the New York Times runs a spectacularly detailed 2,000-plus word story about Yemen (a contrarian fave), complete with suggestions for hotels in and around Sanaa, as well as hikes and architectural history. Then, still in September, the Chicago Tribune splashes its cover page with a feature called “Biking through Yooper Land” — yes, that’s Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a spot near-and-dear to us, a spot breathtakingly free of tourists. Meanwhile, earlier that summer, the Washington Post ran stories about touring Greenland and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and worst, California’s Anza Borrego Desert State Park. And the Los Angeles Times puts Bhutan – yes, mfing Bhutan — on its cover.

It’s bittersweet. We’re excited. Yes, we were happy to learn about a crop of ski resorts in Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains. (We love Contrarian skiing in obscure mountain ranges in Eastern Europe) But we were troubled to learn about these resorts in the Time’s Travel section, along with a million other readers, including the same assholes who ski at Hunter Mountain that we’re trying to get away from.

The point: In 2007, it finally became undeniable. The mainstream travel press is contrarian. Sure, travel sections — from the Times to the Toledo Blade — have always been running stories about offbeat, quirky, adventures, but the difference is now it’s EVERY FRIGGIN WEEK, and the quirky story, once a 15 inch story buried on E-12, is now on the COVER.

Every week we pick up the Travel section with fear: what secret will they reveal next? What place will be ruined? Yes, winter is the best time to go to the Oregon Coast. YES, if you hunger for the authentic, tourist-less Russian experience, January — not June — is the time to go to St. Petersburg. Yes, a brilliant way to experience New York City is via water — kayaking and canoeing the city’s vast wildness.

It makes sense. The world is getting smaller,travel is getting easier; the proliferation of romantic road adventures stories, the popularity of adventure travel, the Rick Steves-ification (everyone wants an undiscovered Swiss Mountain retreat), the

shear numbers (you can’t write or visit the same place 50 times) are all conspiring to make the Contrarian approach mainstream.

End Result: It’s getting harder to be contrarian. Instead of being despondent, instead of mourning the good old days, instead of sitting around and waiting for the Travel Channel to destroy our favorite village in the northern Phillipines, we as Contrarians must simply adapt and get smarter. On Mar. 22nd at the CT’s annual convention — in Chokoloskee, Florida — the Alpha revealed his Updated Manifesto, which involves four keys admonishments.

The Contrarian Manifesto 3.0.

“If they zig, we must zag”
“If everyone is an obscurantist, we must be more obscurantist.”

First, we must go deeper, accept more inconvenience. We will continue to look for the obscure, the rarely visited, the tourist-free places. It’s going to be harder, but we will simply have to travel further, go to harder and harder to reach places. (Meaning: instead of satisficing ourselves with Novia Scotia on a tour through Canada’s Maritime Province, we must go further — we must take that ferry to Newfoundland.)

Second, we must accept more risk, aka the “Kenya Strategy.” When a SARS outbreak strikes Hong Kong, tourists vanish, hotel prices plummet. When a bomb explodes in central Nairobi, the Kenyan tourism industry is shattered. This is when we go on that safari of Masai National Park. Likewise, if a tsunami destroys the coast of northern Thailand, we return to Phuket, as soon as the hotels reopen, as soon as the International Red Cross he Thai government deems it safe and passable. We accept a higher degree of risk — because we loathe other tourists, and want to encounter places untrammeled by tourism, and we want cheaper prices.

Third, if people say it’s unpleasant, if “they” describe the place as loathsome (cold, unfriendly, boring, dirty, ugly, hostile, dangerous)) if it’s the “worst place in INSERT STATE COUNTRY, we must go. We will go to Gary, Indiana, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the oft-maligned bordertowns of the U.S Mexico border, and the notoriously unpleasant creations of the Soviet era in South Central Russia.

Fourth, secrets. OK. Listen, the CT is a cooperative. We’re a group of people who like to travel in a particular way. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that we have to keep a few secrets. (After telling fellow CTers about the joys of visiting Prague in January, rather than summer, we were dismayed to see that the New York Times ran a story telling the rest of the world that January was a great time to visit the Czech capital.) We’re not going to get creepy and 007 about our travel tips. BUT… we now know that we will need to create a special MEMBERS ONLY section. And if we can find the time, our tech guy, and UP Editor, Tim from Hurley, will help establish a system of vetting members.

We’re not going to charge anything, but we’re just going to ask CT members to sign a Contrarian Oath. (More on this later — in brief, it’s our set of contrarian travel principles)

Finally, we’re going to continue to value traveling over writing. Yes, we’ve been pretty slow this year about getting content up. Yes, we’ve heard plenty of complaints “where is the Gotham Guide!. When is the next Panhandle feature.” But again, as the Germans say: Reisen erste, später schreiben

English translation: “Travel first, write later.”

Special Introductory Offer for reader’s of The CT’s Manifesto: Get The CT’s insights, musings, destination reviews, travel media criticism, warnings — learn about the Last Great Place Before It’s Gone — for the special introductory price of FREE! Yes, that’s right. FOUR FREE issues of The Quarterly Contrarian.

Join the CT’s community of unconventional travellers by simply emailing the CT alert (see the top of the page for details.)

NOTE: This offer will expire.

NOTE 2: While we will not charge for any of the CT publications, we will reserve the right to ask applicants a series of questions before giving access to the CT’s Members Only section.


Members Only: The CT’s Gotham Guide

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Most of the CT’s staff has either lived, worked, or worshipped, in some manner, New York City. In fact, New York experience is a requisite for all CT staff, and that includes our West Coast correspondent Lael Powell Rushing.

Sometime in early March, we will complete our most ambitious project — our first-ever “Contrarian Guide to New York City.”

The NYC Guide will answer some basic burning CT questions.

For one, where can you get a decent meal for under $5?

What the is the one remaining secret neighborhood in the most completely covered, explored, touristed zip code in the world?

The best of Off-Off-Off Broadway.

Why we love Queens!

And.. some fundamental stuff. What’s the best time of the day to visit the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and Grant’s Tomb?

The CT’s Gotham Guide will be emailed to members of the CT Quarterly. Subscribe Now. 8 issues for Free!


The Search for a Truly Awesome Monarch is Over

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Editor’s Note:

While the CT’s chief aim is, of course, to tell you, our faithful readers, about authentic, unspoiled, interesting, unorthodox destinations, we also will not shirk a more basic journalistic responsibility. If we encounter God on Earth, or an alternative form of icon-worship, we will report it.

An Amalgam of Elvis Presley, Robin Hood and God… in Thailand
Rob Jordan, South East Asia Editor, reports from Bangkok
His ceremonial name is Phrabat Somdej Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitaladhibet Ramadhibodi Chakrinarubodindara Sayamindaradhiraj Boromanatbophit. His more common name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, means “Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power.” But you can call him The Great for short.

To those who know Thailand’s king – and millions who don’t really know him at all – he is an amalgam of Elvis Presley, Robin Hood and God. As the world’s longest reigning monarch, Bhumibol is Crash Davis to Queen Elizabeth II’s Nuke LaLoosh.You better believe Thailand is going to throw a bender when the king turns 80 on December 5.

Evidence? How about the giant images of Bhumibol at every major traffic intersection, on every government building, Coca-Cola distributor, kitchen supply showroom and scrap yard? There’s the bespectacled monarch in royal robes, waving gamely from a palace balcony. There he is as a young Buddhist acolyte in saffron robes. There he is in military dress whites, reviewing the troops. There he is planting a ceremonial rice seedling, overseeing dam construction, sitting in a tractor, bird watching, trumpet playing, photographing, drinking water.

The Bhumibol industry includes wall calendars, clocks, personal schedule books and yellow bracelets modeled after Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” bands. The king usually appears in profile smiling wanly, pondering something. Toddlers scamper around in little yellow T-shirts that proclaim “We Love the King.” The Thai version of a “Fear This” sticker in the rearview window is one that proclaims, “Long Live Our Beloved King.”

There’s a lot to love. Bhumibol is an accomplished jazz saxophonist who has played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Jack Teargarden. He’s a talented photographer, sailor and painter. His writings include tomes such as The Story of Tong Daeng, a tale about the King’s pet basenji. “His majesty the King,” the book begins, “entertains the opinion that Tong Daeng is a common dog who is uncommon.”

Seriously, the man is cool. He holds patents for a waste water aerator and rainmaking technology. He has for years worked to support sustainable development, protect the environment and support traditional Thai crafts. His humanitarian work earned him a United Nations Lifetime Achievement Award, whatever that is.
He’s beloved in part because no one is allowed to say otherwise. Laws prohibit badmouthing the royal family and offer up to 15 years imprisonment to those who can’t shut their traps. This past April, Thais were shocked when someone somewhere posted to You Tube a brief satire of the king showing him with animated googly eyeballs. In a show of democratic compromise, the military government promptly banned the website.
So, don’t bother asking why the king’s rides include a Boeing 737 and two Airbus jets when most Thais ride scooters. And don’t even think about questioning the circumstances under which the king’s predecessor – his brother – was assassinated. The 1946 palace shooting officially remains unsolved.
None of the Thais seem to care. As anyone who’s been to the Land of Smiles recently can tell you, Mondays are a good time to gauge the Thais’ royal sentiments. Because the king was born on a Monday, which is symbolized by the color yellow, every Thai and his mother becomes a walking neon billboard of King worship on that day. They wear yellow polo shirts mostly, but toddlers seem fond of yellow T-shirts that say “I love the king,” and yellow button-ups are considered cool too.

Any day of the week, yellow flags line highways, and the king’s serene face gazes down from billboards every few miles.


News

On the Road - Back in December

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Dear Loyal Contrarian Traveller —

The CT profoundly apologizes for its moribundness in recent months. Lots has happened.

Lael Powell Rushing has been busy working on his first book, “The Unofficial History of Car-Camping.” Rob Jordan, Metrosexual and South East Asian Editor, has moved from Miami to DC. The Alpha Contrarian is recovering from several trips, and a bout with swine flu.

But we will be back. In December, we will publish an exclusive excerpt from LPR’s book. This is essential reading for any one legitimately interested in unorthodox, low-cost ways of traveling in North America.

More to come.


The CT Obamamania — Your Guide to The New Crawford, Texas

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Five Contrarian Things to Do in Hyde Park (Illinois), by Max Grinnell, AB ‘98

Since Senator Barack Obama became President-elect Barack Obama a few weeks back, dozens of media outlets (i.e. daily rags, 60 Minutes, the Rockford Daily Shopper, etc.) have scoured Hyde Park for the inside scoop on what makes this place tick. Hyde Park has seen it all before, and for the most part, mainstream media has focused on the “classics”: the UofC, the Valois Cafeteria, the bookishness of every single one of its residents.

Fortunately, one of the CT’s editors, the Urbanologist (aka Max Grinnell), is one of the world’s greatest living authorities on Hyde Park, Illinois. Not only is The Urbanologist the author of an architectural history of Hyde Park – “Images of America: Hyde Park, Illinois,” he’s also The Go-To Tour Guide on Hyde Park. (More on this later)

In brief, the CT is happy to assume the role of World’s Most Authoritative Resource on President Obama’s neighborhood.

To kick off our 8 (hopefully) years of exhaustive coverage on The New Crawford, Texas , we give you – from the Urbanologist himself– five contrarian things of note in Hyde Park, and here they are, in no particular order.

1. Take a walk behind the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Museum of Science and Industry is a uber-non-contrarian destination. Lots of schoolchildren from the southern suburbs, tourists with a penchant for German subs, and so on. Never fear: If you take a walk directly behind the Museum, you’ll encounter a rather large lagoon. It’s rather pleasant back here, and there’s usually random men fishing for something (probably fish, but who knows). Say hi, and take a look around. A nighttime excursion here is probably not a wise idea, but you’d definitely get bonus contrarian hit points.


2. Grab a drink at the Falcon Inn

Everyone who goes to Hyde Park hears about Jimmy’s (aka The Woodlawn Tap) over on 55th Street. A fine place, but you’d do better to check out the Falcon Inn right east of the Metra tracks on 53rd Street. The place is attached to a pizza joint (Cholie’s) and the drinks are cheap as hell. It’s a good place to run into someone who has a story about R. Kelly, R&B legend and South Side native-son. They have an odd Columbian Exposition-style mural on the wall, and friendly folks behind the bar.


3. Wander down Rosalie Court (aka Harper Avenue)

Back in the 19th century, Hyde Park was its own bucolic village, and people liked it that way (and some would prefer that it be that way today…) A two block stretch of the hood was developed as a private community, and it was named Rosalie Court. Of course back, then the train operated at grade level through their collective backyards, so it probably wasn’t that pleasant. Today, the street is called Harper Avenue, and if you wander up from 59th Street next to the Metra tracks, you’ll see a collection of old motley homes that feel like sitting on Grandma’s davenport, that is, if Grandma would let you sit on that thing, what with all the plastic and such. Cats on porches, off-beat color combinations (purple and green stand out), and random pieces of art make these two blocks worth a visit.


4. Go to a wine tasting at Kimbark Liquor’s

There’s absolutely nothing special about the building that Kimbark Liquor’s calls home, unless you’re a fan of urban renewal projects dedicated by Hizzoner Richard J. Daley. Fortunately, Kimbark Liquor’s sponsors a wonderful wine tasting every Friday and Saturday evening. You might want to call ahead to check the exact hours (they tend to change quite a bit), but it’s worth a stop. Pick up a bottle of passionfruit-infused booze on your way out and you might find yourself on the way to the lagoon behind the Museum of Science and Industry.

5. Count grotesques.

Let’s clear the air regarding the whole grotesque/gargoyle schism. A grotesque is a carved decoration on a building that is NOT used as a drain spout. Gargoyle….well, those happen to have a drain spout. So wander on over to the Hyde Park campus of the UofC and count a few grotesques. Extra points if you can find the building that is festooned with various creatures, including an alligator. You could be there all day, so bring some trail mix, an astrolabe, and sturdy boots.

Want more?

For more detailed information on Hyde Park, please contact the CT directly – we can arrange a special, ultra-exclusive contrarian tour of the neighborhood, which will conclude with a stop at President-elect Obama’s dry cleaner, a visit to an Obama-friendly shoe store, and twilight drinks at The Falcon with The Urbanologist – and if we’re extremely lucky – Chicago Tribune legend, and Urbanologist pal, Rick Kogan.


Ultimate Contrariana: Iceland for X-Mas

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

As most readers of the CT know, we have been off-the-charts, drop-your-pants excited about the global financial meltdown for months now. The plunging Dow, the faltering Nikkei, collapsing I-banks, devalued currencies… Why? You ask - does that mean Iceland, Sensei? ‘

Here’s what a bad economy means to us:

* Previously unaffordable places become semi-affordable.
* Middle class white American people become too poor, economically anxious to travel- ie: fewer tourists.

So, while Wall Street aches, while the Euro struggles, while the financial spine of Iceland breaks, CTers are getting ready for some hard-core backbacking in previously unaffordable countries — like Iceland.

Did we ever tell you how much we like Iceland? One of the CT’s seminal pieces, way back in 1998 was on… Icelandophillia.

That said, the CT has long had a weakness for Iceland, but has been thwarted by the horrible dollar to krona exchange rate.

Some super encouraging news started appearing a few weeks ago. The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece about how the demise of Iceland’s banks has been driving Icelanders back to their roots in fishin. We started sensing some opportunity.
So did the CT’s arch-enemy, The New YorkTimes…

Michelle Higgins of the Times wrote the paper’s first openly contrarian piece of the 2007-2008 Subprime Crisis turned Mini-Recession. Higgins makes the bold (for the Times) suggestion that “a bad economy is good for travellers.”

She cites Iceland in a round-up of global meltdown = travel bargains. Here is the “Christmas Bargains” piece.

Then, we also spotted, just day later, a desperate plea — in “Ailing Iceland Invites Visitors”

And then, it gets even better, a google search yielded a Travelocity story about some precocious genius who is going to Iceland for the holidays. The Travelocity travel blogger writes:
“When a good friend of mine told me last month that she was considering spending this New Year’s Eve in Iceland, I nearly laughed her right out of the room. Iceland in the wintertime? You know that’s north, not south, right? Besides, Iceland has such a high standard of living. Who has the kind of cash to travel there now given the state of our economy?

Earlier this year, the blogger points out, one U.S. dollar was worth around 70 Icelandic Krona; now it trades for 100 Krona or more.

In conclusion: “Which means this island nation might actually be a splendid winter destination for budget-minded U.S. travelers.”

Please read “Budget Travel in Iceland this Winter” closely. Read it as if its the Talmud.

Reason: This is, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of the contrarian spirit. This is our Holy Grail. That’s right — Rekyjavik -in the winter of 2008 — is our Valhalla..
You see, by going in December, the Contrarian takes advantage of not only Iceland’s economic woes — and desperation — but also seasonality. Only a diehard contrarian would go to Iceland during the dead of winter, around the winter solstice, at a time when there are mere hours of sunlight. But the pay-off for the contrarian who does have the moxie, the pride, the quartzite balls, the fearlessness of the dark, the immunity to SADS (Seasonal Affecticve Disorder) is huge.

Lael Powell-Rushing, a recovering Icelandophile, will discuss this later this month in our next issue — we’re going to devote the whole CT to Iceland. Specifically, LPR will talk about what you’ll find in Reykjavik, Akureyri, and Husavik during December and early January, what you can during the two hours of daylight, where to go Nordic skiing and bar-hopping. He’ll also talk about the pros and cons of car-camping in Iceland.

Meantime, here are a few resources to whet your appetite and prepare you.

The Times on “When to Go to Iceland?”

And below, a picture of the intrepid Cameron Smith — a fellow we don’t personally know — in Iceland. Look closely at this picture. This could be you.


A Good Bar, a Decent Ski Resort, a Loch Ness Monster-Like Creature — and a freshwater Naval submarine training facility — it’s all yours in the Idaho Panhandle.

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Finally, finally, we spoke with Lael Powell Rushing the other night about his Idaho Panhandle Trip. Lael, as many of you know, has recently been struggling with a rare combination of carpal tunnel and strep throat and has been difficult to reach. We just wanted to tell him that all of us at the CT wish him a speedy recovery, and we hope that he can hit the road again soon.

This is an excerpt from our initial De-Brief with Lael, in which we talked about a couple of key issues, such as where to stay, why to go, and the economics of Idaho’s extreme north. Judging from Lael’s testimony, we’ve determined that there are Five Key reasons to head to the furthest reaches of the Idaho Panhandle. The most compelling reason is clearly Number 5: “$165 in Lift Tickets — Panhandle style.”

1. See the Lake Tahoe of the Panhandle, Investigate Rumors of “The Paddler.”

Sandpoint sits on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, which is a large, deep, clear lake. Very beautiful. Apparently, it’s one of the few places with an inland, freshwater Naval submarine facility. There’s also local lore of the deep-water beast, “the Paddler”, as well as some really far-fetched ideas about deep, under-ground canals linking Lake Pend Oreille to Flathead Lake in Montana, and even the Pacific. (This was told to Lael by a drunk local, originally from St. Paul, MN, late at night in Eichard’s (More on Eichardt’s later in the Good Bar section.

2. Experience British Columbia… at Lower Prices.

Lake Pendpanhandlemap.gif Oreille sits between the Selkirk Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains. Never heard of the Selkirks or the Cabinets? That’s because they’re Canadian. Both are long, gorgeous mountain ranges that reside overwhelmingly in Canada and only duck into the northern Panhandle. It’s definitely a maritime influenced climate and ecoregion, with a deep snowpack and dank, dark forests. In other words, a lot like southern B.C.

3. Obnoxious Texans, Affluent Californians, New Yorkers with Bling — Not Here

The main resort in the area is Schweitzer. It’s a cool ski resort, sort of well known because of it’s proximity to the capital of the Inland Empire (Spokane - 2 hrs. from downtown to ski resort), and Coeur D’Alene. (Lael estimates that the whole Spokane/Post Falls, Coeur D’Alene, megalopolis have at least 500k - this has not been verified)…. It’s privately owned, which is kind of a bummer, because it means that the trajectory of condos and development around the ski area is likely to continue, and probably in a big way. Right now, it’s not that out of control, and Sandpoint (population 6,000) is definitely low-key, but this could all change in the future. The mountain itself is pretty impressive and boasts some world-class terrain. I’ve been there on 4 different trips, and had some good days there. Big parts of the mountain are “backcountry-like”, so it appeals to backcountry skiers, and there’s lots of easily accessible backcountry outside of the resort. But it’s got lots of “family” terrain too.

4. Eichardt’s — A Good Hippy, Gay, Metrosexual Friendly Bar.

Editors’s Note: Let’s face it. If northern Idaho has a reputation of anything, it’s for right wing, wack job extremists. This is the home of Ruby Ridge. It was a retreat for Ted Kacynski and Mark Furman. There are plenty of hostile local folk, said Lael. (Lael, as you know, with his dredlocks and hemp clothing is not the most discreet hippy traveler.) That said, Lael was enthused a bar in Sandpoint.

“Eichardt’s bar and restaurant in Sandpoint is a gem. Amazing food, great atmosphere, and a killer game room upstairs (pool, ping pong, darts, and a great shuffle puck board). Very hip place. We went there 4 nights in a row for dinner, because frankly it would have been impossible to find a better place in Sandpoint that met all of our needs (food, games, attractive, hip people). Meanwhile, across the street was an old-timers bar, I sent a photo, with a sign out front saying “Tervan” on one side and “Tavern” on the other. We went in for a beer and definitely did not feel welcome. The 3 of us stand out quite a bit I’d say - I’m the shortest at 6 feet, and I’d wager that our “ethnic” looks and fancy sportswear did not go over well. It was that experience that reminded me how contrarian the Panhandle is for dudes like us. (NOTE: By us, Lael means western hippy Jews, who car camp, and have dredlocks)

One older, drunk woman did come up to us as we were all watching this show on the TV about tattoos, and she asked us if we knew anything about getting our “dickies” tatooed. At that point, I was glad that I was only Jewish, and not gay. It was time to go. Back across the street — at Eichardt’s — we were where we belonged. Where Jews and Gays belonged. And Eichardt’s couldn’t be warmer.

5. $165 Worth of Free Lift Tickets — Panhandle Style.

Note: The final Lael remark that sold us on the Panhandle, involved his friend Noah, a Toyota, and the Schweitzer ski resort. Noah is — believe it or not — even taller and more rabbinic looking than Lael. Here is Lael:

Schweitzer’s had a special promotion during our visit, if you drove a Toyota to the mountain, they’d give the owner a free lift ticket. Noah has a Toyota with 215,000 miles. So he figured they owe him 1 ticket per 100,000 miles. Now, at a resort like Vail or something, if there was a give-away like this going on, you’d figure you’d have to go inside, fill out some kind of form, give away your SSN and your telephone number, talk to a Toyota rep, and the whole nine yards. Well, we’re heading up to the mountain, and we get to this lower parking lot, a full 9 miles away from the resort at the bottom of the mountain, and we pull in, and there’s this parking lot dude, you know, a real dude, some 35 year old dude, standing there with a pocket full of lift tickets and he’s handing us one as well pull up, since he recognizes the Toyota!

Sweet deal. So Noah pulls out his shtick about 1 ticket per 100,000, and the dude barely pauses and pulls out another ticket. Sweet. But there’s 3 of us, so I’m like, “hey, do you think our buddy could get a ticket”, pointing to Gus in the back seat, and the guy pauses, and he’s like, “you guys must be panhandlers! no prob!” Sweet! Fucking unreal. $165 dollars worth of free lift tickets. That doesn’t happen at Vail, or really anywhere for that matter. And I videotaped the whole interaction in stealth mode, and we had to reanalyze his comment about pandhandlers, and we now think it was a compliment.

You guys must be Panhandlers!

For more on the Idaho Panhandle, Lael or Noah’s Toyota, check back next month, when we talk with Lael about his visit to the urban core of the Idaho Panhandle.

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CT Investigation: NY Times Puff Piece Prompts A Closer Look at CouchSurfing.Com

Friday, April 24th, 2009

To CouchSurf, or not to CouchSurf?

That is the almighty question of Contrarian Travel, circa April 2009.

Is CouchSurfing.com — the Facebook of adventure travel — a cheap, easy way of eluding mass tourism?

Does it live up to its lofty mission — connecting travelers with natives of local communities? Does it effectively eliminate the need for Hostels?
If you read the New York Times’ “Three Cushions, A Million Guests.” on April 8th — a short piece in the Travel section’s Frugal Traveler column, in honor of the announcement that CouchSurfing.com has 1 million members — you’re probably pretty excited. Maybe even sleepless.

CouchSurfing sounds like the Contrarian Traveller’s panacea. Free accomodations, encounters with friendly locals with cultural knowledge, a community of travel addicts.
Gross, the NYT’s longtime Frugal Traveler columnist — ordinarily a reliable source of cheap travel tips — desribes the social networking tool glowingly. No Couchsurfer he’s talked with has ever felt unsafe. He’s used it in Montenegro, Kyrgyzstan, Bucharest and Indiana. He says the CouchSurfers are rarely stereotypical backpackers. Then he adds a few gushing sentences about a Couchsurfing party he attended in Queen — frisbees flying, brotherhood abounding, quality people (Gross notes that at least four doctors are present at the Couchsurfing pizza/frisbee party). Sounds great. (ALSO; hook up potential. Gross notes that one guy met his girlfriend couchsurfing)
Given the importance of Couchsurfing.com to our lifeblood — cheap travel to untouristed places — we felt that CT readers deserved a closer look at what CouchSurfing is really like…

In Pt. 1 of “CouchSurfing Confidential,” CT editor Rob Jordan describes why he’s no longer hosting CSers at his Miami Beach pad.. We urge you to read — and share — Rob’s
piece “

How I Traveled the World Without Leaving My Couch and Got Tired of It.

By Rob Jordan

Gary was my first.

A friendly, bespectacled, ruddy and somewhat diminutive Irish guy living in Munich, Gary was my first couchsurfer. Actually, he was the second, but the first – a girl from Los Angeles – basically just wanted a place to sleep during a party weekend with gal pals.

High on the idealism and international social promise inherent in the idea, I had

recently signed up on coucshurfing.com, the million-member online community in which one party provides gratis accommodations while the other party ostensibly provides foreign charm and cultural literacy. My Ikea leather couch and Japanese-ish futon were now fair game. In exchange, I hoped for a dose of foreign-ness, exotic home-cooked meals and, perhaps, gifts like wine or chocolates or mild narcotics.

When you describe your apartment’s location as “a small island between South Beach and downtown Miami,” you should expect a regular UN of crash pad seekers. Gary was the first to get through my intense screening process. I looked at his profile photo (friendly-enough-looking) and gauged his level of interest in seeing Miami (high).

After an amusing evening of traipsing around South Beach, chatting about lederhosen and whatnot, we ended up at a gay bar with outdoor seating on Ocean Drive. Gary was interested in what local homosexuals were up to, so I had offered the field trip. I was happy enough with my free cup of Maker’s Mark, courtesy of my neighbor, the bartender, but Gary was disappointed. The place was deserted, and we had missed the weekly drag revue. All that was left was a little curbside drama: a stout queen barking at a cab driver as s/he squeezed her rear end into the taxi’s backseat.

After Gary left a positive review on my couchsurfing.com profile page, the requests came thick and heavy.

“I have always dreamt about South Beach and the cocodriles!” an Italian girl wrote. A Brazilian guy said he would be “deadly grateful” for a place to stay. A Mexican guy wanted to stay at my place before boarding the “ferry service to go to Cuba.” Could I send a cool Miami postcard to someone’s friend in Poland? “Please excuse me if I say something odd,” warned an artist from New Zealand.

They wrote from Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Denmark, Lithuania, Slovenia and Croatia and Serbia, Turkey, South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Orlando. They had screen names like Honey, Jackooo, Toon, Icewater and, my favorite honest freeloader moniker, “White Collar Nomad.” Most of them seemed to be college-age, likely well-off kids looking for adventure on the cheap.

Choosing who to accept and who to nix became a significant occupation. While others wasted their time with email spam, I was busy checking my coucshurfing.com inbox, perusing profiles and replying to requests. Hits and misses ensued

Megan, the shaved-headed anarchist Catholic charity worker from Cleveland, was a bit peeved by Miami’s general hedonism and lack of vegetarian offerings.

Robin, the lanky, suave French fashion model, was happy to go kayaking, hang out with tipsy journalists at a house party and smoke American cigarettes while criticizing American society.

James, the amateur photographer from Canada, took care of himself and his antique camera. For whatever reason, I trusted him so quickly that I let him stay in my apartment while I left town for a few days. I came home to a thoroughly cleaned bathroom and a stocked refrigerator.

I went drinking with Sebastian, the dreadlocked mellow white dude from Aruba, had stomach-churning Cuban food with Yan Ke, the demure Chinese teacher and accepted shipment of sailboard parts for Bas, the extremely tall Dutch guy my cat harassed as he slept.

The French couple was the beginning of the end. They were 20-somethings with a taste for Patchouli oil and loose-fitting clothes. It started badly when they called me around midnight to say their plane had been delayed and they wouldn’t be at my place for another hour or so. Upon arrival, they had no problem finishing the food I had on hand, using my computer while I tried to squeeze past them into the kitchen and cutting their hair (him) in my bathroom, leaving a dusting of clippings in my sink and on the floor. They seemed surprised when I declined an invitation to go out for drinks.

Then there was the well-traveled writer whose profile looked interesting. He turned out to be a 60-something drifter with pneumonia. He sipped beer and smoked cigarettes on my deck while looking miserable and hacking up untold mounds of phlegm. I dropped him off at a laundromat the next morning.

By the time, Bing, an IT consultant from North Carolina by way of Shanghai, showed up, I was done. The effort of hosting seemed like more than it was worth. My generosity had run its course, my international curiosity – as far as couchsurfing went – dried up.

Now, instead of “couch definitely available,” my couchsurfing profile offers “coffee or a drink.” No takers yet.


The Metrosexual Traveler: Beware of Sky Schmaltz

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

toy.jpg
Rob Jordan, our Metrosexual Editor, called the CT’s main office late the other night, saying “enough was enough.” As most of you know, Rob has been flying frequently recently, logging thousands of AAdvantage miles for the CT on trips to Bangkok, New York, Osaka, Dar es Salaam, Kolkata, and Watertown, NY.
During these flights, Rob — remember he is our Metrosexual Editor — has closely examined in-flight marketing. Here is Rob’s review.
Sky Schmaltz
For those with any lingering romanticism for the glamorous days of air travel, please consult your seat back pocket. There you’ll find the greatest single compendium of all that is useless and asinine: the in-flight catalog.
Perhaps you graze its pages after you’ve exhausted the airline magazine. You flip through the images to do something with your hands, to occupy your attention however fleetingly. But have you ever really read through it? Have you really examined the offerings? To do so is to wallow in retail misery, and to pity a copywriter who finds himself typing: “Even if you don’t need to prop a door open, a classic-design doorstop still adds a certain charm to a room”What follows is a choice selection of actual items available for actual money through a major airline’s in-flight catalog:

* Flair Hair visor with built in fake mullet: “Instantly give yourself a head-turning new ‘do and amuse friends – and strangers” ($24.99)

skymall.jpg

* Plastic antlers to mount on pickup truck: “Sometimes one car horn just isn’t enough” ($24.99)

* Animatronic singing and talking bust of Elvis: “replicating his unique facial expressions” ($199.95

“Art print” of a NASCAR pit crew of olives with arms and legs ($139.99)

*Authentic replica of Batman’s “batarang” ($75)

* Muscle car engine ornament for Christmas tree: “Ho-ho-ho-horsepower” ($12.95)

* Mount Rushmore garden statue: “Your garden is a natural treasure” ($39.95)

* Drunk reindeer bottle stopper ($19.95)

*Marshmallow shooter ($24.95)

*Tiny aquarium stocked with mechanical artificial jellyfish ($69.95)

* Pop-up hot dog and hot dog bun cooker combo ($49.95)

* DaVinci Code cryptex ($195)

For an even closer look at Sky Malls, the CT urges you to visit www.skymaul.com, a creation of one of the CT’s preferred partners, KasparHauser.com.


CT Mourns Loss of Contrarian Travel writer

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

The CT is usually not in the business of commenting on the ups-n-downs of the media publishing biz…. The CT usually does not like to get all sappy and maudlin with our readers.. And you know that we do not like to publish in the months of June, July, August or September.  But, for once, we must.   

 

We were saddened to hear last month that one of our favorite travel writers — a guy with a true contrarian spirit – was a casualty of the Sam Zell Revolution.  We won’t bore you with details.  You don’t read the CT because you want to know about the inner-workings of the Tribune Corporation. But, in brief, Zell buys the Chicago Tribune – a paper frequently read by the CT —  and proceeds to slash its staff dramatically in an effort to improve numbers, and ultimately make the paper more appealing to potential buyers.  Anyways, we knew about the blood loss at the Tribune, we heard about the revolving door of editors, but we hadn’t realize that they got one of our friends.

Earlier this month, the CT was innocently scanning the Tribune, hunting for hope, when we spotted a piece titled “Seven Reasons to go to South Bend, Indiana.”  (South Bend, home of Notre Dame, known for heavy lake-effect snow,  job loss, and not much else, is an intriguing contrarian choice.) When we saw that this short piece was written by Solly (that’s his nickname), we smiled.  Who else but Solomon would not only have the sagacity and audacity to reccomend South Bend as a weekend getaway, but also to suggest a visit to the RV hall fame in nearby Elkhart as the 4th best thing to do on that South Bend visit? In his own words:  

4. RV/MH HALL OF FAME
Elkhart is a manufacturing center of recreational vehicles, and this hall/museum—it moved to a new facility in 2007—is very cool. Really. A quick drive east of South Bend.

For more, visit:  rv-mh-hall-of-fame.org

Brilliant. A smart contrarian choice by a pro.  Needless to say, spotting the Solly byline, sent us on a Solly retrospective, and thoughts of the many Trib travel pieces we’ve enjoyed over the years.  So.. the Alpha, who is continuing to follow his advice “travel first, write later,” assigned one of our interns to google-stalk Solomon for a possible retrospective (Reason: he’s the guy who turned us on to Torres del Paine in Southern Patagonia, he told us that Winter is the time to go to the Grand Canyon, he smartly named Bayfield, Wisconsin as a the “Midwest’s Best Town.”  He wrote the definitive guide to Lake Michigan beaches, which helped us make the rapturous discovery of the sunset experience at the Esch Road beach, south of Empire, Michigan. Naked people, bonfires, sand dunes. In brief, he’s been very, very good to us.)

 

On July 2, the intern comes into the CT’s Chicago office with a grim look on his face, and hands the Alpha a print-out of a story from Chicago’s alt-weekly, the Chicago Reader.  It was written by Michael Miner, the Reader’s media critic. Solly, apparently — unbenownst to the CT — had taken a buyout, effectively saying sayonara to the Trib and the travel section.  The story was published on Mar. 19th.  Which meant “7 Reasons to Go to South Bend,” may be one of his last pieces.

If the CT can get out of its horrible summer slump (please see our forthcoming mea culpa “The CT’s Manana Complex”), we will publish a list of Solomon’s greatest hits — with a particular eye, of course, to contrarian needs.  Solomon is particularly adept at finding offbeat ways of approaching the most over-run destination (Branson, Disney World).  ALSO, if we ever truly get our shit together, we will try and track him down, ply him with bourbon, and get him to spit out a few contrarian nuggets for our forthcoming Interviews section (sort of like what Ralf Potts does on Vagabonding)

In the meantime,  before we resume our summer hiatus,  we wish Alan Solomon the best of luck. We hope he continues travelling and hope he keeps writing — even in his semi-retirement.  

 


Contrarian Death Watch : Luang Prabang, Laos

Friday, April 25th, 2008

It’s not global warming, it’s not Islamic fundamentalism, it’s not the subprime mortgage crisis. It’s the F’n Global Tourism Industrial Complex.. As you all know, we at the CT have been screeching about the woefully under-reported and under-recognized global menace that is the Global Tourism Industry.

The arrival of the tourist – even a seemingly innocuous trickle of German or Dutch hippy backpackers – inevitable leads to the soul-sapping, the cultural destruction, homogenization, and ultimately the complete degeneration of a once unique place into self-caricature, not to mention the collateral environmental damage.

(It’s a familiar lament to CTers.  So we won’t bore you.  In brief, first, there is Hans, from Bremen and his battered Lonely Planet, or Corey, the eager guide from Mountain Travel Sobek, then in five years – the tchtachkes, the prix-fixe menus, tour groups, buses, the death of it all.)

It’s sad. It makes us weepy. (And yes, it is so commonplace, that’s why we at the CT are chronically sad.)

But….To cope, and to help other CTers better plan their trips, we have introduced a new regular feature The Contrarian Death Watch.   When we learn that a place we have loved has been over-run,  we will declare it DEAD TO THE CT and let you know.  So sadly we report a death…

Luang Prabang, Laos.
Time of Death – 2007 – 2008

It came to our attention last week, when the CT received an email from Rob Jordan, Southeast Asian editor, with the direct subject head “Laos is Dead.”

This surprised us, because just a few weeks earlier, Rob had – as CT readers know — enthused about his affection for the cheap, laid-back charms of Vientiane, Laos’s capital, see below “The Transformative Zen of Vientiane, Laos.”

Rob boldly declared that Vientiane — relatively tourist free, a place where you can get a decent pate sandwich and beer for under two bucks, while watching the sun set over the Mekong – was “The World’s Most Laid Back Capital.”

Rob did not, however, praise Laos’s other, better-known city, Luang Prabang.

Last week, Rob emailed us with the Death Certificate, from no less the friggin New York Times.

Dead to the CT: Luang Prabang.
Time of Death: April 15, 2008 (or thereabouts).

Here the Times’ Seth Mydans provides the autopsy of this quaint, Laotian city of 20,000 renowned for its architecture, its 34 Buddhist temples, and its daily procession of orange-robed monks.

“Like some similar places around the world, this 700-year old city of fewer than 20,000 people is being transformed into a replica of itself: its dwellings into guest houses, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlors; its rituals into shows for tourists.”

Mydans continues, quoting a local artist, Nithatkhong Somsanith, who works to preserve traditional arts.

“Now we see the safari,” Somsanith says. “They come in buses. They look at the monks the same as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theater.” Somsanith adds that the Buddhist heart of Luang Prabang is being defiled. “Now the monks have no space to meditate, no space for quiet.”

Our man in Bangkok, Jordan concurs with the Times account of Luang Prabang, saying, “Exactly my thoughts.”

Worst of all of this, the thing we warn CT readers to avoid is morning in Luang Prabang.

The morning monk procession– once, a big part of the appeal of Luang Prabang – is now a zoo. Mydans describes it accurately.

“As the monks walk down LP’s main street, they must walk through crowds of tourists and food vendors who call out their price. “Dollar! Dollar! They pass Pizza Luang Prabang, Pack Luck Liquor, Walkman Village, German Ice Cream, Café des Arts Restaurant and Bakery, Khmu Spa and Massage and Tatmor Restaurant n’ Bar.”

Cause of Death?

Later, Mydans reveals the ultimate, and ironic source of Luang Prabang’s demise – it was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1995.

This seeming honor is often the death knell for a place.

You can read the complete Times story here.

Do not fret, though. All is not lost. Laos is not, totally, dead.

In a coming post, Jordan will recommend some alternatives to Luang Prabang – places where you can still experience Thervada Buddhist culture and the charms of temple architecture with out also experiencing Pizza Luang Prabang, Walkman Village, and German Ice Cream.