Cool Websites

Short post today. Just wanted to share with you a few websites I’ve become enamored with:


    It used to be when I wanted to find out about traveling to a country I would consult the Lonely Planet listings. They give a nice summary of a place, the basics for what travelers need to know. But in recent years Wikitravel has far surpassed them. And while Wikipedia is good for facts about a country (geography, history, government, economy, demographics.. similar to what the CIA World Factbook lists), Wikitravel lists things you as a traveler need to know – transportation, where to eat, drink, sleep, staying safe, what to see and do. Plus since it’s a wiki, it’s improving by leaps and bounds daily. I do my part to improve it by adding listings for hotels I like, correcting mistakes I’ve found, etc. As an example, compare the listings for Medellín in Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, and Wikitravel. You’ll see what I mean.
    It’s nice when the world coalesces around one site for a given topic. You want to know about a film you go to IMDb, want to know about a band you go to AllMusic. It’s the same now with Wikitravel.

  2. Google News Alerts

    I realize this may not be new to a lot of you, but I recently started using it and love it. You just tell Google what keywords you want news about and it will collate news articles, web mentions, blog postings, etc into a daily or weekly summary and email it to you. It’s a great way to keep tabs on disparate subjects without having to go searching for the news. I’m currently tracking news on Colombia, Merce Cunningham, and Ecuador.

  3. Google Maps / Google Earth

    You’re no doubt familiar with these tools for checking out your neighborhood, office, driving directions to Aunt Patty’s house, etc. But did you know that their coverage globally is quite good, and the community of people geotagging photos and videos from all over the world is a boon for everyone. Say you’ve read all about a given destination, but still don’t have a feel for it – what it would be like to walk down the street there. Then try these tools. People upload an amazing range of benign photos and videos – their local supermarket, the kids playing in the street, etc – but the upshot is that it gives you a real sense of the place.


    Although I’d read about this site before leaving for my trip and was told about it again by a traveler in Guatemala, I only finally checked it out a week ago.. and discovered the answer to my prayers! As a tourist, it’s difficult to truly get to know a place without the benefit of local knowledge. But I’ve always been vexed by the problem of how to meet local people. Sometimes I’m lucky and they just come up and befriend me, like in Honduras and Barranquilla. In Santa Marta I even successfully broke the ice with a group of locals at a club, but I had a wingman egging me on that night. Usually it’s just too daunting. No more – Couchsurfing to the rescue! As the name implies, it is a social networking site designed to put travelers in touch with locals to crash with. But it’s far more than that. Many people on the site (myself included) are fine staying in hotels, but simply want to meet people for coffee or drinks to get the lowdown on the local scene, or just have a bit of human interaction. One reason it took me so long to sign up is I thought there wouldn’t be that many people on it in these non first-world countries.. boy, was I wrong. In Bogotá alone there are over 2,000 people on the site! Even in the smaller remote towns of Colombia there are dozens of people signed up. Woo-hoo! Wikipedia has a good summary of the site here. If you’re already a member of the site (it’s free if you’re not), please “friend” me, so I can get my profile up.

Extra geeky info, for iPhone owners only:
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Ups and downs

Traveling certainly has it’s ups and downs. Lately I’ve been down. I don’t know if it’s the heat, lack of exercise (due to the heat), not eating well or what, but I’ve been in a funk. Listless, lonely, bored.

I’ve always had full confidence in my self and my own abilities, but pay far too much attention to other people’s moods and how they relate to me. I’m getting pretty tired of the typical reaction from locals. For example, I walk into a restaurant and say “Good morning!” This is met by silence, accompanied by a glare. I ask for a menu. With great effort, as if I’ve interrupted some fantastic movie they were watching, they dain to bring me said menu. This goes on. No “thank you’s” or even smiles like we do in the States after a purchase is made. No “you’re welcome’s” after I say thank you, like politeness calls for. The guidebooks make a big deal of the importance of manners in these countries, but I see scant evidence of it. I have the most manners these towns have seen in years.

Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t take it personally, for I surmise I’m completely projecting all that hostility, and it probably has very little to do with me. That’s just the way they are. It’s like when the dancers used to glare at me and I would take it personally until it was explained to me that they weren’t glaring at me, they were upset because they had just been given a correction or some such thing completely unrelated to me. In fact, it’s incredibly egotistical to take it to heart. But that’s easier said than done.

Marissa came up with a great line that I’ve been musing over: what if the glass, rather than being half full or half empty, is exactly the right amount? I interpret this to mean that life is what it is, independent of how we interpret it. “Life is empty and meaningless”, therefore it’s up to us to impart meaning into events that are by nature completely neutral. There is no “bad” traffic, traffic simply is. We can interpret traffic to be an aggravating mess, or as a useful hour to catch up on listening to our favorite podcasts. This is what I am struggling with at the moment. It has to be done in the moment, to catch my thoughts before they turn negative. This morning at the grocery I was ranting to myself why I have to stand in two lines, one to weigh the fruit, then one to pay – why can’t they do it all in one line, like in the States? But negative thoughts like this are useless – I need to embrace the differences, and find positivity in them. After all, that’s the point of traveling.

So just when I’m feeling morose about the locals, a few key experiences happen that reinforce my faith in humanity.
First, to tell you where I am geographically. I spent a couple of nights in Santiago, an uneventful small city on the Pan-American Highway. From there, I day-tripped up to Santa Fé, a wholly uneventful town that I toured in about 10 minutes, only to spend another 2 hours back on the bus.
Panama is much longer than any other Central American country – I’m still closer to the capital of Costa Rica than I am to the capital of Panama, and both capitals are roughly in the middle of their respective countries.
After Santiago I based myself in Chitré, the largest town on the Azuero Peninsula that sticks out south into the Pacific. Chitré has a pretty church, and in a tree between the church and the market I heard these crazy birds:

The peninsula is very hot, dry, and flat. One day I took buses to several small towns along the peninsula that are supposed to be pretty. [By the way, I wish guidebooks would be more opinionated – instead of just the facts (“preserved colonial town with nice church”), couldn’t they just say, “if you’ve seen colonial towns in Guatemala or Nicaragua, skip these, they can’t compare”. Particularly the Central American guidebooks, whose customers are probably indeed trying to decide which are the most important places to see! But I digress..]

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Interesting image

Just wanted to share this with you.  I always forget how much higher the GDP is in the U.S. compared to most nations.stategdp

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Dare I say it?

Am I proud to be an American once again? For the last 25+ years I have, more often than not, been ashamed of my country. Oh, Clinton was a decent president, but even his foreign policy did some damage. It all began with Reagan, went downhill with Bush Sr., then into the shitter with Bush jr. as we all know.

But watching the inauguration this morning gave me such a renewed sense of what America is capable of. The America that my grandparents knew, before corporate greed took over. [Then again, maybe I’m just romanticizing a past I never knew – mom always talks about how oppressive the 50’s were.] To have a multi-cultural highly educated intellectual (yet) who is not from the old moneyed ruling class make it to the White House changes everything. I’m still in shock that he made it to the top. It speaks volumes to what is still possible in America, and in very few other places. Our majority white country freely elected a black president – something no other democracy has ever done. Even progressive and multi-cultural  Canada, Holland, the UK have never had a black person in such high office.

It’s been interesting watching the process from abroad. It seems the whole world is as excited as I am. From the local networks to all the world reports I see on CNN’s International Edition, it is clear the entire world views this as a new dawn.

Obama’s speech left me with tears streaming down my face. He is just so eloquent and inspirational. Then there is the fact that he wrote it himself and recited it in total, without once looking down. It’s a new dawn. Even the evil Rick Warren contained his bigotry; I was impressed that his invocation didn’t even hint at divisiveness. Of course all that God stuff got to me – so much for separation of church and state. But did you catch that Obama included us atheists in his speech? A first!

It was great seeing Aretha up there, but the poor girl can’t hit those notes anymore! On the other hand, I thought the performance by Perlman, Yo Yo, et al was beautiful. And I loved Michelle’s outfit.

Who knew that Obama was left-handed?

As Bill Maher said, “I take back every bad thing I ever said about the good old U.S.A.  I feel like a hockey mom at the state fair getting felt up by Hank Williams Jr while fireworks go off and Jesus appears in my cotton candy.”

UPDATE: There is a lovely article here about how Obama’s election bodes well for the future of science, and how it is inextricably linked with democracy.

UPDATE 2: His first week in office has been phenomenal. My favorite quote thus far: “I told him [George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy] to start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.” Am I dreaming??

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