Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Solda! Solda! Solda!: Are Costa Rican's Outselling Their Own Country's Tourist Appeal?

It was our second day in Costa Rica.  Luis, our zip-lining guide, had convinced us to go horseback-riding with his buddy, Alexander, who we could find, “fifteen minutes up the mountain, just past the sign for the waterfall, then make a right after a wooden gate.”

Fifty minutes, three iffy wooden fences, six waterfall signs, two sore coxsix, and one broken Spanish conversation with another waterfall tour operator later, we arrived at Alexander’s.  An efficient exchange of apologies and fees put us into the hands of Miguel, a kind-faced, gray-mustached, Spanish-only speaking mountain horseman, who lifted us on to Serreno and Camarillo, two horses Miguel would guide with a light whip, two whistles and a “Ooooohh,” all day long.

Considering the remoteness of our departure point, we were quite surprised when, around the first bend, Miguel grabbed Serreno and Camarillo’s reigns, so that they wouldn’t be spooked by the rev of a chainsaw. 

“Hotel?” we asked Miguel, knowing this was one English word he would understand.  

Si, et restaurantes,” he replied.  

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The only painted signs more frequent than those offering calamari or frutas, along the coastal mountain roads we drove to reach Punta Leona, were those declaring “Solda!”  This shout was followed by hectars, price and brief location of the property, in Spanish and English.

"Wow," I had thought to myself.  "The Costa Ricans certainly know their audience."

By this I mean, unless there was an American demand, would the country that so proudly seems to carry the banner of  "#1 in Eco-Tourism" allow acres of trees to be slashed, in an area already littered with B&Bs and a mere hour drive from land-gobbling coastal resorts? 

Perhaps Costa Ricans themselves do understand this contradiction.  Because, somewhere around San Ramon, property sale signs were replaced by those promoting "Eco-Art, Local Artisan, 100% Recycled Materials."  Yet, as we approached Arenal Volcano, the Solda signs reappeared. 

In my opinion, it seems Costa Rica has a crucial decision to make.  Do we do our best to meet the increasing tourism demand with our current resorts?  Or, do we risk destroying what tourists (and potential second-home owners) find so appealing in our land: the adventure sports, clear waters, and lush rainforest flora, fauna and air?  That's a choice, Costa Rica, that you will have to make.  And, you still can.  Because, until someone signs on the dotted line, your Solda of precious land is not final.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Check Me Out As a Guest Blogger on CheapoTravel Blog

Today, I was featured as a Guest Blogger on Cheap O Travel Blog, with the following article (LINK: http://cheapoair.typepad.com/guest-travel-blog/2011/03/global-unemployment-the-travel-industrys-salvation.html):

Global Unemployment: The Travel Industry’s Salvation?

Please welcome guest blogger Erika from Gypseagirl.matadoru.com

While in Thailand and Cambodia last September, I observed a shift in the profiles of backpacking hostel-hoppers.  Of course, you still had plenty of Thai fisherman pant and tank-top clad Gap Year twenty-somethings.  The surprise was the strong showing of mid-thirty to early-forty-something European and American singles and couples.
You see, average, working Americans get two weeks of vacation per year.  So, an Asian trek, plus holidays, family obligations and summer weekends, is usually too tall of an order.  And, while Europeans certainly have more flexibility, with four or sometimes blissfully five weeks of holiday, at least my French friends’ employers limit their time off to ten days in a row.

Over smiley toast at communal breakfast tables, I got some answers.  Turns out, most of these travelers had begun and thrived in a career in their twenties and early thirties.  Due to the economic crisis, they were now unemployed, not just for a few months, but for nine months minimum.

This realization made me feel less lonely — and, lots less guilty — as I too fit this profile.

Knowing how I had made my trip happen— odd job and gift cash, a kind husband and being ok with being nearly broke upon my return — I had to know how my new kindred spirits had managed.  Answers included: subletting apartments, selling luxury items, dipping into car savings, and sympathetic gifts from family.  The lower cost of living in many of the Asian countries, compared to the U.S. and Europe, had also been a deciding “destination” factor.

No matter what the “how,” however, the “why” was consistent across the board.  As one early forty-something American man at my hostel in Siem Reap put it: “I looked for a job for nine months, and it was all a black hole.  I was so depressed, and had no energy left.  So, when my girlfriend took time off from her job to travel for a year, I said, well, I’ve never been to Asia…and, when am I going to have the time to do this again?”
Posted at 05:00 AM | Permalink

Monday, February 21, 2011

Theft in Morningside Heights: "Respectful Debate" Stolen From Some Columbia University Syllabi?

I have always held Columbia University and its offerings in high regard.  Among other factors, its professors are a 'who's who' of talk shows and bookshelves, and the speakers it attracts are world-renowned. 

So, when I had the chance to take two courses from a professor there, naturally, I jumped at it.  I greeted seeing the former President of Latvia and Founder of Doctors Without Borders speak there and being invited to speak at an AIDS conference there with the same enthusiasm.  Finally, I was highly-disappointed when I was not chosen for a job there. 

But, after today's reports of some students at a town hall meeting debating the return of the ROTC to Columbia's campus, heckling, laughing at and calling injured, decorated Iraq war veteran, Anthony Maschek, a racist, this prestigious university has stumbled a few steps down my respect ladder. 

Before I can comment further, I can't help but ask the obvious: "racist"?  Really?  You're going to bring that overwrought-since-Obama's-election topic of race into a debate about ROTC possibly returning to a university campus, too?  Okay, now we can continue.  

Not that the actions of a handful of individuals are representative of an entire student body.  (For example, I would never seat my friend, who is currently a graduate student there, among this jeering gallery.  Nor, would I count my professor among them either.) 

But, it does make you wonder if some of Columbia's professors have forgotten to include one of the main goals of a university education on their syllabi.  I mean, of course, the following set of small skills: learning to clearly express one's opinion, responding thoughtfully to challenges to that opinion, and listening to, then respectfully debating he or she who may hold a different point of view from your own.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Non-Reusability of the Re-Usable Eco-Bag

From Steve Madden to Stuart Weitzman to The Strand Bookstore in Union Square, New York City's retailers have jumped on the ecological bandwagon.  How?  By handing customers their purchases in reusable a.k.a eco-bags.  This, of course, does not include the grocery stores, such as Trader Joe's, my local Steve's C Town, and naturally, Whole Foods, which have eco-bags for sale at the counter. 

Or have they?

During a recent cleaning of my closet, I realized that I have quite a collection of these free eco-bags, either from my own or my visiting mother's purchases.  When I mentioned this to my friend, Capucine, she admitted to a comparably grand collection.  Then, we both confessed: of all of our bags, we have re-used maybe five, and not so many times.  

In all fairness, I happen to have several canvas bags and a backpack that I find much sturdier and better on my back.  So, I favor them as my re-usable bags, when I remember them.   

When I remember them.  This is, for the most part, on weekends or when I am leaving from home to run an errand.  As past articles, since November of 2008 to be more precise, on the subject of plastic bag use reduction and eco-bags in New York City have stated, contrary to the suburban population or that of more car-friendly cities, whose members can store bags in trunks, New Yorkers are more "spontaneous" with their errands (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/nyregion/07bags.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2 explain).  And, I will add, we run most of them on foot.  So, unless we've had the foresight to store an eco-bag at work or in a handbag or over our shoulder, we will be needing a plastic or paper bag from our place of purchase.

But, what if someone forced us to bring our own?  What if businesses simply stopped offering them to us?  Then, would Capucine and I be more likely to fold up one of our many eco-bags (they do, as a matter of fact, fold down to a size quite capable of unobtrusively fitting into a New York City woman's purse or a man or woman's messenger or gym bag) and have one on hand for a pause at the MetMarket on the way home from work or brunch or Happy Hour?  All hail the 24-hour deli! 

How did the grocery section of Monoprix (a.k.a. in my lingo "French Target") in the also foot-and-bike-friendly city of Strasbourg, France, get their customers to do just that?  During a visit last November, after paying for my purchase, I was handed my change, my item and bid a "Bonne Journée."  There was no bag on offer in sight.  Turning about, I realized, every single person was either making a purchase that they could carry by hand or had a bag with them, and nobody was putting up a fuss. 

So, how did they do it?  Probably very simply in fact.  I imagine they posted a sign stating that plastic bags would no longer be offered after a certain date, and they stuck to it.  Maybe it was a small sign.  But, I bet it was a big one.  Monoprix, even taking into account just its grocery section, is a big store.

But, a small sign could've worked too.  At least the small cardboard one at the cash register at Area Kids in Park Slope, Brooklyn stating, "We are Bagless," worked on me (http://www.areakids.com/). On my first visit, I fit my items in my purse.  The second time?  I shrugged at my forgetfulness and carried my item out by hand.  The third?  I took a canvas bag with me.  Now, every time I am bound for Area Kids, I remember a bag, and have it on hand to run all of my other errands.  Go figure.  

Something this simple may not work for every business.  Some purchases are simply too big.  In this case, I turn your attention to the best friends of Home Depot, The Container Store or Ikea: delivery, handles or twine.  What will do no good is businesses continuing to give us paper or plastic bags (or as another friend reminded me after I mentioned my collection to him, often doubled-up plastic bags, because business owners fear being sued should something fall out of a thinner plastic bag and, for example, hurt a customer's toe).  Ah, fodder for the "Only in America" column of The Week!  But, signs, and sticking to what they say, seem to be a step in the right direction.

Whatever the solution is, it's certainly not giving me another free eco-bag. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shall I Escape the Snow?: A Review of The Palma Paradisus Real, Dominican Republic

In his January 30, 2011 column, White Tie and Tiaras, renowned NY Times social photographer, Bill Cunningham, introduced the 51st Annual Quadrille Ball—a charity ball held annually at The Plaza Hotel, and benefiting the Germanistic Society of Columbia University and the Institute for International Education, and on whose Junior Committee I sit—by saying: "In the late 19th century, before people could fly to the tropics, New York society held balls in the winter."

Fortunately, we find ourselves in an age where, if we want to, we can do both.

With all of the snow dumped upon New York City (nay, the entire Mid-Atlantic and Northeast) this winter, some temperatures at a mere 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and storms predicted for what seems weekly, I would bet two tickets to St. Thomas that both ball-goers and clubbers alike are longing to ditch their open-toe dancing heels for open-toe sandals.  

Should the Palma Paradisus Real in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic be on your list, a few insights from my own visit last year might be of interest. 

To be fair, the resort itself is lovely.

Some features include:
- grand white columns
- a tiled terrace with nightly, lively musical and dance entertainment
- rooms with canopied beds and multi-jet shower and jacuzzi
- a swimming pool that might as well be an acre wide
- and a truly relaxing, Thai-themed spa with soft water pools, and an attentive, well-trained, kind staff.

Breakfast is a full, international and local mixed buffet, served al fresco with a friendly smile, all the passion fruit you can eat, and an Atlantic Ocean view.

There are a few items, however, that can make you forget the beauty of your setting and its positive amenities. 

Restaurant Reservations

Upon our arrival, Guest Services assured us that securing a reservation at any of the resort's ten or so restaurants, beginning at 9 on the morning of the evening we wanted to dine, wouldn't be a problem.  "Even with a party of thirteen?" we inquired.  "No problem," they repeated.

Let's now introduce the following caveats:

1. Guest Services must wait for all pre-booked reservations to load.  Pre-booked reservations are ones made by travel agents.

2. Our travel agent, David Temple of Apple Vacations, never offered us the 'pre-book' option and rudely responded to my mother's complaining e-mail on this subject.

3. The dinner booking system was often down until 11AM.  The back and forth from beach chair to Guest Services route became all too familiar to and loathed by us all.

4. The icing on the cake?  When we finally arrived at these coveted dining establishments, for the first half of the week, we found them only half full.


I could get change for $100 and my new Belgian friends could get their first dollars ever at a small bank in Thailand’s Rongulua Market.

Yet, neither the Cambio Exchange, the Casino or the on-site luxury shop at Palma Paradisus break even smaller denominations.  That’s not entirely true.  At 7PM, the Casino could, but our cash-only scuba class was at 10AM that day.  And, the luxury shop would “if you buy something."  The front desk finally did do our exchange.  We had to wait in line with all of the new arrivals, but they did it.

While we ultimately got our desired outcome, pray tell, what were the Cambio employees being paid to do all day?

"Free" Water Excursions

Let me clarify free.  Free at Palma Paridisus means included in the “All-Inclusive” Resort all-encompassing fee, and anything that does not require a motor.

Thrilled there were so many good ones, we booked them for every day.  Sunday?  Cancelled due to weather.  Monday?  Cancelled due to weather.  Tuesday?  Cancelled due to weather.  Welcome to a stay on the Atlantic side, where the seas and your stay are much more weather impacted.

To be fair, this is one thing that the resort can't control, and they are liable for their guest's safety.  Yet, somehow, the same day that the visibilty was deemed "too poor" for our ‘free’ scuba excursion, it was not so for the paid scuba lesson participants...

Family-Friendly Facilities

My older sister and her two little children were part of our group.  To ensure their good time and her own relaxation, she had spoken at-length with David Temple of Apple Vacations, about which of Paradisus Palma Real's two resorts were most family friendly.  He had assured her that the one we ended up choosing—the larger one with the ocean view, not The Reserve—would best suit our needs.  I guess he missed that The Reserve has nightly, included, organized activities for kids, a supervised jungle gym, and a children's pool on his tour.  

All in all, we made our own fun.  You have to laugh at making English words from a Spanish Scrabble board!  We did manage to go on one (paid) excursion.  And, two of our group did get certified in Open Water Scuba.  We also developed a...passion for passion fruit and learned how easy it was to get antibiotics in DR: a phone call to a local pharmacy, $30 and a tip.  Finally, to reinforce, the spa was lovely.

In sum, it was unfortunate that our Apple Vacations representative was so incompetent, and that so many of the amenities that had drawn us to Palma Paradisus Real were not executed to their advertised level.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Excerpt from "The Little Bathroom Attendant of The Killing Fields"

The Little Bathroom Attendant of The Killing Fields
“Hello,” her little voice said in clear English, making me jump, pinning me with her big chocolate eyes.  Having just come from The Killing Tree—the tree in The Killing Fields of Cheung Eck outside Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, against which the murderous Khymer Rouge had pounded children’s heads, then thrown their beaten bodies into mass graves, as their often-wrongly-accused mother’s were dragged away to their own execution—the sight of a live, gorgeous child was a startling.    

“Would you like some paper?” she asked, poised to tear from the roll of pink toilet paper in her hand.

“Sure,” I smiled, having regained my composure.  Nodding, she rose, carefully stepped barefoot over a partially-assembled, multi-colored plastic game on the tile floor at her feet, and handed me a small, neat, pink bundle.

Only when I took it with a “Thank you very much” did it occur to me to wonder why no adults were around....


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brandt Travel Writing Contest

Read it and hopefully vote for me! LYGD