Visiting India without Money

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On Nov. 8 the government of India announced that its two most popular currency denominations, the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, would no longer be good as money effective at midnight. An exchange program to convert them to new rupee notes of the same amount at the bank was announced.

I had a trip to India already planned and was on a plane headed that way when the currency move was announced.

The effect of the currency ban was that no one in India would exchange money for U.S. dollars —because they did not have money to exchange — and locals mobbed banks, forming lines blocks long to turn in their old money for new bills. Many lines had to be supervised by police. (more…)

Awesome Temples of Japan

golden-temple

When people visit Italy or other places in Europe, they often come away with a mishmash of memories about the large number of churches they visited. The same sensation occurs in Japan, only there you are see Buddhist “temples” and Shinto “shrines” (all Buddhist places are temples; all Shinto places are shrines). Their awesome beauty is hard to describe in words and certainly something you want to experience in Japan. The ancient wealthy of Japan copied many of the features of these structures in the castles they built.

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Sold Down the River?

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I admit, I am conflicted. Should indigenous tribes change their way of life to satisfy tourism demands when tourism is their main source of income?

I’m in one of seven Embera indigenous villages located in the Panama Canal water basin. These native tribes live in the jungle on the banks of the Chagres River that feeds the Canal, without electricity, plumbing, nor cell phone service. Accessible by dugout canoe in one hour from Panama City, this is the only part of undeveloped Panama that can be easily reached from developed Panama.

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Eating Japanese

typical-breakfast

Japanese restaurants typically specialize in one type of food. You choose the restaurant by the type of food, preparation, and style of service you want.

Japanese breakfast is an exception. It’s fairly standard—miso soup, made of a bean broth and eaten from a lacquered wooden bowl that you raise to your mouth, typically accompanied by hard-to-identify pickled seasonal vegetables, tofu, a small piece of an egg soufflé, fresh fish (usually salmon), sometimes also smoked salmon, rice or porridge, seaweed sheets and green tea. Usually breakfast is served on a tray without choices, but buffets and a la carte is available, too. When in Japan, finish off your breakfast with a shot of flavored vinegar, such as blueberry vinegar. Very healthy, I’m told.

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Confusing Hiroshima

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Memorializing tragic events has become a common practice in society, framing an event for future generations. Japan today sees itself as a bulwark of peace. Without a military — it relies on the U.S. for defense under the treaty that ended World War II — Japan has been left to deftly rebuild its war-torn cities. The Hiroshima monument teaches today’s Japanese children the importance of peace, but it is a complicated place.

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High on Fuji

me-at-fuji-museum      At museum

hakone-cablecar          Hakone cable car

Mount Fuji, towering over 12 thousand feet, is both a symbol of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage site, making a visit almost obligatory if you are in the neighborhood. It’s worth the trip.

Only about 60 miles from Tokyo, getting there will still take about 2 hours in traffic. According to my Japanese tour guide, Fuji is the fourth highest peak not in a range. There are 10 “stations,” or stopping points, to the top. Usually the 5th station is always open, except in typhoons. Beyond that, you have to check with the park ranger. You can only drive to the 5th station. Further up is accessible only by trekking, about 6 hours to the top from station 5. Depending on the season, there can be up to 2000 people climbing the mountain. The paths are well-groomed, but the climb is challenging. There are actually four 5th stations on different sides of the mountain. Altitude sickness is the most common ailment among climbers as the oxygen level gets very low as you ascend.

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Efficient Bullet Trains in Japan

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In Texas it’s been debated nearly to death, but the bullet train is a common form of transportation in Japan. The Japanese bullet trains, called shinkansen, travel long-distance routes between major cities, about the distance between Dallas and Austin. All Japanese trains are very efficient, and the bullet trains are no exception. The Japanese set their watches to the trains because they rarely run even a minute late.

Train platforms have markings indicating where the doors on an arriving train will open. Before the train arrives passengers form a queue at that point. When the train pulls in, as soon as people get off, the line goes in. I timed it: The train stops less than two minutes before it pulls out. Hesitate at boarding and you’ll miss the train.

I watched at the end of the line when a train pulled into the Tokyo Shinkansen station. A troupe of five janitors dressed in pink uniforms took barely five minutes to completely clean the train before they emerged with bags full of trash, and the doors opened to boarding again. Although the Swiss have the reputation for being efficient, they can’t possibly improve on Japan.

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Tokyo: A World-Class City

me-on-takeshita-dori                   On Takeshita Dori pedestrian shopping street in Harajuku District

Undoubtedly one of the world’s great cities, modern-day Tokyo is a marvel to see. Clean, vibrant, sprawling, intense, pulsating, neon-illuminated, urbane and yet genteel. If you have a chance to visit, plan to linger as long as possible to take it all in. There’s a lot to see and do.

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Should Japan be on Your List to Visit?

starbucks

Looking for the next place to visit? Japan is an excellent candidate. This travel destination has everything. The country extends far north and far south; you can find whatever climate you like. Seventy percent of Japan is mountainous and, of course, it has many beautiful beaches and lakes with its long coastline. Fuji is a mountain climber’s challenge and Japanese skiing is excellent.

People have shied away from Japan because of unjustified fears of radiation from its 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, but there is nothing to fear.

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Canadian Favorite Isn’t Real Cuba

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Arriving at Havana’s International Airport you know immediately you are in the third world. The plane pulls close to the flat-roofed terminal. A staircase is rolled up to the plane to allow passengers to debark. My flight, one of many no frills charters (no drink service, music, etc.), this one by Xtra Airways out of Miami, contained mainly Americans.

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