Travel Review: Honolulu

If you follow me on my Instagram or just know me personally then you will probably have surmised that I was recently traveling through the states. My first stop after over just over a year abroad was Hawaii. The tourist hot spot of Waikiki to be exact. It was quite a short visit, but I think that I got a great experience that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had at this time in my life. In this article I’ll go through some of my thoughts on the trip as well as some tips and insights that I might be able to pass on to other travelers who are looking to book a trip there or already have.

The Country of Hawaii

Having come from an entirely new city(Sydney), having plans to travel for over a straight month and spending the few days I had there with my parents I had done little to no research on the place. I like most though had a few ideas of what Hawaii would be like. It’s the dream vacation spot for Americans everywhere and the state that finally evened out our flag. Before arriving I assumed it would be relatively “Disney like” and tropical, but otherwise like the rest of America. However once I got there it seemed the opposite was quite true.

Nearly every time I thought to talk about Hawaii I had to stop myself from generalizing it as a different country. The money still worked the same way, and live was similar, but there was a definitely different culture to the place than the United States that I had grown up in. There was cuisine to try, cultures to learn about and history of a kingdom to that I had otherwise never known about. This is what really made Hawaii a more interesting holiday than a simple beach destination.

If you have time before you go do yourself a favor and read a little bit about the history of Hawaii besides just Pearl Harbor. If you don’t have time here’s the basic rundown. Hawaii is 7007326502_422e56a23a_z

an extremely advanced and progressive pacific island nation and tries to sort of become a
model for what island nations can hope to become in the western dominated political world. A bunch of white guys from the states would rather grow fruit there without it being technically another country and wait until the monarch leaves to stage a coup. The president says, “Nah, that’s not really the way we do th
at.” The white guys say, “We can wait”. The next administration recognizes this new government as the legitimate Hawaiian government and it starts the process of becoming a state. This is obviously a simplified version of events, and I’m not expert, but nevertheless the irony that I am writing this article on Thanksgiving is not lost on me as the holiday becomes less about American Exceptionalism and more about the darker sides of America’s history.
Tips & Insights

With all that talk about how America kind of stole Hawaii and how the culture of the country has kind of been “Disney-fied” for tourism you may start to have second thoughts about visiting, but honestly it is still worth it. You just need to go into the trip with a bit of knowledge and respect for the culture and you should be able to enjoy yourself without too much guilt.

The first tidbit of knowledge you should know is about the airport. If you aren’t staying with a fancy hotel or resort you will most likely have to arrange for transport yourself. The public transit in Honolulu proper isn’t bad, but at the airport there are shuttles that you need to organize beforehand and the bus. It should also be noted that the bus does not allow you to take luggage on board. More than a small carry-on and you’ll be turned away so make sure to think about how you will get around beforehand.

luau, hawaii

Second on my list of tips is the famous luau. It may seem kitschy and fake, because it is, but it is most likely going to be worth it. My suggestion is to go for the food and the spectacle, not for a real cultural experience. Doyour research and find one with good reviews that you think you’ll enjoy an just go for it. You most likely won’t be going to Hawaii too often so make the most of it.

 

 

In the same vein is the idea of money. Staying in the tourist spots is going to be expensive, but so is everywhere else. It is an island with some pretty inflated prices so if you don’t think you have the money to enjoy yourself you may want to put off a Hawaiian visit. You can try to save a bit in some areas, but once you are there you may as well enjoy it to the fullest. Depending of course on the type of traveller you are Hawaii could be one of your favorite experiences or it could be one that you enjoy but in the end see as too expensive to do again.

Lastly, for those that know me well it will come as no surprise that I was most excited about coffee, konagetting some of that famous Hawaiian coffee and it did not disappoint. While you are on the islands soaking up the sun try and soak up as much of that Kona Coffee and the great fruits as you can as it doesn’t get much better. Each island has their own coffee plantations so check out a few places during your visit and see if you just can’t find your favorite.

coffee, coffee shop

Coffee’s Place In Our Shops & Ecosystems

Coffee has long been one of the most integral beverages of our society. Coffee shops preceded taverns in the period of enlightenment as a place for intellectual discourse, and since then coffee has become one of the most socially acceptable vices ever. Aside from the Church of Latter Day Saints, no religions are against coffee and for many cultures sitting down for coffee is a historic routine passed on for generations. With the advent of Starbucks becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds, everyone has the opportunity to get their coffee fix in nearly anyway possible. The bevy of flavors, milk additions, etc. available at your local coffee shop also comes with the decision to buy Fair Trade, “Bird-Friendly”, Shade-grown, or eco-friendly coffee. These have all become pretty much the norm at any café and are not noticeably more expensive than your everyday cup of coffee. It has become trendy and seen as socially forward to make the extra effort to buy more environmentally conscious coffee because it is so easily attainable. The coffee plant is an interesting plant for this to happen to because of its widespread appeal as well as the different ecosystems it inhabits. Coffee has now become conflated in some ways with not just being cultured, but with ethical living even.

Coffee Plant

With the increase in the world’s idea of coffee as a necessary luxury, coffee prices have risen in recent years along with the demand for coffee from the countries able to produce it. These coffee plantations are often in developing nations where there is a large amount of biodiversity which is affected by the increased demand for coffee. These farmers are forced to supply more as the coffee retailers reap the benefits of the rising prices abroad while the farmers sell very little domestically and must clear more and more land to meet demand and make a profit. This means that one of the most biologically diverse regions, because coffee is grown mostly near the equator, is being separated into large coffee farms making it harder for species to breed in a way that varies their genetics and improve their odds to survive, meaning that species are more likely to go extinct or endangered. All of this was of course before the spirit of change and charity took over much of the coffee world.
One of the older, more widespread, and more well known organizations working to regulate coffee is the fair trade initiative. Fair trade coffee is characterized by a certification, but is effectively a stamp of approval that workers were paid fair wages, working conditions are near the standard of developed nations, and prices are somewhat stabilized and somewhat inflated to help farmers stay profitable while keeping their farms somewhat smaller and manageable. This helps to keep small farms in business which have less of an impact on the environment as well as creates a greater yield because of the crops’ proximity to a real ecosystem like the forest which is where the plant is traditionally found.

Coffee plantation

A greater amount of stability in one of the largest and most volatile markets in the world means that smaller farms can have more autonomy with who they trade and sell to, as well as manage their farms more closely and work toward being more ecologically friendly. This has allowed for the institution of another type of certification for farmers which is far harder to get and much more of a hands on type of farming. “Shade-Grown” or “Bird-Friendly” coffee is grown essentially in its natural habitat allowing for a canopy to shade the trees and for birds to pollinate the trees naturally. This not only creates more flavorful coffee, but it means that more beans will be produced because of the pollination method. The harvesting of the beans in this way of course is more labor intensive than the usual method of monoculture, but the benefits have gotten to the point of outweighing the disadvantages at this point. Shade growing the coffee beans in their more natural habitat also makes the farms more sustainable as the nutrients are cycled between the organisms decreasing the need to constantly fertilize (Hull). Bird activity is seen as a sign of biodiversity and prosperity in the tropical forest because it is necessary for much of the vegetation to continue to prosper naturally. In the traditional monoculture style of coffee growing the plantations are referred to as “green deserts” because they contain nearly no birds and rely almost wholly on fertilizer for their nutrients meaning very little is retained in environment.

Coffee growing

The higher cost of these certifications may mean that farms will be slower to officially be a part of the environmental initiative, but as more and more farms see the benefits aside from the increased stability and value from a more forest-like farm they will begin to adopt the practices for more reasons. The small amount of money that many choose to pay at the counter, or the super market, etc. can easily be seen as worth it for the change it will continue to bring about. While it may not be enough to bring back the rainforests, or stop global warming in its tracks, it could spark other industries to bring about change. Being one of the largest traded commodities in the world means that a successful move towards sustainability and environmentalism all the while maintaining profitability could says a lot about the willingness of people to pay more for a more ethical product if it is within their means. I hope that this recent trend goes on to take over other agricultural industries so as to maintain sustainability and biodiversity. When given the choice or chance do you go for the rainforest, fair trade or organic certified coffee instead of another? Does it mean anything to you where your coffee comes from?

Air Travel & Style

Travel for us today continues to become cheaper and more frequent. Whether you are constantly flying for work or just enjoy taking weekend trips, you have probably noticed that many people are at their worst style-wise in an airport terminal. Oversized sweatpants, sweatshirts and slip-on shoes abound to make travel a thing of comfort and ease for passengers. However, you don’t have to succumb to the oversized fleece outfits of your fellow man. If you put a bit of thought into your outfit when you are packing your suitcase for your flight you can save yourself a bit of trouble and you might end up rejoicing that put in some effort as you find yourself seated next to a cute girl or guy. While it’s no guarantee, the likelihood of getting a free upgrade certainly goes up when you look a bit more put together.

 photo david-beckhamAIRPORT.jpg

Layer Up

While you may be no Beckham, you can certainly take some style tips from him. Airports, airplanes and your destination will all most likely have different climates and weather forecasts from each other. Your plane may be cold, the airport may be hot and it might even be snowing by the time you get off the plane. The best way to keep a lean suitcase while being prepared for multiple climates is to layer up for the plane. Things like casual button ups and cardigans can work for a range of temperatures and in the worst case can be thrown on your shoulder or stowed in your carryon; layer the two with a t-shirt underneath and you have just covered a huge range of climates with one outfit.

A button-up and a sweater can also work well with a light rain jacket, scarf or hat to make them work in nearly any climate. For a more formal look opt for a button-up and a blazer, that same scarf and hat will work with the combo and you will be one of the best looking guys on the whole plane. Layering up will save you room in your suitcase and mean that you can give yourself a go-to airport outfit for a variety of seasons and destinations.

jittery joes.

Shoes

Another pain point during air travel is all of the security that you have to go through. Shoes are one place where you can take inspiration from your more slovenly air travelers and opt for shoes that don’t require a lot of time. While your crocced out dads and relatives may make you cringe at the airport they do have the right idea. Instead go for things like a chelsea boot, espadrilles, loafers, or boots that zip up for comfortable and stylish options that will have the TSA loving you. If you are going to be going to colder climates wearing things like boots on the plane will free up a surprising amount of space in your luggage for more important things while keeping you from needing to make any tough decisions.

Traveling With Your Phone

It used to be that traveling was your escape. When you went abroad or simply on a trip somewhere not too long ago you just about left your life and your worries behind. You could maybe check your email somewhere along the way or call your relatives or the office if you wanted, but it was very understandable that you would not be in communication with people. However now we live on our smartphones more than ever and for some being out of communication just isn’t a possibility. Some of us are on call 24/7 or simply need to be in communication with people at all times and so things like a stop at a Starbucks for wifi or an extra long stay at the hostel to book tomorrow’s tour just become the way you travel. If you are an Urban Traveler these sorts of hot spots often aren’t too hard to find.

With the world becoming increasingly (or would it be decreasingly) smaller and the number of things we do with apps or on the internet increasing more and more things using our phones while we travel is starting to be necessary. There are a number of ways to use your phone while overseas and so I will go through a few of them quickly with a bit of commentary on which strategy would work best for which situation.

No Plan

The first way to get away with a cheap phone bill when you get back is to, like I said earlier, stick to areas with wifi and make sure to turn your phone on airplane mode for the most of your trip. Make sure that you turn off data roaming or the usage of 3G and you can just use wifi when it is available. One thing to remember about this strategy is that your gps location will still work without data on most if not all phones and that you can save maps in apps like google maps. This means that you can still use your phone to find things and places, but you lose all of the spontaneity that a data plan would afford you.

If you have got the bulk of your trip planned out already and have a job that will let you shirk responsibility for days at a time then this strategy might just be for you. Finding free wifi can be easy in some countries and nearly nonexistent in others, so do your homework beforehand. If you can’t see yourself absolutely needing internet for your whole trip and you think you’ll just use it for things like Facebook and email, then going without is certainly the way to go.

Keep Your Carrier & Plan

Nearly all the carriers in your home country have realized that people travel and use their phones while they do. This means that they will often still provide service while you are abroad but at an increased cost. The European Union has been pushing for roaming charges to be done away with within their member states, but for now they are just restricted to (somewhat) reasonable prices. However, for carriers from other countries like the states, Canada and Australia your carriers will be charging you a pretty large sum per MB as soon as your data starts up. Using your phone while abroad without looking at international plans is probably the worst way to use your phone while traveling.

You’ll incur different charges in different countries, but unless you are going to send one email your whole trip while away from wifi this strategy just doesn’t make sense. You will most likely be welcomed home with a larger than expected bill from most carriers and will have really just saved yourself from doing minimal research on your carrier’s plans.

Roaming Plans

The carrier you use for your monthly mobile plan should have an option to add international roaming to your plan for a limited amount of time, if not multiple plans depending on your usage.  T-Mobile has integrated international roaming into some of their plans letting you use your data block, texts and call local numbers at surprisingly good rates. If you aren’t with T-Mobile however this won’t be an option for you and so it is best to look into what countries your carrier covers and how much these plans cost. Usually minimal data usage won’t end up costing you too much money and you will just need to make sure that you remember to remove international roaming from your plan when you are done traveling.

If you do your homework you should look to see if you will need to use your phone as a hot spot, as this is often something that carriers block with these sorts of plans. The total cost of using this type of plan shouldn’t be over $25 in addition to your usual plan and will give you a lot of peace of mind while traveling. This strategy is best for those who are planning to visit a number of countries and won’t to be able to go without the use of their phone for that long.

Global/Regional Plans

Sadly there is no one carrier that provides cheap service for every country, but there are some carriers that provide relatively good services to a variety of countries or regions at a relatively reasonable rate. These rates won’t be as cheap as local carriers, and the coverage may not be as consistent, but what you are paying for with these companies is the ease of having one phone number that will work in a multitude of countries. There are a number of providers of this type of service and for the most part you will most likely only really care about the data plans and to make sure that you can use them for mobile hot spots but they still do require some research. These plans may cover a lot of countries but it is important that they cover the right countries for you.

This type of strategy is for those that are near constant travelers for their jobs or business. If your work takes you to a group of countries relatively regularly this can be a worthwhile investment to make sure that you are connected whenever you need to be with minimal hassle. These plans can be costly, but for someone who is hopping between countries often it is the only way to save yourself from massive charges or having to cary around a bag full of sim cards.

Local SIM

When in Rome do as the Romans do, or in this case it’d be just Italians in general, but regardless. Local carriers in other countries should provide the best value for you while traveling and should also have the best coverage. Getting a local sim card means that you may need to ask fellow travelers or locals for recommendations, but this shouldn’t require too much research. Most countries have a handful of main carriers that can give you reasonable rates, just make sure that you choose plan that is month to month or go with prepaid. Using a local carrier will also give you a local phone number allowing you to communicate with locals more easily, but also requires you to go into a store and physically get a sim.

The local sim option is best for those who are going to be traveling in a single country for an extended period of time. If you aren’t spending at least a week in a single country the countless sim cards and phone plans can really get quite complex and costly. If you do your research before entering a country you should be able to go directly to a local store, grab a sim card and get on with your travels with a working phone. It is best to research what carrier you should get before arriving as you may not have full command of the language, or may not be able to get a sim card without certain things having been taken care of beforehand in order to get the best rates and coverage.

Proud lock

Unlock Your Phone

As carriers begin to move away from buying your phone for you this will hopefully become less of a problem, but for now it is important to make sure that your phone can be unlocked or is already unlocked if you go for a global sim or a local sim when traveling. Most carriers will be reasonably understanding if you have been with them for a while and will unlock your phone with a call as to why you need to do so. Others will try and charge you if you are trying to get out of your plan so this may need to be factored into the cost of your international phone plan.

There’s no one sim card or carrier that is gonna serve you best, but ignorance isn’t going to serve you too well when you’ve got a work project you need to upload and the nearest wifi hotspot was in the last town 20 miles ago. If you need your phone or want to be able to use your phone to make traveling easier for you then have a think about what option might be best for you and do some research. Feel free to comment below about your experiences with local carriers, data saving apps, or huge roaming charges.

Business Spotlight: Fresh Off The Plane

Fresh Off The Plane

As someone who has moved to new cities in new countries a number of times now under all sorts of circumstances I always find that moving to a new place comes with a host of tasks that are hard to truly enumerate until you’ve gone through the experience.  Whether you are moving for a few short months or plan on staying for good, there are a lot of things that you take for granted as a local that can become harder in a new place, especially if you are using a new language. From finding accommodations to things as seemingly simple as finding a local dry cleaner, a new city in a new country poses a host of challenges that otherwise might go unnoticed in a more familiar place. Without a local willing to help you find the neighborhood and the things in that neighborhood to make the most out of your time in a new city you risk feeling that you might be wasting your precious time as an expat in a new land.

Those at Fresh Off The Plane know this struggle all to well. The founder arrived in Hong kong a number of years back without the intimate knowledge of a local and saw that expats from all over must be feeling how they did when they first arrived. While their real estate agents settled them into a fine home it became apparent that they had found a place to sleep, but none of the other things that make a place home. Things like organizing utilities, a new bank account, and which grocery store or market you are going to frequent are all things that have a cultural or linguistic component to them, one that often goes unnoticed until you are stuck with the prospect of doing them in an entirely new environment.

The people at Fresh Off The Plane have taken their experiences as strangers in a foreign land to help others make the most out of their time in Hong Kong by helping them set up their new life with the intimate knowledge of those who have gone through all the same experiences before. The company strives to be more than your average real estate agency by helping you find all the creature comforts that you are used to in a new place, leaving you to explore the exciting parts of your new city.

Living in a new place you quickly realize that in order to make the most out of the experience you need to keep going after new experiences in your new home. This can be hard to keep up when you have obstacles like, not knowing any locals or expats to travel with, or having to continually research each new thing about your new city. A company like this will definitely let you make the most out of an opportunity like living in Hong Kong for 2 years. A company like this is great for expats and long stay travelers alike who are hoping to make the most out of their stay in a new and exciting place.

The Faces of the Business

Tristan-WallPortrait_opt

The CEO/Founder: Tristan is a working airline pilot from France and South Africa. He speaks both French and English in his everyday life and also enjoys learning conversational Cantonese as well as it culture. From a young age, flying was his main passion. He earned his pilot’s commercial license at 18 and was soon after working full-time as a pilot in West Africa. Tristan was promoted to Captain at the age of 23 whilst flying with DHL throughout Africa. He joined Cathay Pacific in 2012 and moved to Hong Kong.  Having a keen interest in business management, he is completing a Masters of Science in Airline Management in London during his downtime from flying. Tristan also loves to travel and knows the region well, having travelled numerous times on his motorbike or 4×4 all over Asia. He now calls Hong Kong his home and is also always keen to return to it after flying or travelling. When he first moved to Hong Kong, Tristan saw a gap in the real estate industry and over the years grew the idea and concept of his company.

Mary-WallPortrait_optCustomer Services Manager: Mary Yu

If you’d like to learn more about this sort of business or are maybe even moving to Hong Kong in the near future, head to www.fresh-off-the-plane.com

Tippin Ain’t Easy

In the news recently there have been restaurants in the U.S. that have started moving away from tipping, along with the sad stories of waitresses getting no tip at all for not doing their job to the customer’s liking. In all honesty I think it is surprising in many ways that the U.S. has kept gratuity the way it is for this long. As minimum wage has become one of the focuses of the country’s political attention it seems that the U.S. may be ready to experiment with the system used by most other countries in the world, or at the very least start thinking about tipping better.

In a perfect world tipping in the U.S. works where something like 10-15% of the meal’s prices work out to, along with the meager dollar or two they are guaranteed, a livable wage. This then allows for anything above that to work as an incentive for the waiter or waitress to provide exceptional service so as to make more money. On the whole it sounds like a great deal, waiters make more money by being better at their job and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

Somehow things haven’t worked out like this though… We all have a friend or relative or two that might think that a dollar a head or something like 10% gratuity is more than adequate for exceptional service, and they won’t be told otherwise. The problem is that while not all waiters and waitresses work in 50’s themed diners, their guaranteed wages are pretty much stuck there. When people hear about the 2 dollars and thirty cents or a similar figure that waiters make before tips they are usually pretty thrown and can’t understand how its really legal, but then somebody mentions tipping and the math gets complicated but it seems fine enough. The thing is waiters are often at the whim of the supply of customers provided to them without any way to really affect that, aside from slowly building a cult following of customers that will only come in while they’re working.

The number that most people are familiar with as being a customary tip is 15%. As the cost of living and inflation increase however minimum wage hasn’t quite kept up. The minimum wage for tipped workers has done even less to stay competitive and so things like 18% standard gratuity on certain checks or the number of 20% for quality service have popped up.

When these same sorts of figures are told to travelers, or vice versa when Americans are told they don’t have to tip when abroad there is definitely some disbelief. So from this phenomenon it seems that American’s lack of progress away from tipping is probably just cultural sticker shock from the prices that we would see on a menu if restaurants were forced to pay their employees all a standard wage. We have yet to adopt the inclusion of tax into our advertised prices and so adding a service charge to many would seem to be met with similar disapproval.

So far the main focus of the article has been on waiters and waitresses, those who get very little pay and so depend on tips in order to not live off of things like ramen and canned tuna. However, most people in the service industry in America accept tips. The people cutting your hair, moving your furniture and making your coffee all work hard in hopes of earning a little bit extra at the end of their interaction with you.

In the end I’ve lived in countries where tipping is nearly mandatory, in countries where a dollar’s tip is more than generous and in places where tipping isn’t even really thought about. In all honesty I think that tipping helps customers more than it does workers and those that rely on tips have probably been getting taken advantage of for a long time now in many respects. Tipping should definitely be an option but I hope that things like a dollar or two for good service become the trend in America and that I can pay for my food without thinking that my server wouldn’t be able to buy lunch at the restaurant they work at without me tipping generously. What are your experiences with tipping in America and Abroad? Do you think it’s time for the custom to stop or does it need an overhaul?

Karnival in Köln

The festival of Carnival is one that is celebrated in many parts of the world with links to both Christianity and the winter solstice. Carnival in the city of Cologne(Köln) has been going on for nearly as long as there has been a Cologne, but the festival as it exists now has undergone many changes. The official festival committee was founded in 1823, which started the era of the festival being celebrated in the current fashion (2000 years of Carnival). Seeing as the season starts every year at 11:11 on 11/11, two friends and I decided we had to take part after hearing about it from nearly every coworker and German from the area. The festival is a long standing tradition within the region that has morphed to become a celebration of the region more than anything else. The city appoints a committee every year to organize the event, and thousands of tourists and regional residents make their way into the city for the day (11th November).

The carnival takes place over many days, starting on the 11th of November and continuing into February with a suspension through advent and the Christmas season. We were told that the main festivities would be taking place at Heumarkt, an open square in the older city which is bordered mainly by bars and restaurants. However, the festival couldn’t be missed from all the way at the train station. Festival goers were all dressed in a variety of costumes from funny to fabulous all over the city. One thing that could quickly be noticed was that there was an increase of police presence in the city as a result of the festival. Being a festival that encourages all day drinking, the police were making themselves very visible, however most festival goers seemed not to notice and under control. Despite this, drinking, dancing and costumes seemed to definitely be the main focus of the day’s event. Having only recognized one song all day it was a bit difficult to feel a part of the festivities, although this did not stop Germans from singing along with them. At the festival we were clearly tourists, only myself speaking german of the group, but were nevertheless welcomed by nearly everyone nearby. It was also interesting to hear the numerous languages that were being spoken at the festival, it seemed that regardless if you had been living in the region for a week or your family had been there for centuries, everyone was welcomed at the festival.

As far back as history can tell us, Carnival has been a celebration of the individuality of the city. Whether Cologne was under French or Prussian rule, Cologne worked to celebrate uniqueness of the city with it’s deep rooted traditions (Brophy 43). The festival, like the region, has a long history of Catholicism that still exists today. However, it is tough to see how this relates at all to Christianity other than it’s timing within the Catholic calendar. In this way, and many others, it is very similar to Mardi Gras in that it celebrates the time leading up to Lent. Cologne and the festival have both changed amazing amounts over their history’s, and now the festival seems more about simply celebrating those who come to it no matter who they might be, as well as Cologne itself (DeWaal 498).

All of this change can be seen in the welcome of all sorts of cultures into the festival. While most of the foods and drinks at the event were typically german and more specifically from the region, there were also things that showed the influence of other cultures. There were many who were in full costumes but with religious head coverings, a number of food vendors offering Turkish food and Dutch food, two of the city’s influential immigrant populations. Cologne having one of the largest homosexual populations for a German city was also evident in the numerous pride flags around. All sorts of cultures could be seen wherever you looked at the festival, which really showed the truth in the city’s claim to a cosmopolitan and tolerant attitude. The festival is even now starting to be seen as a way for homosexuals to demonstrate their pride and contributions to the city.

When talking to people on the crowded train to the city, as well as at the festival they all seemed excited to have Americans visiting and celebrating with them. It also surprised me to see many people who were not originally German taking part in the festival, and seeming to enjoy celebrating the culture of Germany much like I did. It did not seem out of character at all for a man to be wearing typical Bavarian style clothing, drinking a beer from Cologne, and all the while speaking Italian to his wife or girlfriend. The festival grounds seemed to be a melting pot of many cultures coming together for the celebration of a distinctly German city.

The only people who seemed to be looked down upon by the festival goers were those were not participating in the festivities. Many times those who were not in a semblance of a costume, or displaying some sort of Cologne pride were called out. It seemed that because nobody, but those who worked in the restaurants and bars, had to work so nobody had an excuse not to be celebrating the holiday. Even the train attendants had scarves and hats specifically for the day. This sort of exclusion reminded me of the St. Patricks day tradition of animosity to those who are not wearing green or displaying some sort of Irish pride.

This being only the second German festival that I’ve participated in, I think the Germans definitely enjoy the prospect of drinking all day instead of work regardless of the reason. I think this sort of festival belies the usual stereotypical workaholic German that is exhibited in a lot of the media especially within the European Union. Talking to my friends that accompanied me, to their first holiday festival, they agreed that this certainly broke some of the stereotypes they had heard about Germans. They felt that despite the inherent “Germanicness” of the whole event that Germans were excited to share what the festival was to those unfamiliar in English. In fact they were excited to share their culture and its celebration with those had recently immigrated, showing what could be seen as the opposite of nativism almost.

In the current economic climate in Germany immigrants are coming from all over to find jobs that seem to be diminishing in their own countries. This however has been coupled with overall economic growth in Germany, which I believe allows for immigrants to be welcomed into the country, especially those who are interested in assimilating. Germany’s history, of what could be put very lightly as xenophobia, may be haunting those who now live here as they celebrate and share the culture of the region.

The costumes that many of the festival goers were wearing were those that would be seen at any American halloween party. Aside from a few simply colorful and flamboyant costumes nothing seemed to out of the ordinary, or even inherent to the festival other than a few hats with Cologne’s crest. However one thing we did notice to be a common costume was one from the American movie starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” pilots seemed to be one of the most common costumes of the festival. This struck me as a symptom of the globalization that is ubiquitous at this point in most developed nations. A movie like this being adopted by a culture so much that you can see multiple Germans singing along to traditional songs with their jumpsuits and sunglasses on really showed me how easy it is for some things to cross cultures so easily. It also showed how something that has been largely forgotten like that, at least in the realm of costume ideas, can be such a staple for a different nation where it may have been more popular or longer lasting than its country of origin.

Off Season Travel

Pretty much everyone always could use a vacation. Whether you are a high powered executive working 80 hours a week or a bartender working six nights a week, either way you probably wouldn’t mind a few days off. The problem is for many of us getting together the money to make a trip worthwhile is just as hard as getting time away from work. However, there are some who have found ways to make their dollars go further and make the most of their time by looking at where they go and when they go there. Two of the ways people have figured out in order to travel on the cheap are, traveling to lesser known destinations and traveling when others aren’t. Off season travel is the type of thing that lets people without children or a traditional job go to all of the places that they might not be able to get to at its usual price point.

The most important thing about traveling in the off season is to do some research about where you want to go, otherwise how would you know when the off season is in the first place? Travelers often hear very polarizing stories about off season travel and that is usually because of the amount of research that went into the trip or knowledge somebody had going into a trip. In any case there is also just a bit of luck that goes into traveling in the off season, because the peak season is usually the peak season for a reason. Peak seasons are usually when most people interested in visiting a destination have off from work and school, and when the weather is the most palatable. The most important things to look at when looking to travel off season are the weather and the crowds.

Palm trees in the snow!

Weather

One of the big reasons that we go to the places we do when we do is to escape the weather we are experiencing at home. People travel more often in the summer because the probability is that you will have sunnier days than any other time of the year, meaning that you won’t have to waste any days of your trip inside because the weather is too bad. However, we all know somebody who just couldn’t enjoy the trip they went on because the weather was unbearably hot or rainy. The trick then is to look at destinations that don’t necessarily hinge on good weather, something that is usually true for traveling to cities or relatively temperate places.

Traveling during the off season can save you money and give you an entirely different experience from most tourists if you can put up with the weather not being perfect. The best way to do this is to check what the weather looks like typically in the off peak months and see if you can hack it. You should also plan for a few sites or activities that aren’t necessarily weather specific that you can fallback on if you get a particularly “weather-filled” day. One thing to keep in mind when dealing with the weather out of tourist season is to check if places have a stormy or monsoon season, because travel and many attractions may not be operating fully in certain regions if they experience severe weather regularly.
travel

Some destinations are simply seasonal destinations, people go to them during a certain time of year for a festival, for the skiing, the beaches, animal populations, etc. These things can’t be helped and if they are the sole reason that a destination is calling you then you should probably look to go during their big season or at least close to it. Remember though that many of these places still have plenty to see and do that you might not know about during their off season.

The crowds

Crowds

People from the same areas seem to always be on similar schedules and also tend to have similar ideas for destinations. It seems that during the month of August all of Europe is on vacation while the rest of the world flocks there. However, holidays and school schedules also play a role in when everybody seems to be traveling and so going somewhere outside of these times during the off season means that you get to miss the bulk of the crowds. Off season crowds are usually smaller which means more intimate tours and sight seeing experiences as well as fewer people competing for reservations and lodging spots.

Off season travel means that you will usually find deals on the activities in the area and on things like hotels and B&Bs. You might even end up finding that your 12 room mixed dorm at the hostel turns into your very own private room during the off season. On the downside however, because of the lack of people many activities may not be operating at full throttle or even at all. If you are planning to do some real touristy stuff make sure to check that they don’t close down for a certain time of the year.

If you have ever lived in a seasonal town then you know that tourists can get old pretty quickly. They are fun that first month of the season maybe, but things quickly blur into you not being able to move around the town as easily as you used to. Sure they are bringing in money and its probably great for the town, but you get personally inconvenienced so they aren’t gonna be your best friend. Traveling in the off season means that you are one of very few non-locals in the town at any given time. This means you get to meet far more locals and see how places actually operate on a slightly less touristy level.

There are a whole bunch of reasons to travel in the off season, and if you plan well off season travel can be cheaper and more fulfilling than traveling during the peak season. You can do a whole lot of research online about when the best time for you to travel some place is, but the easiest way to figure it out is to always ask a local. Asking, “I’m looking to go to X specifically for Y, when should I visit?” will hopefully get you an answer along with other things you can do during that season. If you are short on cash but long on destinations on your “to-go” list then try going in a time you hadn’t thought of. You may just see a side of a place you didn’t know existed.

Australian Politics From an American Perspective

As an American I often come across the stereotype that as an American I am ignorant about things that happen outside of the states. Most of the time this isn’t seen as a terrible thing because it isn’t my fault that U.S. news is saturated with domestic issues, in fact most countries are proportionally over-saturated with U.S. news. in order to fight this stereotype I have done what any American would do and learned about how the government I am living under operates in comparison with the United States. After making just the right amount of “kangaroo court” jokes to myself while learning about it turns out that put simply the Australian government is actually very similar to the American political system.

With the amount of press Tony Abbott gets it wouldn’t surprise me if Americans that don’t have any real interest in Australia might still want to figure out how this guy seems to be allowed to be in charge of a country. You may also hear about the country’s honestly pretty bad history of not caring about climate change, although Americans are only now getting on the climate change bandwagon, and think how is a desert nation so backwards?

Tony AbbottIf you meet an Australian you can both blame them for Tony Abbott and at the same time commiserate with them because unlike the United States voting is mandatory in Australia, but the prime minister is not actually directly elected. Aside from some of the kind of outdated ceremonial Monarchy business those are probably two of the three big differences between the United States’ political system and Australia’s. In order to get that big looming Queen business out of the way for any Americans we’ll take a quick look at what powers the Queen has in Australia. Australia is technically a constitutional monarchy, meaning if she wanted lizzie could come down disband parliament and appoint her own prime minister. Because the queen is technically the “head of state” of a number of countries she obviously doesn’t have time to deal with all of them herself and so appoints a Governor-General who is chosen at the request of the prime minister. The Governor- General is a pretty ceremonial role and essentially does anything the PM advises them to do, but on behalf of the crown as well as the PM.

A photo posted by Ryan (@macmorrisless) on

Aside from the ceremonial business having to do with the Queen, which we Americans gave up on a few hundred years ago, the political system in Australia is all business and not just thongs and roos. The system is based on the Westminster system meaning they have a bicameral legislative system headed by a prime minister, consisting of a senate and house of parliament. These work pretty much in the same way as the American system aside from the fact that voting for Australian citizens is mandatory. The other real differences are that there are more than just two viable political parties and that the number of seats in the senate and parliament change more often. 

Earlier I mentioned that while everyone needs to vote in Australia they didn’t necessarily vote for Tony Abbot. Instead voting is tied to which political party you choose and then whichever party gains a majority or is able to form a coalition with another party is then able to appoint the head of their party as the prime minister who in turn picks out his cabinet. From there the executive body performs all the duties it does in America aside from vetoing power. Because the Australian system is based on the idea of political parties party lines are even more divided than in America and voting with the party line is not only expected but nearly mandatory.

So if Australian political parties seem to be so important lets take a look at what they are. There are of course two main parties that could essentially be likened to the Republican party and Democratic party as well as a few other parties that still garner some support. The current party in power is the Liberal party, of which Tony Abbott is the leader, if you have been paying attention that should make perfect sense to you. The Liberal party however isn’t liberal in the sense that we Americans know the word and is actually a lot closer to our Republican party in their views. The Liberal party is based on many Christian values, greater economic freedom, lower taxes, etc. The Labor party on the other hand is the major opposition party at the moment and is much closer to the Democrats of America, more socially progressive, greater economic regulation, big government, environmentalism, etc. Then of course there are the other smaller parties like the Greens (pretty much identical to our own Green Party but with more delegates), and the National party which caters to rural Australians and farmers.

That about sums things up on how to understand the Australian political system if you are fairly familiar with the American system. Things are pretty similar and I am sure if you talked to a traveling Aussie about the current Lib/Nat coalition government and how long they reckon it’ll last they will be astounded that you know about it and will quickly spill their similar ignorance about the American system. Feel free to ask any questions about the government or its policies below and I will pass them right along to Tony Abbott as soon as I next see him.

Public Transport, Public Transit, Subway

The Merits of Public Transit

As someone who enjoys Urban Traveling public transit is usually the way that I find myself getting around in cities that I am new to if I find that I can’t walk somewhere. Now obviously for travelers the merits of public transit are easy to see, it is local, affordable, and gives you a certain experience that you wouldn’t otherwise get from taking cabs or renting a car. In places like New York and London the public transportation systems have even become tourist attractions for some, which can be seen in the thousands of subway maps and t-shirts using the public transit fonts’ and slogans’ to sell them. It would seem that these cities have certainly tried extremely hard to make owning a car or using a car in the city a luxury instead of a necessity and encouraged public transport use.

After living in Germany however it can be seen quite easily that the city of New York is easily outdone by most urban areas in Germany. The prices of the ticket being the main difference which allows for nearly every resident to get a hold of a long term ticket at a price that makes the idea of owning a second car or even a car at all in many respects laughable. This is exactly what the city of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, found to be one of the biggest obstacles to people using public transit more often. In 2013 Tallinn became the “capital of free-transit” by doing away with public transport fares for residents of the city. The environmental impacts and economic impacts are still being measured as it was rather recent, however it seems to have been a success at first glance. The air is getting cleaner and as traffic congestion continues to fall and cleaner public transit is introduced this trend will only continue. In addition to the environmental benefits the economic benefits also work in theory by offering more literal mobility to citizens who cannot afford a car or the transportation costs that may go with a new job.

Two countries that I have lived in for a while now, but obviously am no expert on would be the United States and Australia, which both have a stigma in many areas about public transit. The idea is usually that public transit is for those who can’t afford to drive around places. When the prices of tickets are so high and the infrastructure is lacking in many places the few dollars that are saved by taking public transit as opposed to a cab or taking your own car are cancelled out by the time it takes to get to your destination. This means that as soon as you don’t depend on public transit there is really no incentive for you to use it. On top of that America has always been the land of the automobile and will certainly need some convincing when it comes to giving up that second household car and embracing public transit, but the numbers certainly make sense if we were to start putting in the work on the infrastructure. With the shift towards more urban areas in America and Australia’s history of being extremely concentrated population wise these two countries could certainly do with an increase in the importance of public transit.

According to the American Public Transportation Association the average two car household can save around 10,000 dollars a year by replacing one of those cars with public transit and that for every dollar spent on public transit infrastructure in the United States it generates nearly four times that in economic benefits. On top of this of course there are the jobs that are created as well as the environmental benefits that go along with an increase in public transit use.

Despite the stigma against public transit these countries seem ready for public transit to play a larger role in their lives. Census figures and usage statistics show that their is steady growth year to year in urban areas. Prices need to be put down or at the very least stay put for a while and the services expanded so that patronage can rise. While we don’t yet know if the free fare model championed by Tallinn is working for sure, it can be seen that ease of use and lower prices means more riders and fewer cars which boosts growth and lowers many costs in other areas. My own city of Melbourne has recently introduced the free tram area and has plans to expand the public transport system in Victoria, so next time there is some local election about public transit or you have the option to take a car or train think a bit about the effect it may have.

For some of the information and statistics used in this post check these links out here, here, and here. And if you think I’m dead wrong or dead right feel free to share or comment.