Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Petra, Jordan: Exploring a Lost City - January 2017

From the glowing red sands and towering rocks, to its bustling cities and trendy beach resorts, Jordan is a hidden gem nestled in the turbulent Middle East. During our two-day excursion to the Arabic country, we explored the lost city of Petra and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes of Wadi Rum.

Often referred to as the "Red Rose City Half as Old as Time," Petra, Jordan is an ancient city carved entirely from rock. The city was built between 800 B.C. and 100 A.D. by Nabatean Arabs as a virtually-inaccessible fortress. Centuries later after the Romans rose to power, Petra became a famed stop on the Silk Road and amassed great wealth. After the sea trade slowly displaced caravan routes, the city's importance began to diminish and eventually it became lost to the world until a Swiss explorer re-discovered it in 1812.

Today Petra is Jordan's most-visited tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with being listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World next to the Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal.

The city covers an area of about 100 square kilometers and contains more than 800 monuments. Its most iconic structure is the Khazneh, or Treasury building, but there are a number of other well-preserved structures to explore. Dodging the donkeys and carriages as they speed through the city's narrow passages, it's easy to see why Petra has been featured in several blockbuster films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Not far from Petra in southern Jordan is the valley of Wadi Rum. Also known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is a vast desert formed of sandstone and granite rock. The area's almost supernatural landscape has invited a host of films to use it as a backdrop including: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Martian, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Lawrence of a Arabia to name a few. Bedouin families call this area of the world home and welcome visitors to share in the secrets of the desert.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. And with its historical and architectural treasures, and unique arid landscape, it's well worth a visit during your trip to the Middle East.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Lefkosia, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: Crossing the Green Line - January 2017

After tossing a few coins to a man slumped in a plastic chair to watch our rental car, we set out to cross the de facto border into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It was a bit intimidating to march into a self-declared state occupied by 30,000 Turkish troops, but we elected to test our luck anyway.

The first step was to exit the Republic of Cyprus. We walked up to a small white building and handed over our passports. After being questioned about our purpose and length of stay, the officials waved us on without a stamp or any documentation.

Passing billboards displaying the faces of the young men killed in protests during 1996 and flyers cautioning us of the dangers of the Turkish occupation, we entered the United Nations buffer zone.

Also referred to as the "Green Line" dividing the island, the UN buffer zone is a narrow stretch of land which contains seven de facto border crossings. We chose to enter at the Ledra Palace crossing which is only accessible to the public by foot and not long ago was reserved for government and military officials. The crossing bears the name of the impressive multi-story building which was once one of the most luxurious hotels on the island, but is now the region's UN headquarters and a popular meeting site for peace negotiations.

Days earlier we had flown into the city of Larnaca, Cyprus. Having the desire to visit the TRNC but not knowing much more than that the island is plagued with what the world refers to as the "Cyprus Problem," we decided to do some research. We learned that although the island struggled throughout much of its storied past, the current-day issues began when Cyprus gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. During that time, and still to this day, the island was home to two distinct cultural groups: the Greek Cypriots supported by Greece and a minority of Turkish Cypriots backed by the government of Turkey.

In 1963 the island and city of Nicosia, or Leftkosia in Turkish, was physically divided by a wall, barbed wire or fence along the Green Line. Tensions soared in 1974 after the Turkish army captured one third of the island in the north, and later in 1983 the Turkish-held area declared itself the independent state of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus."

Discussions around resolving the Cyprus Problem have been held frequently throughout the past thirty years without much progress. Most recently talks were organized in January of 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the issue but it appears the parties remain at a stalemate due to several key issues. As of today only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a nation; the United Nations and all other governments regard the Republic of Cyprus as having official governance over the entire island.

As we exited the UN buffer zone and walked into the TRNC side of the last divided capital in the world, we were struck by the change. The thriving, modern city "Nicosia" which we left moments earlier was a stark contrast to the dilapidated, scarcely-populated section of "Lefkosia."

On the other side of the tall cement wall, packs of men meandered aimlessly on broken sidewalks and past abandoned houses. Small stores were signed with Turkish lettering and kebab restaurants sat empty. Other than the official sign at the border, the only other acknowledgement that we were in the occupied area sat across from a closed pizza joint within a traffic rotary: a stone monument flanked with both the Turkish and TRNC flags.

After a brief stay we walked back to the crossing past the armed border guards; this time they couldn't be bothered to check our documents. Life varied considerably from one side of the wall to the other with the tension all around palpable.

Limassol, Cyprus: The Island of Aphrodite - January 2017

Located precariously in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria, the island of Cyprus probably isn't top of mind when considering your next holiday destination. The ongoing conflict there has resulted in the island being divided between the Greek-influenced Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Currently the Russians and Brits have a lock on the island as a warm-weather getaway, but in case you are curious, here's what we learned during our recent weekend adventure:

History. Civilization on the island has been traced back to the 10th millennium BC. Archeological remains can be found in various areas along with some of the oldest water wells in the world. Cyprus is referred to as the birthplace of the Greek Goddess of Love and Beauty, Aphrodite. While on the island it's possible to visit her birthplace on the coast (pictured above) as well as the ruins of her ancient temple (pictured below.) Additionally, the entire town of Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can view the world's best-preserved Roman mosaics.

Conflict. The divided island is home to the only capital in the world belonging to two nations; Nicosia is separated by the "Green Line," or UN buffer zone, with an armed checkpoint on either side of the border. We learned a good deal about what is referred to as the "Cyprus Problem" that has been going on since 1974 upon our visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Epiphany Day. During our visit, we witnessed the festivities around Epiphany Day, or Three Kings' Day, where Greek Orthodox Cypriots perform the Great Blessing of Waters. As part of this annual ritual, clergy and parishioners march to the nearest body of "living water" to perform the blessing. Following the ceremony, a Priest casts a golden cross into the waters. The volunteer who is first able to sieze the cross receives a special blessing for himself and family.

Cyprus is also known for its wine production and brags the oldest label in the world: "Commandaria" dating back more than 5,000 years. If you do choose to swing by the island nation for a visit, be sure to stay to the left when driving and try your best to spot the elusive local sheep, the Cyprus Muffon, which are a distinct breed found only on the island.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The World Reacts to a Trump Presidency - January 2017

2016 was an incredulous year rocked by tragedy, scandal and upset. But of the many torrid events, one will be remembered in perpetuity.

People around the globe have been fixated on the U.S. presidential election with its outcome having repercussions not only in the United States, but sending shock waves felt the world over. With the inauguration this week, I asked my friends living outside of the U.S. to share their thoughts on how a Trump presidency may impact them, their country or the planet.

Here is the world sounding off:

KENYA: "There's a fair bit of anxiety in Kenya and the continent at the moment. While Trump has signaled he will be going for a quid pro quo relationship if current trade, aid and other humanitarian assistance is to continue, many doubt he understands the complexities of modern day Africa. The continent is witnessing fast-paced development and a growing middle class is now hungry for luxury goods and other conveniences. In approaching the continent, he needs to understand that many are looking east more and more. I believe his presidency will see China's influence grow in Africa." - Wanjiku, 34

GERMANY: "Donald Trump is a ticking time bomb. His statements worry us and we are scared." - Alex, 37, and Christoph, 37

IRAN: "The people of Iran are hopeful. We are waiting for Trump to get rid of the Ayatollah. The former administration caused more suffering and suppression for our people. If there is no real threat of war, our dictator can relax and escalate bullying in and out of the region. Dialog doesn't work with murderers who use religion to promote their agendas." - Mehrdad, 37

AUSTRALIA: "I'm completely freaking out about the Trump presidency. Combined with Brexit and the upcoming French and German elections, it feels like we're on the verge of World War III. If that happens Australia will be forced to choose between our Commonwealth (the U.K.), our Asia-Pacific neighbours, and our big brother and best friend, the U.S.A." - Amy, 36

UNITED KINGDOM: "People worry about the big red button and all the harm he will do but Trump isn't a dictator. He can't really go ape and get away with it without approval. Yes, he's appointing like-minded folks and is going to make changes, but don't we always hate change?" - Jason, 38

MEXICO: "It is still unknown what [Trump's] actual official policies will be but I can anticipate a good level of hostility towards us in one form or another. I will personally avoid the U.S. for a while until its government establishes a clearer position on foreign policy ... and by the way, that wall will never be constructed!" - Roberto, 35

PAKISTAN: "I was a big fan of 'The Apprentice.' Trump is not the idiot that he pretended to be during the campaign. He was playing everyone. He is a very sharp guy in disguise. I think he will be good for the world politically; the U.S. will hopefully mind their own business since his main focus will be on the American economy and his own wealth. As far as him being against Muslims, lol, he was just being a politician to win the votes of white conservatives. He's fooled the whole world!" - Imran, 36

CHINA: "Trump being elected president is an absolute joke. How could a business person be elected president? The Chinese government is now waiting to see what his attitude towards our country will be. Right now we aren't seeing anything in the Chinese media illustrating Trump's policy on China." - Kevin, 34

MALTA: "I think Trump will inspire a lot of right-wing Maltese people to take a stand to 'make Malta great again.' This makes me sad." - Luca, 25

ARMENIA: "Trump is very unpredictable and slightly mad. If he keeps his ties with Turkey, like Obama, it won't be good for Armenia, but if he improves relations with Russia and recognizes the genocide, it would be great for our country." - Elena, 37

TURKEY: "I feel it may be problematic to visit the United States after he takes over. I believe immigrants in the U.S. will have more pressure when extremist attacks occur in different parts of the world." - Olgun, 30

JORDAN: "I was relieved when Trump won. To us in Jordan, Clinton represents the establishment and a war was inevitable. It's time for the common, good Americans to have their voice heard. Trump is not my best choice but he accomplished the mission by cutting off the mainstream establishment." - Nizar, 50

BRAZIL: "We all know that water is the new petrol. Climate change is a reality which amazingly is denied by Trump. I wonder if he will raise his military power against Brazil and Argentina due to our supply of running water. I heard last week that the U.S. is building a military base at the Iguacu waterfalls. If that is true, I pray for God to help us as our water may be endangered." - Rodnei, 38

ESTONIA: "Based on where Estonia is located and how angry European and Russian relations have become, it's going to be playing with fire. Not sure how Trump will work with Estonia's female president and if he'll ignore NATO being needed to secure borders with Russia." - Helju, 58

RUSSIA: "The U.S. should stop thinking that their internal affairs are so influential that they can change the world." - Daria, 33

PHILIPPINES: "We need a reality check. We're all living in our own bubbles. No one noticed the angry old man in the street. Hence, Duterte, Brexit and now Trump." - Mia, 43

THAILAND: "This is the first time I've seen Americans fight each other. Trump brings conflict and war. He will also bring back some business to the U.S. instead of expanding production in Asia or Thailand. This means that the U.S. dollar will strengthen in Thailand and cause a low volume of imports." - Kannika, 64

ISRAEL: "We've been very disheartened with the past administration and disappointed in their lack of support for Israel. Trump's disapproval of the recent U.N. resolution gives our people hope that the future U.S. administration will be more favorable." - Charles, 54

CANADA: "I fear that [Trump's] reactive, myopic and egotistical approach will lead to global economic disruption with the result being a deepening gap between rich and poor. Canada needs to maintain a neutralizing position and Trudeau has the opportunity to demonstrate real leadership if he can make things work. The optimist in me feels the best case scenario is that [Trump] continues to make errors in judgment so that [the U.S.] can quickly build a case to impeach him." - Tamara, 42

FINLAND: "[Trump] is like a teenage boy getting a driver's license and his first car. Anything can happen! If Mr. Trump copes well with Mr. Putin and the economical sanctions towards Russia are stopped, Finland will get a lot of benefit." - Vesa, 59

RUSSIA: "I am curious to watch how this rather unprofessional-looking type will rule a country like the U.S. Does he really have as much power as people think? If he starts doing bad things, Americans will be able to stand against it. They have a long history of fighting for their rights and freedoms, unlike Russians, and I hope they have not lost that skill." - Anna, 31

CAMBODIA: "If the new president keeps playing games with China, my country will be affected. My government is in strong support of One China." - Peou, 44

PORTUGAL: "It's certain that Trump's presidency means a step back in the fight against climate change globally. World peace and stability is a wildcard at this point, but Portugal is usually a neutral country and I don't expect it to be affected in any particular way." - Octavio, 39

INDIA: "The new president wants to focus on jobs for Americans which means more insourcing rather than outsourcing. This could have huge impact on business being carried out by U.S. entities that have centers in India. One thing that could work in India's favor, however, is that [Trump] doesn't like China and they are currently our largest competitor and threat to India-U.S. trade." - Karthik, 38

THAILAND: "Trump is not the right man for the U.S. presidency because of his uncompromising personality. The U.S. may lose their political alliances because of his meager political experience. The U.S. will confront huge problems both inside and outside of their country." - Manit, 76

COLOMBIA: "Trump will change global geopolitics in that there are many issues that leaders will not take seriously and will affect relations. The important thing is that he be well-advised and the advisers forget their partisan disputes. Countries like Colombia and many in Latin America are not important to the U.S. and I don't think that will change." - Diego, 38

ICELAND: "Our country is focused on Trump - even the smallest things he does hit the news. Some speculate Trump and Putin will have their first meeting here in Iceland. I'm not excited about it; I think it'll be a circus." - Reynir, 51

TANZANIA: "Mr. Trump seems inclined to launch nuclear war. He thinks he can run a country like he has been running his personal business. U.S. citizens need to find a way to trim his erratic thoughts before he puts them into action. If not checked he might turn back all the good efforts intended to make the world better." - Switbert, 59

IRELAND: "I'm scared! The might of the American army under that man's control and his loose, poorly-chosen words could case consternation and unrest around the world." - Conor, 37

CHINA: "Having Trump as president is like the whole world playing Russian roulette. As a 70-year-old battle-tested businessman, he has picked up some bad habits. He will have to learn to treat other countries with respect otherwise there will be no happy ending." - Fiona, 28

ESTONIA: "I hope Trump will fix relationships with Russia and the world economy will start to grow again. He is a businessman and must know these things easily." - Kairi, 40

RUSSIA: "I assume that with Trump as president the U.S. and Russia will fight less." - Tatiana, 34

THAILAND: "I worry about corruption similar to what we've experienced in Thailand because Trump is a businessman. The Thai economy may be affected due to a decreased tax duty in the U.S. on domestic products. This will encourage cash flow and trade in the U.S. but many other countries will suffer in terms of profits." - Krerkwich, 37

UNITED KINGDOM: "The morning I woke up and found that Trump was to be the next president of the United States I was in the same shock as following Brexit. I feel that both results were heavily influenced by a disillusion with mainstream politics and maybe an apathy towards what the world has achieved over the last fifty years. I do not think America will be any greater than it was before the election, and personally I think [Trump's] legacy will be a step backwards for the U.S.A. on the world stage." - Craig, 44

PHILIPPINES: "There's a lot of fear going around, but I want to see what really happens on 'day one' rather than listen to all the noise from the media, social media and even [Trump's] own Twitter account." - An, 43

Today is "day one" and now the United States and the world will have a front row seat to the inner workings of a Trump presidency. No matter what side of history you are on, the world has greater hope if you take the time to see it differently through someone else's lens.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Havana, Cuba: 9 Tips for Your First Trip - November 2016

Guest Blogger: Wes Milligan
Alzheimer's Awareness Advocate, Baseball Stadium Aficionado and Craft Beer Connoisseur

The lure of fresh mojitos and Cuban cigars have piqued your interest, and now you want to travel to Havana. Before you book your trip, here are nine tips that will ensure you get the most out of your first Cuban adventure.

1. Do not check luggage. This tip is first for a reason. Do not check a bag, because you may not get it back. Just ask my friend. Cuba is still a communist country, and the government can do whatever it wants with your luggage, including everything in it. If you must check a bag, use an airport service such as Secure Wrap that wraps your luggage in plastic film.

2. Hire a guide. Our guide, Ruben, put together a sample itinerary before we left for Cuba, and his services were inexpensive. Plus, he was an outgoing guy who spoke English very well and knew every inch of the city. His choice of authentic restaurants, lodging, what classic cars to hire, local attractions and history of Cuba made our first trip to Havana, well, perfect. He was also a great translator (and negotiator) for us.

3. Stay in a casa. A casa, or someone’s home with rooms converted into hotel rooms, is the best way to experience Cuba, especially in Old Havana. Most casa rooms have private bathrooms and excellent accommodations. Our casa (Hostal Acosta Gonzalez )served fresh fruit, juice and coffee every morning for breakfast. Traditional hotels can be expensive and away from the city’s character and attractions, so ask your guide to stay at a casa.

4. Bring cash. U.S. credit and ATM cards will not work. You have to exchange your currency into either Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) or Cuban Pesos (CUP), and you can only do that in Cuba. Most items for purchase are listed in CUCs, and they are 1:1 in value to U.S. dollars. Exchange places do charge a hefty commission, however; around 10 percent. The good news is your money will go a long way in Cuba. You can also wear a money belt to stash your cash, and most casas and hotel rooms have a safe. And is Havana a safe city? Absolutely.

5. Buy a WiFi card. If you want to surf the internet while in Havana, buy a WiFi (pronounced Wee-Fee) card. The cards are usually around $2-$3 for an hour and can be purchased near local WiFi spots. If you do use a WiFi card, remember to log out after you’re finished or your paid time will expire. My recommendation is to simply unplug and enjoy your vacation, and you can register with the U.S. Embassy in case of emergencies.

6. Have a stash of coins for the bathroom. Some public bathrooms have attendants outside who require a price for admission, especially for women. I’m not kidding, and forget about trying to negotiate. If you want to use the bathroom, and would like some paper, drop a CUP coin or two in the basket.

7. Buy a Cuban cigar. Tour a cigar factory and watch how this famous export is rolled. Just don’t purchase them in the factory’s gift shop. There are plenty of locals who will sell you a box (around $50, rather than $250), and be sure to ask your guide about the Cuban marriage: a Cuban cigar, Cuban coffee and aged Cuban rum, tasted together in one sitting.

8. Pay attention. Havana has more than two million residents, and if you don’t pay attention while walking around, they may run over you. The city is constantly abuzz with classic cars, taxis, bicycles and walkers. Then factor in the numerous bumps and holes in the streets and you’re likely to turn an ankle if you’re not careful. But hey, since you’re not looking down at your cell phone all day, you should be okay.
9. Pay it forward. Residents of Havana, according to our guide, earn about $20-$30 a month. So pay it forward and bring items such as clothes, shoes, and shampoo and conditioner samples to donate (collect them from U.S. hotels). I packed for Cuba with the intention of leaving behind most of what I brought. The owners of our casa were very appreciative of the gesture, and it was the least we could do for their hospitality.