Monday, November 23, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Friday, November 6, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
How to navigate a deal on Ryanair
Ashley Colby, Special to Tribune Newspapers
October 11, 2009
In late August I was able to book a one-way flight from Pisa to Barcelona for just 10 euros, or about $14.70. This came as a 48-hour promotion for 5-euro flights with all fees and taxes waived (except a 5-euro payment handling fee) for flights September through December. Then, on Sept. 1, I found a 6-pound ($9.80) late-October flight from London to Oslo.
When booking during one of Ryanair's incredible-sounding sales, first read the terms and conditions before getting too excited. Blackout dates and seemingly incomprehensible exceptions might be involved. Flexibility is key.
Recognize that there are certain fees that most likely won't be waived, such as the "payment handling fee" (5 euros per flight) and the "online check-in fee" (5 euros).
Most of the fees, however, can be avoided with careful planning. Skip the "priority boarding fee" (3 euros) and the "text message confirmation" (1 euro) by simply remembering to check "no" when filling out details. Other fees demand greater cunning to refuse. The "optional travel insurance" is avoided by choosing the "no travel insurance required" option, which strangely is between Latvia and Lithuania in the drop-down menu.
Be aware of baggage specifications. Ryanair (ryanair.com) charges 10 euros for the first checked bag and another 20 for each subsequent bag. The catch is that the combined weight of all three bags must be no more than 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds.
Ryanair does not charge for carry-on luggage but expects customers to fit every item (purses, coats, shopping bags) into a single 10-kilo carry-on. Failure to follow these rules means Ryanair retains the right to deny boarding and cancel a reservation without refund.
Finally, many airports used by Ryanair are connected to the city only by a Ryanair-owned bus company. Take the price of the bus into consideration when figuring the total cost.
Once you learn how to work the system, you can find yourself jetting around Europe for the price of a few Happy Meals.
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
China's Shangri-La is a real dream
By Ashley Colby
Special to the Tribune
August 23, 2009
SHANGRI-LA, China -- If you've ever dreamed of finding Shangri-La -- that mythical mountain paradise made famous in James Hilton's novel "The Lost Horizon" -- it's time to wake up. These days, the elusive Shangri-La isn't that hard to find. It's in China's Yunnan province.
It might not be exactly what you had in mind, however.
When I arrived in Shangri-La, it was cold and raining, and there was a cow eyeing me as it lapped up water from a bucket in the Old Town, a patchwork of wooden houses on narrow streets. Not exactly the shining pathways and endless enlightenment I imagined, but I had just gotten there.
Shangri-La, with a population of more than 100,000, is nestled in a valley near the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in far south-central China, about 1,000 miles northwest of Hong Kong. In the far distance are glimpses of Himalayan snow-capped peaks hiding behind much lower mountains that hug the city.
In the late 1990s, with the expanding Chinese middle class thirsty to spend tourist yuan, several Chinese provinces started claiming they were the true Shangri-La. The government saw an opportunity and proposed that each place prove through empirical research that its physical characteristics match those in the novel. Several years later, Zhongdian County in Yunnan province was granted the title.
People come to get a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Getting into Tibet can be difficult for tourists. Shangri-La, however, lies just outside the formal Tibet Autonomous Region but well within the plateau where Tibetans reside.
That culture is on display every evening when the people of the town gather in the main square, press "play" on a tape of Tibetan pop songs and start to dance. Women with magenta head scarves who seem to be the village elders lead the movement from the middle of a gigantic circle formed around them.
Shangri-La is split into areas known as Old Town and New Town. The quickly developing New Town houses most of the residents and resembles many nondescript Chinese cities -- rows of concrete storefronts selling everything from knock-off designer duds to live fish.
Old Town is a former stop along the old Tea and Horse Caravan Road, the route begun during the Middle Ages and across which Chinese tea was traded for Tibetan horses. The tiny original Old Town consists of a handful of cobbled streets lined with centuries-old traditional Tibetan wooden houses. It's no bigger than a square mile. Farm houses with first-floor barns are still tucked away at the edges of the town, pushed to the periphery by the encroaching tourist necessities: cafes, souvenir shops, art galleries and hotels.
Another big draw for tourists could be low prices. A double room at the Cobbler's Hill Old Inn, a reconstructed building from the Tea and Horse Caravan days, costs 100 yuan (about $15) a night. Our room overlooking one of the livelier streets in the Old Town was lined with dark wood and had a smartly designed bathroom, a desperately needed electric blanket (in October), TV with only Chinese-language channels and odd modern light fixtures.
A balcony gave us the opportunity to sit and watch the locals: Women in bright pink head scarves trudged up the hill, carrying huge loads of just-harvested greens in wicker baskets on their backs, while other women washed their long black hair in steaming sudsy saucers in the cold morning air -- a habit probably left over from the time just a few years earlier when there was no indoor plumbing in Shangri-La.
Food also is a bargain. At Tara Gallery & Cafe, a just-refurbished home from centuries past along the caravan route, we ordered the Indian meal ($7 per person) out of the choices of Chinese or the more expensive Tibetan Hot Pot. In the second-floor restaurant, we started on our six-course feast: Indian bean soup, potato curry, chicken curry and a large bowl of white rice for harnessing the vibrant flavors. Indian flat bread was accompanied by both a hot pepper and mild eggplant spread. Then there was just a glimpse into Tibetan food with fried yak cheese balls rolled in sugar. These melted in my mouth.
Next we headed to The Raven, just a few doors down the street from our hotel. Their best deal was a house red wine (about $9 a bottle). A place for hip locals and tourists of all kinds, it was lit by candles, and the walls were plastered with posters from New York rock concerts. Punk music blared on the stereo.
A little incongruous? Perhaps. I was a long way from the South Side of Chicago and totally immersed in the joys of discovery.
Although the low costs and vibrant and visible Tibetan culture would be reason enough to visit, the biggest draw might be the monastery a few miles out of town. On our second day in Shangri-La, the morning arrived with a sun that had been mostly absent for days. It was a perfect time to explore Ganden Sumtseling.
More than 300 years old and housing about 600 monks, this Tibetan Buddhist monastery is a place of great importance in the region. Throughout the monastery I found bright and newly redone frescoes (sometimes with English labels), 25-foot-tall statues of smiling Buddhas, golden adornments on the roofs of the temples, and red-robed monks moving from room to room, praying and lighting incense. The hills behind the monastery offer a commanding view of the entire complex, golden idols glinting in the afternoon sun, and Shangri-La in the distance in a valley surrounded by hills and several groupings of snowcapped peaks.
On my way out, an older monk placed a prayer necklace that he had made around my neck. Back in Old Town, I climbed a hill where I sat beside a giant prayer wheel to watch the sun set. Prayer wheels, a part of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, usually are cylinders on a spindle lined up in a row to be turned during meditation, meant to aid focus in reciting mantras.
I watched my first sunset in days looking over Shangri-La with prayer flags rustling in the wind overhead, bells tinkling and the smell of incense drifting from a nearby temple. In that instant, I realized I had discovered my own personal Shangri-La, a magical sense of calm and connection found in passing moments like this.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas.
So, here I am again. This place where I seem to be coming back with increasing frequency. That wondrous purgatory. The questioning captivity. The exhilarating effusiveness. I am about to embark on another adventure.
It turns out that the US is an expensive place to travel. And it's also boring. Well, not inherently boring, but boring for me because I know it all too well. I need adventure! Excitement! The risk of death at every turn! (well, not death, don't worry mom) But I do need to be challenged. I need a world that needs decoding, a cultural challenge, some strangeness.
Where is this magical place, you ask? Italia! A place where the people speak with their hands and eat with their eyes. A world of ancient food culture just waiting to be devoured.
We are going to be WWOOFing there, and have already set up with a few farms in Tuscany. I just really can't get enough of this small-scale farming business. With an increasingly confusing world of corrupt politicians and greedy bankers and rising unemployment, something just makes sense about sticking my hands into the soil and making food grow.
So, here we go again. Maybe I'll find a reason to hate it and move on, maybe I'll love it and never leave. The great affair is to discover. and rediscover.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
After finally pulling ourselves away from animal watching in the Lamar Valley, we fell into the tourist-dominated landscape that is Yellowstone's caldera. The land here sits over an enormous supervolcano, a mass of burning magma sitting so close to the surface that it effects the world above in a myriad of ways.
The landscape here is vaguely similar to that of the very early earth, when the entire planet was burning much more brightly overall. Since then, it has been slowly cooling as time passes; similarly to how our metabolisms slow as we age. Like the Earth, as well as the universe, we burn less and less brilliantly as time moves along. The second law of thermodynamics - which states simply that all aspects of the universe are subject to increasing entropy - is what eventually inevitably puts out our flame.
We saw the remnants of our former superheated world in the form of scalding hot springs, bubbling cauldrons of mud, steaming sulfuric vents and a wild variety of geysers. The most bewildering aspect of this death-world was the prismatic color in the hot springs. Some are a astonishing white-blue, some algae-like putrid green, some burnt orange, and most were often a combination of these hues.
I learned that each color was the result of a certain organism that lived in a particular temperature range within the spring. Surprisingly, the white-blue, often associated as the coolest color, is a result of the organisms that live in the hottest water. These particular organisms are also some of the oldest organisms on the planet. The activity from these geysers and springs - the releasing of gases through heating the liquid - is how our atmosphere was formed.
It was exhilarating to stumble around this alien past-world, to be among a world burning more ferociously.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
After the high plains in the great basin, and the trap of consumer culture that is Jackson Hole, the plains finally turned into a valley which was edged on one side by the Grand Teton mountains. This range was named by French fur trappers; in French, teton means, um, boob. Oh, French people. To be fair, the mountains do have that general shape, but I assume the name came more from being alone in the woods with other men for months on end. The men could dream.
Whatever the case may be, the mountains were just the sideshow. The main draw, by our standards at least, was the wildlife. This area is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world, and is unofficially known as the American Serengeti. Being here in this enormous valley, with the thunderheads in the sky gaining momentum, and the smell of coming rain hanging in the dry air, I looked out and saw hundreds of brown specks of animals feasting on the summer bounty. At that moment, I could almost imagine what the world was like before. Home, home on the range.
Now, I don't harbor any illusions about the perfection of times past. I recognize that there was no utopian antecedent to our current world. As our species has grown in complexity, we have grown in destructiveness. Before agriculture, life was short, brutal, unsafe; but people then have been shown to be much healthier than we are today - taller, faster, stronger teeth, and with slightly larger brains. With the growth of specialization and civilization came longer lives, but less healthy ones.
This comes to mind only because I am standing in landscape that is fairly similar to one our early ancestors might have encountered, and because we evolved on savannas for millions of years, there is something in this landscape that feels like home to me. Something freeing, exhilarating, sweet and wild. So I stand and watch the bison roll around in the dust and the antelope springing through the tall grass, the elk's majestic antlers lifted while scanning for predators, and the black bear wading into the stream to cool itself in the hot summer sun, and I yearn for remembrance.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
I don't know exactly how to approach this county fair thing. I mean, when I was a kid there were no opportunities to show off my prize livestock or vegetables. City kids don't know about these things. At our yearly block party, I gorged myself on candies and barbeque and baked goods. Ohhh, my stomach was full of peanut butter cookies and hot dogs and smarties. Then I'd slip off my shoes and bounce around in the jumping jack until my regurgitating reflex made itself known, at which point I'd roll out of the huge balloon, chug a coke and go find the kids playing ghost in the graveyard.
All of the same elements are here at the Tuolumne County Fair. There is the gorging and the rides, the kids playing games, but the things that are different - the prize cows raised by middle schoolers, the gigantic vegetables, a product of many months of careful watering and turning - are significant. These people here are country people, or they used to be. This was a venue for them to show off their season's treasures, the let loose and paint the town red. We have adopted this in the city, except we just do the celebrating, not the working in the fields part.
Although this fair has come along way since its inception (now the major events show the grotesque strength of machines in the form of truck pulls and demolition derbys), the ghost of its past enthralls me. There was a time in America when most people outside of cities worked on the land. They came once a year to show off their labor, to mingle with their neighbors and to let their bellies hang out after gorging themselves on their neighbor's meat. I hope this ghost doesn't disappear for good.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks are in the southern part of California's Sierra mountain range. We drove the four plus hours from Alex's house in Sonora through the hideous, smoggy and stinking hot central valley and up into the mountains. As we climbed up to seven thousand feet, the air got cooler and clearer, a crisp and fresh break from the pollution and the endless chain stores below.
Monday, June 29, 2009
We started in redwood forests. These trees are the tallest in the world, the largest being nearly 370 feet tall. Now that's an original skyscraper. We slept on a beach with golden bluffs lining the rugged coast where elk with giant antlers walked among the tents, and took hikes into canyons lined with giant ferns, moist and green and lush.
We moved onto an even more remote landscape in the lost coast. This region of California's coast is so mountainous that they could barely fit a windy, patchy road through it. There are a few small towns spotted along the road (and by small, I mean smaller than your highschool class), one of them being Petrolia, the first place the oil tycoons drilled in California.
At last we got to the famous highway one. We walked through tall golden grass fields and looked out over the rocky cliffs and a bright blue ocean, and I felt like I was in this Monet painting that I spent a lot of time observing at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. This woman stands on the top of a hill in Normany, the wind whips all around her, pulling at her dress and her hat. It is so strong I imagine she is almost resting against it. At that moment, I wonder what she is thinking. Does she recognize the beauty of her surroundings? Or is it part of the quotidian of her life? I imagine she breaks from her routine in her mind for just a moment. Just long enough to see the wonder and ecstacy of life, as the sun bounces from the water and onto her face, warming it. I want to always feel that way.
Monday, June 8, 2009
We drove into Vancouver on an unusually hot, sticky late May day. The sky was impossibly blue and there were many shirtless men parading their white hairy chests throughout the city. We saw Stanley Park, a gigantic forest of a city park, with its endless stream of rollerbladers in their uniforms of tiny shorts and wisps of a top. I guess rollerblading didn't leave with the 90's on this side of the border.
We met Luigi, our couchsurfing host, who showed us to our private room and separate bathroom, handed us some keys and made it explicit that his home is now ours. (for those of you who need a refresher, couchsurfing is a website that hooks up people who have an extra couch, room, or floor space that they'd like to share with passing travellers. In return, when those travellers return home, they're expected to make their space available.)
Luigi is a man from Rome with a puritanical streak for authentic Italian food, which he insisted on cooking for us fresh every evening. We ate three-course meals: antipasti covered in olive oil and pepper, sliced roast beef, roasted potatoes and grilled artichokes, and he taught us how to correctly eat his perfect pasta (hint: it does not make use of the spoon in any way).
We spent most of our time in the city getting to know its neighborhoods - which were both plentiful and colorful. We visited the home of Vancouver's artists and artisans on Granville Island, gazed at the enormous variation in ethnic eateries on Commercial Drive, and saw the sky reflected in the endless blocks of glass towers downtown.
We moved back to our homeland in our visit to Seattle. There we stayed with Dan, an Information Technology guy, who was as "IT guy" as it gets. After we dropped our stuff, we hopped on a bus to downtown and met with a lively downtown Seattle. We were flabbergasted by the vast marketplace at Pike's, where we sat down for some happy-hour-priced clam chowder washed down with local microbrews. We found the original Starbucks across the street from the market, with tremendously talented singers performing in front of it, including a motown-style quartet who reminded me of home. Then, we curiously stopped into the socialist/anarchist bookstore down the street, where we found some books we just have to get off amazon.
We continued around downtown - finding an art show happening at the Seattle Art Museum, which consisted of hipsters doing dance routines. Argh, my generation's sad excuse for art. We then found another gigantic bookstore, which was having a reading by one of its former workers who has now become a best-selling author. We sat in on her reading, where she talked about picking up one day from Seattle and moving to Bangkok - where her literary career began. I guess travel can be quite useful as a career move? We strolled on the way back to Dan's house, where we found a cafe with jazz pouring out of its open windows. We slinked in for a cup of coffee, where we listened to the man in the fedora as his sounds bounced out into the purple-ing dusky sky.
We got back to Dan's where he and his 15 or so friends were having a barbecue. As can be surmised, the conversation revolved around new operating systems yet to be released, the viability of Amazon's Kindle technology, and video games.
We then moved on to Portland, where we stayed with Devidas, an Indian software engineer who also welcomed us with open arms. As we pulled up, he showed us to our private room and bathroom and met us downstairs where he cooked us fresh, delicious Indian food and we chatted into the night. In Portland, it was overcast and there wasn't much to do, so we spent the vast majority of our time in Powell's, probably the best English-language bookstore I've ever been in. Filling up an entire city block, its vast array of titles and sections is staggering. We spent the day reading and researching our futures and plans, looking into books on gardening and apprenticeships, grad school and immigration.
I was looking to the cities of the Northwest for a future home - as global warming makes it a more viable place to live - but overall, these cities were not any more special or magical to me than any other North American cities. They have little quirks all their own, but none of them really blew me away like the places in Europe did with the beauty and grandeur. What I took from these places is more from the people in them - the incredible generosity of strangers, the willingness to share and to converse, really astounded me and made me incredibly grateful.