Dominican Republic trip, resort free and beach free: part 1.

For a lot of people, the Caribbean is mostly about beaches and nice weather (with the occasional hurricane). Truth be told, in some parts that’s pretty much all there is to it, along with cold beer, beautiful grilled fish and laid back locals. But other places remind you that this is where the New World was born, and the region has some of the oldest European structures in the Americas. Probably nowhere is this truer than in the Dominican Republic. The capital, Santo Domingo, is not only the largest city in the Caribbean, but it is also the oldest European city in the Americas, having been founded in 1496 by Columbus’ younger brother Bartholomew. If you look around the Colonial District, you will find a lot of things that lay claim to fame by being “the oldest X in the Americas”.

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In Parque de Colon, behind the famous Admiral’s statue, the oldest church, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, seat of the first Catholic Diocese in the New World. Strange anecdote: while walking around the park, I heard a loud and resonating “Boing!” coming from above. I immediately looked up and saw a flagpole swaying from side to side. At the very same moment I heard a loud “Thump!” and looked down, only to find a very large pigeon, dead on the sidewalk after an obvious mid-air encounter with said flagpole. I know, not the nicest story, but something I had never seen before.

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Alcazar de Colon, the first Viceregal residence, built for Columbus’ son Diego and today operating as a museum, filled with period furniture and items that once belonged to the Columbus family. Most displays are in Spanish only, but the admission price includes a good multilingual audioguide.

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The first tribunal.

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The first pharmacy.

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A map of the first ever four voyages across the Atlantic. These “firsts” are located in the Museum of the Royal Houses, the former seat of the colonial government. Again with a good audioguide, you can learn a lot about how Spain bankrupted itself through military spending, as it tried to enforce its claim to exclusive trade rights in America. Meanwhile, France and the UK were making a ton of money by dealing directly with pirates and all manner of illegal traffickers.

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And the first seat of Executive Government. This office was used by a succession of Viceroys and Captain-Generals, all the way to Rafael Trujillo, the strongman who ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years, either as President himself, or through puppet presidents, until his assassination in 1961. I must say I spent  a lot of time in this room, pondering how important it had been to Western history. For countless decades, this is where everything important was decided, not just for the island of Hispaniola, but for the entire hemisphere. Although key decisions may have been initiated on the Old Continent, ultimately, it was in this very room that someone in charge said: “OK, Go!” to the likes of Velazquez de Cuellar, Pizarro, Cortes or Ponce de Leon. And thus, what is today Cuba, Peru, Mexico and Puerto Rico, were invaded by Spain. No matter what moral or historical opinion you have of the Conquistadores, when you think about the incalculable impact they had on the continent and on European history, it is impossible not to be impressed by this otherwise modest and unremarkable office. Continue reading

Haiti two ways; a glimpse into the local life and the expat life.

In all honesty, I had not planned to visit Haiti and I went a bit by chance. In planning a little Caribbean trip with my girlfriend, the Dominican Republic came up as a convenient and interesting stop for me, prior to meeting her in Puerto Rico. When deciding whether to rent a car or use public transportation there, I discovered that one of the big bus companies has a Port au Prince – Santo Domingo connection. The flights were the same price and I remembered I had a friend working in Port au Prince. Perfect reasons to drop in.

Unfortunately, I only spent a long week-end, and I visited very little. This is not because there is nothing to visit in Haiti, but because transportation is either hard or expensive, especially travelling alone.

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Of course, you can take this kind of public transportation, called “taps-taps”, but you have to want to. The alternative is a private taxi, always expensive, especially for intercity travel, or an internal flight. I am willing to endure almost any level of discomfort or expense if the payoff is worth it, like an active volcano, the most remote human settlement on the planet or the midnight sun of the High Arctic. The charming village of Jacmel with its famous arts and crafts? The Citadelle Laferriere and the ruins of the Palais San Souci? Not so much. It’s not that they are unappealing, but for the price of visiting them from Port au Prince, I could travel to 10 different castles and fortresses by train from Paris or London. In fact, the taxi from Port au Prince airport to Pétionville (~10 km) cost me more than my flight from Lithuania to France last year (~2,000 km).

Almost all the tourism in Haiti comes from cruise ships stopping in Labadee. While I didn’t go, I read a bit about it. It is not a town, but a fenced-off private resort leased by Royal Caribbean, which pays the Haitian Government US$10 per tourist per day. While visitors are certainly on Haitian territory, they may just as well be in the Dominican Republic, Miami, or any other place where a lot of Haitians work. A private security firm ensures no tourist gets out and no Haitians get in, except those who are allowed to sell arts and crafts on the resort. All food and drinks served come from the ship. Apparently the Government is improving roads and security in the area in the hopes of convincing Royal Caribbean to offer day trips to places like Milot, where the Fortress and Palace are located. In the mean time, I cannot imagine the appeal of such a place. Continue reading

I visited Kentucky’s Museum of Creation. Sorry…

[DISCLAIMER: This story is very different from my normal travel stories. It is 100% about religion. If you are convinced that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah brought dinosaurs on his ark, I can tell you right now, you won’t like it.]

So, why oh why? Well, because I saw the sign on the highway. I knew it existed, and I even knew it was in Kentucky, but I didn’t know it was right across the Ohio border. So I chose to sacrifice my short visit to Cincinnati, and I made the detour.

Creationism is not very big in my native province of Quebec, with support for the theory at only 9%. For me, it has always been in the same bag as believing Elvis is alive or that the Government keeps aliens at Area 51: i.e. something you can’t believe people actually believe. But they do, and they are not marginal by any means. Support for creationism stands at 22% in Canada and 42% in the United States, with a further 31% believing evolution occurred, but was “guided by God”. Numbers are also high in Europe and other parts of the world, although they vary greatly by country, and also by religion. Buddhists are chill enough not to be offended by evolution. Hindus are not at all offended by the notion of grandpa monkey. Hardly surprising considering they’re OK with the idea that they might have been a frog in their last reincarnation. In many, but not all Muslim countries, a majority of people believe in young Earth theories. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses almost universally reject the theory of evolution, and in Saudi Arabia, that great beacon of enlightenment, teaching it is banned.

Creationism differs from other religious beliefs in that it stands in stark contradiction to a lot of modern day scientific beliefs. Religions very often lie outside the realm of science, either because of the things they are concerned with – like the meaning of life – or because they invoke the supernatural. To say that Jesus could walk on water may not be a very scientific claim, but since he apparently did it through a divine miracle, in a way it doesn’t contradict science. It doesn’t say that what we understand about buoyancy is wrong. Creationism is obviously different in that it flies in the face of everything we know about our planet’s history, and it pushes religious beliefs that don’t pretend to be miracles, but natural history facts. Unfortunately, the world can only be 6,000 years old OR billions of years old, but not both! So this has created a major and very bitter debate in American education about how and whether these mutually exclusive ideas should be taught.

Although I don’t really want to get into it, creationists come in different flavours. Many accept the fact that the world is old, and even evolution, but believe it was guided by God. You may have heard of these people under names like “old Earth creationists” or “intelligent design”. Generally speaking, they hate each other. Many “mainstream Christians” organizations also hate them, believing they ridicule the entire religion with their views that go completely against the worldwide consensus on the history of the planet.

In all honesty, I went to the museum to have fun. I thought I would laugh at the pictures of cavemen running away from dinosaurs and weird people who think this all makes sense. [Side note: a huge percentage of North Americans believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, but their ranks include large numbers of non-religious types who assume this to be the case because it was portrayed as such in The Flintstones. And science education in most Canadian and American schools is not that great].

For sure, I did see quite a few visitors dressed in the latest 19th century fashion, arriving in large vans with 17 year old girls carrying their 3rd child and men who very obviously got their hair cut at home. But by far, the vast majority of people were perfectly normal looking middle America folks; families, grandpas and yoga pant wearing soccer moms. And what I discovered was an extremely slick and internally coherent ideology, delivered in style in a beautifully designed museum. Did it change my mind? I won’t bother answering that. But it did – unexpectedly – open my eyes to some of the reasons why the ridiculous idea is so popular. Here’s my take at explaining it. Continue reading

From Spain, France, Canada and America… I’m back!

First, a thousand apologies; I have been meaning to write this for a couple of months now. However, as much as I enjoyed writing about my travels, it seems I’m not that motivated when it comes to writing about my non-travels. So I just kept putting it off to tomorrow, to next week, to next month, even though some people contacted me to ask if I had died at Oktoberfest or somehow earned myself an all-inclusive extended stay in a Bavarian jail.

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After all, how exciting is this picture of me stocking up at Costco? (European and Asian friends, think of the Hypermarket version of Carrefour)

So, what is the situation? I was in fact on break for an undetermined duration, and in some ways, I still am. I never wrote about financial matters, but the truth is that I built a small business on the side while I was living the office dream. It mostly sustains me even if I don’t work, but forces a modest lifestyle which limits my ability to visit places like Antarctica (I would add Space, but I’ll wait until Virgin Galactic sort out their technical difficulties). So my plan is to start another business, one which I eventually hope be able to detach myself from and travel, probably not full-time, but more or less at will.

So I did spend a lot of time in Ottawa developing my business concept, but when I say I stopped travelling after Oktoberfest, that is not quite accurate. In fact, I went to a few places I never wrote about. Try and guess which exotic destination I visited recently.

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Leaves have fallen off the trees. Lots of cars but no pedestrians in sight. Very little signage in English. Of course, there is only one possible answer, I was in suburban Toronto. More specifically, driving along Yonge Street, widely but  mistakenly known as “the longest street in the world”, extending nearly 1,900 km from downtown Toronto all the way to the Michigan border. In fact, while you can drive the whole length of that, at some point it becomes Highway 11 and to keep calling it “Yonge Street” makes no sense at all. But it still extends a good 56 km into vast expanses of row houses and McMansions, where not long ago vegetables grew around small towns and villages.

With a population of 5.6 million, the Greater Toronto Area is one of the largest urban centres in North America. It is also one – if not the – most diverse, with over half of the residents born outside Canada. While French is one of the two official languages of Canada, in Toronto it is the mother tongue of only 1.1% of the population, the same as Gujarati, but behind – in order – English, Cantonese, Italian, Chinese (not specified), Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, Tamil, Portuguese, Mandarin, Persian, Russian, Polish and Arabic (with Korean, Vietnamese and Greek probably catching-up to French soon). Since many ethnic groups concentrate in certain areas, don’t be surprised if you look at suburban storefronts and have no idea what kind of businesses they are (unless you read the neighbourhood’s dominant language, of course).

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Also in Toronto, I learned the usefulness of pay phones: you can lean on them when making a call.

But before heading to Toronto, I left Munich for Barcelona, to attend La Mercè Festival.

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

I wanted to witness this kind of crazy stuff.

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But unfortunately, I was there early in the week and the events I wanted to attend were taking place on the week-end, so all I got was the crazy crowds. It strangely reminded me of the Beijing subway. That is one of the biggest problems I experienced with full-time travel; it is so damned difficult to get the schedule right all the time. Nevertheless, I hoped I could take advantage of the fact that most people were here for the festival and visit one of the most unusual and spectacular churches in the world, the Sagrada Família. When I first visited Barcelona, the line to buy tickets went around 3 city blocks. Continue reading

Oktoberfest!

Many years ago, I was in the South of France in early October and I had the good idea of traveling to Munich for Oktoberfest. Sadly, the Germans were not as rational as I had assumed: and Oktoberfest is in September.

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This time I knew better and planned to travel to Munich just in time for the festival’s opening, and to meet my friend Katja, who lives there. You might remember seeing her in Malawi, in the role of Angelina Jolie. I am obviously posting this with weeks of delay, but as they say, better late than never.

On opening day, the brewers who own the various tents of Oktoberfest parade down the streets with barrels on horse-drawn carriages. The weather was fine, but it started pouring hard just before the parade and the weather cleared-up right after. I took almost no pictures.

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Luckily, the next day there was an even bigger parade, the Costume and Riflemen’s Parade, where more than 7,000 people march over 7 km dressed in costumes representing the history and traditions of Bavaria and neighbouring areas and countries.

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It is a massive affair with dozens of bands.

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People on horses.

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People in carriages. Continue reading

Innsbruck: Palaces, winter sports and beer vending machines.

After Venice, I needed a place to spend a day before reaching Munich in time for Oktoberfest. Innsbruck was on the way, and although I knew nothing about it other than the fact people ski there, I just went.

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Located in the Inn Valley, the capital of Tyrol has a population of about 125,000 people and is surrounded by the Karwendel Alps on both sides, which gives it rather spectacular urban landscapes.

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For example, the evening view from my hotel room.

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To me there is nothing special about this architecture, but does nature ever add to the picture.

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If you want to explore the mountains, you can save yourself from a big climb and take this funicular railway, the Hungerburgbahn, which takes you up almost 300 m in about 8 minutes, straight from the centre of town. It arrives in the district of Hungerburg, from where countless hiking trails head off in all directions. Alternatively, you can then take a series of cable cars all the way to Hafelekar, at 2256 m. But I was only there for an overnight transit, so I only had the time to walk around a little. Continue reading

In Venice there are no streets. We all know it, but it’s still pretty cool to see.

Needless to say, Venice is a very unique city; all islands and canals. I had been as a kid, but I decided to go again. I was very happy I made the decision and I couldn’t help being amazed when standing on the Constitution Bridge.

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On one side, busy roads and a bus station, with a giant multi-story parking building next to it. A hub of ground transportation.

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Turn around, and all manners of ground transportation disappear. No buses, no cars, no bicycles, nothing. Quite striking. At this point, those very familiar with the area will realize I am lying, because the building on the left is a train station. But right after the train station everything I wrote becomes true, so you get the idea.

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There are a lot of tourists in Venice. I read very different numbers, ranging from 15 to 29 million a year. With a population of under 60,000, this means that on most days – and certainly in high season – tourists outnumber residents. In this area, they probably outnumber them 25 to 1.

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And this brings all the disadvantages of mass tourism, from bad, overpriced restaurants to petty crime. But what worried me the most was that I would only find a dead city, like Kotor or Dubrovnik, which I visited recently. Places where cruise ship tourism has completely displaced normal life and transformed the old towns into amusement park attractions. This is something many Venice residents fear and the process is certainly under way. But, much to my satisfaction, I found there is still Venice in Venice.

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While the resident population has declined over the decades, you still see the lively mix of tourists and residents, with the deck of the vaporetto filled with standing tourists excited by the idea of cruising on the canal, and the interior seating filled with bored people using public transportation to get home after work. Continue reading