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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Aug 182017
 

A view of the Yarra River, running through the world’s most livable city, having just been awarded that honor for the seventh year in a row. Guess where – see article, below.

Good morning

The searing heat of midsummer seems to be softening, and the traditional end of summer – Labor Day – is just around the corner.  How quickly the summer passed, although for sure, my garden is gasping for water.

We had another two people join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain this week.  We’re almost at the point where the tour price starts dropping to match the increasing group size, and the UK exchange rate is trending favorably again after a few weeks of strengthening.

The Travel Insider cognoscenti are flocking to the Grand Expedition.  The average member of next year’s group will be on their third Travel Insider tour, and we have one lady on her sixth, another on her fifth, and only one person on her first ever Travel Insider tour.  Whether this would be your first, your sixth, or any other number Travel Insider tour, please do consider joining what promises to be both a Grand Expedition and a Great Experience!  Full details here.

If you can’t wait until next June to enjoy a Travel Insider tour, there are still a very few cabins available on our lovely Danube Christmas cruise.  Two of the AB cabins and a few more of the AA cabins, AA+ cabins and suites.  Remember, no single supplement or $750 per person saving, plus a bunch of other inclusions and goodies, all on one of my all-time favorite cruises, and with a lovely group of currently 18 Travel Insiders.

I’m thinking of offering a different cruise next year.  One option would be a Portugal cruise along the Douro, with time in Lisbon and Porto before or after the cruise.  The other would be a Russian cruise – either between Moscow and St Petersburg, or possibly from Moscow down the Volga River, and perhaps with a post-cruise option on to Astana, the exotic and extravagant capital of Kazakhstan.  This would be, I think, late summer.

I’d written about Kazakhstan a few weeks back, noting

I’m always casting around for new places to offer on Travel Insider tours.  Apparently, the new ‘hot’ destination (as in popular rather than temperature) is a rather unlikely one, but perhaps that is all the more reason for it to be featured in a Travel Insider tour.  The destination – Astana, the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, a country now better known than before, albeit perhaps unfairly, as a result of the Borat movie.

Here’s an article about Astana’s new popularity, some interesting background on Kazakhstan, and a concept which would seem to be more at home in Dubai than Astana.

Do either of these tours appeal?  If either (or both!) could be something you’d like to do, please let me know (no-one would be making any commitments, I’m asking for a ‘show of hands’ now to guess at the level of interest).

What else this week?  I have been receiving a steady flow of ‘pitch’ emails from a PR agency asking me to write about a device that broadcasts white noise, to help you sleep.  Depending on your perspective (how much is a good night’s sleep worth to you!) the $40 device is either the best deal out there or ridiculously expensive.  Eventually I responded to the PR agency, and asked them why anyone would choose to spend $40 on the device they were touting, when there were plenty of free apps that anyone could simply install on their smart phone or tablet.

Not surprisingly, this question proved too much for them, but at least they’ve stopped pestering me!  However, the conjunction of their emails and a very noisy hotel room that I was recently in caused me to write an article that I hope you’ll find helpful, all about noisy hotel rooms and what to do about them.  You’ll find it after this newsletter.

What else?  The usual sorts of things :

  • Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy
  • BA’s Greed
  • MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..
  • The World’s Most Livable City
  • Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?
  • Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events
  • Solar Eclipse Misery
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy

Air Berlin announced what seems to be the German equivalent of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week.  They received an emergency injection of funds from the German government so they can keep flying until after the German general elections in September, and probably lasting through November, but if I were you, I’d think twice before booking any flights on them, even in the near future.

The bankruptcy was precipitated when major investor Etihad (owning 29% of Air Berlin) apparently surprised them by saying they would not invest further money into the loss-making airline, contradicting what seemed to be an earlier commitment to do so.

Etihad has had a change of CEO, and also, it seems, is no longer as eager to maintain losing positions in other airlines.  While the obvious story is Air Berlin’s bankruptcy, there’s another story lurking here as well – Etihad is now batting two for two in terms of failed major investments in large European carriers.  Its other big failure is Alitalia, also in bankruptcy, and which Etihad has/had a 49% shareholding.

Etihad also has 24% of Indian carrier Jet Airways, 20% of Australian airline Virgin Australia, 49% of Air Serbia, 33% of Swiss carrier Darwin Airlines (now known as Etihad Regional) and 40% of Air Seychelles.

As for Air Berlin, their CEO says that the reason they went bankrupt is due to delays in the opening of the long-awaited and long-delayed new Berlin International Airport.  While it is easy to sympathize with the CEO’s excuse – he points out that the limited flights they can operate from Tegel are preventing efficient network operations – the reality is that in 2017 they are doing worse than in 2016, even though in both years they were stuck with Tegel.  If they’d improved from 2016 to 2017, it is possible Etihad might have continued to fund them, but with all the airline’s vital signs trending the wrong way – fewer flights, fewer passengers, less income, lighter loads, higher operating costs, and a soaring loss – there was little room for optimism, no matter which airports the airline was flying from.

Good analysis here.  I particularly enjoyed this comment at the end of the article, which attempts to summarize the complicated nature of the various German airlines.  And we thought the US was incestuous!

BA’s Greed

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise – we instinctively know the airlines are our enemies and are out to screw us at every turn, just because they can.  But every so often, the major carriers set new standards for disgusting policies, and here’s an example, with the added bonus of again showing up the misery inflicted semi-randomly by US visa issuing policies.

Backstory – a guy wanted his children to fly from the US to where he was in the UK.  He arranged for a family friend to escort them, due to their young age.  The family friend lives in Indonesia, so she was to fly to Los Angeles, collect the children, then fly with them to London.

Easy, right?

Now for the first beyond-stupid requirement, with the blame fully on the US visa issuing policies.  To qualify for a US visa, for the brief flash of time the friend would be collecting the children prior to taking them on to London, she had to already have an airline ticket booked for her travel on out of the US.  No worries, the father booked the ticket for her, on BA.

But then the US consulate, somewhere in Indonesia, refused to issue a visa for the woman.

Get that – you have to buy the airline ticket, first, in the hope you’ll get your visa.  That’s a great arrangement, isn’t it, when you end up with an airline ticket the US govt has insisted you buy, but then doesn’t allow you to actually use.

Which brings us now to the meat of the story.  What happens when you’ve bought a ticket on this type of basis, and then get your visa application refused?  Back when I used to sell international airline tickets, hundreds every week, all the tickets I sold had a special exception provision whereby if the passenger was refused their visa, then the ticket would be fully refundable.  This was specifically to cover such situations, although in truth I’ve never encountered such an indignity being foisted by other governments on American citizens.

The father arranged for another friend – an American, so no visa problems – to take his children over to London.  He then asked BA to simply change the name on the ticket.  That was great for BA – it wasn’t losing any money at all, it just needed someone to type in a dozen keystrokes to change the name, and everything would be perfect.

But, yes – you guessed it, BA is refusing to do that.  Which brings up the really greedy part.  That ‘refund shall be permitted in the event of visa refusal’ provision doesn’t seem to apply to BA tickets.

What does BA say about this?  It says, without a single giggle

We always do everything we can to help customers when their travel plans change.

They always do everything they can?  Their statement went on to proudly point out they can correct spelling mistakes in passenger names, and sometimes even change dates and times of flights, too.

But apparently ‘everything’ doesn’t mean much to BA.  Changing the passenger name, or refunding a person prohibited from traveling?  No, they can’t do that, because they’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank with the £1200 they took from the father, and the second £1200 he now has to pay for a second person’s second ticket, too.

Details here.

MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..

The good news?  Well, according to this headline, “Explosive new report virtually pinpoints location of missing flight MH370”, we now know almost exactly where the mysteriously disappeared plane is.  The 777 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, more than three years ago.

But the not so good news?  A ‘virtual pinpoint’ is actually an area of 5,000 sq km, or about 2,000 square miles.  Sure, that’s the equivalent of a 45 mile per side square, or 50 mile diameter circle, but it is also at the bottom of a very deep ocean, with close to zero visibility.

And the really bad news?  The Australian government, after searching 120,000 sq km already and spending A$160 million in the process, called the search off earlier this year.  They say they’ll only resume the search if they know where the plane is – logic that only a politician would fully comprehend, I think.

So don’t go expecting any revelatory finds, any time soon.  Alas.

The World’s Most Livable City

This is getting boring.  For the seventh year in a row, Melbourne has been anointed as the world’s most livable city, out of a field of 140 cities.  The award is by the Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit, and looks at a huge range of factors.  Vienna and Vancouver took the 2nd and 3rd places, followed by Toronto, and then Adelaide  (also Australia) and Calgary tying for fifth place.

I’ve never liked Melbourne nearly as much as Sydney, but Sydney is a more expensive place to live, so perhaps that weakens its placing.  Details here.

Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?

I got a note from a reader in reply to my article last week.  He wrote

David   I am a retired commercial photographer.  I get people asking me about purchasing a DSLR.  I tell them to forget it.

Pocket cameras are inexpensive, of high-resolution, easy to carry, and produce most acceptable photos.   I bought an Olympus pocket camera some years ago for $140.  It does everything but take out the trash.  Why would I need anything else?  (I still have my pro cameras which I use for pro assignments.)

I don’t necessarily disagree with his comments.  My way of comparing things is that with the compact camera I have, I can do 95% of everything I want to do (maybe more depending on how ambitious and creative one wishes to be) and the other 5% is not worth paying thousands of dollars for and becoming a slave to a heavy camera bag once more.  I suspect that some ‘true enthusiasts’ see the bulging camera bag as a badge of honor rather than as something to be avoided!

On the other hand, depending on how old the reader’s Olympus is (and the same for you too if you’re in a similar situation), you might be surprised at how much better newer cameras have become, particularly if you upgrade the sensor size from the very small sensor in most compacts to something larger, such as in the Sony RX100 series such as I have.  A slightly better lens, and a much better sensor, plus a few more fancy functions (but the trash still remains untaken out); I was thrilled with the move from my older Casio to the Sony.  Much better in low light, and for that matter, much better in all light.

Having said that, I am utterly astonished at how good camera phones are becoming.  Surprisingly, one of their seeming weaknesses is actually a strength.  Optically speaking, the ideal lens is simply a tiny pinhole, so they have the benefit of that, but against that ‘benefit’, there are so many design challenges that are being successfully overcome, it is truly amazing.  How long before compact cameras become obsolete – currently they sort of bridge the gap between phone cameras and high-end cameras, but with phone cameras getting steadily better, that gap is getting smaller.

Might this also see DSLR cameras get smaller?

The reality is there’s precious little value in the single lens reflex concept with a DSLR as compared to a regular digital camera.  Most regular digital cameras are showing the same image the sensor captures anyway, and with the additional processing between analog image coming in the lens and digital image being captured, one can argue now as to whether an analog image through a prism is more or less helpful than a digital image on a screen.

The main relevant thing a DSLR offers is a better/bigger sensor and better lenses that allow more light (yes, I know I said, just above, that the best lens is a tiny pin-prick of a pinhole.  It is complicated….).  Perhaps the Sony Alpha series of cameras (big sensors and lenses, small non-DSLR body) represents the wave of the future.

Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events

A claque is a group of people, paid to attend an event – commonly a theatrical performance – and enthusiastically applaud the performer who paid them.  More darkly, there are also claques who will boo a designated performer, perhaps because the performer refused to buy the claque’s services to applaud them.

The concept is far from new, indeed, it is timelessly old.  It was particularly common in the 19th century in Europe, but our own Metropolitan Opera in NY also had (maybe even still has) a claque.  Claques, while rarely acknowledged in public, still endure, and here’s a fascinating 2013 article about them.  Most recently, there have been articles about claques in a modern form supporting political meetings, and it is hard to know where vetting who can attend passes over into creating a claque (perhaps a defining point being that claquers – ie the people participating – get paid).

Even such an old-fashioned concept as a claque can be updated and evolve to reflect today’s times, and there’s an app – Surkus – that allows modern-day promoters to ‘rent a crowd’ of enthusiastic supporters.  The article suggests that the next time you see a crowd of people lined up outside a restaurant, you might be seeing modern-day claquers who have been hired based on their appearance conforming to the social demographics the restaurant wishes to appeal to, and who are being paid to seem excited and eager to get into the restaurant and enjoy their food.

The pay can be quite good, especially if the meal is free, too!

Solar Eclipse Misery

I’ve had the good fortune to see an almost complete solar eclipse some decades back in New Zealand.  It was interesting for all of two or three minutes, and then I went back inside the office and continued working the rest of the day.  So I’m not planning anything special for the eclipse that is about to happen, here.

But millions of other people seem to be planning to do something, and there are some scary predictions of regions being overloaded with visitors rushing in to see the eclipse, overloading roads and all other types of infrastructure and causing chaos.  Portland OR, just down the road from here, is expecting one million people to travel in to the city for the event.

One small added element of chaos is being offered up by Hertz.  Here is an utterly shameful story of how they accepted and confirmed hundreds of reservations for rental cars in affected areas, but now are calling people up to cancel the confirmed confirmations.  Even more shameful is that Hertz is apparently still accepting reservations for cars on their website, but at prices ten times higher (ie $3000 for the weekend instead of $300).

Hertz has always been my first choice among the ‘top tier’ rental car brands, but this behavior is beyond the pale.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned last week about the two Chinese tourists being arrested for giving Nazi style salutes in Berlin.  This week, it was the turn of an American tourist, but instead of being arrested, he was beaten up by a German who saw him.  Yes, there’s a bucket-load of irony in the situation where Germans beat up people for reminding them of their intolerant past, but because I’m off to Germany in December, and don’t want to risk also being beaten up, perhaps I’ll not ponder that further.

It is hard being a man.  We’re expected to be stoic and stolid.  But, apparently, we too sometimes cry when watching a movie, and according to a new survey by Virgin Atlantic, 41% of their male passengers admit to crying during/after watching a movie on one of their flights.  So as to avoid public shame, the most popular strategy is apparently to bury one’s head in a blanket.

I’m not sure if this reflects most on Virgin’s passengers, their movie choices, or possibly their blankets.  Another study suggests that people are more likely to cry on planes than elsewhere, and for sure, the entire flying experience, from start to stop, would reduce many a grown man to tears, movie or not.  The ever-present Sir Richard Branson, astonishingly, had no comment to offer.  Details here.

Until next week, assuming the end of the world doesn’t come along with the total eclipse, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Aug 172017
 

Probably nothing will block this right outside your open hotel room window, but there are ways to make less aggressive sounds become much less bothersome.

It can sometimes be hard to sleep in a hotel room (or anywhere else for that matter).  The stress of changing time zones, unfamiliar surroundings, and unexpected sounds and noises, all aggravated by sometimes the urgent need to sleep due to your alarm set for too early the next morning, can see you unable to sleep in an uncontrolled environment with a frustrating mix of noises keeping you awake.

Even if you do manage to drop off to sleep, studies show that our brain is still working overtime processing and then discarding all the nuisance noises while we sleep, and that means we wake less rested and less alert for the day ahead.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies also show that our blood pressure rises due to the noises we’ve suffered.

Earplugs might help solve the problem (keep the ones you get in airline amenity kits), but many people find them uncomfortable.  There is another solution.

This solution is to quietly play some other sort of neutral soothing sound in the background.  This will mask other sounds, and while you’re not then in a totally silent room, you are in a room where there are no annoying sounds, merely a neutral background sound.

In its purest form, this would be what is called white or pink noise – just a sort of hissing rushing sound.  This is easily created – these days, apps that run on our phones and tablets give you a wide range of choices – wind in the trees, surf on a beach, and many others.  Simply choose the sound that you find least annoying and most conducive to quickly falling asleep.

Or select a mix of sounds and blend them together.  Do you want to recreate the sound palette of a crackling open fire while outside wind blows through the trees, birds and crickets chirp, and, oh yes, you’re by a lake or ocean with waves breaking on the shore, plus it is raining?  Then dial up the sound levels on all these commonly found sound options, and you’ve exactly that coming out of your device.

Best of all, you have a choice of free apps on both Apple/iOS devices and Android devices, as well as other apps that cost $5 or less (giving you a largely unnecessary but wider range of sounds and perhaps the ability to edit/adjust the sounds even more than the free apps).

We tried several of the free apps to see if they fulfilled the potential they appear to promise.  In brief – we were encouraged and impressed.

Android Apps

Relaxio White Noise Generator :  Create a mix of sounds from a selection of 16 different sounds.  You can set the relative volume levels of each of the different sounds.  There are choices such as waves, rain, fans, wind and leaves, crowds talking, traffic, and even a bit of thunder and lightning (not sure how that helps you nod off!).  You can save your own preferred mixes of sounds so you can recall them the next time you start the app.  You can have it play for ever (or at least until you stop the app or the batteries die) or for a choice of different time periods before stopping.

It is easy and simple to set up, and you can’t beat the price (free).  If you are playing the app, the phone’s screen will turn off but the phone won’t, itself, go to sleep so it keeps playing.  While there are other apps with more features, this seems to do anything and everything you’d need and is very easy to understand and use.

TMSOFT White Noise :  This comes in three versions, a free, a paid, and a Pro (more expensive) version.  We of course looked at the free version and saw no reason to consider upgrading.

Some of the samples were – at least to a person easily annoyed such as myself – annoying.  Who would want to listen to a dripping tap sound?  And some of them had me listening obsessively to detect the point where the sample looped around and started repeating again – it is easier to notice this when there are a series of distinctive sounds as part of the sample than it is when it is something steady like the sound of unchanging rain.

You can create mixes of up to five sounds, and each of the five sounds can be edited – not just its volume, but also its pitch, its ‘variance’ (think of for example the rise and fall of waves crashing on a beach), the speed at which the sound varies, and where on a stereo soundstage the sound is heard (if you’re perhaps playing the sound through some Bluetooth speakers, I guess).

The app had all the other usual features, and if the 40 or so built-in sounds aren’t enough, you can apparently download more from their website.  Trust me, 40 should be more than enough.

It is more feature rich than the Relaxio app, but slightly harder to master.

Neither of the two iOS apps we review next had Android versions available.

iOS Apps

iLBSoft Relax Melodies :  This might be a more powerful app than some of the others, or it might just be an over-engineered example of rampant featuritis taking a simple concept and running too far with it.  I rarely need to turn to help files with any app, but I did with this, and – alas – even the help files proved too complicated to access.  You had to log in to something online to access the help files, it seemed, which is not only a ridiculous requirement (why should anyone need to create an account to access help files), but a potential problem if you’re traveling internationally and have no access to international data services.

The sounds it offered ranged from the usual (rivers and oceans) to the unusual (a flute) and the not very relaxing (various melodies).  Generally the sounds tended to be ‘brighter’ and so they felt less relaxing to me.  There was a very wide range of sounds (54) that could be mixed/blended together, and if that wasn’t enough, there were more that could be purchased by upgrading to a ‘Pro’ version.

I found the app frustrating and ‘too clever’, requiring mental efforts at a time when I was simply wanting to go to sleep.  Not recommended.

Phase4 Mobile White Noise HQ :  This app immediately suggested I should get a companion app, ‘Rain Sounds HQ’.  I decided to stick with the White Noise app.

This was a much easier app to set up and use than the iLBSoft app, but not as easy as Relaxio on Android.  We might slightly prefer the iOS version of TMSOFT White Noise, but it is close, and you might like to try both, because they are of course all free.

The Android TMSOFT White Noise app is also available on iOS.  Relaxio is not.

Using the Ambient Noise Around You

If for some reason you find yourself without your phone or tablet, there are probably (hopefully) ways you could create your own ’emergency’ ambient noise.  The air-conditioning unit, for example – set the fan control to high and have it always on, whether the unit is actually heating or cooling or ‘in the middle’ and not needing to do either.  A similar noise source could be a bathroom fan if there is one (and the bathroom fan has the added benefit of not creating any draughts of air blowing over you in the night).

Another approach might be to find a television channel or an empty bit of space on a radio band and just have the static from that playing.

I’d certainly not recommend flouting the desperate pleas to save water by reusing hotels and instead running taps in the bathroom.  But in an emergency, and where the hotel has failed in its express or implied promise to provide you with a peaceful quiet environment to sleep in, well, maybe all bets are off.  Just be sure, in such a case, that the basin or bath drains adequately!

Battery Usage

One possible downside of using your phone or tablet is you’re going to be draining its battery, unless of course you have the device plugged into a charger at the same time.

It is hard to say how much battery the apps use, because the louder you play the sounds, the faster you’ll use up battery.  It also depends on the amount of charge your battery can hold and what other drains your phone imposes on it.  But we suggest choosing a low level of sound, sufficient to drown out the worst of the background noises, and be sure to have your phone either connected to a charger or with a reasonably full charge at the start.

We did some testing on a couple of phones, which suggested that these apps were using anywhere from 1% – 4% of charge per hour (in addition to the other battery drains, of course).

Positioning Your Phone’s Speakers

Noting our battery comments, you don’t want to use any more battery than you must to drive the sounds.  In addition, you don’t want to have such a loud background noise generator as to be creating problems for the guests in rooms around you.  So, we recommend you point the speaker directly at you, and have the phone reasonably nearby.

Note that phones have speakers in different places.  Sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom, perhaps facing forwards or even facing backwards.  Work out where the sound is coming from on your phone, and direct that part of the phone to you in your bed.

Too much sound and it will change from being a quiet background ‘fill’ to an intrusive noise in the foreground, so set the sound as quiet as possible while still drowning out most of the background noise.  If you’re in a hotel room on the second floor, overlooking a city street, and with tall buildings on the other side to reflect sounds from the street directly into your windows, and you’re sleeping with the windows open, you will never drown out emergency vehicles going past with sirens blaring, but if you can at least muffle the general cacophony of traffic sounds, that is a valuable achievement.

Configuring Your Phone

Some people leave their phone on 24/7.  I usually turn mine off at night, because otherwise, I will get various advertising type text messages, have the phone beep every time an email comes in, and (particularly if traveling into other time zones) further risk having phone calls wake me up at ridiculous times.

Of course you can’t turn your phone off while also having it play white noise, but you can do the next best thing.  Turn on its Airplane Mode  This does two important things.  First, it prevents any incoming events that might create distractions and wake you up.  Secondly, by turning off all the phone’s transmitters and receivers, it greatly reduces the battery load and means you’ll wake up in the morning not only refreshed but with much more battery life remaining, too.

Dedicated Devices

If you don’t want to use your phone or tablet to generate white noise, you could always buy a dedicated device.

Needless to say, Amazon has a bunch of different white noise generators; if you are going to buy one, you might want to get one that can be battery-powered (with a rechargeable battery) so that you won’t have problems with plugs and socket placements in hotel rooms, and so it can work internationally with varying voltages and plug types.

Prices start from a very reasonable $20 or so.  They’re not necessarily bulky or heavy, but they are another gadget to pack and manage, so our preference is to add a free app to a phone or tablet.

Choosing Sounds

As I mentioned in the TMSOFT White Noise review above, I like my sounds to have no clearly identifiable elements in them at all, just a blur of background noise.  If there are specific sounds, then I start listening for a pattern and repeat in those specific sounds, and then I start noting the passing of time each time the sound repeats.

Hopefully you’re not as obsessive about these things as I am, but remember the object of this is to create a bland neutral sound ‘barrier’ that blocks out annoying sounds without creating any new potentially annoying sounds in the process.

Summary

When you’re away from home and your regular sleep environment and sleep times, it can simultaneously be difficult to go to sleep but also more important to do so.  Even if you don’t wake up, noises during the night interrupt your sleep patterns, and even raise your blood pressure.

Adding some form of inoffensive background noise can mask other more distracting sounds, and help you better sleep.  Free apps can be added to your smart phone or tablet, dedicated devices are available, and if all else fails, maybe you can run a fan in your room or tune the television or radio to an unused frequency and just have static playing.

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Aug 112017
 

This picture nearly got me arrested. Can you guess why? See ‘Don’t Mention the War’, below.

Good morning

I hope your summer is proving as wonderful as mine is here.  At times like this, it is hard to think of living anywhere else in the world, but think about it, I did, after noting an article on Forbes suggesting I could quit my job and live in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for US$850 a month.

Kota Kinabalu is a curious mix of a booming industrial town and tourist resort on the island of Borneo.  It has a year-round temperature almost not varying at all from the mid/high 80s, and some beautiful tropical beaches and islands off its coast.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a tropical paradise type lifestyle, albeit awkwardly juxtaposed against possibly Malaysia’s fastest growing conurbation, and all at a cost of only $850/month.

Wait – please don’t sell your house and pack your bags just yet.  There is some fine print, alas – not particularly disclosed in the $850/month claim, but present, nonetheless.  I explain more in the first of two articles which follow.

Two articles today!?  Yes, indeed.  Which brings me to the second.  I don’t mean to be more cynical than I always am, but I have noticed, at times, a strange disconnect between the size/cost of a person’s camera and the quality of the pictures they take.  I suspect there are some people who view a large ostentatious camera as a ‘badge of honor’, and some who hope that by getting the best camera in the shop, they’re more likely to take good pictures.

Our most recent Travel Insider tour to Scotland was notable for more camera enthusiasts being present than normal, and so I’ve been thinking about travel photography topics more than I have for a while.

I’m a lapsed enthusiast – since my early teens I’ve been dabbling in photography, dark-room processing, enlarging, a/v ganged multi-projector slide presentations, commercial video production, and other related matters.  My grandfather was a professional photographer with honors received in both Britain and New Zealand, and I got to play with some of his gear (still have a couple of his items in a cupboard).  So it was sort of in the blood, and I went through phases where I’d probably have more weight and bulk in my suitcase for camera gear when traveling than I did for clothes (and don’t get me started on the almost literally crippling burden imposed on one by old shoulder-mounted video cameras!).  These days, not so much.  A pocket camera and little else, if that.  But after watching all the photographers in Scotland, I’m thinking of becoming a more active photographer again.

I last wrote about photography almost three and a half years ago, when recommending my latest camera purchase (a Sony DSC-RX100 II) as being a ‘best in class’ choice for people who wanted something better than a pocket compact camera or a phone camera, but who didn’t want to be burdened by a huge DSLR type camera, complete with the necessary camera bag full of heavy bulky lenses, etc.

The once rapid pace of digital camera evolution has slowed considerably, although three new models of the DSC-RX100 have been released in the last three years, albeit none with much significantly improved over my still-lovely RX100 II (which remains for sale as a current model, too).  If your digital camera is also three or fewer years old, there is probably no pressing reason to replace it, unless you wish to upgrade to a higher level of equipment.  But if your camera is starting to age past five or so years, and you didn’t get a high-end camera back then, maybe it is time to tempt yourself, and perhaps I might generate another buyer’s guide in the next few weeks.

There are, however, some simple techniques and inexpensive accessories that can have a significant and positive impact on the quality of photos you are taking, no matter what camera you are using.  And so, after that long-winded introduction, this week’s feature article both imparts an invaluable tip for how you can possibly take better pictures without any extra equipment, and suggests a $15 or less accessory that may make a huge difference to your picture quality.

We had another couple of Travel Insiders choose to join us on our Christmas Markets Cruise this week – a mother and daughter.  To the disappointment of my 13 yr old daughter, the other daughter is, alas, a ‘grownup’.  We still have a few more cabins available with the great discounts and extra inclusions, so whether you bring your daughter, son, spouse, parent, or no-one at all (no single supplement!), and no matter what their age, there is still time to decide to join us.  Amawaterways are continuing to surprise and delight with some great value airfares to magnify the saving still further.

Next year’s Grand Expedition is also making progress, and we’re now at 15 people, including Anna and myself.  While still ten months out, I need to get hotel rooms set aside, so please do let me know if you can join this ‘epic journey’ across the length and breadth of Great Britain.

What else this week?  Well – –

  • Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three
  • More on Pilotless Planes
  • We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.
  • Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story
  • Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law
  • Watch Out for the Pirates
  • Italy – Planes Out, Trains In
  • More Leaks About the Leaf
  • Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three

American, Delta and United hope the new administration might be more receptive to their largely specious and spurious complaints about the three Gulf carriers – Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar – than was the previous administration.

But this last week, getting their pitch in first, saw other airlines and US airports meeting with US Secretary of State Tillerson, explaining they thought the operations of the three Gulf airlines actually provided a substantial benefit to the country.  Present at the meeting were representatives of JetBlue and various other airlines and air freight carriers, including Fedex, airport representatives and the CEO of the US Travel Association.

Underscoring the interconnectedness of the airlines today, JetBlue must have felt awkward arguing against United.  Lufthansa has a 19% shareholding in JetBlue, and is of course joined at the hip with United across the Atlantic.  So even the strongest of competitors – as weak as the competition truly is – are sort of ‘kissing cousins’.

It is expected the Big Three airlines hope to meet with Tillerson and/or Trump in the near future.  Might this become the moment when AA CEO Doug Parker gets to regret his refusal to accept President Trump’s invitation to meet with him earlier in the year?  You might recall he alone didn’t attend, due to a vague unspecified alternate engagement.

More on Pilotless Planes

Never mind the greater safety we would enjoy from pilotless planes.  Studies show the traveling public remain slow to warm to the idea of no-one up front, and you can bet the pilots’ unions are doing all they can to misdirect the fears of passengers and cause them to be reassured rather than worried by the sight of ‘old fashioned fallible humans’ in the cockpit.

But what will surely see the inexorable shift to pilotless commercial planes is the money the airlines can save.  Pilots cost the airlines $35 billion a year at present, plus it seems there’s a growing shortage of pilots.  In the US, the cost of the pilot represents about 11% of the ticket price you pay, and that’s impactful not so much to us as passengers, but to the airlines, who you can be sure aren’t seeing this as an opportunity to make flying more affordable, but as an opportunity to boost their profits.  Getting rid of pilots would triple AA’s pretax profit and double United’s.  How long do you think they will ignore those numbers?

An interesting independent confirmation of the improved safety of pilotless planes is a UBS Aerospace study which projects that airlines would save $3 billion a year in insurance premiums, due to the assessed lower risk of automated planes compared to piloted planes.

My guess is we’ll see air freighters as the first pilotless planes, and after some years of accident free operations, and at the same time becoming more comfortable with cars and buses that drive themselves, it will then become an easier sell for the airlines to convince us of the benefit of removing the pilots.  But I’ll wager there will be pilotless passenger planes within ten years.  Let’s hope we’re all here to see if I prove to be correct or not!

Another way to get us to welcome pilotless planes – convert the cockpit into a view lounge where passengers can congregate and look out the front of the plane.  How amazing would that be!

Details here.

We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.

Airline seats seem to be getting more and more uncomfortable, smaller and smaller, and squashed closer together.  It is so bad that three federal Court of Appeals judges have asked the FAA to see if the ever-smaller seats are becoming a safety issue, interfering with the requirement for fast emergency exits from planes.

We all hate the airlines in general, and middle seats on planes in particular.  How can they be so uncaring and inflict such indignities on us, we all howl.  If only someone would do something about it.

But let’s be careful with that last statement.  Just like we get the politicians we deserve and vote for, we get the airline seats we deserve and pay for.  Results of a Reuters/Ipsos survey were announced this week, showing that when asked the question ‘Are you willing to pay more for a seat that isn’t a middle seat’, 60% of fliers said ‘No’ and another 12% didn’t know if they would or not.  The remainder who are willing to pay presumably already do so.

That is why the airlines continue to degrade our flight experiences.  Because, when push comes to shove, the vast majority of fliers will always choose a cheaper flight over a better flight.  Until we show we’re willing to pay for better seating and everything else, airlines will go where the market pushes them – to ever more basic flights with less and less included and more and more charged as extra options.  Details here.

Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story

I’ve seen reports suggesting passengers have something like a ten-fold increase in catching coughs and colds and other common omnipresent infections if they go on a flight somewhere.  No-one I know likes to come down with something like that a couple of days into their expensive and eagerly anticipated vacation.

So when one sees an article aggressively headed “Here’s How We Can Stop Planes From Becoming Total Cesspools of Infection” one tends to rush to read it.

The article’s astonishing suggestions?  Uh – don’t crowd people together when they’re boarding the plane.  And fly on a smaller plane with fewer people.

One wonders how many millions of research dollars were spent to come up with these stunningly banal suggestions.

Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law

Those of us who had relatives who fought in – and died in – the Second World War; the struggle to bring freedom back to Germany and its subjected nations, are doubtless very disappointed at how freedom has only been partially restored.

Who can forget the hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’, and Basil’s admonition to his staff ‘Don’t mention the war’, along with the rider ‘I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it’, before ending up goosestepping around the hotel and bellowing out insults to the German guests himself.

That’s all very good and funny for those of us in free countries, but in Germany it is a crime to refer to WW2 and the Nazis in other than tones of politically correct shocked horror and amazement at how such a lovely peace-loving nation allowed itself to be tricked by a madman for 12 long years.  I nearly found this out dramatically a decade ago on a Christmas markets cruise when our coach driver mistook an innocent ‘stretching’ action on my part, while in the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds, as being a Nazi salute.  Some people wish to do that not to glorify the Nazi regime but to poke fun at it – ‘You weren’t so great after all, were you, Mr Hitler and your 1000 year Reich, because here I am now, a country boy from NZ, in the ruins of your party rally grounds, freely poking fun at your silly salute without fear of any consequence.’

Well, the last part of that sentence is sadly completely wrong.  For whatever the reason, the Germans don’t like people referring to that time in their history much at all, and this last week saw two Chinese tourists arrested for filming each other in front of the Reichstag in Berlin making mock Hitler salutes.

It almost makes you wonder if the Nazis were ever vanquished, doesn’t it.  Details here.

Watch Out for the Pirates

Passengers on the Sea Princess, sailing from Australia to Dubai, had an unexpected frisson of excitement.  For ten days and nights, the ship was on pirate alert, meaning that at night all lights had to be out, and there could be no entertainment on board.  Apparently, the lure of a cruise ship show would have attracted pirates like flies to honey.

No enjoying the sun set on one’s pricey balcony-equipped cabin.  No pretense of enjoying ‘the good life’.  No pool parties or outdoor bar hopping.  Instead, sober quietness was the rule.  For ten long nights.  About the only bonus experience was a ‘pirate drill’ where passengers learned what to do if the ship was attacked – moves that were reminiscent of the 1950s/60s suggestions to get underneath your desks if a nuclear attack was underway.

Assuming the cruise ship was operating at its rated cruising speed of 22 knots/25 mph, during those ten days/nights the ship could have covered 6,000 miles, but it seems like it struggled to do much more than 2300 miles (between Colombo and Dubai), gratuitously doubling the unpleasantness and risk.  Not only was the ship going at less than half its normal cruise speed, but by traveling so slowly it made it more than twice as easy for pirates to respond to its presence, intercept the ship, and board it.

Very little of this makes sense, and surely isn’t what the passengers expected.  Other than an empty ‘out of an abundance of caution’ non-response, no further explanation has been received from Princess Cruises as to why they chose to extend the risk and unpleasantness for their passengers.

Details here.

Italy – Planes Out, Trains In

Alitalia is in its death throes and up for sale to anyone as unwise as to wish to buy it.  Well, in truth there’s nothing wrong with Alitalia, except for its unions and their insistence on crippling the airline with uncompetitive work conditions and pay rates.  Until the unions agree to accept adjustments and allow greater productivity, Alitalia remains an impossible airline to resurrect.

The Italian government appears to have turned its back on the Italian flag carrier, and instead is looking at investing up to €400 million to bolster its domestic rail network, increasing the trains that serve 200 cities in Italy (200?  That’s what this article says).  In addition, the Lombardy region announced plans to invest over €1.6 billion in new trains for suburban and regional services.  Then there’s the mooted privatisation of the Trenitalia fleet of long-distance high-speed trains as part of a ten year €94 billion plan announced last September that will also see a growth in high-speed lines in Italy.

So now the US is even being beaten by Italy when it comes to investments in high-speed rail.  Sigh.

More Leaks About the Leaf

My favorite car blog revealed, 18 months ago, that the 2018 model Nissan Leaf electric car would double its range to 300 miles.

This is now becoming more broadly confirmed, with an interesting article this week suggesting it might have a range in excess of 340 miles, a more powerful electric motor and greater self drive capabilities.  Not only does this range knock both the Chevy Bolt and the entry-level Tesla Model 3 (should it ever appear) for a six, but the price is another home run – it is projected to come in at $29,990.  The Bolt is priced at $37,500, and the Tesla’s real world price remains a guess, but probably somewhere in the mid $40 thousands.

What is truly astonishing is that the new Leaf’s 340 mile range is said to be powered by a 40 kWhr battery pack.  If correct, this might explain Elon Musk’s reluctance, a week ago, to reveal the battery packs in his Model 3 cars (he said it would confuse his customers).

Musk has now been forced to reveal that the Model 3 comes with either a 50 or 70 kWhr battery pack – and here’s the thing.  His Model 3 is rated for 220 miles from its 50 kWhr pack and 340 miles from its 70 kWhr pack.  But the Leaf might get 340 miles, from a 40 kWhr pack.  That is nearly twice as fuel-efficient as the Tesla.

Yes, that is indeed confusing.  Why is the Tesla nearly twice the battery hog that the Leaf promises to be?

Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?

In 2004 a US border guard tackled a Chinese lady visitor to the US, pepper sprayed her, and drove her head into the ground.  Although it is true she panicked and ran away from the officer, after she was detained, she was adjudged to be an innocent ordinary person and not charged with any crimes.

Thirteen years later, just now, she has finally been awarded  $461,000 as settlement for false arrest, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost earnings.

Thirteen years?  Really!?  Is that the best we can do in this country?  What happened to the right to a speedy trial?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Have you noticed how web pages are getting more and more hyperbolic in their headlines.  Like, for example, this one – 12 Shocking Things I Learned by Working as a Butler at the Plaza Hotel; You’ll never look at hotel staff the same way again.

Actually, none of the 12 ‘shocking things’ were very shocking, and few of them were new disclosures.  But it is an interesting quick read for the envious voyeur that lurks within us all.

Whether a butler to the ultra-rich, or anything else, are there some days when you wake up and wish to make a total change in your job?  Have you ever wondered what the exact opposite to your job might be?  Well, there is of course an answer to that question these days.  This page will analyse your job and suggest the exact opposite job.  Me – I’m apparently the absolute opposite of an ‘Agricultural Grader’.  Or possibly, to my immense disappointment (or possibly relief), the opposite of a lumberjack.

Truly lastly this week, there were stories of a self driving car making its way around Arlington, VA.  What was truly surprising was that it was indeed a fully self-driving car – there was no-one inside the vehicle at all.  Or so it seemed, until a sharp-eyed person uncovered the truth.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Aug 102017
 

You can certainly enjoy a lovely lifestyle in lower cost international destinations (but note these admittedly very nice condos in Kota Kinabalu rent for $2200 a month).  On the other hand, there is a stark choice between ‘spending the same a month and living better’ and ‘saving money but living worse’.

A recent article in Forbes Online had the appealing headline “Quit Your Job And Live Abroad: 8 Places So Cheap You Might Not Need To Work“.  What’s not to like about that (although the web article is one of those ultra-annoying click-bait type articles that results in endless clicks onto new pages, each with minimal content and maximum advertisements – the Forbes online website isn’t nearly as selective in terms of what it offers as is the print magazine.)

Adding an element of semi-science to the article were mini-profiles on eight locations, including their costs of living, showing how it is possible to live – complete with internet, cable tv and phone, for as little as US$850 per month per person.  That certainly would allow most of us to quit our jobs and live abroad, wouldn’t it.  Sign me up!

But are these claims realistic?  There is certainly a substantial industry of sites and services offering information on low-cost expat living, including the somewhat well-known International Living magazine, as well as dozens of articles similar to this week’s Forbes article.

Among all its other benefits and impacts, the internet is making it possible to live just about anywhere and still remain ‘close’ (in a virtual/electronic form) to friends and the places and events wherever you moved from, and so encourages more people to disconnect from their present location and live wherever they wish.

How Realistic is the Forbes Article?

Yes, it is possible to live less expensively than the US by moving to another country.  But ‘the devil is in the details’ and the key question is just how much you’d save, and what you’d have to sacrifice in the process.

So let’s look at the Forbes article and their suggestion that you could live for $850 a month in their lowest cost location, Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo and part of Malaysia and see if that proves to be a realistic claim.  Clearly, if that is your objective, you’ll not be renting the $2200/month condo pictured above; leastways, not unless you’re planning on filling it up with multiple families.

The narrative talks about it having affordable health care, which is probably a good thing, because – ooops – there is no allowance in the $850 a month for any healthcare costs at all!  If you let your US health insurance expire, you’d be in a world of hurt trying to restart it again subsequently, so for some of us, we’ve instantly doubled our $850 a month cost, while simultaneously still having no healthcare coverage in our place of chosen exile.  Finding an insurance solution for foreign healthcare can be a challenge and definitely is not something to take for granted, like this article does.

Oh, still talking about healthcare, and Kota Kinabalu, did we also mention that the Zika virus is an issue in Malaysia, and there’s also a low but measurable risk of malaria, a possible risk of Japanese encephalitis, and maybe even, as a surprise bonus, a bit of cholera floating around.  Then there’s rabies, which is described as ‘not a major risk to most travelers’ which isn’t actually the most positively reassuring statement, is it.  Here’s the complete CDC page on Malaysia.

The article says the city is small and you can walk around it.  Again, a good thing, because there is no allowance for you to own a car, and a total monthly budget of about $20 for all transportation related costs.  Looking at the picture below, it seems that you’d be traveling quite a distance when walking.  I guess they expect you to stay at home a lot of the time.

On the other hand, they tell us it is a lovely place to live,

Life revolves around the water and is lived out-of-doors.  At home, you can fill your days snorkeling, diving, boating and ferry hopping from the city center to neighboring islands.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it.  But there’s no allowance for the cost of these days filled with snorkeling, diving, and boating, unless that is covered by the $55/month allowance for entertainment, which is utterly improbable.

The downtown/city area of Kota Kinabalu is fairly modern and has a westernized ‘resorty’ feel to it.

Talking about entertainment, after you’ve spent your day snorkeling, diving, and boating, what would be more appropriate than a relaxing fruity drink somewhere, complete with umbrella in it, while enjoying a nice meal, perhaps of fresh fish and seafood?  Ooops again – yes, you guessed it.  Unless this too is to be included in the $55 per whole month for entertainment, there’s no allowance for eating and drinking out (and talking about drink, the predominantly Muslim culture means that drinks, while still available, tend to be expensive rather than cheap).

Your total groceries allowance (there’s no separate allowance for drink) of $120 seems fairly parsimonious, so let’s hope your meal of lovely fresh fish is taking advantage of the fish you caught yourself, earlier in the day.

There are other items also mysteriously excluded from the $850 a month figure.  Clothing.  Travel.  And perhaps most alarming of all, an item innocently described as ‘other costs’, but a potential financial black hole you could vanish into and disappear without trace.

And, most extraordinary of all, we are told that in some of their calculations, they don’t bother including the cost of electricity because it is either included in the cost of rent, or is unnecessary.  Electricity – unnecessary?  Not in my world!  (It is also relevant to note that the US has some of the cheapest electricity of anywhere in the world.)  Tell me a country, anywhere, that doesn’t need electricity for lighting, for appliances and electronics, for water heating and cooking, and, at least some of the year, for either heating or cooling?

One could pick apart every part of the $850 budget in the article, and the similar budgets for the other destinations they also enthusiastically advocate we should move to.  But even if we decide to accept these ridiculous numbers, there’s an unstated assumption that needs to be revealed and considered.

Living Cheaply is Not the Same as Living Well

Yes, you can live cheaply in other countries.  There’s nothing magic about living at lower cost, and you don’t need to uproot yourself and move thousands of miles away.  You could live more cheaply in the US too, if you are willing to compromise and reduce your current standard of living.  But if you wish to enjoy the same quality of life as you have at present, you’re going to be paying the same amount per month or more in most other countries.  I know this from personal experience.

When I was spending large amounts of time in Russia, I would have three choices for food – it is the same in most other countries and for most other people.  The first choice was to buy food from the local markets and cook it at home, myself.  This involved buying ‘mystery meat’ in cuts quite unlike any I’d seen in the US, fish that was clearly a day or two past its sell-by date, and vegetables of dubious provenance and unknown amounts of heavy metal and radiation poisoning within them.  The good news – the cost of such food was commensurately low, to match its low quality.

The second choice involved going to a western style supermarket, where all the food items, many of them western brands, were at least as expensive and often more expensive than in the west.  Plus, particularly in the summer, you could never trust the frozen food items, because it was dismayingly common that the frozen items had been left out on the loading dock in the searing sun for hours before being taken inside, and had thoroughly warmed up before being refrozen in the freezer cases.  However, overall, the food quality was almost as good as in the west, but the costs were higher.

The third choice was eating out, with either cheap restaurants where you are eating the mystery foods from the markets, along with the added excitement of possibly enjoying a dose of food poisoning and dealing with staff who didn’t speak English, or at the expensive restaurants where the food quality and preparation was better, but the costs were high.

So to eat food like a Russian peasant would have indeed been less costly than eating ‘normal’ food in the US, but it wasn’t a lifestyle I wanted to enjoy.  Eating food to a standard I felt comfortable with was more expensive, not less expensive, and that same dynamic is generally true, everywhere in the world.  It is unavoidable – you’re getting imported food items rather than local food items, and you’re going through an inefficient and expensive distribution system, nowhere the equal of the extraordinary efficiencies enjoyed back home.

A similar comment can be made for housing.  Do you want to live in a semi-slum apartment, or do you want to live somewhere ‘nice’ like you have at home?  Do you want to have a quiet peaceful environment, or one marred by noisy neighbors and the menagerie of animals they keep in their apartments – some as pets, and some for food?

I’ll wager that every person reading this could halve their accommodation costs here, too, by shifting from their present hopefully pleasant abode to somewhere in a cheap part of town, much smaller in size, and lacking the same standard of finish and amenities.  There’s no need to go to a foreign country to live uncomfortably – you can do that here, too!

The same can be true of healthcare too.  Do you want the local standard of healthcare, or do you want a western standard?  Sometimes there is little difference between the one and the other, but other times there are significant differences in quality of care/experience and associated costs.  The differences even spill over to medications – do you want a locally made product, which may or may not be fake, or a generic western product (possibly also fake) or a name brand western product (and still possibly fake)?  Yes, the full-on western standard of healthcare will probably still be appreciably less expensive than in the US, but it might also be much more costly than quoted costs that may be based on local standards of healthcare as provided to ordinary local people.

Walking Around With a ‘Kick Me’ Sign on Your Back

There’s another thing to consider as well.  When you move to a foreign country, you’re running the risk of having a huge big ‘kick me’ sign on your back, flashing in dazzling neon to all the locals, but invisible to yourself.  You’re a foreigner, you possibly don’t speak the locals’ language (and they possibly don’t speak English), you probably don’t conform to their customs (Kota Kinabalu is in Muslim Malaysia, for example) and you’ll be perceived as a person with more money than sense, as a person to exploit.

You’ll find the price to rent even the dingiest hovel will double as soon as it is known that a foreigner wants to live there.  If you need any work done on anything, it will take longer and cost more than for the locals.  And, no, you can’t hope to be ‘clever’ and hide your foreignness by getting third-party locals to arrange things on your behalf.  Remember also you’re going to places where ‘the sanctity of contract’ is as foreign a notion as is the enforceability of contracts, and as soon as your landlord sees you’re not a local, he’ll be annoyed at your clumsy efforts to trick him, and will double your rent, no matter what sort of lease agreement you signed.

In addition, how will you find a local who decides to trick their fellow local citizens so as to benefit you?  This is something I’ve often seen – where one’s interpreter/guide is actually working against you in conversations rather than merely translating and/or perhaps giving you ‘helpful’ advice.  Everyone will want a piece of your pocketbook.

It is a bit like the saying – ‘If you’re in a game of poker, look around you at the other players.  If you can’t spot the sucker, then it is you’.  You might think that everything is being done to a comparable level of probity and fairness as in the US, but if you don’t detect the rip-offs that you’re suffering at every turn, then they are probably even bigger than you guessed.

Immigration Issues

It is wonderful to read about these eight ‘low-priced’ places to live in the Forbes article.  But the article is utterly silent about the process by which you can legally be allowed to live in your chosen new home.  For example, several of the recommended inexpensive places are in the EU – not what one would immediately associate with low-cost places to live.  Assuming they are indeed appealing from an economic point of view, how are you going to get a permanent residency visa to live in the EU, short of pretending to be a penniless refugee muslim from North Africa?

Other places involve no end of complications (yes, ‘complications’ is often a polite way of saying ‘bribery’), and the need to regularly leave the country and re-enter so as to extend/renew a short-stay type visa.  Each time you do that, you’re gambling that the immigration officer won’t notice that for 35 of the last 36 months or whatever, you’ve been in his country, and choose to make the obvious inference that you’re actually living permanently there rather than simply visiting as a temporary tourist, at which the inconvenience (bribe) will get massively larger.

Getting a Job

So maybe, after moving to your ‘tropical paradise’, you’ve discovered that your days are too bland and empty, or that your costs are so much higher than you’d expected, and for whatever reason, you decide it would be nice to get a part-time job – to give you an interest, and some extra spending money.

The chances are that your visa won’t allow you to work, lawfully.  So you’ll need to find somewhere that will hire you ‘under the table’.  Now you know what it feels like to be an illegal alien in the US!  Except that, the other side of the ‘low cost’ coin is that casual jobs in such places also pay at very low rates.  You might find yourself lucky to be getting $1/hour.

Oh – one last consideration, but uniquely, only for Americans (as far as we are aware).  Maybe some of the costs of living are reduced in your new domicile.  But one cost will never go down, and might even go up.  Although citizens of most countries are only taxed in their home country if they are living there as a permanent resident, American citizens are taxed on their world-wide earnings for as long as they are a US citizen, even if they don’t spend a single day in the US over an entire decade or longer.

Other Considerations

If you’re going to live in another country, then, as we hint at in the section about your new ‘kick me’ sign, we suggest you choose a country that ranks as highly as possible in terms of lack of corruption (see the annual corruption index published by Transparency International).  You also want a stable country with a stable government (here’s an interesting chart, although we’re not sure we’d rank Samoa as being more stable a government than many of the lower ranked countries).

It would also be preferable if it was a country in which you, as a foreigner, could own property and shares – that would reduce your exploitation and risk when renting, and give you access to local investment opportunities and local investment income.

This site has many other interesting rankings too – crime, particularly petty crime, is another factor to consider.  You can probably avoid becoming a statistic on the murder or incarceration tables, but the petty crime rate is definitely a factor to keep in mind.  But the published table seems to be quite counter-intuitive – is Sweden really the country with the greatest theft rate in the world?  And are the countries with the lowest reported theft rates really truly that safe?  Or is the table instead merely showing the accuracy and completeness of theft reporting, rather than actual theft occurrences?  This issue – the validity of the data being reported – is often a huge factor to keep in mind when evaluating third world countries.

Currency issues are another variable – hard to predict and so almost a random but important factor.  If you’re receiving a retirement income in US dollars (or any other foreign currency, of course), its value in the local currency where you live, and the adjusted cost of living, is of course going to depend on the currency exchange rate.  It is entirely likely that this exchange rate might change substantially, and possibly either increasing or decreasing the cost of living as a result.

It is hard to guess the future of currency exchange rates, but you should at least understand the basic drivers of the country’s economy and understand if it is likely to be a reasonably stable and possibly positive economy, or one that could collapse at any moment.  Have a look also at historical exchange rates – that will at least give you an understanding as to how volatile the currency has been in the past.  This site has lots of historical data on it.

You should also double-check the claims about low costs of living.  We like two sites in particular – this site and this site, and there are several others that also have good information on them – particularly sites that have more of a perspective of ‘what does it cost to live a western type lifestyle in other cities/countries’ rather than ‘what does it cost to live a spartan lifestyle like the locals’ sites.

Spending Money Tactically

It is quite likely that some items will be cheaper in your new home region, but other items might be more expensive.  If the more expensive items are ‘discretionary’ items that you only need to (or choose to) buy occasionally, why not wait until you are wherever in the world that they are less expensive.  Or, if/when you have friends visiting you, ask them to bring such items with them.

For example, some types of clothing and apparel are much less expensive in some countries than others.  The classic truth of Levi jeans and Nike sneakers being cheapest in the US still seems to hold true in many other countries.

You’ll also sometimes find yourself in the ridiculous seeming situation where it is cheaper to buy a locally made item in the US than it is in the country it was originally manufactured in.  Inexplicably, electronic goods are consistently less expensive in the US than China, plus you’ve a higher chance of getting a genuine rather than fake version of whatever you’re buying in the US.

It isn’t just ‘third world’ countries with these pricing discrepancies.  I’ve found NZ lamb less expensive in Costco than in NZ supermarkets, and the same for NZ wine.

In some exciting good news for expats, Amazon is extending and improving its world shipping services and rates.  While this is far from yet fully optimized, it is becoming easier to order from Amazon and get the items quickly and inexpensively delivered to you in other countries.

But, ooops – we’re trespassing way away from the initial concept of ‘living cheaply and well’ aren’t we.  Accepting one to two weeks waiting and some delivery fee on top of the regular US price is in no way a lower cost or higher quality-of-life experience than having Amazon deliver, for free, in a day or two to your US home!

Resources

If you really do want to consider living somewhere else in the world ‘cheaply’, and if we’ve not disabused you of that notion, here are some other recent articles and suggested locations.

Business Insider – World’s 13 Cheapest Countries, January 2017  (strange methodology which involves local residents rating their own perception of their cost of living and life style, gives top spot to Ukraine, followed by Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam – definitely some surprises on this list)

International Living – World’s Best Places to Retire, January 2017  (scores Mexico as best, followed by Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica – a very traditional list with clearly a strong focus on )

Escape Here – The 10 Cheapest Cities for Expats to Live Around the World, undated  (Bishkek comes first, followed by Windhoek, Karachi, Tunis, Skopje and Banjul – you’ll need to get out your map to see where some of these unappealing places are located)

Cheapest Destinations – The Cheapest Places to Live in the World – 2017, November 2016  (more sensible than some lists, recommends Mexico then Nicaragua and Colombia in the Americas, Portugal, Bulgaria and Hungary in Europe, and Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in Asia)

Bankrate – Six Surprisingly Inexpensive Places to Retire Abroad, January 2017  (Chiang Mai, then Guam and Valencia)

Time – These Are the 50 Cheapest Countries to Live, Feb 2016  (somewhat useless because it contrasts living costs with income, which makes South Africa cheapest, then India, Kosovo and Saudi Arabia in fourth place – definitely not a cheap place, and utterly an impossible place to consider living in)

The Independent – The 17 Countries Where Expats Live the Happiest Lives, Feb 2017  (Being happy isn’t the same as cheap, but is still important and relevant.  You’d be happiest, perhaps, in Costa Rica, followed by Malta, Mexico and the Philippines)

Huffpost – 11 Incredible Cities Where Living Abroad Is Cheap, June 2016  (Lyon came first, followed by Lisbon then Wellington New Zealand and Riga.  No-one could consider Lyon or Wellington to be cheap cities, but maybe their high scores on the ‘incredible’ scale counter their probable low scores on the cost scale)

Summary

Do we accept the Forbes’ article’s claim that you could quit your job and live for $850 a month in Kota Kinabalu.  For the reasons described above, absolutely not!  But some savings are possible with little compromise in life style, and more savings are of course possible with greater compromises.

If you want to enjoy the life style you currently experience and appreciate, staying exactly where you are is probably the best option.  There are ways to reduce your costs by moving elsewhere – and don’t forget the other 49 states in the US, as well as far away foreign countries, if you’re keen to make a change.

Our unscientific feeling is that in terms of overall quality of life and value, the US is right up there near the top.  Whether it is or not, be very careful before changing your life based on largely spurious claims that you could live elsewhere in the world for as little as $850/month.

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Aug 092017
 

An illustration of a monopod, and an example both of a monopod that is too short and also how not to use it (these points are of course explained below). It is surprising that the photographer (or at least the artistic director) has no idea how a monopod is used.

A regular tripod is a wonderful tool that professional photographers are seldom seen without.  But they are also cumbersome and take up space and weight in your suitcase, and during your days traveling around, they are another bulky item to have with you all the time.

Talking about time, when you choose to use a tripod, it takes time to extend it, to place it somewhere (it also takes up a lot of space making it impractical in a crowd) and is difficult to move around, and then of course, requires more time and hassle to eventually collapse it and stow it away again.

Don’t get us wrong.  We love tripods.  But we seldom/never travel with one.

What we do have, though, is a monopod (sometimes referred to as a unipod).  This is a telescoping device a bit like a single tripod leg, and while you might think that a single legged device would not make much of a difference to camera stability, it actually works stunningly well.

The Need For and Benefits Of a Monopod

A monopod/unipod gives you an enormous improvement in stability, allowing you to take much clearer pictures.

The need for a monopod is not too pressing when you’re filming in bright light (ie with a fast shutter speed) and when the subjects are relatively close rather than distant (so the effects of camera movements aren’t magnified).

But as soon as the distance opens out, and/or the shutter speed slows due to diminished light, a monopod starts to prove its worth.

Monopods are great for travelers.  They can be used almost anywhere, including usually in places such as museums that might forbid tripod photography.  They are quick and easy to deploy, and comparatively light and compact to carry.

It is much easier, when on uneven ground, to set up a monopod than a tripod, where you need to adjust leg lengths to reflect the uneven nature of where it is standing.

You can also use a monopod as a ‘selfie stick on steroids’ – they are typically twice the length of a standard selfie stick, and you can use them to shoot from over the tops of crowds to get an unobstructed view of whatever is in front of the crowds, or out the side of vehicles (with caution!) or (with equal caution) to film over the edge of a precipice, or from a hotel room window, and generally to get unusual and impossible shots that you couldn’t otherwise get without the almost six feet of extra positioning.

Talking about crowds, you could never hope to set up a tripod in a crowd of people, but a monopod can easily be used.

Monopods can also help if you’re filming video, allowing for smoother panning and steadier fixed shots.

Another use for monopods is often seen on the sports field, where photographers simply use their monopods as a support, to hold up the weight of their camera and telephoto lens.

Let’s also keep in mind that a monopod is much less expensive than a tripod.  Our recommended two monopods cost either $13 or  $15, whereas good tripods will cost ten times that amount (and potentially much more).

Let’s start by looking at the often under-appreciated need and benefit of taking pictures (and video) from a steady/stable position, then see how monopods – even though seemingly not nearly as good as a three-legged tripod – are actually very helpful.

Keeping Your Pictures Sharp

A sharp clear picture is what we all hope for, unless we’re trying to deliberately create some sort of dreamy blur effect.  Even in that case, sometimes it is better to start with a sharp picture and then add a blur in Photoshop.

There are two types of blur that interfere with sharpness – focus-related blur, and motion-related blur.

Resolving focus-related blur involves focusing correctly on the desired objects and selecting the appropriate depth of field.  That’s a topic for another time, perhaps.

This article is about motion-related blur, and its solution involves two techniques.  The first is to minimize the camera’s motion, and the second is to select the appropriate shutter speed.  While the two approaches overlap, the best results will see you optimizing both issues.

Let’s start of with a really important skill you should master.  It requires no additional equipment, and will massively improve the sharpness of your photos.

Holding Your Camera Steady, and Pressing the Release Button Correctly

‘Shooting’ a good sharp picture uses the same skills – and even equipment – as the other type of shooting.

Shooting a clear image with a minimum of motion-related blur is a bit like the other sort of shooting – accurate target shooting with a firearm.

In both cases, you greatly improve your results by using two strategies – supporting your camera/rifle in a stable position rather than holding it unsupported; and steadily/slowly squeezing the trigger/shutter release in a smooth gentle motion rather than jerking the camera/rifle with a sudden spasm to initiate the shot.

Certainly, it is fairly intuitive to understand that the more steadily we can hold our camera, the better the image will be.  As much as the dynamics of taking each picture allows, use both hands, try to lean your body against something to keep your body – and camera – still, keep the camera close to your body, and so on.

But even people who understand this, still risk messing up with a poor action to take each picture due to jerking when pressing the shutter release button.

We urge you to work on your shutter press technique.  We’ve seen some people, particularly with camera phones, who stab aggressively at the shutter release control when taking a picture, and we see the entire phone/camera move significantly, right at the point it is taking its image.  A person who was holding their camera device reasonably steady ruins its steadiness with a bad shutter release action, at the moment it is most critical to hold it steady!

Another marksman type analogy – just like, if you’re shooting at a very close-up target, you don’t need to be quite as fastidious as if you’re aiming at a bulls-eye 100 or even 1000 yards distant, it is the same with a camera.  Close-ups aren’t quite as critical as telephoto type images.  This leads to an interesting rule of thumb that is sometimes used, which we’ll discuss next.

When Do You Need to Stabilize Your Images?

Clearly, most of us often take good pictures without needing a tripod or monopod.  But at what point does such an external device start to become worth the extra hassle of using it?

For decades, there has been an interesting rule of thumb known to photography professionals.

Assuming a good stable shooting platform and technique, the minimum shutter speed should be the same as the effective focal length of your lens, when expressed in 35mm focal length equivalents.

So, a standard 35mm equivalent focal length of about 50mm – 55mm would equate to an acceptable shutter speed of 1/60th of a second (or faster), and if you’re using a longer lens, say, a 250 mm lens, then you’re going to want to have a 1/250th of a second exposure (or less).

This rule of thumb of course assumes that you’re holding your camera as steady as possible and are carefully squeezing the shutter release with the minimum of induced motion as you do so.

A Stable Camera Isn’t Always the Complete Answer

Note that – of course – stabilizing your camera will allow for sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds, but only if the subject of your picture is still.

If the subject is moving, then you need to set the appropriate shutter speed to capture the subject without its motion-blur, which is an entirely different concept.  But, to lightly touch on that, here is a related point.

Optimum Shutter Speed

In theory, you might think that ‘fast is always better than slow’.  Simplistically, that is correct, but there are (at least) two exceptions to this.

For example, maybe you deliberately want a slow shutter speed to blur something that is moving, while of course wanting the stationary background to remain sharp and unblurred.  Or, vice versa, maybe you have a fast-moving subject you want to be able to freeze clearly, requiring a higher than theoretically normal shutter speed.

For example also, sometimes you ‘need’ a slower exposure speed simply due to the lighting conditions.  Or a faster one (if there is too much light/brightness).  Maybe you have a specific depth of field requirement that narrows your available range of shutter speeds.

Note also that modern digital cameras ‘cheat’ – they will ‘know’ if you need faster shutter speeds, and will give you the necessary shutter speed if at all possible, even if that risks reducing image quality in other respects (ie by increasing the ISO speed and forcing the camera to make do the best it can with too little light, which results in much greater picture noise and lower contrast).

For that reason, we generally recommend you do not allow your camera to automatically adjust its ISO sensitivity, but leave it fixed at a relatively slow speed (ie 100 – 160), and only adjust up when you absolutely must.

Optical and Electronic Image Stabilization

Some cameras and many/most camcorders feature some sort of image stabilization built-in to the device these days (unwanted camera movements are of course much more noticeable in video and are a classic hallmark of amateur video clips).

Generally, optical/mechanical stabilization is enormously better than electronic.

A good optical stabilization system can allow you to take pictures with shutter speeds one half, one quarter, possibly even one eighth the speed that would otherwise be the slowest you could ‘safely’ consider.  Modern state of the art image stabilization claims to allow for even 1/16th the previous speed.

It is worth paying more money to get a camera (or lens) that includes optical image stabilization.  Imagine being able to take reasonably good images with a 1/8th second shutter speed!  This is what optical image stabilization can do for you.

How a Monopod Works

A monopod acts to reduce camera shake in most of the six forms in which it can occur.  There are a lot of different ways that ‘camera shake’ can happen, resulting in potentially blurry pictures.

The most benign form of camera ‘shake’ and least noticeable is when you move the camera straight up and down, or straight from side to side, or straight forwards/backwards (the classical three axes of motion).  But these types of movements are not commonly the type of motion that occurs.  Instead, the problem comes from twisting type motion, where even a very slight twist (in any of the three axes) causes a large shift in where the camera lens is pointing.

A monopod essentially zeroes out all three forms of the benign motion, and also most of the problematic twisting.  With the anchoring effect of the leg, two of the three twisting motions are reduced to almost zero, and the third one (from left to right) is greatly reduced.

This means you can take better pictures in low light, and you can take better pictures of distant objects in any light.

You can get clear sharp pictures at much slower shutter speeds.  If you do low light or telephoto pictures, a monopod is worth its weight in gold.

Simply mount the camera to the monopod platform on the top of the monopod, using the threaded screw in the monopod and the almost certainly standard threaded hole in the base of your camera (a ¼” thread is standard).  And then, off you go.  Well, almost – don’t stop reading just yet!

 

Using a Monopod

You might be forgiven for thinking this is an unnecessary part of our article.  You simply screw the camera onto the mount at the top of the monopod, extend the monopod, and start taking pictures, right?

Wrong.

While that is simplistically true of a tripod, you’ll get best results from a monopod if you appreciate that a monopod has only one leg, and then give some thought to your stance and position, relative to the monopod, so as to compensate for its single leg.

In this context, having the monopod in a vertical ‘unstressed’ position – such as modeled at the top of the page – is actually the worst way of using it.  This doesn’t ‘lock’ the monopod into one steady position – it can wobble backwards and forwards, and side to side.  Instead, you want it on an angle and ‘stressed’ whereby it is leaning into you in some way, so that the ‘stress’ acts to lock up the position between you and the tripod, ideally forming some sort of triangular structure and perhaps emulating a tripod, with your two feet forming the other two legs.

The most common two approaches is to have the monopod angling forwards and down, so that its foot is on the ground directly in front of you, or angling back so its foot is perhaps close to one of your feet.  You would lean into the monopod if it is angled forward, and be pulling it back if its leg was going behind you.  Usually you have one of your feet in front of the other, rather than both side by side.

This enormously increases the monopod’s stability, locking one of its two planes of remaining motion.  You’ve gone from six planes of motion to only one.

Another approach is to either rest the monopod against a fence or wall or other solid object, or to tie it to something, giving it more stability.  A set of Velcro ties (this pack includes two or four lovely long 24” ties) is a great thing to have in your camera bag in any case, and can help binding your monopod in this situation.

Monopod Height

When choosing a monopod, it is important to get one that is tall enough for you.  Ideally of course you want your camera at eye height, rather than to have to stoop over and crouch.

In addition, if you are angling your camera up, that makes it even more beneficial to have the ability to position your camera at eye level or even slightly above.  The image at the top of the page not only shows how not to use a monopod, but also does a good job of showing a monopod that is too short for convenience!

If you can’t get a good ergonomic and comfortable position with your monopod, it won’t be as stable, so its height is an important consideration.  Regrettably, many monopods are too short for taller people.  Most monopods can be partially or fully extended, so there’s no such thing as too long a monopod, but, dismayingly, there is definitely such a thing as too short.

If you are about 6’ tall, then that suggests your eye level is at about 5’8”, and with maybe 2” between the monopod platform on which you mount your camera, and the camera viewfinder, that means you want a monopod that is at least 66” tall.  We’ve seen some that are 67” – 72” tall, but we’ve also seen some that are way too short, such as Amazon’s fancy expensive carbon fiber monopod that is only 61”.

The need for increased length becomes even greater if you have your monopod on an angle (as you should).  Even a modest angle might require another 3″ or 4″ in length, and if your monopod is already at the short end of ideal, having it ‘shrink’ still further is really unfortunate.

Bottom line – be willing to pay extra for a longer monopod.  There’s no point in being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ such that you end up with a too-short monopod that is so awkward to use that it doesn’t give optimized stability and you end up never using it.

Monopod Accessories

It might seem ridiculous that a camera accessory should, in turn, have accessories too.  But indeed there is an accessory or two to consider when buying a monopod.

The first is a quick release head.  What this does is it makes it much easier to mount your camera onto or off the monopod.  Instead of needing to carefully mate it to the monopod platform and screw in the mounting screw, you add a special base to the bottom of your camera and a matching socket to the monopod’s mounting platform.  You can quickly snap the camera in and out of the socket on the monopod, which is a convenience you’ll quickly come to value.

The second is some type of tilt/swivel or miniball head.  In theory, you could simply place your camera on your monopod, and the monopod goes down directly in front of you, perfectly perpendicular to the ground and horizon, and thereby ensuring the camera is not only stable but also level in all axes when taking a picture.

More realistically, you will be adopting one of the suggested strategies for using a monopod and they tend to have the monopod at an angle.  Or maybe, sometimes, directly in front of you might be something unsuitable for basing the monopod on, and you’ll want to have the monopod leg going off on an angle.  That is fine, but if you have your camera immutably affixed to the platform at the top of the monopod, it will now be on a strange angle.

Another of the small things that distinguishes high quality photos from lower quality photos is being level.  While it is usually possible to correct this in Photoshop, doing so loses you some image and some quality, so it is best to get it as optimized as possible before taking the shot (this is true for everything – while Photoshop can help ‘save the day’ in many amazing ways, the better the image you start off with, the better the final version of it will be).

Adding a tilt/swivel head of some type will give you much greater flexibility for how your monopod is angled down.  But please remember, once you’ve aligned your camera with the tilt/swivel adjustable head, be sure to then lock the head in place, because if you don’t do that, you’ve lost much/most of the stability the monopod was designed to provide.

Note that some monopods have a built-in quick release but not a tilt/swivel feature.  This is not very useful, because the tilt/swivel is best placed first, and the quick release second.

We have seen some monopods that have miniature tripod type legs at their base.  We view this as a dangerously useless gimmick.  They don’t provide appreciable extra stability, they are usually weak, and we view them primarily as unwanted weight and complexity, another thing to break, and/or something for someone to trip over.

How Much Benefit Does a Monopod Provide?

We gave some numbers, above, about the benefit of optical image stabilization systems, in terms of how much slower an exposure you could take with a stabilized camera or lens.  In actuality, these were not our calculations – they are the claims of camera and lens manufacturers, which we’ve slightly moderated to err on the side of caution.

What about using a ‘low tech’ monopod instead of a high-tech image stabilization system?  What sort of benefit will you get from a monopod?

There are two variables at play here – first, how well you were holding your camera before and how well you were activating its shutter release.  Secondly, how well you are now using a monopod – monopods require a bit of skill to use properly, as we mention in the preceding sections.

Our guess is that you can expect to be able to reduce your shutter speed by between two and four times and still have comparable sharpness.  If you are getting an eight-fold improvement, probably you were being too lackadaisical with your hand-held technique, and if you’re not getting more than a two-fold improvement, you’re not using your monopod properly.

Although you can get a great reduction in random movement/jitter/shake by using a monopod, you don’t zero it out entirely.  Only a tripod, with care, can completely eliminate any shake or jitter.

Depending on distance and your technique, you can perhaps safely take monopod-aided pictures with two to four times slower shutter speeds, but only down to perhaps as slow as 1/8th or 1/15th of a second.  After that point, you’re almost certainly and unavoidably into tripod territory.  But don’t sneer at the achievement a monopod offers you.  Instead of struggling to get short-range sharp pictures at 1/60th of a second, you can now get better pictures at 1/30th, and maybe even at 1/15th exposures.  That means you can reduce your ISO speed, giving you not just a sharper picture, but also less picture noise and greater picture contrast.

This is the more obscured additional benefit of monopods – the ability to reduce your ISO.  In general, you always want to keep your camera close to its ‘sweet spot’ ISO rating, which is usually around 100 – 160.  This is much more achievable with a monopod.

Choosing a Monopod

There are dozens of monopods for sale, maybe even over 100 at some specialty stores.  But before you get overwhelmed, there are some simple considerations to use to filter out the monopod choices.

First, its length.  Unless you are short in stature, we urge you to seek out longer monopods in preference to shorter ones.  At least 65” should be a starting point.

Second, does it have a built-in swivel/tilt and quick-release head, or does it end in a simple platform?  If it ends as a simple platform, you should buy these additional two accessories (or possibly a single unit combining both functions), so that will add further to the total cost, and weight, and bulk of the unit.  On the plus side, it will also slightly increase its total height.

Third, what is the weight (including the weight of extra head accessories if needed)?  There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars extra for fancy carbon fiber if it only saves you a couple of ounces, but as long distance walkers know, every ounce you can save is precious.  Do give priority to lighter weight units.

Fourth, how many sections does the unit telescope down into?  Fewer units probably imply the unit will be more rigid when extended, but the rigidity when extended also depends on the quality of design and construction.  This is an area where being able to test out a selection of units is beneficial.

Talking about rigidity, as mentioned above, we don’t like monopods with a miniature base of unfolding legs that give the pretense of some sort of tripod or quadpod at the base.  This is just wasted weight in our opinion; steer clear of this.

Another construction related consideration is how the telescoping sections are locked into place.  We’ve seen three common methods.  The first is where each section is rotated to ‘lock’ it into the section above/below.  We don’t like this – we’ve heard stories of the sections subsequently unlocking, particularly if you are rotating the camera at the top.  The second is with screwable ferrule type locks, which seem to provide stable secure locking, but which take a bit of time to screw and unscrew.  The third is with fold-over clamp levers.  These generally seem to give a good lock as well, and are quick and easy to set and release, so they are our preferred system.

Fifth is cost.  You can get units for under $15, or for over $300.  Clearly you don’t want to go wild and crazy with your money, but equally clearly, a monopod that doesn’t work well is only slightly better than no monopod at all.

Perhaps lastly – are there any additional accessories included?  A carry-bag of some sort?  An extended warranty or a satisfaction guarantee?

We roamed far and wide on Amazon to see what we liked and disliked.  Although they had an enormous number of choices, we decided to insist on at least a 65” height for a monopod, and that caused the number of potential choices to plummet.

Astonishingly, one of the best remaining monopods was actually the cheapest – the Amazon Basics monopod.  It extends to 67”, seems to have no negative issues, and costs $12.99.

There is also a ‘Pro Series’ monopod that is five inches longer when fully extended, and about the same size when collapsed, and costs only another couple of dollars.  This has a quick release but not a tilt/swivel mount on its top.  Our sense is that while the extra 5” is good, the fact that it collapses to about the same length and with the same number of elements might imply it is a bit less rigid in use, but we’ve not tried the two units alongside each other.

We like this unit, and ones like it, that don’t require too many knobs to be adjusted.

You would probably choose to add a quick release tilt/swivel head to the top of this, and there are plenty to choose from – pretty much any of these and ideally one that has both the tilt/swivel and quick release function in a single unit.  The head adapter has the further benefit of adding another couple of inches to the total effective height of the monopod.

One point to keep in mind – you don’t want to be tempted by an ‘over-engineered’ tilt/swivel unit.  We’ve seen some with an impressive number of adjusting knobs, but it seems it makes what should be a quick and simply case of getting the camera leveled and then locked in place into quite a major procedure.

Make sure the tilt/swivel head does allow the camera to be flipped on its side it you want to take a ‘portrait’ mode rather than ‘landscape’ model picture.  All the ones we’ve seen seem to allow this – the illustrated unit on the left shows it in the very front.

Note that some tilt/swivel units require a 3/8” mounting screw in their base, and most monopods have a 1/4” screw, because they’re expecting to be mated to a camera, not a tilt/swivel head.

That isn’t a problem, because you can get adapters to increase the screw size to 3/8” – either screw thread/sleeves such as these, or a nice bushing adapter such as this.  There’s every chance you can get an adapter at your local Home Depot, too.

We also like units that have a bubble level in them, but this is probably not essential.

Summary

Well, who would have thought one could write and read so much about something that seems so simple!

The simple summary is that you should have a monopod, and you should use it as a standard part of almost every photo you take.  You will definitely see the improvement in the quality of your photos.

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Aug 042017
 

The world’s biggest doodle? A 787 flight path covering 18 states. See article, below.

Good morning

We’re having a ‘heat wave’ here in the Seattle area, with temperatures in the mid-90s.  That’s a problem for two-thirds of the population – the two-thirds who don’t have a/c.  Making things much worse is an astonishing amount of smoke everywhere, massively reducing visibility, and threatening the practicality of a Blue Angels display this weekend.  The smoke is from the huge forest fires in Western Canada – and I’m sure there’s some way I should be able to work a ‘build a wall’ statement into those facts, but it is a bit too hot to do so!

Following the newsletter is what I hope you’ll find an interesting travel story.  The concept of road trips might seem to be a uniquely American one, and certainly the magic of Route 66 has been acknowledged for some time.  But 150 years ago, and probably considerably longer, there was – and still is – a very special road trip of even greater national importance in Britain – the ‘End to End’ journey.  And whereas there is little debate as to how to experience a road trip here (ie in a car), the Brits – always eager to encourage eccentricity – have a much broader view of how to enjoy the notional 874 miles of their national road trip.  Walking, running, riding an animal or bicycle, skateboarding, and many more methods of travel of increasing levels of ‘innovativeness’ (my polite word for today) have all been featured, and continue to be enjoyed.

And it is enjoyment that occasioned the article.  This road trip is an integral part of next year’s Grand Expedition tour of Great Britain.  Perhaps after reading the article you’ll have a broader understanding of the special aspirational nature of this journey, and hopefully you’ll choose to join us and participate in our version of the road trip (in a comfortable luxury coach, you’ll be relieved to learn!).

Talking about our amazing British tour next June, we still have a few cabins available for this year’s Christmas cruise.  We continue getting great deals on air with Amawaterways – yesterday a couple saved $140 each on their airfares, in addition to the $750 each cabin saving, and the other various Travel Insider special inclusions and benefits.  Maybe you can, too.

As I’d hoped, last week’s article about the pending restrictions on travel to North Korea drew several excellent comments.  Thank you.  If you missed it last week, here it is, and please feel welcome of course to add your thoughts, too.

The official ban was announced a couple of days ago.  In a rather backwards way, articles such as this chose to lede the story with the four categories of exemptions that the State Department will allow, rather than the otherwise totality of the ban as it will apply to almost all of us.  The four exempt categories are journalists, Red Cross employees on official business, other aid workers with ‘compelling humanitarian considerations’ and others with a trip that is ‘otherwise in the national interest’.  Alas, that definitely excludes me and probably you, too.

If you naughtily do go to North Korea, you’ll be charged with a felony.  Not a tiny little misdemeanor, not a ‘let off with a warning’, but a real massive go-to-jail felony.

I expect not everyone agrees with my belief that the State Dept shouldn’t be restricting our travel rights in the first place, but does anyone feel that going to spend a few days in North Korea as a tourist is a crime worthy of felony charges?  No wonder that we have the highest percentage of our citizens incarcerated of any country in the world (693 per 100,000), eclipsed only by a statistically insignificant count in Seychelles.  North Korea is estimated by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to have an incarceration rate very similar to our own, around 600 – 800.  Is this a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’?

In addition, please keep reading for the following items to enjoy with your hot or possibly iced coffee this morning :

  • Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes
  • Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?
  • Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired
  • What’s Wrong With This Picture?
  • Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.
  • New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier
  • Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid
  • A New Airplane Terror Threat
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes

I asked last week if you thought we should be allowed to film while onboard airplanes.  You had three choices – you could say you thought passengers should have an unrestricted right to film on planes, or a limited right only while being granted permission by the flight attendants, or if there should be a total ban on filming.

The results were about as starkly one-sided as one ever sees about anything.

95% of respondents advocated for unrestricted filming.

I’m curious why the handful of people who advocated a total ban feel that way – please feel free to explain (but of course, you’re under no obligation to do so).  It is just that while I can usually see both sides of issues, even when having a clear preference one way or the other, I struggle to see any countervailing good to us as passengers if we’re never allowed to film on flights.

May I also politely but cynically comment to the people who believe that flight attendants should have the authority to regulate when we may or may not film – what do you think will happen as soon as there’s an altercation or incident on board?  Will flight attendants call out ‘Quick everyone, please film this’?  Or will they try to block off the event, and announce that filming is banned for the duration?  My money is on the latter outcome, and I’ll wager every penny I have and a few I don’t have that in cases where the flight attendants themselves are the ‘bad actors’ in any drama, there is no way they’d allow any filming that might risk showing up their misbehavior and subsequent lies.

Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?

Here’s a gushy article anointing another ordinary pilot as a hero.  The pilot in question simply landed his plane without crashing or killing anyone on board.  Color me underwhelmed.

To explain the situation, an A320 flew through a hail storm, and the hail stones caused its windshield to be shattered and become difficult/impossible to see through.  So, landing a plane with no visibility – easy or hard?  Is the pilot truly a hero and deserving of the medal awarded him by the Ukrainian Government?

Well, the article sort of gives the show away at the bottom of the story, by reporting that all that happened was the pilot changed from making a visual approach and landing to instead conducting an instrument approach and landing.  What the article doesn’t say is that the pilot could have (and may well have) simply programmed the approach and landing into his autopilot, then sat back, enjoyed a nice cup of tea, and read a book while the plane did the rest, all by itself, the same as pilots do all day every day, with or without perfect visibility out the cockpit front windows.

Additionally, the needless concern about the pilots not being able to see?  If we didn’t have pilots, just sensors, we’d no longer have to worry about pilot visibility at all.  Yes, I know sensors can be disabled, but clearly they weren’t in this case, and bizarrely, the pilot who proved he didn’t need to be able to look out the front of the plane in order to land it got a medal for showing that the plane could land itself.

Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired

Continuing what is indeed one of my favorite topics – the over-valued nature of pilots – two pilots of an Air Algerie plane allowed a 10 yr old boy to sit in the pilot’s seat and to ‘fly’ the plane for part of a regular passenger flight.  The pilots subsequently posted a video of the boy’s experience onto social media, and when the video made its way back to the airline’s executives, they instantly suspended the pilots pending an investigation into the matter.

Goodness only knows what there is to investigate.

But the pilots don’t deserve the suspension.  There is almost zero danger of anything going wrong to a passenger plane during the cruise portion of its flight at altitude.  If anyone in the cockpit ‘pushes the wrong button’, you’ve so much time to resolve the issue before things become fraught – even the incompetent pilots of AF447 had 3 1/2 minutes to correct their mistakes before the plane finally finished its descent and crashed into the ocean, killing all on board.

Plus, in this case, the boy was an orphan who dreamed of becoming a pilot and his flight was being sponsored by a local charity.  There was no danger, no risk, the boy was closely supervised, and it was a public relations treat that earned the appreciation of the local community.

Details here.

Purportedly a new 737 flying over Greenland.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

According to this article, this is a picture of a new Norwegian Air 737 MAX flying over Greenland.  Here’s a link to a larger size image.

The article is interesting, although it does seem that in return for a free flight, the reporter wrote a very gushingly positive article.  On the other hand, as one who has also flown on delivery flights, I can understand the reporter’s excitement and enjoyment of the experience.  Yes, there indeed truly is a new plane smell when you first step on board!

It could also be fairly said that Norwegian is an airline worthy of praise, and if you have a chance to fly it yourself, you definitely should do so.

Surprisingly, Norwegian missed a trick by flying the plane empty – they should do what Qantas used to do on delivery flights – sell all the seats to paying passengers.

If you look closely at the picture, you might see some clues that suggest the photo isn’t exactly what its caption suggests it to be.  Answer at the bottom.

Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.

Talking about Boeing and pictures, Boeing is currently testing the use of 3D printed parts on its airplanes.  You may have heard sailors complain about how the cost of any part doubles (or quadruples) when it changes from being a ‘regular’ part to a ‘marine’ part, even if the part itself appears to be indistinguishable from its landlubber twin.

Well, when a part transitions further to becoming an aviation certified part, you can expect another doubling or quadrupling in cost, due as much to the compliance costs of tracking and tracing every last washer and screw.  All parts on a plane have their own unique serial numbers, and have a service history stored.  This is great if something goes wrong with a part – it isn’t like the recall notices you might see at the local supermarket, saying ‘If you bought some Bush Baked Beans in the last some while, please check to see if they are this batch number XYZ123456, because if they are, there might be a problem with them’.  If something goes wrong with an aviation part, it is possible to almost instantly know everything about that part, its service life, where and when it was made, and which other planes also have parts from the same batch/supplier.  And that’s how a washer costing under a penny at Home Depot becomes a dollar part (more or less).

Boeing is hoping to be able to lessen the complexity of its spare parts systems and to reduce its inventories, by instead being able to 3D print parts on demand, as and where needed.  Instead of a huge warehouse full of spare parts at service centers all around the world, there’ll be a 3D printer sitting on a bench, quietly humming to itself as it makes parts as needed.

This benefit wouldn’t just apply to spares.  As this article reports, printing parts to order could reduce the cost of building new planes by $3 million or more per plane.  Maybe that doesn’t sound much on a $200 million plane, but Boeing delivers about 700 planes a year, so that is potentially $2 billion in extra profit, every year.

3D parts are already being used in jet engines.  The current ‘big deal’ is that now 3D parts are being tested for use as structural components as well as smaller bits and pieces.

So why am I telling you this?  For the last week or so, Boeing has been test flying a 787-8 with some of the these 3D parts, primarily on 3 – 4 hour flights around Curacao.  It then flew the plane ‘back home’ to Seattle, and on Wednesday afternoon, took it on an extended flight that ended up taking exactly, to the minute 18 hours prior to landing back at Boeing Field in Seattle.

So where do you fly your plane if you’re on an 18 hour flight to nowhere?  Because it is a test plane, you probably don’t want to be an enormous distance from an airport, just in case those 3D printed parts give problems.  But imagine how boring it would be, just flying a racetrack pattern in an empty bit of sky in Washington State.

So, the pilots instead programmed a kinda neat flight path into their flight management computer system, then probably made themselves comfortable, choose a movie or two (or three or four or five or six or even more) and waited for the 18 hours to tick over.  The kinda neat flight path can be seen in the image at the top of the newsletter.

A nice touch, even to the extent of having the plane pointing directly at Seattle.  And would that be its tail, pointing directly at Boeing’s other 787 assembly plant, in SC – a union-free venue loathed by Boeing’s Seattle union members.

It is interesting, but only mildly so, to note the flight covered 9,896 miles.  The official range of a 787-8 is in the order of 8,450 miles, but that assumes that an appreciable amount of the plane’s weight involves carrying passengers and baggage.  When empty, it can of course fly further.   You can see more statistics to do with the flight here.

New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier

There’s something slightly amusing about this.  News emerged this week that the Air Force has negotiated a discount price on two 747-8 planes originally ordered by former Russian airline, Transaero, but which were cancelled as part of Transaero’s collapse and merger into Aeroflot in 2015.

Boeing finally got around to cancelling the order (which was for three planes) just last month; it had optimistically been on its order books for the last two years although no-one considered it to be anything other than an example of monumental optimism on Boeing’s part, and the planes have been sitting unloved and unwanted in storage in California.

We are told that the two planes – never delivered to Russia – were secured at a substantial discount off list price, and that their acquisition will likely allow their modification and delivery to proceed ahead of the original schedule, which would have seen them entering service in 2023.

So it seems more probable that President Trump will get to fly on them before he finishes his second term (ducking for cover after making that statement!).

Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid

Last Friday evening saw the bizarre ‘delivery ceremony’ when Tesla triumphantly delivered the first 30 of their new Model 3 cars, to their first 30 ‘customers’.

I put quotes around the word ‘customers’ because it turns out that the 30 lucky people were actually Tesla employees.  Far from being on schedule and now delivering real cars to real customers, you still can’t yet order a Tesla on their website, or even see a price list or configurator.  Sure, apparently close on 500,000 people have plunked down $1,000 refundable deposits to reserve a place in line for a car, but how can you truly order and buy a car when there are no published details of the car, its price, its options and prices, or even the color choices you have.  In Tesla’s alternate reality, it seems that deliveries are preceding orders!

We have been told snippets of information about the new car, and given disjointed bits of data; for example, there is a $5,000 premium options package that includes an all-glass roof, open-pore wood decor, premium sound, heated seats, and premium seat materials.   But what exactly is the premium sound or premium seat materials and what are the standard versions?  Don’t know.

We are told that to choose any color other than black will add $1,000 to the price, but what are the color choices?  We are told that only a $49,000 model car will be available until some time in early 2018, but what exactly do you get for the $49,000 (a steep increase over the $35,000 anticipated standard model price)?  What color will it be?  And so on.

While you might think there’s a bit of desperate hope in all of this, by Musk and his company, that their devoted fans won’t notice the strange lack of specifics about a car that in theory is now being sold and also delivered to customers, that isn’t why Musk is of the opinion his customers are stupid.  Well, it might be one of the reasons, but there’s a bigger one.

Maybe it is Musk himself who is stupid, but he has decided that Tesla will no longer disclose the battery capacity in their cars, because his customers might find that confusing.

Until now, Tesla (and other manufacturers) have disclosed how much charge can be stored in their cars’ batteries. That is the same as a regular car manufacturer telling us the capacity of the gas tank.

Tesla (and all other companies) have also converted the charge capacity into an estimated range figure – so many miles of driving.  From those two numbers, we can reach a third very important number – the fuel efficiency of the car.  In the case of regular cars, we are usually told the fuel efficiency (ie miles per gallon) up front, and then work out from that the range.  With electric cars, we are more likely to do the sum differently – we know the capacity and range, and from that can work out the fuel efficiency.

But whether gas or electricity powered, the fuel efficiency is an essential data point when evaluating cars – and perhaps therein lies part of Tesla’s decision.  Until now, they’ve had few/no competitors, so who cares what their fuel efficiency is – it is way better than petrol in terms of the cost to drive each mile, and that was enough for everyone.  But now that competitors are springing up everywhere, an increasingly sophisticated (or, as Musk views it, ‘stupid’) customer will want to understand both an electric vehicle’s range and also its efficiency, and perhaps Musk now wishes to deliberately hide that, so as to make it harder for a Tesla to be compared to any of the other electric vehicles slated to appear over the next short while.

Who reading this doesn’t care what it costs per mile to ‘fill the tank’, whether you be filling the tank with petrol, diesel, or electricity?  Isn’t that, and the cost per mile in fuel, an essential part of working out total costs of ownership?

It is actually maybe even more important to know this for an electric car, because unlike regular cars, where you never need to replace the fuel tank, sooner or later with an electric car, you’ll need to replace its battery pack, and a higher capacity pack will of course cost more to replace than a lower capacity pack.

However, for the Model 3, and in the future, even for the Models S and X, the battery pack capacity will not be disclosed.  We know there will be two battery pack options with the Model 3, and that in some combination of temperature, speed, and everything else, they will give about 220 and 310 miles respectively.  But are these 50 kWhr packs?  100 kWhr packs?  Or something bigger or smaller?  Tesla won’t tell us, because, they say, we would find this confusing.  Because, they imply, we are stupid.

So, there you have it, from Mr Musk himself.  He is designing his cars for stupid people.  I guess he also hopes we won’t notice that with all the artificial excitement about his artificial deliveries, no-one will notice that his promise to have a $35,000 car being delivered this year is not being honored.  But what is another $14,000 to a stupid person?

Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Bolt – a car that was delivered on time, and at the promised price point, outsold both the Tesla Model S and the Tesla  Model X last month, with steadily increasing monthly sales as it is rolled out to more and more states (also ahead of schedule).

A New Airplane Terror Threat

There was a curious item in the news last weekend, about how Australian authorities had thwarted a planned terrorist attack in a plane, perhaps to be mounted at Sydney airport.  I was interested to learn more about it, because until now, Australia (and New Zealand) have seemed to be safely removed from the main terror zones in the world, and also because I always view such claims with cynicism.  Just how real are these plots?  Is it a couple of teenage boys fantasizing over the internet in their respective parents’ basements?  Or, also quite common, is it some dreamers who are actually egged on and encouraged to do something by intelligence service agents running something perilously close to entrapment?  Or is it a well equipped, well-funded, and well-trained group of dedicated experts, seconds away from staging a genuine and likely to be successful event?

We have now been told a little more about it.  It seems the plan may have involved smuggling a canister of gas onto the plane, with a view to gas everyone on the plane (possibly to make them simply unconscious, maybe to kill them).  Then, the (presumably gas-masked) terrorists could simply stroll up to the cockpit, kick the door open, dislodge the sleeping/dead pilots from their controls, and take over the plane.  During the gas release, the plane would almost certainly be on auto-pilot, as any typical flight invariably is for 99% of any journey these days, so there would be no risk or danger, as we see in the movies, of the pilot slumping over the control column, pushing it forward, and the plane plunging down in a dive to the ground.  Although probably that would be the terrorists’ plan, sooner or later, somewhere, in any event.  Flight safety isn’t exactly high on a terrorist’s priority list.

The clever thing about a gas attack is that the gas could be taken on the plane in a very hard to detect form (not so sure about gas masks, though!).  An X-ray machine would just see what it thinks to be an empty container.  This article describes some more about the Australian incident, but it also has some strange claims – for example, the suggestion that it would be complicated to make a device to ’emit the gas’.  Seems to me that a screw top would be not too impossibly complex!

On the other hand, effectively ‘gassing’ everyone on a plane would not be simple, because the air in an airplane is being constantly replaced, at a higher rate than in a typical building, even at a higher rate than hospitals.  Depending on the plane and its cabin management settings, the air is being changed every two to six minutes.  So unless you had a very substantial quantity of gas and a high volume delivery system, and unless the gas quickly took effect in small quantities, and had a long period of effectiveness, a gas attack would be useless.

The gas would have to be odorless and fast acting, too.  If the pilots in the cockpit detected the gas, they’d switch to oxygen masks and be protected from any cabin zone contamination.  Indeed, the air flows in a plane are such that little air from the cabin goes back into the cockpit (some does via recirculated air that is mixed with fresh air on each cycle), primarily the air flows from the cockpit and into the cabin, rather than vice versa.

So perhaps not the most serious of threats.  Unless of course, the gas is poisonous, and you’re sitting right next to the canister when it is opened.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’re a tall big man – over 6’2″ and 225 lbs, and with a 40″ or larger waistline, lets hope you don’t enjoy roller coasters.  Similarly, if you’re a 200lb+ lady wearing a size 18 or larger, bad news for you too.

A new amusement park in Alabama are setting these – what appear to be quite distinctively low – size/weight restrictions on some of their new rides.  I guess it is cheaper to build less-strong rides than to build more robustly engineered ones, and my advice would be not to argue the toss if you’re told you’re too tall/heavy/rotund for the ride.  The life you save might be your own!

A new approach to joint tourism promotion that promises to be all about Dull, Boring, and Bland has been excitedly announced this week.  What is the excitement?  Well, how else would you feel, other than excited, if you lived and worked in the tourism industries of Dull in Scotland, Boring in OR, and Bland in Australia?

Oh – the problem with the picture?  Here’s a key to the anomalies.

From left to right, it first seems that, astonishingly for a plane allegedly at 35,000 ft and flying at 550 mph over Greenland, there are a couple of safety cones flying in formation with it.

Now, notice the little orange light.  Admittedly, the two pilots are too happily chatting with the third person to give it a second thought, but it is an important light.  The ‘Master Caution’ light – there’s a second one on the far right as well.

Perhaps the reason for the Master Caution would be that the pilots seem to have forgotten to raise the landing gear.  In the oval, you’ll see the lever is in the lowered rather than raised position, and the three indicator lights are happily green, indicating the gear is down and locked, and that’s certainly not something you’d normally do while cruising.

But maybe there’s another reason for the Master Caution indicator.  It is hard to see in this sized picture, but the indicators in the rectangle, easier to see in the full-sized picture in the article, suggests the engines aren’t running.

So – a picture in midair over Greenland?  Or a picture on the ground at Paine Field in Everett, WA?

Truly lastly this week, there’s a big variation in the hotels that air crew get to stay in when they’re overnighting away from home.  Some crew, in some cities, get treated to amazingly luxurious hotels.  Other crew, and in other cities, get to stay in very basic hotels.

Some Air India crew are very unhappy with the hotel they are assigned in Chicago, and are even asking not to be placed on that route because of the hotel.  The problem with the hotel?  It is haunted.  Sadly, the article doesn’t disclose the hotel’s name.  But does feature an image purporting to be of a ghost.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Aug 022017
 

One of the two traditional photos people take on this road trip.

Who doesn’t enjoy a road trip, especially when it offers a varied range of travel experiences, and has some special significance associated with it.

In Britain, the concept of traveling the length and breadth of the country, from Land’s End in the southwest corner, up to John O’Groats in the northeast corner, has taken on a very special status, and has become a ‘bucket list’ aspiration for many Britons to do this journey.  It is sometimes referred to as the ‘End to End’, and sometimes as an acronym – LEJOG (and lesserly, JOGLE, which specifically implies going from JOG to LE).

To do it ‘properly’ requires doing the journey as a single event, starting at one end or the other and then proceeding steadily to the other end, with no breaks in the middle.  It doesn’t count as the true achievement if you travel a portion of it each year over a two or three year process.

Other countries also have road trip traditions, of course.  In the US, perhaps the best known is to travel Route 66, but in truth, this is a relatively modern ‘tradition’ that only started to become prominent some time after the interstates had replaced the US Highway (in the 1960s), and probably some time after it officially ceased to exist in 1985, although the pivotal nature of the route was recognized back in 1946 with the song ‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66’.

History of the Route

In Britain, people have been traveling between the two points for a long time, although their significance only came into being after 1707 and the union of Scotland and England (we understand that prior to that time there were at least popular expressions referring to the diagonally opposite extremes of both England and Scotland to indicate something all-encompassing, but probably it was not an aspirational journey in those days).  The concept of driving the distance is relatively modern, and prior to the advent of the motor car, other methods of transport such as by horse were used.

The ultimate and original method, and still a very popular method to the present day, is to walk (but probably more people make the journey by car than on foot!).

The oldest officially recorded end-to-end walk was by two brothers in 1871, they subsequently published a book about their adventure (in 1916, now available free at the Gutenberg project).  As an example of the different lifestyle that prevailed back then, it took them nine days to make their way, in roundabout fashion, from where they lived, midway between Manchester and Liverpool, up to John O’Groats for the commencement of their walk back, on a journey that involved trains, boats, stagecoaches and walking.  The actual walk from John O’Groats down to Land’s End took nine weeks, and they say they covered 1372 miles.

They took their inspiration, both for the walk and book, from an earlier walker (actually, not even a Briton – Elihu Burritt, the US Consul in Birmingham) who did two journeys – from London to John O’Groats, and from London to Land’s End, and published two books, one for each journey, in 1864 and 1865.

It seems the two brothers started another tradition too – not only does one make the journey between the two points, but one then publishes an account of the experience, complete with plenty of epic prose and weighty philosophy about the lessons in life one has learned – here is a recent example.  Perhaps these days the equivalent way of recording and sharing the journey involves Facebook, or Twitter, or Flickr!

It is probable that the significance of the journey was acknowledged well before 1864, but we’ve not uncovered earlier records of the journey.

The route as the crow flies between Land’s End and John O’Groats (602.70 miles between signposts)

The Distance

The earlier account reports a 1372 mile walk, but that was not a direct way of traveling.  These days you can still walk the distance, and Google suggests the distance, by foot on practical, walkable, pathways, is 811 miles, which they estimate might take about 268 hours – something less than a month, probably, although note the route not only takes 811 miles, but also involves a total elevation gain of 30,148 ft and a matching elevation loss of 30,272 ft.

If traveling by car, the distance seems to have been shrinking.  The traditional distance, as shown on the marker posts at each end, is 874 miles.  It is not known if that was ever an official distance, because there are very many different ways of traveling the route.

In 1964 a road atlas showed the shortest distance using public roads as being 847 miles.  A 2008 road atlas suggested the distance had reduced to 838 miles.

Currently (Aug 2017) the distance is reported by Google to be 839 miles, and a typical journey time is about 14 hrs 40 minutes, assuming no stops.  Bing Maps says 837.5 miles from carpark to carpark, and suggests a journey time of 14 hrs 59 mins.

These distances are optimized for shortest travel time.  The shortest actual distance using minor roads and not bypassing city centers is reportedly 814 miles.

If traveling by boat, the distance is a little harder to exactly assess, because it depends how close on-shore you travel when going around points, but going around the east coast shows about 900 miles as the shortest distance, and 700 miles around the west coast.  Shorter still would be to travel to Inverness, then through the Caledonian Canal, and down the West Coast – about 630 miles.

If flying between the two points, Google Earth reports a distance of 602.70 miles between the two signposts.  There are indeed people who have succeeded at doing this journey – the straight line/as the crow flies route, and by ‘foot’ (using a paddle canoe for the over-water stretches) as well as by air.

Different Ways of Traveling

We’ve already mentioned walking, by horse, and by car.  But there are many more ways to do it.  Running instead of walking (the record being 9 days 2 hrs).  Bicycling.  Motorbike.  Hitch-hiking.  By public bus services.  By train.

And now that you’ve considered these positively (dare I say) pedestrian variations, let your imagination run wild.  Plenty of other people have not allowed themselves to be inconveniently constrained by practicality.  They have flown by fighter jet.  Microlight.  Wheelchair.  Skateboard.  By motorised supermarket trolley.  Unicycle.  Traction engine.  Boats of various different shapes and sizes.  By bathtub on wheels.  One person even played golf the entire way, knocking a golf ball ahead of him the entire distance, setting a new record for length of hole on a ‘golf course’.

Can you think of a new way to make the journey?  Pogo stick, perhaps?  Roller skates?  Donkey?  Camel?

Or, if we may suggest, by Travel Insider Tour!  Our 2018 Grand Expedition of Great Britain includes the journey between Land’s End and John O’Groats – and in a comfortable luxury coach, rather than on a camel!

A Purpose for Traveling

‘Because it is there’ is the traditional answer to the question ‘Why did you do that?’.  But some people prefer more purpose in their endeavours, and so they will do the journey as a way of raising money for a charity, getting a number of sponsors to each agree to pay a sum per mile or some sum per successful completion.

It is perhaps a complicated way to raise money, but people regularly raise thousands of pounds, because it is a bit of a challenge (okay, not quite such a challenge by car, perhaps!) and because of the special place in British hearts the concept holds.  Sometimes entire groups will get together and do the journey en masse – all walking or cycling or traveling whatever other way they choose to.

Variations

Just as there are many ways to travel between the two ends of the journey, there are some commonly taken detours.

One is to include the highest peaks in England, Wales, and Scotland as part of the journey (this almost certainly involves walking up to the top of the peaks rather than driving, of course).  The three peaks are Scafell Pike in England, Snowdon in Wales, and Ben Nevis in Scotland.

You might point out that most routes don’t go through Wales, but because it is sort of ‘in the middle’ and definitely a part of Britain, these extended itineraries often look to include a Welsh component.  Over-achievers will even add something in Northern Ireland, and a few will seek to include the Republic of Ireland to their journey, too.  Why not – there are no rules and certainly no restrictions on the route you can take!

Another variation is to tour the ‘four cardinal points of Britain’ as part of the journey – the extreme north, south, west and east points of mainland Britain.  In that order they are Dunnet Head (close to John O’Groats), Lizard Point (not very far from Land’s End and close to Penzance), Ardnamurchan (in Scotland, just over from Tobermory on Mull), and Lowestoft’s Ness Point in Suffolk, England.

Other variations can be anything you wish.  Another sometimes adopted variation includes London, Cardiff and Edinburgh (the three capitals).  Or how about ‘the long way around’ – going right around the world the longest way possible, rather than in a semi-short line.

Is there an official way of traveling?  Would a purist prefer to go from south to north, or from north to south?  Our vague feeling is that from south to north is slightly the more common route, but – in case you haven’t guessed already – there really are no rules at all, and any way is a good way.

And Now That You’ve Completed It…..

The second of the two ‘book end’ photos that people traditionally take on their journey.

Congratulations.  If you’ve recorded your journey, you are now eligible to become an official member of the Land’s End – John O’Groats Association, and even to receive a certificate from them to show your feat (better check their qualification requirements first – our sense is they are fairly permissive in terms of what proof they require).

Another form of recording, as mentioned in the photos at the top and bottom, is to take the traditional pictures alongside the ‘official’ signposts at both ends.  This usually involves an ‘official’ photographer who will seek to charge a hefty sum for clicking the button on your camera – as you can see, there is a ‘work around’ possible at Land’s End that is almost as good as the (expensive) official photo!

Good news – just because you have now completed your journey doesn’t mean that your life no longer has any purpose.  Did we mention that some people also strive to do a roundtrip journey?  Or maybe next time you choose to do it on a bicycle.  Or running.  Or via hot air balloon.

There are still plenty more ways to experience the ‘End to End’ journey between Land’s End and John O’Groats!

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Jul 282017
 

Great news. We might be seeing less of this man and his underwear in the future.

Good morning

The last week has seen an exciting increase of people joining our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next June.  Astonishingly, nine of the 11 people who have joined have been on one of the earlier Scotland tours, which is a much appreciated endorsement and indication that we must be doing something right.

We’ve also had another couple join the Christmas Cruise (and they too are former Scotland tourers).  In related good news, I’ve prevailed upon Amawaterways to extend the special $1500 per couple/no single supplement discount on this year’s Christmas cruise, so happily you’ve a bit more time to join this cruise with maximum discounts applying, although please note that only a few cabins remain available.

One saving that doesn’t appear and can’t be guaranteed, but which has proven very substantial for some of us, is that Amawaterways seems to have some great deals on airfares at present; so good that I bought the air for Anna and me through them, and saved an easy $500 each in the process.

So if you’ve been put off by what looks to be an expensive airfare to Europe to join the cruise, have me get an airfare quote for you, too.  The result, while not guaranteed, might save you as massively as it has me.

I’ve a lengthy feature article added to the newsletter this week.  It was suggested I should write a reminiscence of my time in North Korea to mark the State Department’s new blanket ban forbidding American citizens from traveling there.  Well, I already have one of those, sprawling over many pages and dozens of photos (a link to it is in the article I did write), and I found myself yet again backed into a corner where I felt obliged to uncomfortably defend some aspects of North Korea.  More to the point, I felt the need to correct the prevailing misapprehensions about that much misunderstood country, and most of all, to wonder why the US seeks to uniquely impose a (probably unconstitutional) ban on travel to only that country and none other in the entire world (due to ostensible concerns about the danger of traveling there), even though there are lots of countries much more dangerous.

Please do read the article that follows, or even better, click this link so you can read both the article and the reader replies and discussion that has already been added to it.

Also this week :

  • Reader Poll :  The Right to Film on Planes?
  • Another Discount Carrier Across the Atlantic – $99 Roundtrips
  • Sir Richard Branson Cedes Control of Virgin Atlantic
  • Pilot vs Flight Attendant
  • Do We Need More Pilots?
  • Let Me Guess – We Shouldn’t Blame the Pilot
  • More Flight Fees
  • To Better Assist You, We Will No Longer Offer Telephone Support
  • The Most Successful Online Travel Agency Is?
  • The Ugly Secret of Disappearing Cruise Passengers <splash>
  • Cruise Ships They Wish Would Disappear
  • This Year’s Best Cruise Destination Isn’t On the Sea
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Poll :  The Right to Film on Planes?

I wrote last week about whether or not we should be allowed to film whatever we see and wish on planes.  As you know, there’s an automatic assumption, in any case of conflict between flight crew and passengers, that the passengers are in the wrong – quite the opposite of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, a volte-face all the more unfortunate because the penalties we risk incurring can be extreme, up to and including imprisonment.

Just about the only way we can successfully prove our innocence is if someone has filmed the disputed interaction.  It was only the presence of video that created a credible contradiction to no less an authority figure than the CEO of United personally assuring us that the Dr Dao incident was all Dao’s fault.

But airlines are – surprise, surprise – not so keen on allowing passengers to film, and some claim they have the right to forbid any filming, under any circumstance at all.  Airline employees may also claim that this violates their right to personal privacy (even though neither police, anywhere public, nor TSA workers, have a similar right).  There are also vague suggestions that a video record of flight events may endanger airline and airplane security.

What do you think?  Should we be allowed to film while on a plane, or should we be respectful of the privacy of the airline employees and not risk security compromises?  Please click the response that best matches your thoughts.  This will send an empty email with your answer coded into the subject line.

As always, I’ll tabulate the responses and report back to you next week.

Another Discount Carrier Across the Atlantic – $99 Roundtrips

Good news.  A new discount carrier announced plans to start service between Newark and Boston in the US and Paris, London (unusually to Stansted Airport) and Birmingham, with introductory low fares of $99 – apparently roundtrip according to some reports, and four flights, each way across the Atlantic, every day.  They say they will announce two more routes later this summer.

Flights will start in May next year.  But, don’t be astonished to learn that $99 doesn’t buy you much.  No checked bags, and only one carry-one weighing less than 22 lbs.  No meals, either, but maybe free Wi-Fi will be included (an interesting example of the changing priorities in terms of what we expect for free and what we’re willing to pay for).

The airline is an Icelandic/Danish carrier, Primera Air.  It has been flying since 2003, originally as JetX and then since 2008 as Primera Air.  It is small, with only nine single-aisle planes, but another 19 on order.  Service will be on new A321 planes, with coach and business class seating.

The extra 800 seats a day this adds is of little overall impact to total capacity across the Atlantic, and therefore, its low fares will have little market impact either.  But it is a step in the right direction, hopefully bringing us closer to the Nirvana of aggressive low fare international competition.

To put the four A321 flights a day into perspective, the Virgin/Delta/Air France/KLM alliance (see next item) operates more than 300 daily flights across the Atlantic, and usually in very much larger planes.

Sir Richard Branson Cedes Control of Virgin Atlantic

In among his many other ventures, with varying degrees of success, Sir Richard Branson’s original airline, Virgin Atlantic, has always been his highest visibility project and ‘success’ of sorts.

Sure, he ended up selling much of it to Singapore Airlines, and then sold 49% – the maximum allowed – to Delta in 2012.  But he still had 51% (the SQ investment ended) until now, with him having this week sold 31% of the company to Air France, leaving him now with a 20% minority interest.

Delta bought 49% in 2012 for £224 million.  Air France is buying 31% for £220 million.  An unkind interpretation would be that it was worth paying a massive premium for this second tranche of shares so as to wrest control away from Sir Richard, and to therefore curtail his propensity for photo-ops such as the one displayed above (when he was launching a short-lived failure of an utterly quixotic domestic UK airline, ‘Little Red’).

At the same time that Air France bought its Virgin shares, Delta bought a 10% share of Air France.  Noting not only its investment but also Delta’s close partnership with Air France, this would seem to strengthen Delta’s say in the newly structured Virgin Atlantic airline, and see the end of any pretense that Virgin Atlantic was still an independent ‘maverick’ airline competing against the big three alliances across the Atlantic.

Details here.

Pilot vs Flight Attendant

Unfortunately, there’s no video to show what happened or why, but an altercation between a pilot and a flight attendant on an Endeavor Air (a Delta subsidiary) flight prior to its departure from LaGuardia resulted in both the pilot and the flight attendant being offloaded after police were called onto the plane.

The result was a two-hour delay in the flight’s departure.  No news about any consequences to either the pilot or the flight attendant, however.  Which is interesting – have you noticed how the airlines rush to triumphantly tell us how passengers they offload are arrested and charged with assorted crimes?  So why aren’t they telling us what happened when it is their own staff who are at fault.

Do We Need More Pilots?

Talking about pilots, almost exactly to the day, seven years ago, I warned that a ridiculous new government rule would do more harm than good.  In response to a particularly egregious pilot error caused crash, the government decided the best solution to the problem of incompetent pilots killing their passengers (and themselves) was to increase the number of hours of flying time a pilot must have before he was allowed to fly a commercial airplane.  The government increased the minimum from 250 to 1500 hours.

That might sound sensible to some people, particularly politicians, who never allow themselves be sidetracked by facts.  In this case, the facts were that the pilot in the Colgan Air crash had 3263 hours of flying time (and the co-pilot 2244 hours).  The immediately previous crash – another dreadful pilot error – saw the pilot with 4710 hours of flying time.  The accidents before that, all probably primarily pilot errors except as noted, happened to pilots with 2830 hours (not a pilot error in this case – the wing fell off), 8500 hours, 4234 hours, 2790 hours, 8050 hours (probably not pilot error) and a massive 13,043 hours.

So can you see, from these statistics, how increasing the time to qualify from 250 hours to 1500 hours would make any difference at all to air safety?  I sure couldn’t – here’s the article I wrote in 2010, with more details and comments.

But what I did see, quite clearly back then, was that this would make it harder for people to qualify as pilots and less desirable for them to do so, leading to a pilot shortage, and therefore also leading to the remaining pilots being able to demand higher salaries.

Although Congress passed the law in 2010, it took until August 2013 for the FAA to implement it (no, I don’t know what the reason for three years of delay was).

Guess what…..  We are told the world, and in particular the US, is now facing a pilot shortage crisis.  There’s a need for 87 more pilots a day to be certified.  Meanwhile, foreign countries are luring away our trained pilots – China is offering $300,000+ a year tax-free to pilots who will fly their planes.  The solution, it is suggested, is to pay pilots more.

Call me cynical, but I don’t see anything too crisis-inducing with a need for 87 new pilots every day, especially when you consider that is spread out over the entire world.  How many new lawyers do we get every day?  (Answer – apparently 40,000 every year, in the US alone.  That is 110 a day, just in the US.)

Here’s another solution :  How about allowing more planes to fly themselves, and with the increased automation, reducing the need for two pilots per plane down to one (a cynic might suggest there is less chance for pilot error when there is only one pilot in the cockpit), and possibly even having pilots fly more than 80 or so hours every month.

Let Me Guess – We Shouldn’t Blame the Pilot

Look carefully at this picture. Can you see an airport runway anywhere? If you can, you’re better than two Air Canada pilots.

Talking about 80 hours a month, more information is being released about the terribly close shave that almost saw an Air Canada flight land, late at night in the dark, on a taxi-way full of planes rather than on the runway at SFO.

This is of course an extraordinarily basic error that is supposed to be almost impossible to make, due to the prominent way in which runways are marked, and also due to the visible strobe lights of the planes lined up on the taxi-way.  One can’t start to guess how both the pilot and co-pilot failed to notice they were not lined up for the runway but instead were approaching the taxi-way full of stationary planes waiting in line to take-off.

We do now know, however, that the pilot was doing the landing visually only, and had not activated his more automatic Instrument Landing System.  That’s not an error, per se, but it does mean that you’re abandoning one of the several safety systems that are supposed to ensure you go to the correct runway and not to a taxi-way, and would also presumably make most pilots slightly more visually alert.  Apparently, activating the ILS would have required some effort to program it for the approach, and both pilots decided not to bother, doubtless thinking to themselves ‘It is a clear night, an easy approach to a major airport, what could possibly go wrong’.

Excuse my cynicism, but have you too noticed that whenever pilots commit egregious acts of inexplicable stupidity, the inevitable response by their union is that such an act merely proves the need for pilots to get more rest and not work such stressful long hours.  An average of 20 hours a week in the cockpit is apparently way too much.

More Flight Fees

Bad news for all of us who fly.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the 2018 Transportation Appropriation, which sees the ‘Passenger Facility Charge’ (PFC) that airports can levy on passengers who fly in, out, or through their airports, increase from $4.50 to a massive $8.50.

Airports the world over – at least the privately owned ones – are very profitable operations.  For example, Heathrow Airport reported a £169 million net profit in 2015, and Sydney Airport reported an A$321 million net profit for 2016.

But the generally publicly owned airports in the US instead seem to need ever-increasing helpings of our cash in order to struggle to stay open.  That is astonishing, especially when you consider how many different ways airports get money from us.

Well, let’s start off with parking (is there anywhere in any city more expensive to park in than an on-airport parking lot?), or perhaps an airport fee charged by a taxi company or rental car company (where else in town do they charge a hefty fee for a taxi to come and pick you up, or a rental car company to allow them and you access to a rental car, over and above the rental the company is also paying for their space?).

Then, maybe you’ll buy some food, drink, or something else in an airport shop, with perhaps 20% of that payment going to the airport – that’s the real reason why everything is outrageously expensive at an airport – not because of greedy merchants, but because of the greedy airport authority.  (The airport is also charging rent for the space as well as a cut of all the store’s takings.)

Maybe you are also being charged a PFC which is about to double, but even that’s not all.  The airline that is flying you has to pay gate rental fees, landing fees, and a plethora of other potential charges too – probably thousands of dollars per flight, all of which end up being reflected in the size of the fare you pay for your flights.

Furthermore, even the notion that airports should be profitable isn’t a universally accepted one.  They have traditionally been viewed as an essential service/amenity for the local region they serve.  A city with an airport is much more attractive for businesses, property prices are higher, and business can more efficiently be conducted.  Everyone in the region benefits from an airport, and the thought that only people traveling through the airport should pay for it, while not ridiculously wrong, is one that has to be balanced with the broader benefit enjoyed by all in the region.

Airports are usually semi-monopolies.  While happily in the US (unlike, for example, the UK and its utterly dysfunctional approach to airports), there is probably no law that prevents someone else from setting up another airport adjacent to a large population center, the reality is that the enormous cost of creating a new airport, to say nothing of the difficulty in then attracting new airlines and flights, tends to discourage people from doing so, as do zoning restrictions.  On the other hand, most current airports have enormous ‘grandfathered’ benefits as a result of having purchased hundreds of acres of land that, decades ago, were close to valueless, but which now are probably very valuable and much closer in to the city they serve than would now be possible for new airports.  Even an ‘outlying’ airport like, for example, O’Hare is these days surrounded on all sides by development, any extra airport to serve Chicago would have to be at least twice as far out of town.

Couldn’t we at least hope that airports adopt prudent business practices and be careful with our money?  Instead, there seem to be competitions between them to see who can spend the most of our money on some extravagant new design of airport and terminal buildings, when the truth is that as we make our hurried and harried way in and out of airports, we neither notice nor care if there’s a spectacular soaring ceiling, or fancy artwork, or anything.  Just get us to the gate as quickly as possible, give us somewhere to sit while we wait for the flight, and could we have a charging outlet and some Wi-Fi, too.

On the other hand, we also must note that US airports are lagging behind the rest of the world, much like US airlines.  Here’s an interesting article, with the most relevant point being that scheduled/planned airport developments in the US total about $3.6 billion (this seems low, but that’s what the article says, perhaps it is a question of defining new expenditures rather than airport renewals).  In Asia, the spending comes to about $125 billion, and worldwide, $1.1 trillion.  Which makes the US share about one-third of one percent of total expenditure on airports.

Maybe we shouldn’t begrudge airports their new $8.50 fees!

To Better Assist You, We Will No Longer Offer Telephone Support

Only an airline would have the gall to tell its clients that as part of its desire to provide better service, it will no longer take phone calls, and to demand not only that all future communication be emailed, but also that emails have a complicated coding system.

That’s the claim being made by Portuguese airline TAP.  Do they think we’re total fools; do they think we believe email support, with an unspecified response time, and an almost certain requirement for at least one further exchange of emails before a (quite possibly time critical) matter is resolved, is better than a conversation on the phone and instant resolution together with complete understanding?

Here’s the full text of the email they sent.  Read it and weep.  And consider yourself warned – if you fly on TAP and have a problem, don’t expect any kind of fast resolution.

Dear Valued Partner,

As part of our ongoing effort to improve our service to our customers we are implementing a Customer Relationship Management program to better assist you.

As of Thursday, July 27th, all Agency Help Desk assistance will be handled through email only. Telephone assistance will no longer be available so we ask that you submit all requests to [email protected].

In order to provide quick and efficient responses we are providing a list of Keywords which must be included in the Subject Line of your emails. These keywords will help us to quickly identify the problem/question in order to expedite the reply. The keywords may be placed in any part of the subject line.

Keywords:
TKT–For assistance with Ticketing  PNR–For Booking assistance
CKIN–For assistance with Check-in   
SSR–For assistance with Requests of Special Services
GENERAL–For assistance with all other subjects not here defined

WAIVE–For name corrections, special refund situations, other requests for exceptions
IRREG–For assistance with Schedule Changes

TKT-24H–For assistance with Issuances or Reissuance within 24-hours of Departure
IRREG-24H–For assistance with Schedule Changes within 24-hours of Departure

When submitting an email to the Agency Help Desk [email protected], you will receive an automatic response acknowledging receipt of your email and providing you with a Case Number. All correspondence related to a specific Case Number must continue on the same email thread. If you generate a new email about the same subject/problem it will be identified as a new case and will delay the process.

We are counting on your cooperation as we implement this new procedure and we will do our best to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Thank you.

The Most Successful Online Travel Agency Is?

Which do you think to be the most successful online travel agency, as measured by size, profit and growth, reporting in excess of a $2 billion net profit last year?  I guessed wrong, and perhaps you might, too.

Hint – its share price plunged 99% when the dotcom boom became the dotcom bomb, but for those investors who wisely bought at its low, its price has increased by 30,000% subsequently.  This interesting article tells you the company, and gives a fascinating profile of its success and growth.

The Ugly Secret of Disappearing Cruise Passengers <splash>

A cruise passenger, traveling by herself on a cruise to Alaska, mysteriously disappeared on the voyage.  When advised of this by her cabin steward, instead of notifying the authorities, the cruise line pretended she had never been on board, emptying out the cabin she had been staying in and disposing of most of her belongings.  It was only weeks later that the woman’s family found a credit card charge that suggested she had gone on the cruise and started an unsuccessful process to try and find out what happened.  That was in 2004; and even now, 13 years later, it remains an unsolved mystery.

Sounds like a great opening to a murder mystery, doesn’t it.  But it is actually a mundane and commonplace scenario.  By one count, 300 passengers have gone overboard on cruises and ferries between 2000 and now, and another 49 are just entirely unaccounted for.  So far this year, 13 people have gone overboard; only three have been rescued alive.

Jurisdictional grey-areas as between the countries cruise ships are registered in, and the ports/countries they are sailing between, and the waters they are sailing in, seem to have been exploited to minimize any obligations or liabilities on the part of cruise lines.  About the only good thing that can be said about this is it isn’t a worry on a river cruise – if you fall in, you’re only a few feet from the bank!  Details here.

Cruise Ships They Wish Would Disappear

Venice’s full-on hate of tourists continues unabated.  Never mind that the city is dying, with its population having dropped from 175,000 shortly after WW2 to a mere 55,000 now, and that tourism is really the only industry keeping Venice on life-support.

The most visible sign of the booming tourist industry are the mega-ships that sail into the city center, but only about 5% of tourists arrive on cruise ships, and whereas cruise ship passengers tend to just be in port for a day, other tourists more commonly spend several days per visit, becoming much more obtrusive – to say nothing of necessarily wheeling their suitcases through the narrow streets to get to and from their hotels.  This is another element of tourism the Venetians hate – the noise of suitcase wheels on their narrow streets.  But – what is the alternative.  There are no taxis.

Here’s an interesting article about Venice’s hating of its lifeblood tourists and cruise ships.

This Year’s Best Cruise Destination Isn’t On the Sea

Cruise Critic has just announced a whole raft of “the year’s best” awards.  The world’s top cruise port was named, based on its reader/member reports and reviews, as being Budapest, nowhere near any ocean.  It is a river port on the Danube River (and not entirely coincidentally, where our 2017 Christmas Markets cruise departs from).

In terms of European river ports, Wurzburg was second, Vienna third, Paris fourth and Regensburg (my favorite Christmas market is in Regensburg) fifth.  Our cruise also stops in Vienna and Regensburg.

And Lastly This Week…..

Heard on a tour of Windsor Castle, after the guide was regaling his group of American visitors with stories about how Prince Philip would get upset about all the planes flying overhead (Windsor Castle is in the main flight path to/from Heathrow) and would eventually erupt and phone the Heathrow traffic control center and demand the change the ‘bloody’ flight path.

One of the tourists, after thinking about this, asked ‘Why were they so stupid as to build their castle so close to Heathrow Airport?’.

The Guinness Book of Records is famous for awarding titles for all manner of unusual achievements, so perhaps it is not altogether surprising that it is now anointing Mr Blackman with the title of the longest career as an airline mechanic.  Still working, after 75 years on the job, Mr Azriel Blackman works for AA at JFK.  He is obviously no spring chicken – he is 92.  Our best wishes to him and his continued record-breaking career.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Jul 262017
 

Am I overlooking something, or do these North Korean soldiers look far from threatening?

The US State Department has decided that it is ‘too risky’ to allow us our freedom to travel to North Korea (DPRK), and accordingly is outright forbidding US citizens from traveling there.

Prior to this ban, there were no restrictions on visiting, and North Korea eagerly welcomed US visitors, with a trivially simple visa application process and nothing more.

The US is the only country in the world to prohibit travel to North Korea – even South Korea allows its citizens to travel to North Korea.  And North Korea is the only country in the world to which the US has outright banned all travel.

Ostensibly this ban is in response to US citizen Otto Warmbier having become mysteriously unwell while imprisoned in North Korea, and dying shortly after being repatriated to the US on humanitarian grounds as a result of his illness.

That was indeed a terrible event and outcome.  But how severe is the risk of arbitrary imprisonment, and followed by death, for ordinary tourists, and how does that risk compare to other destinations in the world, or to remaining ‘safely’ in the US itself?

Half our group with an obligatory group photo in front of the two Kims.

Unlike most people with loud opinions on the topic, I’ve actually been to North Korea.  I took a group of 35 Travel Insiders on a six day/five night tour of North Korea in September 2012.

You can see a detailed photo-journal of our North Korean experiences here, and some general questions and answers about North Korea here.  If you read those two documents, you’ll know more – and more accurately – about the country than most of our ‘experts’.

And – again unlike most commentators – I’ve no hidden agenda.  Sure, I’m no expert, but who is?  My guess is that 99% of the people who claim to be experts on North Korea have never been there, so maybe, by their standards if not mine, that makes me an expert of sorts.  Most of the others are people who have left North Korea and now seek to dine out on their one-sided stories of life in North Korea, becoming part of the profitable ‘let’s hate North Korea’ community.

I should add that I also don’t wish to be seen as a North Korean apologist.  Those people definitely exist, and their tales of the ‘paradise’ of North Korea and its ‘well fed affluent citizenry’ are at least as ridiculous as those who vilify the country, its people and its leaders.

But I do want to ‘set the record straight’ and counter some of the ridiculous and hypocritical nonsense that is regularly regurgitated as if it is certain fact, and which ignores the context that, as bad as it certainly is, North Korea is no worse than dozens of other countries all around the world.

Let’s look at the reasons for the ban first, and then some broader implications and issues.

Are North Korean Prisons Unusually Bad?

I happily have no first-hand knowledge of North Korean prisons, and I’ll readily concede they are probably very nasty places.  But this is something common to many other countries for which there are no restrictions on our travel.

Midnight Express makes the point quite clearly about Turkey, and our neighbor, Mexico, apparently has prisons that are unimaginably bad, lawless, and dangerous (for example this and this account) as well as both the police and justice system which by some accounts suffer from significant levels of corruption.  Similar prison problems and corruption probably apply to most third world countries, and to major developed nations too – here’s a blood curdling tale of one American’s struggle against Russian corruption and the lethal consequences that ensued.

US prisons aren’t exactly luxury resorts, either.  Sure, we don’t expect our prisoners to experience unusual comfort, but we are obliged to afford them the basic courtesies of life, support and sustenance.

Never mind the one death in the North Korean prison.  How many Americans die in US prisons each year?  The answer – we don’t even know!  (A cynic might observe there’s probably a reason that this number is obscured.)

It seems that not only do thousands of people die in US prisons and jails each year, but also that 75% of them die before they’ve even been tried and sentenced.  While some of these deaths are for conditions that predate the person’s incarceration, there are abundant shameful stories of people being remanded in custody – prior to trial and sometimes even prior to being arraigned – and having critical medical conditions ignored and being denied treatment.  Is it fair that a person not yet charged, tried, convicted or sentenced should risk a death sentence?

As for the prevalence of lesser (but still dreadful) experiences such as prison rape, or severe injuries from attacks by some prisoners on others, one can only guess.

How Severe is the Risk of Random Imprisonment for Visitors to North Korea?

Our government wishes to protect us from people like this? Three generations of picnicking North Koreans stare – but with friendly interest – at our group as we go by.

In a word, non-existent.  Don’t let (possibly misplaced) outrage about the mysterious illness and death of the American student blind you to the stark fact that he was guilty of the crime he was accused of.  Otto Warmbier truly and of his own volition chose to commit a crime.  It wasn’t an accident or an unwitting mistake.  It was the totally foreseeable outcome of his stupidity; everyone who goes to North Korea is lectured, prior to the journey at a formal briefing session in Beijing, on how there can be severe consequences if you choose to deliberately break North Korean laws.

Although Warmbier was by all accounts intelligent and a successful student, it seems that he may have had too much to drink as part of New Year’s Eve revels in Pyongyang, and upon returning back to the hotel some time after 1am, decided to go into a restricted staff-only part of the hotel and remove a political poster from a wall in a corridor.  He didn’t take it away, just left it on the floor.

That doesn’t sound like too heinous a crime, and the sentence he received – 15 years imprisonment – for an apparently drunken act seems extremely severe by US standards, but the guy wasn’t in the US.

He also absolutely did not deserve to die, by anyone’s standards of justice, not even by the North Korean standards.  That is appalling.  But so too is the death of our own people in our own prisons, by the many thousands, every year.  Shouldn’t we be focusing on the things we can fix, first?  Shouldn’t we be getting our own house in order before we try and impose our standards on a separate sovereign nation?  (And, when we decide it is time to start demanding foreign countries provide fair treatment to US prisoners, is North Korea – with only three Americans now captive – the highest priority target for our ire?  Compare that to Mexico, where in 2001 there were over 600 Americans in prison – it would be more but for most crimes and sentences, Americans can apply to serve their time in a US rather than Mexican prison.)

Respect for the country’s leader is mandatory in North Korea. But the same is true of requiring respect for the monarchy in Thailand, too.

In other countries, things we think to be trivial and harmless may be treated much more severely, and when we visit such countries, it is their system of laws and values that apply, not ours.  For example, drug offenses that would get little judicial notice at all in the US can even result in execution in some other countries, and a plethora of ‘normal legal activities’ in the US can result in imprisonment in Muslim nations (kissing or drinking alcohol in public, for example).

This works both ways.  Things that are commonplace and normal in other countries can be severely punished in the US – bribing a police officer, for example.

Different laws and penalties apply when we travel to other countries, but that has never previously been a reason to ban Americans from choosing of their own free will to travel wherever they wished.

A key issue is that whereas in some countries, you risk being detained, arrested, and even imprisoned for capricious reasons, and in particular, for the ‘crime’ of not sufficiently bribing public officials, there is no such risk in North Korea.  Tourists who comply with the behavior expected of them have a totally trouble-free experience in return, and are treated with deferential respect by the authorities, rather than viewed as tempting targets for extortion.

Tourists who inadvertently violate one of North Korea’s requirements to show, what we’d consider back-home, to be unwarranted and ridiculous respect to the leadership, are not sent to prison, either.  I know this because one of my group unwittingly caused grave offense during our stay in North Korea.  If you don’t click over to the linked story, the bottom line is simple.  No-one went to jail, nothing bad happened.

There have of course been other US citizens imprisoned in North Korea too (the US State Department counts 16 in total for the last ten years, another source suggests 16 in twenty years, and apparently three remain in custody now), although I don’t think any others have died in custody.  These other people are generally far from naïve innocent visitors – in some cases it seems they are missionaries who were aggressively pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in North Korea and have pushed too hard and too far.

For normal tourists who feel they can exercise sufficient self-control to not go removing pictures off the walls of the hotel they stay in, a North Korean visit poses less rather than more risk than would be the case in most other non-western countries.

If the US is to start banning us from traveling to other countries, there are plenty of other countries where we face much greater risks of truly unexpected and capricious consequences than North Korea.  If dangerous prisons are a consideration, none of us would be allowed to leave home, because the US prisons are plenty dangerous, too.

The Right of Our Government to Forbid Us to Travel

Riding an escalator down to the metro in Pyongyang.  Every part of our tour was totally safe.  There was nothing the government needed to protect us from.

Underlying the travel ban is another point that also deserves examination.  It is fair to question – by what authority can the US government take away one of our most precious rights – the freedom to travel?

This question becomes all the more pressing when the ostensible reason for the ban – the danger of visiting there – fails to withstand even the thinnest of commonsense reviews.

The first amendment talks about ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble’, a right that is understood to give us freedom to travel, so as to peaceably assemble where, when, and how we choose.  One could also argue that the reciprocal of the right to free speech is a right to listen to speech – speech is no longer effective or free if people are prevented from hearing it, and so we should be allowed to ‘hear’ (in the form of in-person visiting) speech by anyone and anywhere.

Other amendments in our Bill of Rights also touch on, albeit obliquely, our freedom to travel as we choose.  Amendment 4 allows us to be secure against unreasonable seizures and has been understood to constrain the ability of the authorities to detain or arrest us, which seems to imply that, absent due process, we have a normal freedom to travel as we wish and where we wish.  Amendments 9 and 10 clearly indicate that other non-enumerated rights exist, but that the power of the central government is restricted to only those powers specifically extended, rather than vice versa.

The Constitution itself sets forth these powers of the government in Section 8 of Article 1.  Nowhere in Section 8 does it provide any power to the government to restrict the countries we may travel to (and noting how all the founders were either immigrants or the children of recent immigrants, international travel was clearly something they were familiar with).

There is reference to being able to regulate commerce, and of course to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, but it is totally silent on an ability to restrict the right of private citizens to travel wherever in the world they choose.

The travel restrictions that apply to our travel to Cuba have been excused and explained as being part of a trade ban – something that arguably falls within Section 8’s authorization to regulate commerce.  But the North Korean travel ban is not being imposed for that reason, it was explained as being to protect our safety.  It is unlikely that the constitutional empowerment to provide for the general welfare of the nation can be extended to an ability to prohibit travel to one particular nation due to a largely spurious claim of it being possibly and occasionally dangerous.

Furthermore, the Cuban travel restrictions – imposed by the Department of the Treasury under the authority of the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act’ of 1917, are riddled with loopholes and exclusions, and may currently be in the process of being further liberalized or even abandoned entirely.

We are unaware of any other countries which Americans are forbidden to travel to.  There are plenty of countries with warnings urging Americans not to visit (eg Yemen) but we can still travel to all such countries, no matter how severe the risk may be.  Foolish as it may be, and dangerous as it definitely is, we can even travel to active war zones in other countries (eg Syria).

Certainly, there are some countries that make it close to impossible for Americans to visit (most notably Saudi Arabia) but while the host country may not wish us to come, the US government does not restrict us from going.

Should We Travel to North Korea – Are We Supporting a Bad Country and Government?

You can bet these two boys had something to tell their parents when they got home!  Don’t unscripted contacts like this help, at a person to person level, grow better international relationships?

This is a fair question.  Are we being ‘disloyal’ to something or someone if we visit any unfriendly and hostile country?  It is definitely true that  visits to any country boosts that country’s economy and employment as a result of the visit.

On the other hand, of course, just how measurable an economic impact do the approximately 2,000 US visitors to North Korea each year currently have, and who benefits from our visit?

This philosophical question is one we’re less qualified to pronounce upon, so we’ll leave it to two former US Presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, to opine on the matter in the next point.

But, may we observe that, in general, it seems to us to be much harder to countenance war with another country when it is a country that one has visited and experienced, when the people and places seem more ‘real’ and more ‘human’.  North Korea changed in my mind from being something akin to the caricature of pure evil that its detractors love to portray it as being, to instead being a more complex and nuanced country, with decent honest hardworking citizens who were more curious about us than actively hating us.

I’ve been in Muslim countries where you palpably feel the hate and resentment exuding out of the local citizens.  I’ve been in countries where the entire population seems to be joined together in a national conspiracy to rip-off the wealthy visitors at every turn.  I felt none of these things in North Korea.  Anxiety, puzzlement, caution – yes.  And also politeness and reserved curiosity.  But irrational hate?  Not at all.

As for who benefits from our visit, it seemed that most of the beneficiaries were the employees of the places we visited, stayed in, or had meals and drinks at.  Our understanding is that the ‘trickle down’ economy was such that the money  people earned from our visiting wasn’t so much supporting each person individually in a luxurious lifestyle, but rather being spread far and thin, helping that person’s family all have a slightly less severe life.

Dare I hope that my visit helped slightly bring our two countries closer together, at a person to person level?  That’s a hope shared not just by me, but also by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, who created the concept of ‘citizen ambassadors’.

Citizen Ambassadors Do More Good than Official Ambassadors

On stage with a group of locals cheerfully waving and smiling at me. Rather than being hidden away from the locals, at times we were almost the featured attraction!

When we were present in North Korea, we were a small spark of friendship and sanity, albeit surrounded by much misapprehension.

But this is the way that freedom has been kindled and developed in other countries – by allowing the citizenry to see that the western people and lifestyle is not a threat, but rather something to admire, to appreciate, and to aspire to.

I’d like to think that none of the people we interacted with ended up feeling we were dreadful bad monsters; and hopefully most decided that we were actually decent human beings, and not as dissimilar to themselves as they’d been lead to believe.

This notion was embraced by President Eisenhower when he said in 1956 when founding the People to People program of ‘citizen ambassadors’

I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations require mutual respect between individuals

It was affirmed by President Kennedy who said of the program

… all assert a single theme – the power of people, acting as individuals, to respond imaginatively to the world’s need for peace

We, as visiting Americans, interacted with regular ordinary North Koreans every day.  We saw them and even spoke to them in the parks.  On the streets.  At the various monuments and memorials we visited, and the concerts and performances we attended.  In the hotels and restaurants and stores.  While we never had anything other than the lightest of superficial contacts, of course, even that was enough to help the local people notice our wealth, our health, and our friendliness.

So that was what we were modestly achieving as citizen ambassadors.  As for the actions of the official US ambassador to North Korea – well, there isn’t one.  The US has chosen to have no diplomatic representation in the country at all.  Our government has concentrated solely on wielding the ‘stick’ of sanctions, without offering even the slightest taste of the ‘carrot’ of friendship and support.

The utter ineffectiveness of this is no reason to double down on even tighter sanctions; surely it is a reason to reconsider and change strategies entirely.

The Best Type of Alliance and Association is Always Economic

We were very amused to note that all the computers in use here were from Dell.

The US should be encouraging its people to travel to North Korea, and should be growing its ties to the country.

There is no reason why North Korea couldn’t become another ‘Asian Tiger’ nation with a booming economy, such that it then finds itself in a position where it simultaneously has a growing middle class and realizes that the economic ties that bind it to the west (and in particular to the US) have become so strong as to make the costs of a conflict unacceptable.

Isn’t this the ultimate source of the ‘goodwill’ between the US and China – the mutual economic need and benefit by both countries to preserve a friendly relationship?  Couldn’t the same be created with North Korea?

Wealthy nations with strong middle classes have no stomach for wars, and little liking for dictatorship governments.  Wouldn’t making North Korea prosperous, rather than perpetuating its poverty, be the most effective win-win way of ensuring its future friendship?

Is North Korea’s Leadership Crazy?

It is true that the North Koreans venerate their leaders much more than we do ours. But is our vilification of them just as extreme, in the opposite direction? Is a more moderate appreciation possible?

It seems the only world leader who gets more opprobrium and insult than our own President is the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un.  Many people would have us believe that both are crazy madmen!

As for Kim Jong-Un, we are told he spends all his country’s money on developing needless nuclear weapons, while his people starve.  Anyone who disagrees with him is thrown into prison.

But how much of this is true?

The North Korean leadership is no more corrupt and no more stupid than that of many other countries all around the world, and their acts to develop nuclear weapons are rational rather than irrational.  Most of all, the ability of the leadership to impose their biased and selective world-view on their citizens is enhanced when there are fewer westerners actually present in North Korea to present a very tangible rebuttal of their claims.

Sure, they lead an extravagant lifestyle while some in their country are starving.  However, is that any different to the US?  Consider our former President, someone who went from being a community organizer to now being able to buy an $8.1 million nine bedroom house in DC (to say nothing of another home in Chicago, one in Rancho Mirage, CA,  and perhaps properties in Hawaii and New York too), while enjoying a lifestyle of luxury jet-setting around the world.  At the same time, we have plenty of starving people in our country too.

Doesn’t the excuse ‘the relatively small cost of an imperial presidency would have no effect on the huge social problems we suffer’ apply as much to North Korea as it does to the United States?

Where is the real difference between our leaders who somehow leave public office millions of dollars richer, and the leaders of other countries who also amass and enjoy enormous wealth and extravagant lifestyles?

Perhaps the pathways to the riches and the luxuries are different, but the outcomes are the same.  In one country, there is corruption and bribery.  In the other, there are speaking fees, wealthy friends, and book deals.  In one country, there are off-shore bank accounts.  In the other – hmmm, quite possibly also off-shore bank accounts, and on-shore trusts and foundations.

In one country, there are servants and military guards.  In the other country, there are better paid staff and the Secret Service.  In one country there are palaces.  In the other country, there is the White House, Camp David, 20+ car motorcades and 747 jets.

The similarities eclipse the differences.

What About North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons?

Some of our group joined with the locals in a mass public dance one evening. It is hard to think these people hold any enmity or hostility to us.

We don’t deny the very real threat of nuclear attack by North Korea.

But is this threat in the form of a possible first strike by them, or in response to an attack by us on North Korea?  Our sense – our hope – is that they have no reason to launch a first strike attack on us, and would not do so. But if we attack them, should we be astonished if they do all they can to resist, and if they match our actions on their homeland with a response on our homeland, too?

The surprising truth of nuclear weapons is that they are not an expensive ‘luxury’ for a weak and impoverished country to consider.  They are the cheapest form of creating a credible military force when opposing forces are likely to be enormously more powerful.

That is why North Korea is developing its nuclear capabilities – because it lacks the economic and population base to create any other form of credible defense force to defend against a feared future attack by either South Korea and/or the US.  While on paper, the North Korean Army has more active duty troops than the South, they are poorly trained and poorly equipped, and far less effective.  In addition, the South Koreans have an enormous superiority in every respect when it comes to having modern tanks, planes, and ships.

We also note that although we hear a lot about ‘provocations’ by the North Koreans, not so much coverage is given to provocations by ‘our side’.  However, when we traveled down to the DMZ while in North Korea, we saw an apparent violation of the DMZ with a US or South Korean helicopter operating within 100 yards or so of the border, right inside the DMZ (see the photo and discussion on this page of my trip diary/photo journal).  There is no way the North Koreans could have staged that for us.

We might think that we would never attack North Korea – although it is difficult to hold that thought with the present escalating levels of rhetoric on our side; but the North Koreans are gravely concerned about what they see as a credible risk.  They feel compelled to prepare for such an event.

Will this travel ban help discourage North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles?  No, of course not; if anything, it will encourage the North Koreans to accelerate their programs still further.  Withdrawing your citizens from a country is a traditional pre-cursor to initiating an attack.

The geo-political reality of nuclear weapons is that they are an essential tool for weak countries to have when being challenged by strong countries.  Every part of the US posturing to North Korea has been in the form of threats, and it is an entirely rational act on the part of the country’s leadership to feel concerned that the US may seek to impose regime change on their country – something the US has done in many other countries in the past.

There is no way that North Korea could win a conventional conflict with the US; its only rational and sensible strategy is to develop nuclear weapons.

Is The Failed North Korean Economy Proof of the Perfidy of their Government and Political System?

Farmers in the fields with an ox-drawn plow.

It is true that the North Korean economy is massively underperforming compared to that of South Korea, with per capita incomes and general quality of life much lower in the North than the South.  But is that wholly a reflection on the North Korean leadership?

After the Korean war (1950 – 1953) how many bazillions of dollars flooded into South Korea from the US?  US support has been given to South Korea in many different forms (we’re not criticizing any of it, merely pointing to its existence).  Direct foreign aid through the many different US government programs.  Commercial investment into business ventures.  Technology transfers.  Military aid.  The presence of US military forces and the boost to the local economy that comes from their presence.  Buying South Korean goods.  Private aid groups and their support.  Plus of course, the benefits of unconstrained bilateral trade and tourism.

But whereas we have directly and indirectly supported South Korea for 65 years, when it comes to North Korea, we bully the world into imposing trade sanctions on the country.  Is it any wonder the North Korean economy is so poor?

We don’t think it is accurate to solely equate the poor North Korean economy with its form of government.  Maybe all that it indicates is the harm we have been inflicting on the ordinary population of North Korea for decades.

Sure, when we read about millions of North Koreans dying of starvation in some years  when their harvests are poor, of course we recoil in horror at how a tiny coterie of elite are still leading comfortable lives in their positions of power in the country.  Articles such as this, with the headline ‘How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea’ don’t hesitate to place the blame on how North Korea (mis)manages its agricultural programs.  Much of that criticism is true, but how often do we question whether part of the reason for poor harvests is due to our refusals to sell them farm machinery, fertilizers, harvesting, distribution and storage equipment, know-how, and our refusal to allow our own agricultural companies to do business there?

Without firing a shot, our imposition of trade sanctions means we’re in part responsible for the deaths of millions of North Koreans.

Another Clue About How to Handle North Korea

With all due respect to our State Department officials in ‘Foggy Bottom’, probably the people and country with the greatest expertise about how to deal with North Korea – and the country with the greatest ‘skin in the game’, is South Korea.

They’ve just had a change of government, and their new leadership was elected on a policy of rapprochement and a closer peaceable engagement with North Korea, and a de-escalation of aggressive rhetoric.

The US is pretty much out at one extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to the general international community’s approach to North Korea.  That of course neither makes us right nor wrong, but it is interesting to note that our approach is currently diverging from that of South Korea.

There’s No Point to Visit North Korea – They Only Show the Good Stuff

A farmer with an ox-drawn cart, and husked corn spread out on the side of the road to dry.

A common criticism of tours to North Korea is that the itineraries and the routes are carefully selected to only showcase the best parts of North Korea.  This is simultaneously right, wrong, and normal.

With very few exceptions, when have you ever gone on any tour, anywhere, that features the ghettos, the slums, the ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ parts of the cities you visit?

I’ve been on tours all around the world, and I’ve designed tour routes all around the world, and I’ve never been on one that didn’t do the best it could to showcase the ‘good’ and ‘interesting’ and ‘nice’ parts of the regions being visited.  Only some types of ‘adventure/danger’ touring go out of their way to put their tour members at risk.

Think of the last time you did a day tour in a major European city – what did you see?  Have you been on a tour of Paris that includes a visit to the Muslim banlieues, in a perpetual simmering state of unrest and near riot?  In Los Angeles, you can do a regular day tour, or a ‘homes of the stars’ tour of Hollywood, but you know for sure you’re never going to go anywhere near Chesterfield Square or Harvard Park, which have violent crime rates 100 times greater than in the areas you will be (comparatively) safely visiting.

So who is surprised that North Korea wishes to show the best parts of its country to its foreign visitors?

On the other hand, during the course of a typical five-day tour, including several hundred miles of travel out of Pyongyang to other towns, and through the open countryside, you of course see sights more closely approximating the reality of life and lifestyles in the country.  You’ll see horse-drawn wagons, and people working in the fields without the aid of modern machinery.  You’ll get a sense that the standards of living in the countryside are much lower than they are in Pyongyang.

But who is shocked by this?  What you see is no different to what you’ll see in the economic powerhouses of China and South Korea, and in most of the rest of South East Asia, too.  Most people, particularly in the ‘developing’ countries, lead lifestyles which by our standards equate to abject poverty and squalor.

What We Should Be Doing

North Koreans are just like us. They get dressed up, they have weddings, they take pictures. And we, in turn, are just like them. Only exposure to each other can help us appreciate this.

We need to finish our war with North Korea.

It is extraordinary that 65 years after the cessation of hostilities, we’ve not yet been able to negotiate a peace treaty.  There are several reasons for this, primarily revolving around a shared unwillingness by both North and South Korea to formally accept the notion of two separate sovereign Korean states.  They both want unification, but they each wish to perpetuate their system of government, rather than accept the other country’s regime.

Whether or not a peace agreement can be concluded, the former principal participants in the conflict – US, South Korea and North Korea – need to ensure that the current situation which anticipates (and therefore almost encourages) a sudden return to active hostilities breaking out at any minute is replaced by a more stable peace.

Why not do this by expanding the DMZ from 2.5 miles to 25 miles or even to 250 miles?  With both capitals – Seoul and Pyongyang – relatively close to the current border (25 and 85 miles, respectively), moving artillery and other forces much further away from the border reduces the perceived immediate threats for both sides.  The oft-cited claim of there being thousands of artillery pieces ready to start raining rounds on Seoul with almost no warning would cease to have its validity, and the latest developments in satellite monitoring make it easy to enforce such extended zones.

After the abject failure of aggressive economic hostilities, isn’t it time to try the other approach.  Make it so North Korea stands to lose more if it breaks out of a ‘loving economic embrace’ with South Korea and the west in general, rather than at present, where it has nothing to lose, no matter what it does or how much of an international pariah it allows itself to be and become.

Most of all, rather than prohibiting US travel to North Korea, isn’t it time to re-invigorate the concept of ‘citizen ambassadors’ and to fill North Korea with walking talking irrefutable examples of how people in the west are ordinary normal people, and eager to be friends rather than enemies.

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