Category Archives: travel

Cuban Cigar Diplomacy

Cohiba Cuban Cigars

President Obama announced on December 17, 2014 that he would pursue full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The new policy is basically an admission that the attempt to isolate Cuba in the hope that the Cuban people would rise against Castro’s regime has failed. A new policy of engagement with the Cuban people will probably be much better for the U.S. and for Cuba, just like Nixon’s policy of engagement with China led to improved commerce, better international relations and the end of the cold war.

Cuba was a popular destination for U.S. tourists before Castro’s revolution. Ernest Hemingway wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea” while living in Cuba. Cuban products, such as sugar, cigars and rum could be found in many American homes. The U.S. embargo changed all that and caused Cuba to seek economic relief and military aid from the Soviet Union. Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 by the U.S., Cuba requested nuclear arms from the Soviet Union that eventually resulted in the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

The renewal of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have many ramifications. Tourism and commerce will certainly flourish, but it will also be necessary to re-establish trademark protections that were not respected during the 54 years of enmity that started with the U.S. embargo of 19 October 1960. One of the tasks for improving diplomatic relations will be the restoration of the Cohiba brand name for marketing of Cuban cigars.

Vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Mountains
in Little Switzerland, North Carolina

Hiking in the mountains is a good way to get exercise and enjoy nature.  I recently went on a weekend vacation to Little Switzerland, North Carolina, and from there I traveled south toward Mount Mitchell National Park, and then north toward the city of Blowing Rock.

Little Switzerland is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway which is very colorful in the autumn when the leaves change colors.  The mountainous terrain provides majestic landscapes and great opportunities for photography, hiking and other outdoor activities.  The picture above was taken at dusk from the backyard of the Little Switzerland Inn where I stayed.  The blue color of the mountains turned to orange in the morning of the next day.  It was fortunate that the drizzle of the previous day cleared up and the sky was perfectly blue for the next two days.

When I got to Mount Mitchell, which is only 25 miles away from Little Switzerland, the trees and the ground were covered with snow from a storm that had blown through the day before.  The difference in altitude is responsible for a large temperature difference between the valleys and the tops of the mountains.  Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the east coast, and the view from the top is wonderful in all directions.

The next day, I drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  Blowing Rock is a community whose population booms in the summertime as Floridians overwhelmed by hot weather flock to seek relief in the cool mountain air.  Blowing Rock has many lodges, restaurants, cultural functions, and outdoor activities.  It is a favorite vacation destination that makes it possible to be close to nature and also many city amenities.

See Pictures of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

Cherry Blossom Festival

April is a colorful month in Washington, D.C.  The blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial is an example of the natural beauty of the capital of the United States.  These Japanese cherry trees, also called sakura, were originally a gift from Japan in 1912, and additional trees were planted in 1965.

People who live in the Washington area look forward to the Cherry Blossom Festival which is held every year at the beginning of April.  The festival includes a parade that runs along Constitution Avenue and is usually televised.  Giant colorful balloons, marching bands, performers, celebrities, and spectators fill the streets of Washington.  Several streets are closed for the Annual Sakura Matsuri, the largest Japanese Street Festival in the United States.

The booths for the Japanese festival display a wide variety of arts, crafts, and products.  Geishas in their bright kimonos demonstrate dances to the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments.  Visitors can learn how to fold origami, and they can buy anime, manga, J-POP music, and Japanese food delicacies. 

Presidential Inauguration in Washington

The US Capitol

There is great excitement in Washington as the United States prepares for the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Those of us who supported equality of civil rights for all citizens feel that the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. is closer.  In his famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, MLK said:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Ever since the days of emancipation, black people and other minorities have struggled for acceptance into American society.  Lyndon Johnson signed more education bills into law than any other president, thereby creating a melting pot which forced young people of all races to look at each other closely and find out that they were not that different after all.

Separatists movements like “Black Power” and “Ebonics” failed to get mainstream acceptance, and rather than ending up with a black and white America, we are uniting into a single America.  Interracial personal relationships no longer have the stigma that was so prevalent in the 1960s.  Barak Obama embodies many of the characteristics and goals of today’s America.

When you come to Washington to celebrate, you will have the opportunity to visit many famous landmarks such as The U.S. Capitol, The Library of Congress, and the National Museum of Natural History.

Bethesda in the Fall

Bethesda in the Fall

We have had a few frosts in the Washington, D.C. area and the leaves of the deciduous trees have started to turn yellow and red. The pines and magnolias retain their verdant hues and will stay green throughout the winter.

A favorite pastime of local residents at this time of the year is to take a day tour of the Shenandoah National Park which is about 75 miles from Washington.  The park is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and has campgrounds, hiking trails, and many natural attractions.  Along the crest of the mountains, the Skyline Drive allows visitors to drive through the woods and get a view of spectacular panoramas.  The Appalachian Trail takes visitors through a wonderful wilderness that has been preserved for many generations.  On previous occasions, I have seen fleeting glances of black bears crossing the road and groups of wild turkeys feeding along the roadside.

Today is a bright sunny day.  The temperature is a crispy 58 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air is calm.  I think I will go out for a walk and enjoy the view.

Plan your Travel

Porcelain Girls

Traveling provides an opportunity to enhance our knowledge, meet new people, and enjoy the taste and atmosphere of far-away places.  Traveling can be interesting and fun, unless something goes wrong.  Flying is one of the safest ways to travel, but there are risks.  A few days ago, a Spanair MD-82 flight to the Canary Islands crashed on takeoff and killed 153 people. Nineteen people survived the crash.  No amount of preparation can get you ready for this type of accident, but most trips end up uneventfully.  People get to where they want to go in spite of the delays in the airports, and they accomplish their business or they have a good time.

As I was walking in the living room today, the porcelain figurines on my bookcase caught my attention, and I thought about travel.  These ceramic figures are the only survivors of a trip that I took to Europe many years ago.  I had gone to Spain and Italy on business for a couple of weeks.  When I did not work, I took the opportunity to know the countries better.  In Spain, I drove a rental BMW from Madrid to Costa del Sol in Andalucía, which is by the Mediterranean Sea.  I visited cities like Torremolinos and Marbella, but I did not get as far as Gibraltar.  Many faces in the south of Spain reminded me of my maternal relatives.  I am sure that some of my ancestors came from there.

One of the interesting things that you can do on a trip is to gather souvenirs.  You can look at them later and remember where you were and re-imagine your adventures.  As I traveled in Spain, I encountered some beautiful ceramic figurines and bought four of them.  The price was about $15 Dollars each because they were Tengra ceramics, rather than the more expensive Lladro ceramics.  My statuettes were carefully wrapped in multiple layers of paper and placed in large boxes.

After one week in Spain, I spent another week in Pisa, Italy.  From there, I drove to Rome where I stayed overnight in preparation for my trip back to the United States.  After I packed everything in the car to go the airport, I went to check out of the hotel.  During the time that I was checking out, someone jimmied the car open and stole all my luggage.  The thief probably had a small car and could not fit the bulky boxes with the ceramics.  I went to the police station and filed a report.  I received a copy of the complaint, and drove immediately  to the airport.  I checked-in the boxes with the figurines with the airline and took the flight home.

When I arrived in Washington, D.C., I waited at the baggage return for my boxes, but they never came.  I went to the airline counter to ask about my lost boxes, and they told me that they would investigate.  So, there I was with only the clothes on my back after a two-week trip to Europe.  The customs agent eyed me with suspicion, but let me through.  My boxes with the four figurines arrived safely several days later.  They had been loaded on a different flight by mistake.

I spent the next few weeks going over my receipts to make a list of what I had lost.  I submitted claims to my employer, to the car rental agency, and to my home insurance.  Of course, the insurance agents asked me if I was in financial trouble, trying to figure out if I was pulling an insurance scam.  In the end, I got reimbursed for most of my losses.  I only have these ceramic figures to remind me of that trip, and I also know that somewhere in Italy, an Italian thief is wearing my clothes.

Lack of sleep may cause accidents

Chesapeake bay bridge

Last Sunday, a 19-year old driver fell asleep at the wheel as she was driving on the Chesapeake bay bridge.  The bridge has two spans which normally carry one-way traffic in different directions, but on this day, there was two-way traffic because one of the spans was closed for repairs.  The car with the sleeping driver drifted unto the oncoming traffic and a collision involving several vehicles sent an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer plunging into the Chesapeake Bay.  The driver of the truck was killed.  The sleepy driver was hospitalized and was reported to be in good condition.

Sleep deprivation may cause paranoia, hallucinations, as well as cognitive and psychomotor impairments. In one experiment, people who drove after being awake for 17-19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, which is the legal limit for drunk driving in many western European countries.

Always get a good night’s sleep before you drive or operate machinery.  If you feel tired while driving, stop to rest and take a nap.  Think of the consequences.  What kind of life will you have after an accident?  If you survive, you may end up disabled or feeling guilty for the rest of your life for having injured someone through your negligence.

Running out of gas – My lucky day

I have only run out of gas twice in my life.  The first time, I had been moving from one apartment to another, and I had a very busy schedule.  I completely forgot that cars ran on gas.  Lo, and behold, as I was driving down the street, my car started to sputter.  Dazedly, I looked at the gauges, and sure enough, the gas tank was completely empty.  This was in the days before there were red little warning lights on the gauges that let you know that your gas was low.

Fortunately, it was my lucky day!  The car stopped right in front of a house where the owner was mowing his lawn and he had a can of gas right there.  Seeing my predicament, he poured his gallon of gas into my tank and would not take any money.  Of course, gas cost about 50 cents per gallon in those days.  It was not a major investment like today.  I thanked him profusely and went on my merry way – directly to the gas station.

The second time I ran out of gas was because of an accident.  I was driving in my Buick Century down a freeway with my son, and all of a sudden, the car in front swerved to the left.  By the time I realized why he had swerved, I was on top of a big chunk of metal that probably had fallen off a truck.  Clink! Clank! Thunk! These were the sounds that I heard as the metal hit the underside of my car.  My tires were OK, but as I continued further, I noticed that my gas gauge was dropping quite fast.  I looked back in the mirror and saw a trail of gasoline.   My first thought was “I hope the car doesn’t catch on fire”, as I kept going.  There was an exit coming up.  I ran out of gas as I entered the exit and coasted right into a gas station that was in the right place at the right time.  I was really lucky!  The gas station specialized in gas tank repairs.  I called a neighbor to give me a ride home and lived happily ever after.

Are you prepared for your trip?

Travel Tips Don’t Forget to Stop your Mail

If the high gasoline prices are not going to keep you from traveling this summer, you should prepare for your trip. If you travel frequently, you probably keep all your travel items together and you are not likely to forget something at home, but when you are an occasional traveler, it is always frustrating to have to buy something that you forgot at home. When you buy on the road something substantial, like a camera, it is almost always inferior in quality than what you left at home. You are not going to spend several hundred dollars on another Canon or Nikon because you need your cash for the trip, so you end up buying a disposable camera with a bad lens.

Avoid oversights, check this handy Travel Checklist and Travel Tips