Posted by: cgratton | April 16, 2009

Japan’s Coral Reefs Go Under Emergency Surgery

Coral reef preservation isn’t just a hot-button topic in Australia. These days, Japan is also being forced to take drastic measures to save its withering reef population.

Divers meticulously transplant coral buds in hope to generate new life

Divers meticulously transplant coral buds in hope to generate new life

Currently, the Japanese government is using divers to execute a long series of underwater coral transplants, an aggressive (and expensive) effort to reverse, or at least mitigate, the devastating damage that overfishing, pollution and coastal redevelopment have caused.  This endeavor comes in the wake of a shocking report, which estimated that up to 90 percent of Japan’s reefs have died within the past decade, said The New York Times.

In Japans largest reef, damage has grown to an area the size of approximately 100 square miles

In Japan's largest reef, damage has grown to an area the size of approximately 100 square miles

The area under the heaviest surgery is near the Sekisei Lagoon, at the southern end of the Okinawa chain of islands.  Here, divers and marine biologists are working incessantly to try to work their scientific magic and undo the extensive human damage.

Still, the Japanese aquatic ecosystem hangs perilously in flux.  Natural environmental threats, like rising ocean temperatures and elevated acid levels from carbon dioxide absorption, continue to threaten the reef’s livelihood.  More disconcerting still is that transplant efforts have a low success rate—only about a third survived from 2005 efforts.

For Japan, a country and culture so heavily reliant on fishing, the degradation of the coral reefs has enormous implications.  If the reefs die out completely, a vital habitat for aquatic wildlife will be lost, posing a threat to all species’ chance at survival. And as one scientist pointed out in the journal Science, the loss of reefs “have huge economic effects on food security for hundreds of millions of people dependent on reef fish.”

It seems to me, then, that this could put into jeopardy a vital part of their everyday culture—the loss of an integral component of their diet.  Think about it: Japan without sushi is like India without curries, Italy without pasta, France without baguettes and brie. It’s no wonder why the Japanese government is committing to this 10-year, multi-million-dollar project—the reef dilemma affects them environmentally, but also culturally and economically.

Hopefully the coral reef problem won’t reach an Irish Potato Famine extreme, but the implications are scary nonetheless.

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Posted by: cgratton | April 15, 2009

Cuba Here We Come?

Seeing the tropical, turquoise beaches, pulsating salsa clubs and seemingly infinite sugar-cane fields of Cuba first-hand is becoming an increasingly tangible (and legal) reality for the American tourist.  Well…not exactly.

Old cars and colorful buildings are a common sight on the vibrant Cuban streets

Old cars and colorful buildings are a common sight on the vibrant streets of Havana

Politically banned for U.S. travelers since 1962, Cuba is an American traveler’s “forbidden fruit,” an untouchable Caribbean island within frustratingly close distance to Miami.  Since the JFK era, Americans have been cut off from Cuban travel almost entirely, embargoed because of the island’s Communist infrastructure and radical dictatorship—leaving a bitter taste on the American tongue, made even more sour during the Bush administration, when the laws were further tightened.

President Obama announced the changes at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago

President Obama announced the changes at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago

But on Monday, President Obama slightly reversed these policies, giving breathing room to the archaic laws by legally allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to their homeland without restrictions, and send more money back to their families each month. Obama also opened the gates for U.S. telecommunications companies to begin to set up shop there for greater business endeavors.

Although a big first step toward forging a new, 21st century Cuban-American relationship, Obama’s policy is still a cautious stride in a much-needed direction.  For non-Cuban Americans, Cuba continues to be the only country in the world legally untravelable by American citizens.  High monetary penalties and criminal prosecution threaten the Average Joe from going over without first crossing the thick government red-tape to acquire a license to travel there.

Perhaps I am too far out of touch with the historical relevance of this decision, but making a country completely off-limits due to political mishaps almost 50 years ago seems ridiculous, childishly stubborn and hypocritical.  China is a fiercely communist nation that has historically committed hugely egregious human-rights violations (Tiananmen Square anyone?).  Today it isn’t much better, but we still can go visit Beijing any day of the week.

With a new President in office, we must take this advantage to shed the political sins of our Communist-frenzied predecessors, sins that have been dragging us down as a country for decades.  And one of these needs to be ending the—shall I say it?—failed embargo. Obama has definitely set a firm foundation to make this a glinting possibility, but we shall see if the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act ever passes through the brick-wall of Congress.

Street performers in Cuba give a taste of the exciting culture that may become a legal part of American travelers itineraries

Street performers in Cuba give a taste of the exciting culture that may become a legal part of American travelers' itineraries

I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to see Havana in my lifetime without governmental persecution.

Florida is really living up to its moniker as the “Sunshine State.”

A real estate developing firm and a Florida utility company have joined forces, unveiling their ambitious plan last Thursday to build the country’s first solar-powered city near Fort Meyers in southwestern Florida.

An early look at the future of solar-powers capacity at Babcock Ranch, FL

An early look at the future of solar-power's capacity at Babcock Ranch, FL

The estimated $2 billion project—to be called Babcock Ranch—is about five times the size of Manhattan, and will be comprised of 19,500 houses and over 6 million square feet of retail, commercial and industrial space, developers said on Reuters.com.

The project will also create over 20,000 jobs during its construction, helping to facilitate President Obama’s green-energy economic initiative.

Former NFL lineman Syd Kitson, CEO of Kitson and Partners, the realty group making this solar dream city a reality, believes that Babcock “will be a living laboratory for companies, workers and families ready to reap the rewards of innovation.”

The city is a pioneering first step towards taking President Obama’s insistence on clean energy and sustainable development for America’s progress.  Obama has said he wants 10 percent of America’s electricity to be renewable by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025, and in the process, create over 5 million “green-collar jobs.”  Babcock Ranch will definitely fulfill this initiative, and plans to commence construction on the main solar-power plant (the integral foundation of the city) late this year if all approvals pass.

This is definitely some bright news for the future possibilities of American cities.  Let’s just hope the lights don’t go out…

For an in-depth video look at this revolutionary city of light, click here.

As aftershocks continue to surge through central Italy, thousands of earthquake survivors from the 26 affected villages are left to desolately stand amidst their crumbling homes, and try to keep hope for the safe return of those still missing.

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked through Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region on 3:30 a.m. Monday, April 7, leaving 260 dead, 1,000 injured and 100 in critical condition.

Tens of thousands of homes and historic monuments have been reduced to rubble.  This is most apparent in the region’s capital, L’Aquila, a charming 13th-century Medieval fortress town, which lay at the earthquake’s epicenter.  As reported on the website of UK newspaper, the Guardian, experts are now surveying the damage done to L’Aquila’s historic buildings, and have released preliminary findings that “incalculable” destruction has occurred.

A before-and-after look at one of the historic government building in LAquila

A before-and-after look at one of the historic government buildings in L'Aquila

“The damage is more serious than we can imagine,” Giuseppe Proietti, a culture ministry official, told the Guardian. “The historic center of L’Aquila has been devastated.”

A huge section of L’Aquila’s famous Romanesque basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio collapsed; a 16th-century castle has been badly damaged; the 14th-century Tower of Medici was reduced to a pile a rubble in a village nearby; and dozens of other historic churches, cathedrals and buildings have taken a serious beating.

Even after the initial quake ended, some 280 aftershocks continued to pummel the area, shaking the foundations of severely-weakened buildings and furthering the damage.  The strongest of these aftershocks is reported to have caused minor cracks to the thermal baths in Rome, some 60 miles from L’Aquila.

The Santa Maria Paganica church has stood in L’Aquila since the 14th century

The Santa Maria Paganica church has stood in L’Aquila since the 14th century

Although the Abruzzo region is no stranger to seismic activity, and it even had to rebuild after an equally devastating quake in 1703,  Monday’s earthquake doesn’t seem to realistically leave much hope for saving the city’s beloved cultural heritage.

A question then arises: even if a historic city rebuilds itself with architectural exactness, can it ever be the same?  Can a city ever truly reclaim its cultural authenticity after so much loss?  Will the scars of the event ever really go away?

An aeriel view of the citys damage doesnt exactly inspire hope

An aerial view of the city's damage doesn't exactly inspire hope

In the past five years these questions have had to be harshly confronted several times.  When the horrific Tsunami of 2004 killed over 230,000 people in 11 different countries, and resulted in billions of dollars in damages.  When Hurricane Wilma thrashed through Mexico, leaving beloved resort destinations Cancun and Cozumel in ruins.  And of course, when Hurricane Katrina demolished the famous Creole capital of America, New Orleans.

Some have been more successful than others. Mexican coastal cities rose quickly from their ashes in time to partake in the following tourist season.  And Asia rebounded (albeit slowly) due to the overwhelming and immediate response of global support; the rebuilding effort received more donations than needed to completely rebuild, and even make some areas better than before the wreckage.

But New Orleans’ struggle for redemption hasn’t been as smooth or successful.  After 80 percent of the historically soulful city was flooded in 2005, relief efforts have been floundering to keep their promise of progress and restoration. And even if the city ever gets fully resuscitated back to life, have the waters washed away even a little of its spirit?

A watery aftermath in New Orleans

A watery aftermath in New Orleans

Of course I would argue that the spirit of its citizens will never die, as it is their hope and faith that lovingly nurse cities like New Orleans and L’Aquila back to health.  But it seems that a historic city’s own narrative can never fully hide that dark chapter of destruction from its walls, or hold on tight enough to not let a piece of tangible history slip away from it into oblivion.  Memories of the city’s previous days will remain, but for how long?

I would love to hear what others think, and invite you to leave comments below!

Sorry adventure-seekers, but you may have to scrap any dreams of visiting the majestic glacial frontiers of Antarctica.

According to reports from yesterday’s Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed the US’s early plans to put limitations on travel and tourism in the southern polar region.  She cited environmental concerns shared by her and the rest of the Obama administration at the basis of her argument—that growing human interaction in Antarctica threatens to destroy its fragile landscape.

Her solution: putting international limits on the number of tourist vessels able to land, and redraw and expand the marine pollution rules and boundaries enacted in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.  The tourism restraints ensure that potentially hazardous discharges from cruise ships will be limited; the remapping of pollution rules will more accurately reflect the concerns of the 21st century, she explained.

A home to scientists and researchers studying the causes and effects of global warming, Antarctic tourism is becoming more and more commercially popular.  According to CNN.com, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators reported that over 46,000 tourists visited the icy region in the 2007-2008 tour season—nearly four times as many than in the 2000-2001 season.

Its draw?  Dubbed the “last undiscovered land” on earth, Antarctica has stunning scenery, an untouched landscape with up-close wildlife interaction and a rich history of polar exploration that entices adventure-seekers and environmental enthusiasts.

Definitely worth braving the cold

Definitely worth braving the cold

But all this human interaction from cruises, camping tours and snow-trekking expeditions definitely has an effect.  In the region that lies at the very epicenter of the global warming debate, one that hangs in a delicate state of flux (i.e- a massive ice bridge is likely to shatter very soon), adding excess human influence in Antarctica could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This argument has been swelling in recent years, as scientists and preservationists continue to protest the travel industry’s growing efforts to capitalize on the area in response to the high demand of adventure and wildlife tourism.

And thus a fundamental travel dilemma comes into play. We travel to see and experience the beauty of our planet, uncover its mysteries and witness its wonders.  But in doing so, we threaten to destroy nature’s purity, spoil the thing we hold so dearly through our curiosity.

Worth the sightseeing to pollute the water?

Worth the sightseeing to pollute the water?

Perhaps preserving one of earth’s natural wonders outweighs seeing its icebergs and penguin colonies.  For me, the Planet Earth series will suffice just fine.

What do you think?  Leave comments below!

I recently blogged about the Twitchhiker, a British man who Twittered his way around the world using information and support only from the Twitter community.

But social experiments conducted by this new brand of “extreme travelers” are more common that I thought.

Case and point: Sean Aiken just completed a year-long job search that took him all over North America.  His mission: to “find his passion” by trying out 52 jobs in 52 weeks.

The “One Week Job” concept was started by Aiken after he graduated from college and, like many, many others, did not know what he wanted to do next.  Aiken decided that getting his hands wet was the only way to truly discover his passion, and thus proposed a challenge for anybody, anywhere to offer him a job for one week, donating all his wages to the Make Poverty History campaign in the process.

On his epic journey, Aiken tried everything from bungee-jumping instructor, to aquarium host, to Airforce pilot, gaining extensive media buzz and swarms of inspired fans along the way.

Week 51: Aiken the Airforce Pilot

Week 51: Aiken the Airforce Pilot

Having completed his journey at the end of March, Aiken now has a book and documentary in the works.  Looks like his plan worked!

To see the documentary, click here.

As a soon-to-be- college graduate, the perspective job market makes me a little queasy, and I’m sure many others in my current state are sulkily nodding their heads along with me.

But maybe this departure from the cocoon of college life should really be considered as a prime opportunity to take a year and do something interesting—something that gets you out of mom and dad’s house (and the country), lets you make some money and allows you to see the world. Sound tempting?

Well with the world rapidly making efforts to internationalize language, teaching English abroad is a career that is in high demand.  Not exactly the most highly paid or glamorous position out there, but undoubtedly a gratifying stint abroad that will look good on your resume when you come back stateside. And the growing number of 20-somethings taking the plunge are making teaching abroad a new “rite of passage” for those unsure of life-long career goals.

Obviously some programs are better than others.  Some offer insurance, housing, higher pay and better locations, while others do not.  A newcomer myself to the in’s and out’s of teaching abroad, Matador.com‘s Kelly Lalonde breaks down the highest-paid, best-located and easiest-to-get jobs to teach English:

10. Brazil

Brazil’s effort to internationalize yields many opportunities to teach English, in both business and traditional school settings. However, you must have a lot of patience to legally obtain a work visa. CEL LEP and Alumni School are good places to start looking.

The beautiful views may just be enough persuasion

The beautiful views may just be enough persuasion

9. Saudi Arabia

The Middle East is where you will find some of the highest paying jobs offered for native English speaking teachers. This is not for the faint of heart; you must be interested in life in the Middle East and well versed in cultural differences to appreciate the experience. Bayt Recruiting is a good job reference.

8. Italy

Cheap travel and fantastically inexpensive gourmet food are just some of the benefits of living in Italy. There is, however, an annoying amount of red tape. It is recommended to go through a TESOL online certification program in which the school you are paying guarantees you job placement.

For a list of recommended programs, visit Transitions Abroad .

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

7. Thailand

Thailand is as close as you get to paradise. The American University Alumni (AUA) Language Center, the oldest and largest language school in Thailand with almost 400,000 graduates, is a nonprofit school with an excellent reputation in the country. The AUA is always looking for TESOL teachers.

6. Japan

Asian nations are practically begging for English teachers and you can find work via the Internet quickly. Most recruit year round, and provide successful applicants with visa sponsorship, apartment, partially-paid national insurance, etc.

The largest schools in Japan are with AEON. You can also find work with JET or The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.

5. Russia

Old stereotypes of an economic system fueled by vodka and general lawlessness have made native English teachers scarce in Russia. The demand for teachers far exceeds the supply, making it easy to gain employment with the benefits of visa support, accommodations and often airfare reimbursement.

The largest schools in the area are BKC International and English First are by far the best places to find employment.

4. China

With great compensation packages including salary, apartment, visa sponsorship and sometimes airfare, China is becoming a popular choice for English teachers. Journey East offers links to internships, paid positions and other information.

China at night

Beijing at night

3. Mexico

If you’re looking for sun and comfort, Mexico is the place to be. In general, the minimum academic requirement for English teaching positions in Mexico is a university degree and a TESOL certificate.

Jobs are difficult to find pre-entry, but are plentiful upon arrival. One option is to look for work in a University. If you have any teaching experience, this is the way to go. Visit ESL Employment for more details.

A crowded street in Seoul, South Korea

A crowded street in Seoul, South Korea

2. South Korea

Offering many perks such as airfare, housing, insurance benefits, decent salaries and a low cost of living, South Korea offers the ability to travel and make good money.

A good place to start is the job board at Dave’s ESL Cafe. Contracts are usually for 1 year and a bachelor’s degree is required.

1. Czech Republic

Chosen for its idyllic location, amazing scenery, high demand and relative ease of entry, the Czech Republic—specifically Prague—is the traveler’s dream come true. The Prague Post, a weekly English language newspaper, is the best place to look for possibilities from home.

Prague at Night

Prague at Night

Teaching abroad is gaining notoriety and opportunity, and a growing college graduate following every year.  Especially in this economic meltdown, fleeing for a little to get a crash course in culture and make some money may not be such a crazy idea.

Posted by: cgratton | April 2, 2009

Twitter Takes on Travel

Twitter, the newest social networking craze to hit the net since Facebook, is being hailed for its  instantaneous, global microblogging abilities.  But Twitter isn’t just for self-obsessed celebrities to notify their followers of their every waking move or bored politicians in need of a filibuster-filling activity.  It can also be an extremely useful (and quick) informational tool for travelers.

The next big name since Obama

The next big name since Obama

In an unfamiliar city and want to find the perfect lunch spot?  Need to know where great, inexpensive shopping can be found?  Twitter can help. Post a question and get a timely response from a local (or fellow traveler) who knows the in’s and out’s of the city way better than any mainstream website critic.

And some people are taking this idea and running with it…er…traveling with it.  Paul Smith, or the Twitchhiker, just finished conducting a truly revolutionary social experiment—to make it around the world in 30 days, blindly relying on the advice of the Twitter community to guide his path, in an effort to raise money to benefit charity:water, a non-profit organization that seeks to ensure safe drinking water for developing nations.

Smith did make it all the way to New Zealand from the U.K., proving the incredibly connective power of social media and the living, breathing goodwill of strangers.

And with Twitter’s following growing ridiculously larger by the minute, the wealth of information available to travelers (or just the curious) is equally on the rise.  Is there anything Twitter can’t do?

With all this talk about “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure” to save our ailing economy, California’s proposed high-speed rail system could be just what the doctor ordered.  The 700-mile bullet rail system, which would link all major cities from Sacramento to San Diego, would improve the environment, create job opportunities and simultaneously increase the state’s efficiency, transporting products and people at speeds of up to 200 mph.

The proposed high-speed rail route

The proposed high-speed rail route

According to the project’s official website, the line is extremely eco-friendly. It will eliminate over 12 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year.  That’s equal to removing one million cars from the road, the website says.  And California could definitely use that…

An everyday occurance (and grievance) for California drivers

An everyday occurance (and grievance) for California drivers

The train is also a cheaper alternative to flying.  According to the interactive map on the project’s site, the longest possible trip—from San Francisco to San Diego—is only $70 one-way ($140 round trip).  The cheapest flight on Expedia.com is over $200 for a round trip.

Although flying is faster (an hour and a half air trip, as compared to the 4-hour train ride), accounting for security, check-in, boarding and baggage claim makes them about equal in time.

The project also boasts a slew of economic benefits.  The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that building the railroad will open up 160,000 construction-related jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs.  Creating the rail system also expects to generate over $1 billion per year in revenue.

Check out this video overview:

Posted by: cgratton | March 26, 2009

One Less Traveling Woe

It may be a traveler’s biggest letdown to book a room online at a “nice” hotel, shell out the cash, travel all day (while getting your hopes up) and then show up exhausted to a building that is at best a half-truth of what was advertised.

Well be fooled no longer, my friends.

The new site, Seeyourhotel.com, not only shows you a satellite view of your hotel and marks out major attractions nearby (courtesy of Google Earth), but it also gives you a slew of other options to make sure you won’t arrive to an unhappy surprise.

Simply clicking on your hotel’s bubble on the map opens up a world of information—a detailed description of the hotel and its amenities, interior and exterior pictures, a Google Earth street view, videos, availability and user reviews.

No more hotel disappointments.  Thanks, Seeyourhotel.com!

No more hotel disappointments. Thanks, Seeyourhotel.com!

Looks like the “hotel guessing game” is a thing of the past…whew!

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