Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber.
Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet.
Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little.
I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.
"I am not a great cook, I am not a great artist, but I love art, and I love food, so I am the perfect traveller." - Michael Palin
The mark of any decent city in America, any decent destination for that matter, is the local breakfast hangout.
With no disrespect to Applebee's, Denny's or even the venerated Cracker Barrel, the best breakfasts are served up in small, usually one-off greasy spoons which have been around for years. He owner still works behind the counter or -- under the best of circumstances -- the grill. And the grill has flavors built up over decades, not hours.
The menu is basic. Eggs. Toast. Multiple omelette options, usually including a straight-ahead cheese option. The coffee is hot and usually whatever brand imay be the cheapest, but the pale off-white cup is constantly refilled. Water is served in either a plastic cup or styrofoam. The most recent innovation is the breakfast burrito, or if you're lucky chorizo and eggs (with tortillas for a do-it-yourselfer burrito).
Tables are chipped with years of use. An aluminum napkin dispenser sits against the wall or backside of the counter, dispensing the white three-fold variety. The placemat is paper. The silverware may match. Or maybe not.
Coffee cups are plain off white, though in very rare cases will be mugs from other local businesses. Ketchup and sugar are always on the table, as are little rectangular jelly packets. Tabasco is available for the asking.
O.J., milk, iced tea.
Hash Browns are slightly greasy and crispy. And proportionally massive. If they don't cover at least a third of the plate, they're doing it wrong. Tater tots are acceptable, as are "breakfast potatoes" if crisp. (Mushy potatoes need not apply.)
Toast comes in three types: white, wheat and sourdough. Nobody ever orders the wheat. Two slices, buttered and cut diagonally. Medium scorch.
Breakfast meats are well done. Crispy. Bacon, sausage and ham. Jimmy Dean if possible. Hamburger patties if you're watching your waistline. No sauces, and especially nothing called "Eggs Fillintheblank". Benedict. Florentine. Manhattan. Nor will you see the words "casserole", "fritatta", "bake" or "soufflé". Eggs are eggs. Scrambled, over easy or sunny side up. Omelets. Cheese, Denver, or meat.
Poached if it's a higher end diner. On toast, of course.
The waitresses -- not to be sexist, but rarely do you find men anywhere but the grill in these places -- are of two types: young, chirpy women in their twenties...or more seasoned ladies who will refer to any patron, regardless of age, gender or race, as "hon". They are in charge, and it is their work that keeps the tables clean, the food warmly delivered and the coffee mug filled.
You will find that many are the chain restaurants who want to do this right. And if all else fails, they're better than starving.
But for a true American breakfast experience, go where the locals go: your neighborhood hole in the wall eggs place. Nothing else even comes close.
I love to find surprising and wonderful little spots in the world, particularly when I'm not expecting them. On a day trip through the Costa Nayarit in Mexico I "discovered" the town of Suyalita.
It's a wonderful hidden gem -- in the midst of a general tourism boom -- that I otherwise might have overlooked. Given that it was just one stop of the day trip, I could have used another two or three hours to explore this fun little spot.
Going to have to go back some day for a more intensive exploration.
Being approached and asked if you'd like a picture taken used to be a mainstay business for amusement parks and other attractions. With the ubiquitousness of camera phones and the concept of selfies, you have to wonder how much longer this poor guy will have a job.
As I write this, I've just completed reading Michael Palin's excellent account of his circum-Pacific trek in 1996 entitled FULL CIRCLE. Coincidentally over the last couple of nights I've caught episodes of British adventurist Bear Grylls'Man vs WildTV series. At the moment I am high over the Midwest somewhere on a transcontinental flight from Baltimore to Phoenix, sitting in coach directly abutting the First Class bulkhead.
Palin, familiar to you as one of the original six Monty Python comedy troop members -- he was, and will forever be, "The Lumberjack" and "Parrot Salesman" -- has had a second life as a well-known Traveler and travel documentarian. His road-trip exploits began with a recreation of Jules Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and continued over a multitude of years and other paths and pathways. (You can find more information and copies of his books at Palin's travel siteshereand here.)
Grylls is an adventurer in the strictest of senses. I get the impression that the more physically uncomfortable and rugged the terrain, the more at home he is as a human being. He genuinely thrives under conditions which would make the common person wilt...or cringe with disgust. From eating bugs for protein to sleeping in a makeshift (sheep's wool) sleeping bag made from the just-skinned flesh of a dead sheep, Grylls immerses himself into a full-sensory, no-frills exploration of the world around him.
And then there are some explorers who would prefer to revel in the pristine isolation of a high-end resort hotel, completely removed from even a whiff of hardship or, frankly, their surrounding environment. They don't want to explore. They don't want to be challenged. They simply want to relax and "escape" from the world by hiding behind insulated walls. I won't mention any particular explorers who match this description, but their ilk can be found on several Travel Channel programs and perhaps the pages of a luxury magazine or two.
This is not to say you cannot have a luxuriously immersive cultural experience, but it's up to the seeker to make that count. The South African travel programTop Travel(also seen on the AWE American television network) does this sort of thing well, with the two hosts -- Jeannie DandJanez Vermeiren-- each of whom experiences any particular destination in their own way. She is thrilled by ultra-luxury, while he wants the down and dirty physical challenges. And both find joint experiences which give them a flavor for a place, which is what I like about this particular program. Opulence doesn't always translate to experience, and this program works to ensure that "lux" doesn't trump "life" but enhances it.
Likewise, without a little hardship you miss those things which can be the most self-satisfying. You can't, for example, trek across a glacier with first enduring some cold (and probably a strenuous hike to get to the top). A visit to a reef would be spectacularly sad if all you did was remain high and dry aboard the boat -- you have to get a little wet and likely choke down some seawater in order to see the really good stuff. And unless you're a famous celebrity or person with excellent connections, it's a really long line to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Myself, I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes...as I believe Michael Palin must. There is room at times for pure relaxation and enjoyment, but as Palin comments in FULL CIRCLE, the people in luxury class don't always get that true experience of a place. Only by getting your hands and face a little bit dirty -- getting uncomfortable in an invigorating way -- can you emerge from a destination with a whiff, a soupçon, of local color and flavor.
(For purists seeking references, he discusses this in the section marked Day 189 - Cuzco to Machu Picchu. His comments regarding the difference in passenger experiences on the northbound train from Cuzco, Peru is telling. The people in First Class see the world from behind sterile smoked glass windows in air conditioned comfort, while the people in coach get the true, full-on and memorable experience of the Peruvian culture. And if you're on an Italian train, even the First Class customers can sometimes experience the Coach class experience.)
Some of my most memorable travel experiences came from moments of discomfort. Of challenge. Or simply of exploration -- getting away from the hotel, away from the cruise ship, away from the spa -- hunting/doing things on my own. I dislike feeling rushed, feeling obligated to move on simply because an itinerary demands it...or worse, my group is moving on and growing impatient at my delays. (Or, conversely, a dallying group when I'm already on to the next point of interest.)
My wife and I are well suited to each other in this regard. She usually wants to delve more deeply into the experiences I do, and is equally willing to keep it moving when the surroundings need to be updated. We're attracted (mostly) to the same sorts of shops and experiences. It's only when we get others than the usual pushme-pullyou group dynamic takes hold. Which is only fair, given that there are times I might delay a group who wants to keep moving while I want to explore something in a bit more detail.
It's a compromise of style and objective when you're traveling with more than one person. Each of us comes with our own agenda and interests and the balance must be struck somewhere between Bear Grylls' mud-and-blood-soaked Scottish Highlands endurance test and Jeannie D's palm-oil slathered bikram yoga retreat. Both are culturally valid experiences, and it's up to the participant to find which best suits their wants and needs -- while giving them something of a destination.
We've become, it is said, much more of a culturally homogenized, cookie-cutter world. The McDonald's in Rio de Janeiro differs from the one in Chicago pretty much only when it comes to the menu. A few local items may be thrown in the mix, but the Big Mac is the Big Mac pretty much universally. The Sheraton in New Orleans and the Sheraton in New Delhi (is there one?) may have slightly different decor, but they're Sheratons nonetheless. Some people like that sameness, that reliability. That's fine for them, but it doesn't mean they've really been somewhere. Just "been" there.
But even if the hotels are the same, the true difference in a destination is what you find outside the revolving door and taxi queue: it's on the street or in the great outdoors, not behind the walls of your hotel room or the luxury restaurant in the lobby even if they ARE the best in town.
And whether you're Bear Grylls, Michael Palin, Janez Vermeiren -- or Todd Carmichael, Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, Phil Keoghan or dozens of other "travel personalities" -- the point of travel is to experience something new, different and personally enriching. Something you can tell friends about and share with strangers. A flavor, an experience, a vista, a serenity or a sense-numbing chaos, the important thing is to Travel with a capital T.
Otherwise, honestly, why are you even leaving home?
I found two brass door signs quite literally in the middle of the road just down the street from my house. Both appear to be from the interior of a ship. This one, for the Chief Cook's quarters, could hail from the cabin on some tramp steamer in decades gone by. It triggers the imagination, and takes me back to the early days of the 20th Century, when the world was still being explored and all things magical and wonderful occurred in the books of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Thankfully we can relive those days by reading those books and letting everyday things, such as the sign below, give us pause.
Sunset over Cartagena, Colombia's thriving Boca Grande (Big Mouth) district.
The skyscrapers and multimillion dollar residences a testimony to the country's changing finances and emergence from the dark days of the drug wars. The city has been a dangerous one for generations, first as a focus for Spanish trade as they pillaged the Incan empires. Then, later, a mainstay against the brutality of the Caribbean pirates and European gamesmanship. And finally, and most recently, as the poster child for the war against drugs.
Oh, and a well-known appearance in the 1984 romantic comedy, Romancing the Stone.
A lot yet to do, it's abundantly clear that Cartagena, at least, is loving its new, and safer, prosperity.
So, here we go trying to get back on track after a hectic start to the year. As a Traveler I've been living up to my reputation. As a martini "researcher", the last month has been a little short on success.
But it's time to get back to the basics.
In light of both travel and of martinis, this little puppy comes to us courtesy the Little Ludlow Bar at Melbourne International Airport, roughly three years ago.
We were flying from Perth to Auckland, with a connection in Melbourne. What began as a two hour layover was greatly extended via a frustrating and somewhat-eventful six hour delay -- which made finding a local watering hole a necessary and appreciated distraction.
Not only did the delay cost us our sleep (early evening flight turned to an early morning flight...2am, to be precise), but the resultant exhaustion on our part cost an entire day of touring Auckland. The delay also set us down into Auckland in the midst of a strong tropical storm. Harrowing is a light term from the pitching approach and solid thump as we connected with Tarmac. Fun times.
I've got it written down somewhere, but I think this was Stoli vodka. The wine was a local Sauvignon Blanc, ordered by my wife (who doesn't usually drink...which should tell you something about our delay).
Hey kids. Apologies for the prolonged absence. Been away from my home computer for a couple of weeks taking care of some personal business. And yes, it involved travel.
I'll be back this Friday with the weekly martini and resume the Daily Escape as well as other destination reports.
I would love to include a few low res shots from my weeks back here in Annapolis, Maryland -- lovely but brutally cold -- however technical problems and the lack of a computer prevent me from doing so. The iPad can do only so much.
Below are a few photographic highlights of Annapolis from a few years back, taken at Christmastime during a much sunnier year than this.
After a few days so cold I got ice headaches by simply breathing, today's up to 45F and the recent snow's melting away in the rain. Just in time for my flight home in two days.
Looking forward to getting home and resuming "normal" operations.