About Me

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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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

High Speed Rail. The OOONLY way to Fly!

"I miss riding those fast trains in Japan... 'cause I'd never seen a train that fast in my life."
-  Ike Turner

I am often disappointed by the arguments people put forth regarding the expansion of rail service in this country. Particularly opposing High Speed Rail (HSR).

TT - Under the Channel Tunnel
As you may be aware, California has begin building what will eventually become a statewide High Speed Rail network not too dissimilar to the existing platforms in Europe and Asia. The primary backbone, of course, will run between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If done properly, it promises to revolutionize the way Californians travel in the same way HSR has revolutionized travel in Europe and, particularly, Japan. If done properly -- again that caveat -- it will create a far more efficient and yet still timely way to transit between the state's two largest urban areas and many spots between and around them.

Italy's Frecciargento
I say "if done properly" because there are still those voices who refuse (or simply don't want) to understand the benefits of such a system and are hellbent on stopping or at least modifying the plans.

Some of them are simply NIMBY. Don't want a project -- any kind of project -- let alone something with a bunch of zeroes in the price tag. They're not opposed to HSR, they're opposed to anything which costs money.

Then, there are those who are concerned it's too big, too expensive, too invasive. That it will take monies away from other projects they like better. These people, some of them driven by heartfelt, if misguided, opposition based on a misunderstanding of the economic model, or perhaps from a rejection of the systems' projected return on investment on a MACRO level, really truly want to halt the development of the train regardless of the benefits it will likely bring (based upon the success of the models in Europe and Asia).

(By Macro I mean the economic impact as a whole, not simply "it costs this much to build and this much to operate". A true cost models includes sustained earnings and economic impact on a greater scale. A great example is the money-losing CW television network. The parent companies lose a lot of money on it, however make MORE money from the programming they produce and sell to it that offsets those losses. Taken as a macro, the network pays back significant dividends to its owners despite losing money.)
Paris' Gare du Nord Station

Others have a much more insidious agenda, and these are the folks who stand to lose financially from such a system. Because trains are far more economical per passenger mile, they are a threat to the gasoline and automotive industry while thrives based upon continued gas consumption of vehicles between California's major cities. A vast network of gas stations, automotive repair, sales and maintenance exists. Airlines are fighting tooth and nail because they rather obviously have the most to lose against a competitor such as a thriving HSR service.

One of the primary arguments made against California's system haas been cost, and there's no doubt it's an expensive proposition. Somewhere between $70B-100B to build the general infrastructure. That's a lot of money under any circumstances, but particularly in difficult economic times. Of course, if the money was being carted out into the Pacific Ocean and dumped into the Monterey Deep Sea Canyon just off the coast this would be an entirely valid concern. But as you no doubt realize, the money is actually spent on wages and salaries and products right here in the Golden States and other US states. It's an economic engine just as important as building a road or bridge or other public infrastructure elsewhere.

Importantly, the rail, if done correctly, would remove enough cars from the road (and potentially aircraft from the air) to more than offset the cost of building infrastructure for those forms of transportation, each of which is commensurate to the long term cost of the rail project. (CalTrans, our state agency tasked with maintaining transit infrastructure, alone has a statewide budget of $12B in 2013, for example. This doesn't include the money spent by cities and counties on their own road maintenance.) Rail efficiencies are driven after the initial construction costs, and would be amortized over the decades of service and upgrades.

View from a HS Train
View from a jet
Another argument is environmental. Um, hello? A rail system is far more environmentally sound than thousands of cars or passenger planes. Yes, there would be some construction impact, no question. But since the majority of the rail service bypasses the state's environmental treasures (and largely follows existing roadways) the impact is far more minimal than highway expansion and continued pollution from aircraft and automobiles.

Not only is rail service efficient and effective, it is far more comfortable than the flying busses employed by the airlines. On a train you can get out of your (much larger than airline-style) seat, stretch your legs, stand and talk, walk back to the diner car for a nosh (or drink) and generally travel in a good deal of relative comfort.

Seating inside a plane
Seating inside a train
(I will note that another plan exists for a slightly slower train to Las Vegas from the LA area, but this one promises true style and comfort. And an Ultra-Lounge to boot! The X Train is set to begin service some time in 2014 with a ride that effectively begins an ultra-chic Vegas vibe for the passengers hours before the train rolls into Las Vegas. Once launched, it will be interesting to see the impact it has on both Vegas-bound traffic and general expectations for rail service elsewhere. If you want to know more, I have included a link to their website below.)

One thing I have noticed is that people are more than willing to argue things from a theoretical standpoint, or even solely based on a spreadsheet and heresay. I have benefitted from traveling extensively on the European trains -- the TGV, Thalys, Eurostar and Frecciargento in particular -- and can testify to the extreme difference in the travelers' experience between that mode of transportation and the challenges presented by air travel these days.

And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the views from =a train. Aircraft loft usup and over some truly beautiful vistas. From 30,000 feet the ground tends to look like a patchwork quilt, at best. From a rail perspective you can truly see the land for what it is: whether mountains, farms or cities, the view from the large windows of a train give you far more a sense of a land than does a casual flight over it. As regular readers know, I am insist on getting a feel for a place, a taste of the views and culture which surround me. This does not exist at 30K feet, and the experience aboard SAS or Air France or American Airlines is more about what occurs inside the cabin (or, these days, what does NOT occur) than it is what is going on outside the windows. 

From a train you can see the world at eye level.

I am excited about the prospect of finally having a true world-class rail transportation system in the US, and even happier it's here in my home state. Having driven and flown between LA and the Bay Area repeatedly, I am looking forward to having a viable third option for my transit dollars.

Just sayin'.





Saturday, July 13, 2013


"The [Amazing Race] is all about the enjoyment of entertainment and enjoying their journey.” - Phil Keoghan

I consider myself a reasonably accomplished traveler. Three continents (four this time next year), more than a dozen countries and more than thirty of the United States. And five islands in the Caribbean. But I recognize that compared to the truly elite, this is nothing. And I admit I both respect and envy those people for the opportunity they have, though not all of them understand the difference between going a lot of places, and Traveling.

But what I consider to be well-traveled does not necessarily reflect on those who have covered the most distance. Well-traveled, to me, means that a person has participated in, and appreciated, the local culture. The local "scene" if you will. "Scene" does not refer to nightclubs or fancy restaurants, though those are certainly fun and may be indicative of the local "culture" (if you're in South Beach, for instance). 

I've remarked before regarding the tourists visiting New York and yet eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square. There seems little point in going so many miles out of our way simply to find those things that remind us most of home and indulging in them, and yet that is almost precisely what a lot of people do when on the road, particularly overseas.

Traveling, with a capital T, is the practice of getting outside of your comfort zone, accepting that YOU are the foreigner and therefore the one who is out of place. This means grabbing a bite at the local lolo (food cart), and people watching from the town square (or equivalent). For me it means going walkabout early in the morning to see a place just as it's waking up, getting ready for the day -- a local coffee shop or bakery (NOT a Starbuck's) -- is invaluable for this.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a woman from South Africa. She has also lived in Europe, Australia and, currently, in San Diego. You could tell, by her demeanor, that she's a sophisticated traveler. When the subject arose her eyes lit up with the sort of magic that you only encounter in people who truly love a topic.

And that's the key. For you to be a Traveler, capital T, is more than covering a lot of ground. It's a love of what you find at the destinations themselves that determines your status, at least for me in my end of the world. 

There is no doubt in my mind that traveling is a privilege.

I vividly remember a day well back in the early '80s, when I was setting out on my first great adventure on my own. Driving Kermit, a less-than-reliable green Triumph TR7, from Washington, DC to Los Angeles via a circuitous route through the South to New Orleans, across Texas to Houston and San Antonio, through New Mexico and Arizona before finding the coast at San Diego and the last leg running up the 5 freeway to LA. Never before had I driven such a distance alone, and wouldn't again (at least so far). 

And other than an unfortunate encounter with a faulty alternator and Southern rednecks more than willing to take advantage of a still-wet 20 year old kid, it went remarkably smoothly.

But I remember that morning because it went through my mind that I was headed out to do what I wanted for a week on the road with no need to file papers, go through checkpoints or otherwise keep authorities apprised of my whereabouts. (This was in the depths of the Cold War. I was very conscious of the "evil" Soviet Union and the reported need to carry papers. Not requiring them was a symbol of my "freedom".)

Which brings me to a piece relayed to me by my friend Alan. He, too, is a traveler, having lived and worked in at least three countries by my count. We share a number of like perspectives regarding politics and social mores, much of our thoughts being heavily influenced by our time spent in other cultures.

Alan writes: "I knew a guy back in the UK who did not start to live until age 65. Up until that age he had never had a glass of wine, never left the UK and never had anything but roast beef for Sunday dinner. At 65 a light came on and he became a changed man. I recall him passing his driving test one day so he could buy a car and tour the south of France the following day. Unfortunately he never saw his 70th birthday. He died a rather sad man because he still had so many life events to enjoy."

To me, it's a wonderful thing that this gentleman discovered the world and had at least a short time to explore it. It's devastating that he spent 65 years completely unaware of the things surrounding him, but a late epiphany is better than none at all.

I have another good friend -- named Jim, but not the Jim who accompanies me on my desert road trips -- who is celebrating his 67th birthday today, not much older than Alan's "changed man". 

Jim was in a horrific car accident two weeks ago which destroyed the car but -- thankfully -- left him and the driver only slightly bloodied. It rolled some three times after dodging a wrong-way driver as they came around a blind curve in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. 

Jim is on a lifelong adventure, not only seeing the world, but experiencing it. And he loves it. You can tell through the glint in his eyes and excitement in his voice. He's been dealt some serious setbacks over the years, had many challenges and lived an interesting life (I'll leave it at that). But he's never let the negatives get him down for too long. Seeing him yesterday, only two weeks after the rollover, and you'd never know he's been in an accident. Ever. He's a healer in others as well, not only in himself. He's a counselor, a therapist and a spiritual guide. 

As is probably obvious to you, Jim is a source of life and energy. He is healthier at 67 than I was at 35, and he intends to stay that way. 5 miles a day walking (on average), and an hour of yoga. He did a triathlon a year ago, coming in second in his category. Next year he's hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. 


If Alan's friend is a cautionary tale, Jim's story is one of example.

As long time readers of this column know I am an advocate of Phil Keoghan's No Opportunity Wasted. This story is one reason why it's so important to me that I set out specific goals and plan for their accomplishment. This next year will see me finish losing the weight I so badly need to lose (down 45 pounds, with the same left to go). This will enable me to zipline across the mountains in Whistler, Canada, this fall. It will also make snorkling -- or, preferably, Snuba-ing -- The Great Barrier Reef much more comfortable a little less than a year from now.

Watching the Travel Channel isn't the same as being somewhere. I've done enough, gone enough places, that a game I play is seeing how many of the "Top 10" destinations I've been whenever anyone decides to create such a list. Most of the time I do pretty well, marking at least a quarter of them -- which is good, it means I have a lot of things yet to see, but haven't been too much of a laggard according to most yardsticks.

It's the adventure, the experience, of being someplace that isn't home. Remarkably, by finding and experiencing such things it makes me more and more fond of my own little part of the world. Millions of people visit Southern California every year and there's a reason for it. Locals tend to take it for granted, and that's a shame. I'm sure it's the same for you in your neck of the woods (wherever you may be). Traveling gives us an appreciation of what we have, and perhaps a way to make it a little better if that's what we want.

But it's the difference in perspective, in experience, which makes the world such a fascinating place to visit. Don't wait until you're 65 to get started, and if you've already started -- strongly probably if you're reading a travel column -- you need to ramp it up. 

Somebody grab the keys, we're going on a road trip.

Get away from the familiar -- experience the world on its terms, not yours

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” 
                                                    Samuel Johnson

It has been a few years since we visited London. A little over twelve, in fact. Not quite a baker's dozen. To date, it's our sole trip, though had plans not gone a little awry earlier this year we would be winging our way to Londontown this August for a few days of revelry with friends and favored -- should that be favoured? -- haunts.

Oddly enough, in the last dozen years we have acquired several friends in the area who were, as much as we, disappointed that plans got changed. But they are what they are and Vancouver, our replacement destination, is hardly a slacker when it comes to good times.

But the nigh-on proximity of a return trip to the British capital found me digging through the archives for a handful of shots from our last visit. The city is a vibrant combination of the old and the new, of the classical and the avant gard. Possessing one of the most active and reputable theater districts on the planet, a multitude of world-class museums, terrific night life and a burgeoning culinary scene, London is once again a center for all things cultural in the world, a position it hasn't enjoyed since, perhaps, the 1960s Mod era when the city's fashions and entertainment led the revolution.
"First star to the right, straight on 'til morning"

The eye of The Eye
So London is a city of timeless classics with a thoroughly modern stripe -- more than stripe, make that "heart". In this gallery I have selected and edited pictures to ideally recapture the London of not too long ago, an era of chic, hipness, vibrance and excitement. London of the 1960s, of the Beatles, of Piccadilly, of the Avengers, of Bond...James Bond..., of Twiggy and Fleet Street. These are reasonably current shots, but I've edited them to echo, just a bit, those halcyon years. 

These are 21st century settings, but if you can, try to see John Steed and Ms Emma Peel emerging from his apartment on an overcast and slightly gloomy day. 

If you squint your eyes and concentrate, you might be able to do it. 


London Calling

Monday, July 1, 2013


"But since thou lovest, love still and thrive therein, Even as I would when I tol love begin."  - William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen from Verona

The Piazza del Erbes
Few places in this world are as deeply embedded in our collective romantic psyche as is Verona, the city made famous by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The simple mention of the name Verona immediately conjures intimate feelings, a sense of tragedy and of another, far more romantic age.

In truth, you are able to find those things in the Verona of today, but if that's all you're looking for -- and there is a balcony labeled as being the true Juliet's that the visitor may photograph or even, for a moderate sum, stand upon and get yourself serenaded for a moment or two -- then you will miss quite a lot of what the modern city has to offer.

Torre dei Lamberti
For our visit we focused on activities in and around the Piazza delle Erbe (Plaza of Herbs, indicating its history as a shopping district). The Piazza is an elongated street, doubly wide with a central section of booths and stands loaded with herbs, oils, trinkets and a variety of foodstuffs. The buildings surrounding the Piazza convey a sense of ancient modernism, with trendy boutiques and their window displays often standing in stark contrast to the classical facade of the building they inhabit.

We arrived for a day trip at Verona's Porto Nuova rail station after an hour long ride from Venice. It's a short enough haul that the transit isn't so taxing you're exhausted by the time you arrive, and yet far enough that you get a chance to see some of the Veneto's beautiful countryside and classic towns. 

A taxi was readily hailed and we made the five minute ride to to piazza without incident. In planning this trip we had orientied in on this particular location versus the Veronese Colosseo a few blocks south due to the more intense history associated with the piazza -- it once served as the primary marketplace in Verona -- in addition to the range of activities available.

"Romeo, oh Romeo..."

One of the most beautiful features that will immediately grab your attention in the plaza is the Palazzo del Comune's ornate clock tower, the Torre dei Lamberti, which tops out at 83 meters above the piazza. The tall, thin column immediately draws your attention and establishes the mood of the surroundings. Constructed of bricks and marble, with the clock itself completed in the late 1700s. The original tower dates from nearly 300 years earlier.

After a casual stroll through the marketplace, and a de rigeur visit to Juliet's balcony -- pretty much a crowded courtyard just off the main street within an easy walk of the piazza -- we wandered through the Arco della Costa to a second, equally fascinating piazza, the Piazza dei Signori, where we paused for an excellent lunch at one of the omnipresent sidewalk cafes.

Following lunch, and a brief stop at the restrooms available in the far back edge of the Castello's interior courtyard, we wandered back to the main plaza and started down the very fashionable Via Giuseppe Massini, which seems to attract quite a few trendy boutiques. Certainly worth a walk, particularly if you're in the company of people who love window shopping. 

Going in virtually any direction would be rewarding, but we turned right on the Via Quattro Spade and then right again on Via Pellicciai to make a complete loop of the neighborhood -- though if you're interested in a longer walk the area is ideal for simply wandering for hours.

Verona really is set up as a meandering city. It's a place the casual pedestrian and the hard-core city hiker alike will find something of interest, as well as a decent workout. There are numerous nooks and alleys to be explored, as well as enough food and shopping to occupy those who are more into those things. And, as noted, it's ideal as both an end destination, or as a day trip from Venice.  I will note that Verona is on our "return for a longer stay" list, simply because the taste was enough to invite us back at some point in the future.

Whether you're hiking your way across Europe or simply looking for a few hours before your cruise ship departs from Venice, consider Verona as a potential target. History, food and shopping, all wrapped into one very accessible bow.

Fair Verona, Piazza del Erbes