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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.

Monday, July 21, 2014


I am certain the poets could more readily describe what it is I feel and see when aloft and flying over the world. At the moment I write this, I am 34,000 feet above the fields and farms of South Dakota, gazing down upon the checkerboard colors of greens, tans, browns and a vague reddish shading here and there.

In the distance is a thunderhead, looking light and puffy from above, though its dark shadow likely portends some drizzle down below. The ground in this part of the country is saturated after weeks of torrential rain. I've just left Minneapolis, where violent storms struck every night, waking me at 2:30, 3:00 in the morning with rumbles and flashes as if some disoriented band of paparazzi had found themselves  on the Red Carpet.

But here, over the plains, it's calm and serene. Sunlit, if even for a single day.

The view from up here is why I enjoy travel. It's a chance to look down and see things from a neutral level. No politics, no borders, no traffic. No noises of the city, no arguing or loud voices. No confusion. Only a steady buzz of airliner white noise and the occasional clack of the service cart.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Little Things, Part 2 - SUSHISAMBA

"A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that's when cuisine is truly exciting."

Las Vegas is a town becoming renowned for hospitality. Yeah, I know. That seems self-contradictory, but it’s true. The bad customer experience...and I've written about a few previously...is a surprise these days. A far cry from the impersonal buffets and indifference service staff, today’s Vegas is becoming highly dedicated towards individualized service. 

They have to. 

The competition for dollars has become intense, perhaps more than ever before following The Great Recession, which saw Las Vegas go through difficult and perhaps eye-opening times. Those challenges forcing service providers from hotels to tourist attractions to restaurants into a strong focus towards the customer experience. No longer is the attitude Old Vegas’ “we’ll put it out and you figure out how to enjoy it”, it’s largely become New Vegas’ “how can I make this better?” 

But perhaps more startling is when someone goes above and beyond, demonstrating a true dedication to the customer experience.

One of our favorite restaurants worldwide is the SUSHISAMBA in Las Vegas. Located at the Palazzo Hotel, it's a nice getaway with delicious food regardless of the occasion. Despite the fact it was involved (unknowingly) in the notorious nosebleed event of 2012*, it remains a must-do with every trip. 

(SUSHISAMBA, as the name implies, is a terrific fusion of Brazilian, Peruvian and Japanese cuisine and culture. The menu alone is an experience in cross-border/oceanic design and flavor. We have yet to have anything there that wasn't delicious.)

In the times we've eaten here, we've seen the staff under a variety of conditions, from swamped and chaotic on a Saturday evening to virtually empty on a Sunday night. 

In each circumstance the employees worked hard, presenting the food beautifully and keeping the water (and martini) glasses filled. It's not hard to return to a restaurant with that kind of a performance record. 

Needless to say, we highly recommend this place, and it would be hard to identify a way they could improve our customer experience. Las Vegas aims to achieve these days, and it's this sort of establishment that raised the mark.

We were a few bites into our appetizers — delicious of course — when the manager, Drago, approached our table to do the customary food and service quality check. How was the food? (Excellent.) How is the service? (Terrific.) Did we need anything? (Not at the moment.) Was this our first time? (No, we had been there several times and visit every time we're in town.)

In other words, a return customer.

Upon hearing this Drago smiled, expressing his appreciation for our return business, thanking us for the kind words about the food and his staff. What I picked up immediately was his enthusiasm. It seemed quite authentic and sincere. We started talking with him about the various things we've had, as well as the two or three must-haves every time we visit -- our favorite is the yellowtail sashimi tiradito. (We tend to stick more to the sushi end of the menu, but the sea bass and churrasco choices are also excellent.)

He took the time to chat, making us feel warmly welcomed and our interaction with himself and his staff personalized rather than “operational”. After a moment or so, having heard our favorites and taking the time ti get to know us, he leaned in rather conspiratorially and asked "do you have any allergies to seafood or shellfish?"

We shook our heads no.

"Ah. Okay, I have just the thing for you to try."

Not telling us what it was, he smiled conspiratorially and thanked us again, excusing himself to go check on other tables — no doubt making them feel as important as he had done for us. A few minutes later a plate of two scallop shells arrived, beautifully plated with Peruvian Bay scallops presented with a shiso lime butter crust. As amazing as it sounds, and a little amuse bush for us to enjoy. It was a thoughtful gesture, and appreciatively received. It was a small gift and the grand scheme, but certainly made a large impression.

The rest of dinner went equally as well. Our server was attentive, the food arrived regularly, was presented well and tasted brilliantly good. (The best sushi is a sensual, visual and textural experience in addition to taste --  SUSHISAMBA fires admirably on all four cylinders.) Drago checked in periodically, pleased that we were enjoying ourselves completely.

It was, to be brief, one of those dinners you remember for all of the right reasons: ambience, food, location, and most certainly the people who serve you. SUSHISAMBA hit all of the right chords in all the right order, and not for the first time — which is why we continue to return there each time we’re in Sin City (three or four times a year).

The staff, and particularly Drago, took the time to treat us as individuals — not just the next check at a busy table in an uncaring town. I should note that at no time did I ever mention that I am a professional traveler, nor that I write a blog related to my experiences. For all anyone knew, my wife and I would simply thank them and never comment publicly about our experience. The important thing for the employees was simply that we enjoy ourselves and come back to see them again.

And that’s seriously cool.

We have been to Las Vegas — no exaggeration — a hundred times or more. We’ve eaten at every level of eatery, ranging from the iHop and Peppermill, to SUSHISAMBA, Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, Picasso — and the late, lamented Renior. We eat at local favorites (Nora’s and The Firefly), as well as the tourist spots on the Strip and in the big casinos.

In any tourist town it's easy to become jaded as a service person. You see the worst in people, and often bear the brunt of it. The same can go for customers. All too often we're seen as "the couple at table 3", or just another seating.

Which is why SUSHISAMBA is and will continue to be a regular stop for us. To be the sort of team who not only likes what they do, but can convey that in a way that allows the visitor to feel warmly welcomed and appreciated is a genuine talent. 

Especially in Las Vegas.

 (A photographs in accordance with SAMBASUSHI's stated camera policy.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

A (Belated) Birthday Essay

(partially reprinted from another site, dated 2-1-2014)

"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing... A new Hedonism--that is what our century wants."

        -- Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray

I noted a few columns ago that my primary pursuit in this place is to convey my sense of passion for photography and travel. It's a fundamental part of my life. Since that time I've added Montana and Wisconsin to my list of now 44 states I have visited (outside of the airport). By the end of 2014 it's highly likely I'll be at 47.

But what I have found is that it isn't the marks on the map that count. Nor is it the distance traveled.

It is the experiences those marks represent. The memories and, yes, the photographs and descriptions. But photographs cannot convey the taste of Wisconsin cheese curds, tasted fresh-at-the-source for the very first time in the small town of Ellsworth. They cannot convey the sensation of driving rapidly through the mountains and valleys of the Glacier National Park, through trees and glacial rivers and sights that command your attention. 

Of being awakened by violent yet beautiful thunder and lightning storms outside my window in Minneapolis at 2:30am.

On my birthday this year I printed the below essay on my thoughts on my life, having reached the age of 53, which at one time I would have considered "old" and on the downslope of life.

Not so much, however, when one is looking back over the intervening years -- and labeling that younger version of myself as "perhaps too young to fully understand".

I get it now, at least better than I once did.

While the below doesn't deal a whole lot with travel or photography, both are core to what I have become.

"As of 2:30-ish this afternoon, I will have completed my 53rd rotation around the sun.

This is astounding to me. Yesterday my wife Cris and I were looking at our dining room table trying to remember when we bought it. It was our first piece of truly nice decor -- Ethan Allen -- and represented a change for us. We were, at the time, freshly into our first purchased home, a large condominium in Long Beach. It was a momentous occasion, signaling that we had finally made that transition from financially struggling young couple to a more stable and comfortable one.

2014 will also see our celebration of our 29th Anniversary. 29 years. I can recall vividly the early years of our marriage wondering who we would be, what we would be like at this stage in our lives. I think we've done rather well. We have wonderful friends who add texture and feeling and perspective to our lives. We have loving families on both sides of the aisle. And we have each other.

The years have given us challenges, the majority of which we have overcome, and those things we have not yet done away with will be dealt with in time.

This time last year I was miserable in my job. Highly stressed and frustrated. And angry. Very angry. In the last twelve months I've made a transition to a rewarding position that takes me to many places and allows me to deal with interesting people and organizations. At 52 I hated my job, at 53 I love it. The adage noting the difference a year makes is exactly right. At 24 a year was a long time. No more. It's barely enough time to appreciate what we've got or those things we need to change. We cannot take those good things for granted -- things may change tomorrow for the worse -- in the same way we cannot allow ourselves to think that any situation is hopeless and insurmountable. Time changes everything.

Two years ago at this time I was in Las Vegas to celebrate my 51st birthday. Little did I realize just what a wrong turn that trip was going to take. Right after a sumptuous dinner with my wife, I developed a bloody nose that simply would not stop. Two hours later I was packed into an ambulance and rushed to a nearby hospital where they struggled for another three hours. It was a night of brutality. The trip ruined, with my tail tucked between my legs we came back home and the next day I went to see my doctor. Diagnosis: I had been systematically thinning my blood by heavily over-using "healthy" supplements over the course of many years -- literally starving my body of oxygen. It explained so many things which were physically wrong with me at the time. I was always short of breath…even the tiniest task wore me out. I would sweat doing the smallest of things, and hated the idea of walking even a block or so. At work I parked on the fifth floor of the parking structure, driving all the way up so as to reduce my walk to the smallest distance every day.

Upon the diagnosis I stopped the supplements. I stopped the things I was doing which caused my body so much grief. It changed my life. You do not understand, fully, what the word vitality means until you have experienced its opposite and then come back across the line. I was effectively reborn, stunned by the energy and what I could describe only as "solidity" to my physiology. I could breathe again.

In many ways the last two years have been a sort of rebirth, from a world I am not sure I would have described as requiring it, but in hindsight it was not only necessary but essential. Often we are too close to something to see what damage it is doing -- even when the damage is done with the best of intentions. This is true of not just physical damage, but emotional damage and mental damage. And in each case we have to take that step back and realize when something is not healthy for our lives, our outlook or our happiness. Ultimately only happiness is what we can have in this world. The pursuit of it is even enshrined in the American Constitution.

In order to be happy, we have to be content with our lot in life -- always seeking to improve it, but not making that improvement our sole definition of getting us to that "Happy Place". If we're not at least content with where we are, we will never achieve that contentment by getting to some other goal in the future.It's always about forward momentum, not being weighed down by things in the past or things we cannot change (fittingly, many of those unchangeables are things in the past).

I am happy where I am. At 53 I can look back and note the potholes in the road and the ruggedness of the terrain, but I am confident that my 24 year old self -- fresh from the wedding ceremony -- would be happy and relieved to find where we are at now, at more than twice his age. I have "grown older" (not old!) with a lovely woman at my side. She makes the sun rise every morning, and is with me when it sets in the evening. We have a life together that is comforting, warm and full of love.

In 53 years, I've discovered that the true secret in life is never giving up on exploring the world, never give up in loving with all of your heart, and never think that you have come to a standstill and cannot move forward.

We are blessed with a great many possibilities."