living in MexicoSome good advice on dealing with Mexico, from an International Living editor couple.

I just got my new copy of International Living in the mail and eagerly flipped to page 8, where there’s an article of mine on a (not at all cheap) safari trip in Botswana. Complete with a photo of a nasty looking lion baring his teeth. I kind of wish I could claim that photo, but then again I’m not sure I would have wanted to be close enough to take it.

There’s also a great piece that just completely slams Panama–and then gives it a stomp in the face for good measure. Whether you agree or not, it’s kind of nice to see a travel publication piece that doesn’t gush on about how wonderful everything is somewhere.

The real nugget of gold though is a rundown of “What we’ve learned in four years,” from two editors who have traveled and lived in Mexico. If you’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, most of this won’t be a big shock, but it’s all good, insightful stuff. Here are a few highlights:

- The world is a big place and the vast majority of it doesn’t work or think remotely like the U.S. Get used to it.

- Personal initiative on the part of bureaucrats, clerks, and other functionaries in Latin America is a rare commodity for a variety of reasons. Their job is to correctly fill out paperwork, period.

- Many people in Latin America have no concept of the value of their own time. They know the value of labor, they know the value of products, but they will not complain if they’ve been waiting in line all day to file a form with a government office only to be told that the office is closing and to come back tomorrow. They will wander away quietly and come back tomorrow.

- You and your problems are not nearly as important as your Mexican friend’s family, community, and religion. The fact that you may be paying them big money for something will not change this.

- Mañana does not mean tomorrow. When someone tells you they will do something for you mañana, they mean they will do it as soon after today as they conveniently can. Which could be tomorrow. Or next week. Or never.

To get a real inside track on Mexican culture, there’s a great book called, There’s a Word for it in Mexico. Depressing sometimes (especially if you’re Catholic), but really enlightening.

I can always rely on my buddy Kent’s Be Our Guest blog for some interesting photos from here and there. Here’s a good one from Avignon, France. Van Gogh and Absinthe–with a pretty good representation of how well they go together.

Absinthe France

If you’re a parent like me, you probably can’t get some damn song about a bridge in Avignon out of your head every time you hear the name of this town. That’s a curse that “song cities” have to put up with I suppose. Whether it’s Kansas City, Memphis, London, San Jose, New York, Avignon, or the many others, the local tourism board is going to be stuck with that puppy for decades to come. Better hope the song doesn’t suck or sound really dated. (“If you’re going to San Francisco…”)But we were talking about absinthe weren’t we? For a definitive look at the green goblin, check out the appropriate chapter of this book, The Devil’s Picnic.

At times people ask me why there aren’t more African countries in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. After all, the per capita GDP is next to nothing, right? Shouldn’t it be cheap to travel there? With more proof that “poor country” and “cheap travels” don’t directly correlate, down below is a great dispatch from West Africa.

A lot of the travelogue-type travel blogs out there are mainly meant as a way to keep in touch with friends and relatives. A few, however, go beyond that and consistently discuss discoveries along the road with flair and insight. One of the better ones is HoboTraveler.com, quoted from below. You can sign up for his newsletter and get it in your e-mail box, or just bookmark the site. I edited out his “Pros,” on West Africa, which include good workmanship skills, screens on the hotel windows, cleaner rooms than usual, and touts that at least laugh while they’re trying to screw you. Here’s the rest.

“I am slowly learning to accept new problems in travel, I have never encountered in nine years and about 75 countries of travel. Travel always presents differences of life, a new culture and unique problems. Every country is special, every person is one of kind, and every culture is unique.

There are some common cultural characteristics of the five West African cultures I have visited.

Niger
Cote d’Ivoire
Ghana
Togo
Benin

CONS

1. Why is the price of food double or five times the price of USA or Europe? I am in the top 20 poorest countries on the planet, and the food is the most expensive.

2. Why are rooms double or triple the cost of Asia, South America and Central, and the same as Hostels in Europe?

3. Why does 99 percent of the culture think I should give them money, with nothing in return? Where did they learn this?

4. Why are the men bullies?

5. They would give me their sister if I would help them travel to America and live. (I told one, we don’t own people, slavery has stopped.)

6. There are Motels in Africa, I need a car to get to the Hotel. Hard to walk.

What I love and is a big pleasure about West Africa is there are not many people. The land is not developed, it is raped maybe, but there are very few people outside the cities. Wide open spaces, and most appears ready to be farmed. The place is an oasis of un-explored places for tourist or travelers to explore. I think I need a tent…

I am vowing to accept West Africa the way it is, I will not try to save, change, lecture, or tell them, and I want to say, “Do not ask for money, grow up, have some pride.”

I will just say, “Non”

This reminds me of India; after you get very good at getting rid of the beggars, accept that the place is a pigsty, dirtier than you can ever imagine, then the place is nice.

I was told before I entered India what to expect, I read or was a little aware of the idea of Africa,
- Give me MONEY. -

I can now say or understand it in French; I have doubled my annoying understanding of what they want.
- Donner l\’argent -

I now assume almost anyone, without exception will say, or put his or her hand out and say, “Give me that.” I had this girl from Mali buy a cap for a child, then look at me,
- Pay for it. -

I think often of harsh comments I am more than willing to make about countries. However, if I am to criticize my own country, I must be just and criticize other countries equally, not pulling the punch, like somehow they are not capable of being equal.

West Africa is a dreamland in many ways, I can see thousands of untapped possibilities for Africa, every kilometer of land I cross, I see an Entrepreneurs dream come true…

I will spend Dollars, converted to CFA,and contribute to the economy of West Africa, what a great way to help.

Life is Good,
Le Vie cest belle”

Andy of HoboTraveler.com

This will probably not surprise anyone who has been to China, but an article out yesterday in the Wall Street Journal noted that “of the 25 most polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China.” As anyone who has hacked and coughed their way through India’s cities knows, it’s not a whole lot better there. Delhi is actually listed as THE most polluted city in the world, with Calcutta following #2 Cairo. The scores were determined by measuring the air for sulfur dioxide (Chongquing, pictured here scored the worst on that) and nitrogen dioxide (Beijing is the “winner” on that.) The two were combined for the total score.

So next time you read some article about the rapid growth in China and India and how they’re going to be the dominant powers some day, know that they’ve got some serious cleaning up to do first. And if you’re considering a move overseas to one of these places for work, you might want to pack a gas mask.

For the record, the only other city outside of China and India making the list, besides Cairo, was Jakarta.

Want to find a bargain travel destination in the U.S.? Head to a small or mid-sized city that’s not on the east or west coast. In general, blue states are more prosperous than the red ones–and pricier. Big cities are more expensive than small ones. And at times it even feels like the smaller towns and cities try harder.

Which brings me to Kansas City.

I always say that if you see a great cheap fare to somewhere you weren’t planning on going, maybe you should go there and be pleasantly surprised. If you ask someone what Kansas City is all about, they’ll probably struggle. Barbeque? The Chiefs? That “Goin’ to Kansas City” song?

The city has a lot going for it though. You’ve got sports teams, an amusement park, a very good zoo, and the terrific Nelson-Atkins Art Museum (pictured above). And hey, how can you not have fun at Oceans of Fun – “the largest tropically themed water park in the Midwest”? Throw in some history in nearby Independence, the Negro Leagues baseball museum, and on and on. Most of it is easy on the wallet, much of it free even.

When I was there last week, the local visitors’ bureau gave me a list that’s right up my alley: “Kansas City’s Free Attractions.” Besides the expanding Nelson-Atkins museum, here are a few other selections from the list:

- Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
- Hallmark Visitor’s Center
- Kaleidoscope children’s center
- Harley-Davidson Final Assembly Plant
- Boulevard Brewing Company (on Saturdays)
- The Woodlands race track

Kansas City’s sleepy downtown has always been puzzling though. While many interesting old buildings have been converted to loft space condos, there’s still very little to do after the office workers go home. Thankfully that’s in the midst of changing. There’s a major construction project going on near the convention center, with retail, a sporting event and concert center, a renovated live performance theater, a renovated movie theater, and more. I’m not sure it’ll ever turn out as well as the downtown renewals in Atlanta, Memphis, or Nashville–the area is far more spread out for one thing–but there’s definitely a whiff of improvement in the air.

So if you see a fare for $79 round trip pop up in your e-mail box, like the one I just took advantage of, go eat some barbeque!