The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan, 2017

Moynaq, Uzbekistan city sign

Moynaq:The Town Haunted By The Ghost Of The Aral Sea

The Republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, is little known, and seldom visited by Western travelers. A part of the former Soviet Union until 1991 when it gained independence, Uzbekistan has the distinction of being one of the two double landlocked countries on Earth. In other words, all five of the countries that border on Uzbekistan are landlocked themselves.

Despite its steadfastly continental geographic status Uzbekistan was, up into the late 20th century, home to a bustling port city called Moynaq that was the center of a large and thriving fishing industry. Moynaq once sat on the southern shore of the Aral Sea which was the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. Today Moynaq ia surrounded on all sides by the Kyzyl Kum Desert and what’s left of the Aral Sea is more than 150 km away.

The recent history of the Aral Sea is a tale of one of the greatest human-caused environmental disasters of all time. It is also a story of governmental arrogance, ignorance, and greed.
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Myanmar, 2016

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Myanmar Is A Travel Photographer’s Dream

Until quite recently Myanmar was a difficult country to visit. The country was ruled for many decades by a military junta that was deeply suspicious of foreigners and that sought to keep international businesses out of the country. The paranoid isolationism of the governing generals stunted economic and social progress and kept Myanmar poor and under developed. Tourism was not encouraged. It took some effort to get a visa to visit there.

So suspicious of outsiders was the military government that it refused admittance to international aid groups for a whole month after Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 and killed an estimated 130,000 people outright. The government’s hesitance to accept outside help for survivors of the cyclone cost hundreds of thousands of more deaths from starvation, disease, and dehydration.

With democratic elections in 2015 that saw Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi leading a new civilian government, Myanmar’s days of self imposed solitude seem to be coming to an end. Tourist visas are considerably easier to get now and foreign visitors, eager to get there before an inevitable tidal wave of touristic commercialism descends on Myanmar, are streaming into the country.

That Myanmar is currently undergoing development at a breakneck pace was quite obvious to me when I was there. Without exception, in every part of the country I visited I saw evidence of such development. Hotels were under construction, roads were being improved, Yangon’s airport was being expanded, and various commercial properties were being built.

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Nicaragua, 2015

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Nicaragua: Safe, Stable, And Ready To Be Discovered

 

Managua

Up to this point Nicaragua has managed to avoid the worst of the street gang violence and narco-terrorism afflicting some other Central American countries. But to be honest, Managua, the country’s capitol, must have some serious problems with violent crime. There are armed guards, some with body armor, in front of many businesses. Often there is two, occasionally more in the case of some large businesses. In more affluent residential neighbourhoods private security guards packing some serious ordinance seem to be in almost every driveway. Nobody would be paying for this if they didn’t feel the need. Outside of the capitol I didn’t see any gun-toting security guards aside from some inside banks.

Strangely, money changers carrying wads of Nicaraguan and US currency were a common sight on the street. They conducted business right in the open without displaying any signs of being worried about getting robbed.

On our first full day in Managua we wondered around the Malecon (ie. waterfront) of Lake Xolotlan and Ruben Dario Park. The National Palace of Culture was close by but we didn’t go inside. Not far away was a statue of Sandinista soldier holding both a machine gun and a pick-axe aloft over its head. The statue bore massive muscles and looked more like a prop advertising a Sylvester Stallone movie than a national monument. That area is as close to a center of town as any other in Managua.

About the only other people around were some workers taking down a Nativity scene of life-size mannequins and other props from a Christmas pageant that had been set up on Simon Bolivar Avenue.

We walked down Simon Bolivar Avenue away from the lakefront and took a right. We didn’t get very far before an elderly woman, realizing we were foreigners, pointed in the direction we were walking and wagged her head in a “Don’t go there” gesture. We decided to take her advice and figured it was time to hail a cab out of there. By that point we both had no doubt that Managua really was lacking in sights.

Despite being far and away the country’s largest city, Managua has next to nothing of interest to lure visitors to stay and linger. If you arrive in Nicaragua by air you will inevitably fly into Managua. Almost every visitor who does this immediately leaves town for somewhere else. Priding myself on being a contrarian, I planned on spending at least two nights in the capitol before moving on to more inviting locales.

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Cuba, 2014

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Travel To The Eastern Tip Of Cuba

After returning home from my first visit to Cuba in 2003 I often thought about going back for another visit. I had such a great time there and left with a real appreciation for the country’s people and society.

It was much less easy to hold the country’s political system in esteem. Fidel Castro brought in some very positive reforms; free health care, free schooling (including university), and a push for universal literacy. He also banned the racial segregation that his predecessor, General Batista, had instigated in order to assuage the sensibilities of American tourists from Jim Crow states in the South. But all that was half a century ago. All Fidel’s done since is deny Cubans their right to free and open governance and ensure that the economy remained mired in poverty with state planning of all industries. Politics aside, everyone I met in Cuba was personable and honest.

I had also been impressed with the fact that there were so many accomplished artists and musicians in Cuba. Their artistry enriched my memories of Cuba. It was a joy to tour through Cuban art galleries and studios and see work of genuine talent. Public performances of lively Cuban music are common and it’s always fun to stop and listen for a while.

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New Orleans, 2013

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New Orleans Knows How To Party

No other city in North America is as culturally unique as New Orleans. It was the birthplace of Jazz so it comes with its own home-made soundtrack. New Orleans also gave rise to its own distinct form of Creole cuisine that’s about as savoury as food can get. The French Quarter with its cast-iron adorned balconies and time worn stucco walls is instantly recognizable. The biggest street festival on the continent is of course Mardi Gras. Easily one of the most famous plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” was set in New Orleans. Countless songs mention its name. It is indeed a legendary town.

I visited New Orleans for a week in March of 2013. The weather was perfect during my stay. It was warm and sunny the whole time. Like Canada in July.

I took a room in a hotel in the Lower Garden District that was once an orphanage. The place was a dive but it didn’t lack in character.It grew on me. It was a few minutes walk away from St. Charles Avenue and its streetcar line.

My purpose in being there, besides vacationing, was to write the Cicerone Certification exam to be held at the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Ave. This is a challenging 4 hour test of one’s knowledge of all aspects of beer and brewing. Candidates must score at least 80% in order to pass and have the distinction of being a Certified Cicerone. I spent most of my first 2 days in New Orleans studying to give myself further preparation. It wasn’t all work. I allowed myself to do further research by sampling some of the craft beers from the Avenue Pub’s extensive selection. My hotel was close by. It pays to plan ahead.

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