Maps, A Lot of Information in a Small Space (Vámonos Vol. 21)

A map, any map, is a picture of the world in miniature.  They can be frighteningly complex, choc full of annotation and information, but they can and should be easy to understand.

A map may have a hundred or more words on it but it’s easy to tell what those words mean.  When the name of the road is written on top of a drawing of that road there’s no doubt about what that name refers to. Beyond that maps often show a number of roads, cities, and geographical features that can be identified and compared to each other.  Not only can we look at where roads are and where they go we can look at roads in the context of the world around them.

This ability to synthesize a large amount of data into an easy to read format is what makes the map one of the greatest pictorial displays of information people ever created.  It’s rare that a picture is really worth a thousand words, but a good map is worth more than a thousand.

Eduard Tufte (who Business Week called the “Galileo of graphics”) highlighted a number of maps when giving examples of well executed visual information. In his works like Beautiful Evidence, Visual Explanation, and Envisioning Information. Envisioning information is exactly what maps do.  It would be difficult if not impossible to write out all info that is visually displayed.  If you read: North Avenue is south of Armitage, which is south of Fullerton, which is south of Diversey it would be reasonable to ask but how far south of Fullerton is Armitage and for how long, when do they start, do they run parallel the whole time. With a map these questions don’t come up.

Like murals, maps put things into a larger context.  The great murals of artists like Diego Rivera or Jose Orozco that contain not a single portrait but a great group of people. Seeing many people together invites comparison.  The eye naturally references each face, in contrast to the other pictured faces. Murals also put each person or object in the mural into a larger context.

People often use maps as metaphors for plans or tactics.  They call their strategies “road maps” as though maps laid out a single path to follow.  But maps are less limiting than that. Like a mural they lay out a number of different things and give them context. Maps don’t exist to direct people to go one way, they lay out a territory and the person holding the map chooses her own direction.

Movies, Weight and Hollywood’s Visual Culture (Vámonos Vol. 20)

People in Hollywood are seen more often than people from any other place in the world. The verb can only be “seen,” because movies were seen long before they were heard. The place and its primary industry still obsess over the way people and things look.

Hollywood may not be the movie and television capital of the world anymore (that title, according to, has been claimed by India’s Bollywood) but, though Bollywood may make more movies, Hollywood’s movies are seen by more people in more places.

Other forms of entertainment are less localized, because authors and musicians don’t have to live where they are published. Musicians and authors don’t have to be seen. In this world of multi-media, authors and musicians are increasingly seen, but they don’t have to be. In Los Angeles, particularly in Hollywood, and particularly among actors, being seen is a huge part of the job. That job is so tied up with life in LA that “seeing and being seen” is a part of life for everyone, not just actors.

While sitting at a café with my girlfriend on a recent trip to Hollywood, a stranger started a conversation with me (the entertainment industry is full of extroverts). “Had any sightings?” she asked. We were tourists and sights are naturally things we would be interested in. She wasn’t citing sights, but who we’d seen.

Actors aren’t the only people who live in this visual culture. Twice, I was asked how much I weighed. As a young man of unremarkable physique (aside from height) I can count on one hand how many times this question has come up… in my entire life. I wasn’t talking to an agent or a talent scout; I was talking to friends and acquaintances.

One such friend had been told to get dental work for purely cosmetic reasons. Until that point, I hadn’t noticed his teeth and, consequently, I’m having trouble describing them. They were average, normal, B+, run-of-the-mill, maybe. Another friend told me that when she arrived in Los Angeles, she immediately felt she had to lose weight and then actually did lose weight. She says she feels out of place if she doesn’t wear make-up to the grocery store.

Another thing that strikes Hollywood tourists is the imperfect plastic surgeries. I am sure there are successful plastic surgeries I didn’t notice; people who may be 10 percent prettier than they might have been otherwise, but there also were a number of people who were best viewed from far away. As if they were in permanent costumes they couldn’t take off.

Plastic surgery is not a negative thing in and of itself but you should approach it like getting a tattoo–on your face. If you’re going to do it, make sure you are going to keep liking it.

Hollywood was great fun. I would happily have spent another three days on the beach playing Frisbee or eaten another three meals of delicious sushi. I’d even admit to being excited about seeing Miley Cirus at a little coffee shop. Also, it should be said, that the majority of people in L.A. and even in Hollywood, itself, are not actors or part of in the entertainment industry. But the effect of the film industry is so pervasive that it influences everyone. The visual culture may not be L.A.’s only feature, but the visual culture of the place was too widespread, too strange and too interesting not to mention.

You should go yourself and see what you see.

Copan and the Mayan Legacy; A World that Will Not End in 2012 (Vámonos Vol. 19)

You are bound to hear a great deal about the Mayans this year. It’s been said that the Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012. That is not true. The world may or may not end in 2012, but the Mayans never predicted it.

For a traveler, a student of history, or just a person living in the Americas there is a lot to be learned from a society that whose height lasted for 600 years, according to William R. Coe’s article in “American Anthropologist.” But let’s start by laying the persistent rumor to bed.

Mayan elders have heard a number of questions on the subject of the coming apocalypse. Apolinario Chile Pixtun is quoted in an AP article saying “they had me fed up with this (2012) stuff.” The same article later quotes David Stuart a specialist in Mayan writing who says flatly, “The Maya never said the world would end.”

This sentiment is echoed by physicist and Discovery News contributor Ian O’Neill. “There’s no evidence to suggest the Mayans believed the end of their long count calendar would spell doomsday,” he said. “There’s no real prophecy that says this is going to be the end of the world, not from the Mayan ruins, anyway,” added archeologist Christopher Powell.

The idea of a Mayan predicted apocalypse was greatly strengthened by the viral promotion for and 2009 release of the film “2012.” The Internet Movie Database says the John Cusack vehicle has grossed more than $750 million worldwide at last count. So, at least somebody is getting something out of this misinformation.

But behind the popular pseudo-science and movie lip service, a vibrant culture occupied the Yucatan Peninsula as far back as 2600 B.C. The dates for the earliest Mayans come from radiocarbon dating done at a prehistoric Maya site in Cuello, Belize, and published in “Nature.” But the Mayans whose classic period happened much later, around 300 – 900 A.D. according to Coe, left behind more physical tangible evidence of the world they lived in.

As a tourist there are many Mayan sites you might visit. The empire, as described in the “Nature” article, stretched across the southern part of Mexico southwest into Honduras. Perhaps the greatest remnants of that past are the Ruins of Copán.

“The amount of inscribed materials at Copán is truly astounding,” said David Stuart, chair of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Texas. These inscribed materials are so important because they provide a written way to look into the distant past. The once great Mayan City, which sits near what, is now the border between Honduras and Guatemala is a treasure trove of these artifacts.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes Copán as a world heritage site, a distinction that puts the ruins on par with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. UNESCO praised the ruins of the great city as the site of “significant achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphic writing.”

The mathematic achievement obliquely referred to here is probably the Mayan base 20 number system, a system that was described in depth in the J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson article “Mayan Mathematics.” This mathematic system combined with what Ian O’Neill calls “keen and highly accurate astronomy,” contributed to the Mayans to creation of the famous long calendar; a calendar that today is still emblazoned on t-shirts and cemented into Chicago sidewalks. But while that calendar does finish, it doesn’t call for the apocalypse. Ideas about the end times are more likely to come from The Book of Revelations than Mayan texts. Chile Pixtun concluded that these 2012 end-of-the-world theories come from western ideas.

So the Mayans didn’t predict that the world would end this year and neither do I. But if you get a chance to visit Copán this year, I predict you’ll enjoy it.

Compromise and Companionship on the Road (Vámonos Vol. 18)

A good family movie gets laughs from kids and adults.  The movie shouldn’t soar over the heads of young, or bore the… less young. Easier said than done.  Jokes that adults find tiresome, might be a kids favorite part of the movie, content adults enjoy could be inappropriate for young eyes, or incomprehensible to young minds.  The word “family” signals a wide aim or an inherent compromise.  If you’re traveling with companions, family or otherwise, you’re going to have to compromise.

Some relish the chance to travel alone, they love the independence, but I have always preferred to have a friend along.  Funny experiences or surprises are more fun if you don’t experience them alone.  You want to be able to say “did you see that” to someone.  But a trip with companions, like a family movie, needs to accommodate a wider audience.

Accommodating tastes isn’t something to be worried or disappointed about, but there is an art to it.  First, keep an open mind when thinking about what you’d like to see.  If you’re seeing something new there is always an element of the unknown.  Sites you visit for the first time might match your imagination or they might not.  So try to keep a guarded optimism about the things you’ll see. 

Second, I don’t recommend trying to “hit every site,” in the hopes of pleasing everybody. Yes, you have limited time on your trip.  Yes, it might seem like you don’t risk missing something if you don’t touch base at every recommended site in your guidebook.  But you risk missing a lot more if you don’t give yourself a chance to enjoy the places you visit.  Remember, tourism is not an assignment from a boss you need to impress.  Some of us have to travel for work and that is a beast of a different stripe.  If you’re traveling for your own enjoyment, see the things that engage you, not just some travel writer’s top ten sites.

Too many times the idea of accommodating others sounds like surrender to us, and compromise becomes a dirty word. But remember, the people you travel with by choice or by circumstance are likely to be the most important part of your trip. They can expand your experience improve it. They may take you places you didn’t know you wanted to go. If you can find a way to engage with them you’re both going to enjoy the trip more.

Legal Travel from O’Hare to Havana, Cuba (Vámonos Vol. 17)

Non-stop charter flights can now travel between O’Hare and Jose Martí airport in Havana, Cuba.  The first of these flights took off November 25th of this year.  The charter airline that flew this first trip, C & T Charters, say they plan to continue these flights on a weekly basis.

Previously, government regulations would have made this flight impossible.  In January of this year, the Obama Administration loosened regulations and expanded legal travel to Cuba. The changes affect both who can fly to Cuba and which airports flights to Cuba can depart from.

American tourism in Cuba is illegal. The embargo also restricts the spending of money in Cuba.  According to U.S. State Department’s website “Transactions related to tourist travel are not licensable.” But there are licenses available to some groups, “who are permitted to spend money to travel to Cuba and engage in other transactions directly incident to the purpose of their travel.”  These licenses are available to journalists, students, and religious groups, among others.

As previously reported by the AP and Wall Street Journal, the new rules make it possible for places like Key West, Baltimore and Chicago to begin operating charter flights to Cuba.  Before 2011 flights going to Cuba could only depart from New York’s JFK, Miami International, and Los Angeles International airports.  There are now plans to operate flights to Cuba from six cities in Florida and nine other cities throughout the US.

These licenses for travel to Cuba, sometimes called “People to People licenses,” were originally granted during the Clinton administration, but were suspended by President Bush in 2004 (the year of his second presidential candidacy and eventual election).  A difference between Clinton’s and Obama’s policies is the expansion of airports allowed to conduct these flights.  According to C & T Charters, these flights are the first to fly directly to Havana from O’Hare in the last 50 years.


 This article was originally published by Extra and is also en Español and English on their website.

Never Been, But I saw “Hawaii Five-O” One Time (Vámonos Vol. 16)

Do your homework!

I was once a sixth grade math teacher, so I am used to telling people to do things that aren’t fun. I tried to do as little of that as possible when I was a teacher and I try to do the same as the columnist for Vámanos but I want to tell you again that you should do your homework before a trip and it will be more fun.

Generally, I have suggested looking for people to talk about the place you’re going to, reading a guidebook or doing some online research. Basically, finding out as much as you can about the place you go before you get there. I stand by those suggestions (they are fun, not only in themselves but also because they make you more excited about the trip you are about to go on. I should never have called them homework). But there is also something to be said for reading and watching fiction.

I remember when I saw Michigan Avenue in “The Fugitive” as a kid and feeling a great connection to the movie whose plot was beyond my 7-year-old understanding (up to that point, I was just scared of Tommy Lee Jones). I had a similar feeling reading “American Gods” and following the hero all around the Midwest or thinking about rural Nebraska and a trip I took to the Black Hills while paging through Jason Aaron’s, “Scalped.”

If you absolutely refuse to read, you can often get a sense of the place you’re going to visit on the screen. I recently spoke with a friend who said that he watched Hawaii Five-O, for the sole reason that he loved Maui and Kawai. But watch out: screens can be deceiving. For instance, you may find yourself imagining Woodstock in Ground Hog’s Day, which is supposed to take place in Punxsutawney, Pa. or Cadiz in one of the Pierce Brosnon Bond movies, which is supposed to be Havana. There is something about film that is immersive and powerful.

Watching movies is not the same as reading a guide. They won’t give you a tip on where to get cheap booze or give you the phrases you’ll need if you get stuck in the hospital. But screens have the potential to do something the guide can’t. Fiction can wrap you up in a story, a tale can immerse you, and it might be in reruns on cable.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also en Español and English on their website.

Airport Season (Vámonos Vol. 15)

The holidays happen at the wrong time of the year.

From Thanksgiving, the busiest travel holiday in the U.S, to New Year’s week, there
is an excess of travelers. We all try to make it through the airports in a lump, like a
big mouse in a small snake, and the airports have trouble digesting us. The problem
isn’t just the glut of people, it is the changing weather.

The beginning of winter is the most difficult to handle, not because it’s coldest, but
because the weather is still changing. Beginnings can be the most vulnerable times.

Machines and people come under the greatest pressure when they are adjusting to
new conditions. Computers, for instance, are particularly vulnerable when they are
first put to use. Around 5-7% of hard drives break in the first 30 days estimates
Willie Cade, Owner of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers. If the hard drive gets through
that danger period, the chances are good it will run for years.

But, unless you work at Hallmark, you probably can’t move holidays to some other
time of year. So, wear the shoes that are easy to take on and off, spend as much of
your inevitable delay in uninhabited terminals and bring a good book.


Is there anything you can do to make airport travel easier during the holidays?

  • Drink water after you get through security but before you get stuck in the dry air of the plane.  If you try to take water through security it will probably get confiscated.
  • If you have electronics, find a place to plug in, even if it means sitting on the floor.
  • Let children walk off their excess energy off before they get on the plane.  Three-year-olds usually love the huge hallways of airports.
  • Wear layers , it is hard to know how warm or cold it will be on planes and in terminals.
  • If possible, travel during the off season (see previous Vámanos “Off Season and Off the Beaten Path”), but if you can’t, temper your travel time expectations and relax.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

The 13-Year-Old Tourist (Vámonos Vol. 14)

I remember feeling trapped at grandma’s house, 13-year-old Casey, trying to figure out how to play Uno by myself. Columbus Nebraska has never been a playground for the rich and famous, but when I was 6 it was great fun. I remember my pre-puberty self digging through dusty crates of old toys, finding my fathers discarded army men or walking around in a “little backyard” that could have fit my house twice over.  But all of the sudden, at 14, this little town wasn’t exciting anymore.

It’s an awkward age. At middle school in the interval between being a kid and a full on teenager, it’s hard to know which childhood things will still be fun and which will feel remedial. Being stuck in the middle can be particularly confusing when traveling.

When you’re a tween, a lot of culture is pointed above or below you. Children’s museums are generally for children a little younger than you, more adult museums can be hard to access, or boring. Historical sites are as interesting as you are interested in them, concerts are often 18 or 21 and over and (in this country) they won’t let you into a bar.

For adults traveling with a kid (or a tween) can have unexpected perks. A kid with a good attitude can lead you to do things you wouldn’t think to do otherwise. Going to a zoo, a carnival or a toy store, but these stops can be the most fun part of a trip.

Adults often forget the things that liked so much as children. And it is during those years between 12-15 that they do that forgetting. As adults, we don’t deal with bullies or peers who would make fun of us.

This week I have the pleasure of hosting my girlfriends little brother who’s in Chicago for Thanksgiving.  He’s staying in an apartment with his mother for most of the trip, but she has a couple of things to do in Chicago and I am the closest thing to a responsible adult that they can find. Trying to think of what to do with him I remembered all the things I loved to do when I was in eighth grade: hanging out at the zoo, the beach, the comic shop, or the conservatory. I was so excited. There are some things I grew out of. I don’t think I will want to sit in the massage chairs at the Sharper Image for an hour like I once did, but for the most part the thought of doing the things I did when I was 14 excited me.

I suppose the trick to traveling as a tween is not getting to caught up with trying to be an adult, the trick to traveling with a tween is to get as caught up as possible with trying to be a tween.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

Finding a Guide (Vámonos Vol. 13)

Experience cuts both ways. People often say they travel to “try something new” or “break out of a routine.” Novel and different things excite us.  Dr. David Eagleman said in an article in Current Opinion in NeuroBiology  “perceived durations can be distorted by… an oddball in a sequence,” put simply, doing something different can change the way we experience time.

On other hand, familiarity can make things easier to understand and enjoy. I once tried to watch cricket on TV, but the complexity of the game befuddled me.  I ended up getting bored trying to figure it out, and turning the TV off in frustration.  This is not because cricket is impossible to understand.  It seems like a lot of people play cricket, someone must understand it. But, without familiarity it is impossible to get a lot of cricket, much less see the nuance of the game (I am sure a European would have the same experience with baseball).

A guide can help short circuit this problem. A good guide is like a teacher with infectious enthusiasm. Their love for and understanding of what is fun about a subject, place, or sport bleeds over into you, the visitor.

A guide doesn’t have to be someone who wears a uniform, or a person that stands at a historic site all day waiting for tour groups. They certainly shouldn’t be a pair of headphones you can rent at a museum. It can be a friend or relative who lives in the place your visiting or even someone who doesn’t currently live there. They don’t have to know when the Louvre was built or how many stones are in the pyramids at Teotihuacan, a guide can be somebody who knows where to eat cheap sushi or what movie theaters let you drink.

When looking for a guide, use social media. Ask friends for tips for your trip. You might think you don’t know anyone who traveled to Korea, but how much do you really know about your 317 Facebook friends?

It’s true that life is short. There is not enough time to read every book, learn every language or play every game. There’s always more prep you could do. There is always someone who knows a little more than you do about whatever it is you hope to learn about.  But that is also the good news. Somebody knows about the place you’re going to and the things you might see. So take the opportunity to find that person and get a couple hints. That way when you get your break from the routine and are experiencing something new you can really enjoy it.


This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website. 

Off Season and Off the Beaten Path: Saving Money and Making Memories (Vámonos Vol. 12)

Steven Levitt, coauthor of “Freakonomics” has a theory on how to be happy. He suggests a person should try to do things other people don’t want to do. He asserts that success is harder to attain in a crowded field than in an open one. You might not get a chance to be the best quarterback at your college but, if you work at it, you have a pretty good shot at being the best amateur lepidopterist in the student body. If you’re successful at something, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

In travel, success has less to do with competition. If you’re looking to enjoy yourself, or to learn about a new place, you don’t necessarily have to beat anyone. But, the laws of supply and demand still exist. Some very popular commodities are finite and their cost is affected by how sought-after they are. In this instance, we are talking about “cost” in a few different senses: the cost of time, money and comfort.

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I visited the beaches in Evanston. It’s a trip I had been avoiding for a couple of reasons. First, I like the downtown beaches. They’re closer to my house, they offer great people watching and they are free. The idea of going to the suburbs to pay for a beach seemed silly to me, even if the cost was negligible. But this beach is near where my girlfriend went in high school, so it’s emotionally significant to her. I wasn’t going to deny the trip forever but I can openly admit that I wasn’t looking forward to it. But this past weekend was improbably beautiful for October and, because it’s the off-season, Evanston has stopped providing lifeguards and stopped charging for the beach. This was no problem for my girlfriend and I because we were not interested in swimming.

We enjoyed the day, in part because we visited when there weren’t a lot of other people there. On the small beach, we had plenty of room to spread out our picnic blanket. The only being that interrupted us from was a particularly persistent seagull.

As a traveler, I feel clever when I find myself in a destination that is normally slammed but, for whatever reason, is calm and empty during my visit. One summer during college, I worked at the John Hancock Observatory. Late afternoons during midsummer, this attraction was not only expensive, it was miserably crowded and you sometimes had to wait in line for an hour to get on an elevator. But early in the morning before the crowds came, you could find yourself at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world three minutes after buying your tickets. Once you were up there you had the place to yourself.

Some popular places deserve their fame, while some others deserve their anonymity. I’m not saying that you need to skip the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris (though come to think of it, I skipped it when I was there on a day trip and still had a pretty great time). Some things can only be done at particular times of the year. You can’t go see the fall colors in spring.

But, I suspect, the parts of trips you remember best and enjoy most are not the ones that include a huge horde of people. Your favorite pictures aren’t the ones of the monuments that have been photographed a million times. And the memories that are important to you are the ones that are really your own, the ones that you don’t have to share with anyone but your friends and family.

Next Page »