…the main reason it’s created such a fuss is simply because no one knew. It’s incredible that, in an era of gossip websites and messageboard rumours, one of the biggest stars in the world, presumed retired, can spend two years making a new album without the merest whisper of it reaching the public.

The Guardian on the release of David Bowie’s new single, "Where Are We Now." 

A refreshing approach. Bravo Bowie, Bravo.

As a life-long mapophile, getting to visit the far corners of the Earth holds special significance, perhaps similar to a sports fan traveling to the Olympics or the Rose Bowl.  Last week I had the privilege of visiting one such destination: the hauntingly beautiful province of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.  
Located at the very tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago separated from mainland Argentina by the Straits of Magellan.  With a landscape that includes the Andes Mountains, dense forests, glacial lakes and the windswept Beagle Channel, the region is home to three types of penguins, Canadian beavers, gigantic king crabs, albatross, woodpeckers, hawks, sea lions and foxes.
I’m proud of precisely one photo I snapped with my iPhone on this trip, the sideways trees above. Fortunately, we were traveling with Mari, who moonlights as a professional photographer. You can check out her beautiful photo set here on Flickr.

As a life-long mapophile, getting to visit the far corners of the Earth holds special significance, perhaps similar to a sports fan traveling to the Olympics or the Rose Bowl.  Last week I had the privilege of visiting one such destination: the hauntingly beautiful province of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.  

Located at the very tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago separated from mainland Argentina by the Straits of Magellan.  With a landscape that includes the Andes Mountains, dense forests, glacial lakes and the windswept Beagle Channel, the region is home to three types of penguins, Canadian beavers, gigantic king crabs, albatross, woodpeckers, hawks, sea lions and foxes.

I’m proud of precisely one photo I snapped with my iPhone on this trip, the sideways trees above. Fortunately, we were traveling with Mari, who moonlights as a professional photographer. You can check out her beautiful photo set here on Flickr.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $3.8 billion on a single subway station at the World Trade Center designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect known for his costly projects. If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District.
From one of the year’s better articles explaining the complete disaster that is mass transit planning and development in the US.

Park Coming to Midtown West

The other week I was cycling around London and was constantly amazed at the number of parks and squares I was bumping into.  While NYC has some large-scale beauties that go toe to toe with Hyde and Regents, I kept thinking it would be fantastic if we were competitive with London on volume.

In my search for a list of recent or planned additions to NYC Parks, I came across Hudson Yards which has just released plans for a super interesting new green space, dubbed Hudson Park & Boulevard, in Midtown West.  

Beyond the size —4 acres stretching from 33rd to 42nd— what I love about the design is that it completely ignores the grid, tearing right through the super-blocks between 10th and 11th Ave.

And perhaps most awesome, much like the Hudson River Greenway and the Highline have done for Chelsea, Hudson Park continues the re-development of the far west side through prioritizing parks and pedestrians. 

Well done, planners.  Well done.

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Check our more maps and renderings of the park c/o architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh here.

NYC Taxes and the Fiscal Cliff

Mayor Bloomberg recently wrote an Op-Ed on the potential elimination of state and local tax deductions from federal tax returns and its disproportionate effect on New Yorkers.  

Some crazy stats here:

  • Eliminating the state and local tax deduction would cost NYC residents ~$3 billion. 
  • A married couple living in NYC with $160,000 in combined income would face a federal tax increase of $4,616. 
  •  That same couple living in many other parts of the country would face very little increase.
  • 18,000 city residents — a half of 1% of all taxpayers — pay 40% of our city tax revenue.
  • For every 100 jobs that were lost in the national recession, the rest of the country has gained back only 40. In NYC, we’ve gained back 200. 

Clearly, this change won’t affect the vast majority of New Yorkers so badly as to cause a mass exodus, but if, as Bloomberg fears, even a small percentage of the 18,000 major contributors jump ship, we have a serious problem on our hands.  

I will be the first to admit that the 9% we pay could be put to work more efficiently, but when you consider the state of our public infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine what kind of nightmare we’d be living in without it.

But the biggest reason to spend money on these projects is that they are desperately needed in every city and state. Around the country, there are 70,000 structurally deficient bridges; one of them, in southern New Jersey, collapsed under a train last week, sending tank cars full of flammable gas into a creek. There are 4,000 dams in need of repair, and the electrical grid in this supposedly advanced country ranks 32nd in the world in reliability, behind Slovenia’s. Those Republicans who deride this investment as worthless stimulus might want to explain to freezing homeowners why it is too expensive to bury fragile power lines.
Italy has absurdly few three-star restaurants, apparently because the criteria of complexity and presentation aren’t up to Michelin—French—standards, and the marvelously rich and varied curries of India plainly seem to baffle the guide. The city with the most stars is Tokyo, but then, many of its restaurants have barely a handful of chairs, and most benefit from the Gallic reverence for O.C.D. saucing and solitary boy’s knife skills. In both London and New York, the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people actually eat, still being most comfortable rewarding fat, conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp to serve glossy plutocrats and their speechless rental dates.

—“Michelin, Get Out of the Kitchen!” by A.A. Gill for Vanity Fair 

An appropriate shredding of a completely irrelevant publication.

Where’s Next (Update)

A few months ago I came up with a list of places I wanted to visit “that are still extremely different from the West and will look very different in 15 or 20 years.”  

Shay and I can now cross Myanmar off that list.

Some thoughts:

Go.  Now!  As in right now, stop reading this and go book a trip before anyone else figures out how incredible it is.  

For those of you who don’t know, Myanmar (once called Burma, still called Burma by lots of locals) is a fairly large, devoutly Buddhist, country sandwiched between India and Thailand. A harsh military regime, subject to decades of international sanctions, is finally loosening its grip, making tourism a real possibility. 

If you’re going to go, you better like planes.  For most Westerners, you’re looking at three flights just to get into the entry point at Yangon.  And once you’re there, you’re going to take at least three more flights on airlines you’ve never heard of to get to see the real magic of this country.

On account of the sanctions, tourism infrastructure is under-developed and Western tourists are few and far between.  You’ll need a tour operator to book hotels and internal air travel.  I’d suggest going with the company we used, Myanmar Shalom.  They are extremely reasonable and run by the most interesting people: the father / son duo of Moses and Sammy Samuels.  They are Burmese Jews of Baghdadi decent, who, in addition to operating the agency, also look after Yangon’s only synagogue, an amazing structure built in the 1890s.

Beyond the (very small) community of Burmese Jews, you’ll quickly realize that this is a deeply spiritual country.  Buddhist Monks in bright red robes are everywhere.  Gigantic pagodas adorned with gold and diamonds glitter over the skylines while tens of thousands of Buddha statutes watch over your every turn.  It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood realizes that Bagan is a dream set.

The cities are clean and the streets are vibrant but they feel trapped in the 1980s—pre international sanctions. One person we met said that the only noticeable differences are that people now carry mobile phones and Korean film stars are setting fashion trends.  

The villages are a whole different story.  In many cases, they have no electric or running water and it genuinely felt like you stepped back in time to the 1800s.  But you didn’t get a sense that they were impoverished.  Food seemed plentiful, the children were smiling, and everything was spectacularly clean.

The people are wonderful, innovative and curious.  Many still wear traditional clothing and most women apply at least a dab of Thanaka—a yellowish cosmetic made of tree bark.  The cooking style is uniquely Burmese and all of the ingredients are fresh.  Almost everything they have, especially in the villages, is made in Myanmar—and they are extremely proud of this.

Say you’re from the US and they smile like you’ve never seen.  As a frequent traveler, I can say that this is perhaps the only place I’ve ever been where sharing that you’re from “the USA” gets you more mileage than saying “New York.”  I can’t remember how many times I was asked if I thought Obama would visit one day.

It’s true, there are no ATMs and nobody accepts credit cards.  At ~850 Burmese kyat to the dollar, everyone wants USD—but only if they are clean, crisp bills, fresh from the bank.  I expect credit cards to come soon, but in the meantime, “cash only” added another dimension to the trip.

Most surprising, we’ve never felt safer.  And unlike the rest of SE Asia, even the wild dogs were relaxed.

A lot of what we read before the trip suggested that we’d be flying into a military state where guns ruled and the people were terrified.  Maybe others had different experiences, but aside from the heavily armed airports and the high fencing around government buildings, we just didn’t see that side of the country.  In fact, everyone we spoke with about politics was very open about their position: They hate the current government and consider Aung San Suu Kyi to be their true leader.  Affectionately, many called her “the Lady.” 

While I could go on and on about the art, the temples, the time-trapped logos, the sunsets or the people, this is a photo I took near a small village on Inle Lake, deep in the hills of Shan State.  Getting there involves a two hour flight from Yangon to Heho, followed by a one hour drive to the commercial docks in Nyuang Shwe and finally a one hour plus boat ride to the southern tip of the lake.  For Shayna and I, this was about as far away from the West as we’ve ever been.  It was kind of like a fairytale you read about when you’re a kid but never thought you’d actually see.

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Alright.  Enough about that.  So where’s next:  

  • Cuba
  • Bhutan
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • The Serengeti
  • The Amazon
  • Madagascar

Drop me a line if you want to organize a trip to any of the above or want to hear more about Myanmar.  

Looking forward to the next adventure!