Tag Archives: Puerto Vallarta

Norovirus at sea

MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.
MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

An online check of your cruise ship’s health history, especially if you like to save money on last-minute bookings, can save your vacation from a disaster like norovirus.

There are certain words you never want to hear on a cruise ship. Norovirus. Quarantine. Code Red. On this year’s Christmas Week cruise from San Diego to the Mexican Riviera, I heard all of them.

Norovirus may sound rare and exotic, but it is in fact the world’s most common gastrointestinal infection. Everything about it, from the way it gets into your system to what it does to you once it gets there, is just nasty.

Someone takes a trip to the toilet without washing their hands afterward. You come along and touch what they touch, then touch your now-infected hand to your mouth, or swallow the viral culprit if they had a hand in preparing your food. That’s it. You’ve got it.

A day or so later, it’s got you. Next stop: non-stop diarrhea to go along with everything from chills and fever to aching joints, muscle spasms, and what one medical Web site calls “explosive vomiting.” Dehydration is a real — and in some cases, dangerous — possibility.


Norovirus periodically makes headlines when it takes hold in certain businesses and sickens its customers. Diners at Chipotle can tell you all about that. And it is really notorious when it strikes cruise ships.

Which brings us to Holland America Line and their cruise ship, the MS Veendam. She’s one of Holland America’s older ships, having been built in 1996. As today’s cruisers go, she’s a relatively small one, with room for 1,350 passengers (compare that with Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which can accommodate that many guests on four of its 16 passengers decks). She underwent a major overhaul in 2009.

Five days before Christmas, my wife and I left San Diego aboard Veendam for a week-long cruise to the Mexican Riviera — Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Three days in port, three days at sea. A nice, relaxing little cruise to destinations with which we were already well familiar.

We had scarcely settled into our cabin when the announcements started coming over the public-address system about an outbreak of norovirus aboard ship from the previous cruise, completed just that morning.

We’d already spotted the white plastic stands for dispensing hand sanitizer scattered about on every deck, now pretty much de rigeur throughout the cruise industry. We’d seen them before and used them before. No big deal. We heard and heeded the captain’s admonitions to wash our hand soften with soap and hot water, and figured that would be the end of it.

As it turned out, it was only the beginning.

For the first few days, the captain’s PA announcements told of continuing cases of norovirus illness on board (although he never once said how many), followed by exhortations to wash our hands often and avoid using the ship’s public restrooms.

Anyone who came down with this bug was quarantined in their cabin until the ship’s doctor and nurses were satisfied they had recovered. House arrest at sea, more or less.

Up in the Lido buffet, where passengers could serve themselves nearly all buffet food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were met by a very different sight on the second day and for the rest of the cruise.

Crewmembers wearing plastic gloves now handled everything for you. And when I say “everything”… you had to ask them for salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce. You couldn’t draw your own glass of water.

When I asked one why this was being done, his only response was, “We’re on Code Red now.”

I soon learned what a Code Red looked like. For the rest of the week, the 368 men and women of the Veendam crew practically killed themselves trying to put the norovirus bug in check.

In addition the extreme measures at meal service, every fixture, every handrail, even the desk space inside our cabin, was wiped down with disinfectant — in some cases, several times a day.

They did all of this shorthanded because, as we would learn later, they were getting sick, too.

Waiting for you at various points around the ship were spinning machines into which you put your arms halfway to your elbows to automatically wash your hands with soap and warm water. Kind of like a human car wash. You couldn’t check out books from the ship’s expansive library. You couldn’t check out movies to play in the DVD player in your cabin.

After the first few days, the captain’s announcements spoke optimistically of fewer reported cases of norovirus, until by Friday, Christmas Day, it seemed inevitable that he would pronounce the Veendam bug-free.

That never happened, not even on the morning of our return to San Diego two days later.

There were other things we noticed, like the white bath towels, standard in all hotels whether on land or at sea, that looked less than white although they looked freshly washed. Bleach clearly hadn’t been used in washing them. Why not?

A possibly answer came at breakfast when I took a drink of water — and caught the distinct smell of bleach in my glass.

When the Veendam returned to San Diego on Dec. 27, an investigator from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was waiting.

In all, 84 people fell victim to norovirus on that cruise — 73 passengers, 11 crew.

The Veendam is one of two Holland America cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks in 2015. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also had norovirus turn up on two of their ships, as did the high-end luxury cruise line Oceania. Entry-level Carnival, which has had its own norovirus problems in the past…has been clean in 2015.

In all, 12 cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks to the CDC this year as of this writing, an increase of three after only nine the two previous years.

All of this comes after a CDC health inspection in September gave Veendam a perfect score of 100, one of seven Holland America ships — and 32 industry-wide — to get perfect marks from the CDC. The same ship notoriously failed its CDC inspection in 2012, something that seldom happens.

Will I ever take another cruise after this experience? Almost certainly. But on my next cruise booking, I’ll be asking more — and different — questions.

“Trust, but verify.” — President Ronald Reagan

Want to get an idea how sanitary your cruise ship is before you book? There are ways to find out, the most important of which you’ll find on the CDC Web site.

The Vessel Sanitation Program is the CDC’s ongoing effort to monitor the cleanliness and health safety of the cruise industry. Inspectors look for unsanitary conditions and practices aboard ships and grades them, the top score being 100.

A score of 85 pr below is considered a fail. (And I thought my math teachers were tough…)

General info about norovirus, updates on current norovirus outbreaks, how the CDC inspects ships. All that and more, you’ll find on the Vessel Sanitary Program. But the link that may interest you most is the Advanced Cruise Ship Inspection Search.

On this page, you can find the results of the most recent CDC inspection of every cruise ship and cruise line. Just select the individual ship or cruise line you want to check, choose a date (to keep things simple, I’d just select “All Dates,” choose the range of scores you want to see, then hit “search.”

The results will speak for themselves.

You also can check with ships reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, but go to CDC first. If you see something there that gives you questions about a ship’s sanitation, call up the cruise line and give them a chance to explain and answer your questions.

One of those questions should be about the ship’s refund policy if you’re sickened and quarantined as a result of a norovirus or other illness outbreak on board.

If you don’t like the answers you get, politely end the call…and then choose a different cruise ship. Or if necessary, a different cruise line.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.



A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

Amsterdam canal  houseboat
Canal houseboat in Amsterdam | ©IBIT G. Gross

For all the negative talk about crime and violence related to its ongoing drug war, Mexico endures as a travel destination.

Travel Weekly reports that Carnival Cruises Lines, which has already sunk some $100 million into improvements for Mexican seaports, is looking at investing in two new ones — Calica on the Caribbean coast and Puerto Cortés in Baja California Sur.

No dollar signs yet, but the fact that Carnival would be interested at all says a lot, as does the fact that Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill was down south last week to meet with Mexican president Felipe Calderon and tourism minister Gloria Guevara.

So too does this little tidbit from TW: In a story about how Spring Break travel has picked up in 2012, they point to Student City, an online travel agency that caters to high school and college kids. According to Student City, its top two destinations were Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, both on the Mexican Riviera. Panama City, FL was third.

That’s definitely how it looks to the folks at USA Today, who checked the situation with aviation and travel experts.

What do you want first, the bad news or the very bad news?

Airliners may not have to pull up to the local gas station to fill their tanks the way you and I do, but when it comes to fuel prices, the oil companies don’t cut the airlines any more slack than they do for us. So whatever causes the cost of a barrel of crude oil to jump hits everyone hard.

Even the airlines’ ability to buy options on jet fuel, a tactic pioneered by Southwest Airlines and copied by many other airlines since, doesn’t help as much as it used to.

Bottom line: Airfare prices already are higher than they were a year ago, and the pain is only going to increase once the summer “high season” arrives. You need to plan accordingly, and the US Today story has a few tips that may help.

Embedded in a story from CNN Travel about Swiss voters rejecting a proposal for six weeks of paid vacation a year (like their neighbors in Germany) is a survey of 20 countries from Expedia, listing them in order of the amount of vacation time employees receive, how many of those days are actually taken and how many go unused.

France, to no one’s surprise, was at the top. The United States, again no surprise, was near the bottom. What may be unexpected is that nations with some of the strongest economies in Europe, as well as some of the weakest, rank among the highest for vacation days offered and actually used.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from the New York Times
The FAA finally decides to consider adding to its list of consumer electronics devices approved for in-flight use.

from eTurboNews
The 2012 London Olympics are only a few months away. Can London’s five airports handle a crush of visitors flying in? The heads of four British airlines seem to have their doubts.

from Travel Weekly
They’re coming to America…or at least trying to. Gol, Brazil’s low-fare airline, wants to fly Boeing 737s from Miami to Sao Paulo, with a stop in Caracas, Venezuela.

from the New York Times
How to avoid the worst seat on the airplane.

from Travel Weekly
There’s First Class, and then there’s this: Etihad, the national flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, is installing chefs to prepare in-flight meals for their First Class passengers.

from Travel Weekly
Remember People Express, the low-fare airline back in the 1980s that bowled people over with some ridiculously cheap fares — while putting them through some even more ridiculous hassles — until Continental swallowed them up? They may be coming back.

from TNOOZ
Have you ever played with Google Flight Search? It’s only been online for six months. Simultaneously shows air routes and airfares across the United States…and now, internationally.

from Frommer’s Travel
Want to get the feel of a place from a local’s perspective? Take a walking tour. Here’s what you’ll see if you hit the bricks in the Montmartre section of Paris. SLIDESHOW

from Smarter Travel
There are more than 900 World Heritage Sites identified around the globe by the United Nations, all of them worth seeing. The folks at Smarter Travel pick 11 must-sees. See if you agree. SLIDESHOW

from the Los Angeles Times
Ever have trouble with those balky remote controls for the television in your hotel room? Now there’s an app that will let you operate the hotel TV right from your smartphone. Unless, of course, you own a Blackberry.

from Travel Weekly
Is it just me, or is the cruise industry taking a beating this year? Princess Cruises cuts short one Caribbean cruise and cancels two more due to engine troubles aboard Caribbean Princess. Oh well, maybe things will be better next year: Princess is among the cruise lines now accepting bookings for 2013.

from Cruise Critic
A head-to-head comparison of the ten most popular mega-ships and their features — cabins, dining options, entertainment. Which one most appeals to you?

CNN Travel
The inside view of ten of the most popular North American cruise ports. One’s in Alaska, while the rest are scattered around the Caribbean. Avoid the crowds and pick up some local flavor.


Reuters via Yahoo!
Is Britain trying to block access of Africa’s largest airline to Europe?

Capital FM (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
An innovative attempt to promote tourism to Kenya through music. Plans underway to create a musical stage production on Kenyan cultural attractions, with the country’s different languages as a centerpiece.


from BBC Travel
Southern, sleepy, set-in-its-ways Savannah, GA is suddenly becoming a hot zone of sophisticated art, music, dining and shopping.

from the Los Angeles Times
There’s a lot more to Peru than just Machu Picchu, and the LAT’s Chris Reynolds shows you the what and the where in Cuzco.


from eTurboNews
One unexpected aftershock from Japan’s 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster — a lot more Japanese tourists vacationing in Taiwan.

from BBC Travel
A mini-guide to a mini-country with a lot going on: Singapore.

from the 
Los Angeles Times
A veteran traveler digs through the multiple cultural layers of the Malaysian city of Malacca.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Berlin has some of the world’s most cutting-edge architecture, and through this self-guided walking tour, you can check out a lot of it.

from The Guardian (London UK)

The three most beautiful words in the English language when joined together: Paris…wine…free. Free wine tastings of some of France’s best bottled offerings through June.

from The Guardian (London UK)
When you’re ready to party hard, head for Spain. A rundown on where and when to go. Who needs sleep, anyway?

from Rick Steves via USA Today
New things to see and do in France and Spain for 2012.

Edited by P.A.Rice


IBIT TRAVEL Digest 2.26.12

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

Juffureh, Gambia
Juffureh, Gambia | ©IBIT G. Gross

The Internet has given us all the ability to search out the lowest price on all things related to travel, so we really have no need for travel agents anymore, right?

Not necessarily.

An admittedly non-scientific side-by-side test by the New York Times matched the Web and a travel agent to see which produced the best deals — and the live-human travel agent came out on top.

Seasoned travelers know there’s nothing like having a knowledgeable travel agent in your corner when reservations fall through or unforeseen events blow up your travel plans. Now, it looks now as if the old-school travel agent might be able to hold their own when it comes to scoring travel bargains, as well.

The only thing I love more than traveling by sea is traveling cheaply by sea, which means I’m naturally drawn to ocean-going ferries, and Tripologist.com has come up with a trip that satisfies on both counts.

As close as Japan and South Korea are to one another, it would only make sense to visit both while you’re traveling in that part of the world. But a round-trip ticket for the two-hour flight between Tokyo and Seoul could cost you $500 and up, which is insane.

For almost $200 less, you could take a three-hour cruise on a high-speed hydrofoil between the two countries, and pass easily and cheaply from the ports to the anywhere in either country via their high-speed rail networks.

Two high-speed train rides, connected by a hydrofoil? That’s me, all right.

Tripologist breaks down the particulars here.

That’s right. CBS is coming back at you with its 20th segment of the world travel contest show, The Amazing Race. The format is the same, 11 teams of two competitors each. The prize is the same, $1 million.

Being the travel addict I am, I’d probably watch this, anyway, despite all the artificial drama and instigated conflict the show’s producers try so hard to generate. But this time around, I have extra incentives.

The first is that, once again, there are contestants from San Diego on the show. Or rather, there were. The two Asian golfing sisters were eliminated the first night. Poor girls, they barely got their passports open and they’re already gone.

The other is that I have reason to believe that the race is returning to Africa. I’d watch for that reason alone. Some may watch this show for the conniving and the cattiness, but for this traveler, it’s all about the destinations.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from Smarter Travel
The new rules requiring airlines to fully disclose the cost of a flight have prompted online travel agencies to limit their flexible options — in some cases, drastically. But there are still ways to use flexible search to your advantage.

from TIME
First, they were feeling up old ladies, frisking little girls and looting people’s luggage. Are TSA screeners now using their screening machines to ogle young women’s bodies? One woman says yes, and she’s suing.

from USA Today
The merger with United has caused Continental Airlines to disappear in all but name. Now, even that is going away. ​

from msnbc
Have one of those unbearably long flights coming up in Coach? Would rather not have a seatmate, maybe even prefer having a whole row all to yourself? That can be arranged.

from The​ Times, London UK
Better driving by motorists would make things a lot safer for cyclists. What makes this statement remarkable is that, in London, at least, it’s the motorists who are saying it.

from the New York Times
The NYT’s Michelle Higgins tells us how to get elite status from the better hotel chains. The way the hotels are adding on surcharges these days, you almost owe it to yourself to do it.

from Away.com
TV chef Anthony Bourdain shares his five top travel tips. This could cost him his Bad Boy membership card.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
The Costa Concordia disaster is giving folks in Venice second thoughts about how close they want these massive mega-ships passing by their fragile icon of Italian history.

from USA Today
Talks are underway that could bring a cruise to the capital city of Haiti for the first time in a quarter-century.

from Cruise Critic
Twenty-two passengers from the cruise ship Carnival Splendor robbed at gunpoint in Puerto Vallarta. This probably will trigger a massive response from the authorities to crime in the Mexican port, but it might be too late to save the Mexican Riviera.


from CP-Africa
Is this the footprint of God?

from The Daily Observer (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
New Fajara Craft Market opens in Kotu, part of an ongoing redevelopment of the Fajara waterfront.

from the Business Daily (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Tourism figures are up in Kenya despite worries over tourist kidnappings and conflict with Somalia’s al Shabaab religious extremist militia.

from The Citizen (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Mafia Island. In more ways than one, it’s not what you think. On land, lush, green, and largely unspoiled tropical landscape. Offshore, world-class diving and snorkeling.


from State.gov
The State Department breaks down its travel warnings on Mexico, going state by state.

from the New York Times
This piece is all about how to spend a weekend in New Orleans. But if you approach this city in the right spirit, a weekend in “the NOLA” can last all year.

from USA Today
A new exhibit at a Phoenix museum shows there’s more to the Apache legacy than the legend of Geronimo.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
Hawaii’s lava flows are equally fascinating to scientists and tourists, but if you plan on taking in this breathtaking sight, a little caution is in order. Actually, make that a lot of caution.


from Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan)
From giant paper floats to a private train heated in winter by a pot-bellied stove, Aomori prefecture puts Japanese culture on display.

from the Japan Times
Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, which feeds this nation’s insatiable appetite for seafood, is a whirlwind of sights, sounds, aromas and characters. It’s also due to close in three years. So if you want to see a historic piece of daily Tokyo life, go soon.


from the Guardian (London UK)
An interactive map showing the best bargain-priced restaurants around Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You’ll want to keep this one in your “mobile.”

from the Guardian (London UK)
If you’re one of those people who think camping would be great if it weren’t out in the wilderness, Berlin has the hotel you’ve been waiting for. it’s called the Hüttenpalast. AUDIO SLIDESHOW

from the the Guardian (London UK)
Speaking of eateries, here’s one Parisian’s list of the ten best Paris bistros. I wouldn’t call any of these places a bargain, but they’re probably worth every euro.


from France 24
Iraqi town uses history and heritage to turn from terrorism to tourism.



A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

My Point Loma bodyguards | ©Greg Gross

Cycling is a great way to experience a new city, and as the Los Angeles Times points out, two of the best cities to enjoy by bicycle are up in eastern Francophone Canada, Montreal and Quebec.

Given Montreal’s close cultural ties to France, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the capital of Canada’s Quebec province has followed the example of Paris and created a city bike rental program.

They call it Bixi — part-bike, part-taxi.

Pick up a bike from one outdoor Bixi station, drop it off at another.

The cost: roughly $5 an hour. The beauty: If you drop off the bike within a half-hour, it’s free. As in no charge. The bikes themselves are built to be smooth, comfortable, easy to ride and carry stuff.

The catch: The program doesn’t operate in winter (what, Canadians don’t like to pedal in snow?). Also, such programs almost never provide bike helmets with their bikes, so you’ll have to provide your own — and just on general principles, you really should.

As for Quebec, more about that later.

One of this seasons’s most supremely hyped TV shows is “Pan Am,” a nostalgic look back at America’s flagship airline at the birth of jet travel.

To many travelers of a certain age, the show represents a look back at what “Pan Am’s” producers want to portray as the golden, glamorous age of air travel. However, from the other side of the Atlantic, the view is a bit different.

In particular, Simon Calder of London’s The Independent finds a lot more tarnish than gold. Not only were trans-Atlantic airfares much higher back then, but you had to book your flight literally months in advance.

Maybe the “good old days” really weren’t all that good, eh what? In any case, you won’t find Mr. Calder pining for them, and perhaps we shouldn’t, either.

USA Today is reporting that an environmental group in Nepal is installing portable toilets on Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, as part of an effort to get the thousands of mountain climbers to assault the peak each year to help keep it clean.

Have we turned the world’s highest mountain into the world’s highest outhouse? Guess it’s not just the yellow snow you have to watch out for anymore. EWWWW!

If you read blogs like this one, you probably already know why it’s good to travel. If you know folks who don’t, refer them to this short but on-point essay from Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler:

“The media feed us scare stories about those in other countries, but the reality is that most people in the world are searching for the same things we are – a better life, a better future for their children – and they’re only too ready to lend a hand to a fellow human being.”

In a world driven by politicians and media bent on naming and villifying the latest bogeyman of the month, that’s a good thing to remember.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from the New York Times
The NYT’s Susan Stellin offers up some suggestions and Web sites to help you refine your online airfare search. for one thing, look for sites that give you the FULL price of your ticket, including things like baggage fees.

from USA Today
Korean Air brings the Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet to LAX, with the fewest seats of any A380 now in service. They’re billing it as “the world’s most spacious A380.” If any of that extra space is in Coach, it might be worth the airfare.

from the Guardian (London UK) ​
London’s three main airports — Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted — to hit the saturation point in less than 20 years. Some travelers would tell you they’re there now.

from Frommer’s
Ten rail trips via Amtrak that are cheaper than driving.

from Leave Your Daily Hell
This travel blogger offers up a list of the cities that the world loves to hate. He loves every one of them, and tells you why you just might, also. One of them, quite naturally, is Los Angeles.

from USA Today
If you’re thinking about doing a cruise in 2012 and you want to get the best deals, you need to start planning — and booking — now.

from USA Today
Some signs of life on the Mexican Riviera: After pulling out due to security fears, Princess Cruises set to return to Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta in the fall of 2012 and spring 2013.

from Lonely Planet
The LP gang share their list of ten of the best places on the planet for a journey on the water.


from the Independent (London UK)
Cape Verde, a nation comprised of ten small islands 300 miles off the West African coast, is the latest hotspot for Europeans seeking to escape the winter cold. Clear waters, pristine beaches and people whose motto is “No stress.” Yeah, I could do that.

from BBC Travel
The Tour d’Afrique makes the Tour de France look like a weekend cruise. Whether you ride it to win or just to experience the continent of Africa, you will be changed.

from ​allAfrica.com
Zambia and Zimbabwe will co-host the 2013 Genera Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization. The venue will be Victoria Falls, the world’s largest natural waterfall, which straddles the border of the two countries.

fromthe Independent (London UK)
The 15-year civil war that devastated Mozambique until 1992 also devastated its wildlife. After nearly two decades of peace, both are now coming back strong.


from the New York Times
Think of French-speaking eastern Canada and you’re likely to think of Montreal, a great city. But give some thought to Quebec, a beguiling blend of New World and Old Europe. And one of the best ways to see Quebec is by bike.

from the Los Angeles Times​
Not all the most beautiful fall foliage in North America is to be found back East. According to my friend Chris Reynolds, the small British Columbia enclave of Nelson can match New England color for color.

from the Daily Mail (London UK)
Just for a little variety — or maybe a lot — you might want to consider a different venue for next year’s Oktoberfest. Like, say, Brazil?


from the Los Angeles Times
The world hasn’t quite run out of unspoiled tropical paradises, as witnessed by Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Development is minimal. Natural beauty is boundless. Just watch out for the falling coconuts.
from the

from Vayama
Etiquette matters everywhere, but good etiquette really matters in Singapore. A comprehensive lists of do’s and dont’s, especially if you plan to do business in this island city-state.

from Rusty Compass
Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit, but mind your bag — especially your camera bag — in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). Snatch-and-grab thieves on passing motorbikes can rip you off and hurt you at the same time. VIDEO

from Travel and Beyond
Where to get your eat on in Singapore, a foodie’s paradise. Second of two parts (the link to Part One is in the text).


from BootsnAll
Seven things you should know about Germany’s perpetually changing capital, Berlin.


OUT THERE: Joel Duncan

One of an occasional series introducing black travelers and their Web sites

SITE: AventureJo

Our newest entrant in the Out There series is a native of Guyana who moved to Canada, then promptly fell in love with Mexico and Central America.

Up next: a trek that will take him the length of the Spanish-speaking Americas.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes — or as he’s known by his full name, Diogenes the Cynic — used to walk around with a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man.

When he’s not traveling on foot through Latin America, Joel Duncan spends a lot of time in cyberspace, looking for other black folks who enjoy backpacking the way he does.

So far, the smart money’s on Diogenes, but Joel isn’t done looking — or backpacking.

In a very real sense, he’s grown up on the road:

“I guess you could say that I grew up traveling. I was born in Guyana, moved to Barbados at age seven, returned to Guyana about a year later, moved to Canada at age 10, moved back to Guyana, and finally back to Canada for my last year of high-school and university. Yep, I did a lot of moving about.

Call it the way I was brought up, but after that I could not stop moving.”

These days, he’s out to make his mark in the travel industry not merely as a travel writer, but as that rarest of commodities — a black outdoors writer.

Ask him what got him so hooked on travel at a young age and he responds with a single word: “NEW.”

“I love expecting the unexpected. I love trying new dishes, meeting new people, seeing new things in nature and feeling new emotions from all of the newness around me.

I am not a stamp collector; I don’t visit a country to get a stamp in my passport or take a snapshot of a popular landmark. I travel out of a sickening desire to discover as much as I can about this beautiful planet that God has given me only one opportunity to enjoy.”

Nor does he shy away from the more unpleasant realities of life that he journeys often reveal to him, especially when it comes to things like poverty, a state in which much of the world lives:

“I am able to appreciate how big and beautiful the world is and how blessed I am to live in a time when the whole world is within my reach. I am thankful for everything that I have because I am more aware of how little others have and will ever get. Travel makes me have a greater appreciation of the gift of life.”

Coming out of university, he got a different sort of gift from his father, a two-week post-graduation trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was supposed to be a vacation and a good time, but it turned into a lot more than that.

It changed his life:

“I instantly fell in love with the country and its people. Everyone was so friendly and they actually said hello and good morning (“Hola! Buenos Dias!”). Waking up with the beach only steps away and watching kids play happily in the streets without the assistance of a Sony Playstation, I thought to myself, ‘I could live here.’ “

And so, for a time, he did:

“Eight months later and (with) $600 in my pocket, I moved to Mexico and began working as a tour guide in the jungle. I spent two years there, eating new food, meeting new people and falling in love with an entirely new culture.”

It was wonderful, he says. But it wasn’t nearly enough:

“New, new, new – the travel bug had burrowed so deep inside me that its infection had become chronic and I craved more ‘new.’ After about six years of feeding this obsession, returning to Mexico year after year, I headed to Costa Rica, a nature and adventure travel mecca.

“The experience was like falling in love all over again, except this time it was with a different person.”

What Joel does is hardly unique anymore. You see young university students and recent grads trekking cheerfully and fearlessly all over the planet.

You just don’t see many black ones, something Joel would love to help change:

“Whenever I am fishing, camping in the back-country, or adventuring outside urban areas, I often ask myself, Why I am the only face of color (black) to be seen? It isn’t like we as a people would evaporate off the face of the planet if concrete and asphalt weren’t nearby.”

He has his own Web site, “AdventureJo,” in which he talks about his travels through Mexico and offers advice on how to safely and successfully enjoy a vacation there.

Now, after having fallen head over heels for Mexico, Joel Duncan is on the verge of romancing a continent.

Sometime next month, Joel will leave home in Toronto on his latest trek— across Mexico, Central and finally South America:

“More new and more love. I cannot wait.”

There’s a good deal of talk “out there” in the urban jungle about hostility between blacks and Latinos, specifically Mexicans — enough to make some black folks think that the very notion of spending time south of the U.S. border must surely border on madness.

Joel Duncan begs to differ.

“If there is one time when I can say, “I am so happy I am black”, it is when I am traveling in Mexico and Central America. In rural regions, many people stare for quite a while because I am the first black person they had ever seen, other than on the TV. I have been asked by random strangers and groups of giggling women (more times than I can count) to take a photograph with them.

I have been told that my skin is beautiful, called 2Pac and Kobe, and ushered inside of nightclubs without having to join a line or pay a cover charge. I won’t lie – it feels great.”

So what’s the secret to his success in Mexico? The answer, he says is familiar to any fan of Aretha Franklin — R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

“The most important thing is to show respect for the people and their country. Nothing is wrong with being proud of your country, but being a loud show-off with a superiority complex is a sure-fire way to make enemies. “

His other advice: Hable a little español, even if your entire Spanish vocabulary could fit on one tortilla chip.

“Your Spanish doesn’t have to be great. As a matter of fact, you would be surprised how far the words ‘hola’ (hello) and ‘buenos dias’ (good day) will take you.”


MEXICO: The hits just keep on coming

An outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease hits resorts on Mexico’s Gulf coast, while in low bookings prompt cruise lines to abandon the Mexican Riviera. In the travel industry, this is what’s known as a bad day.

You have to wonder how many more beatings Mexico’s battered tourism image can take.

The first salvo comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a bulletin this week about an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in two resorts on the Mexican island of Cozumel, a popular tourist destination and cruise ship port on the Gulf of Mexico.

The two resorts affected are the Regency Club Vacation Resort and the Wyndham Cozumel Resort & Spa (formerly Reef Club Cozumel).

Legionnaire’s disease is a bacterial infection that triggers pneumonia. It first popped up on our collective radar back in 1976, when men coming back from an American Legion convention at a Philadelphia hotel started coming down with it, and dying.

Not knowing the cause at first, people all over the country were freaking out, fearing that some sort of murderous, invincible superbug had got loose among us.

The panic died down after medical investigators tracked down the culprit, a new and potent but still relatively ordinary strain of bacteria that can be taken down with antibiotics.

Today, Legionnaire’s disease is known as a random annoyance that hits individuals now and then, but rarely causes general outbreaks.

Two things to note here. First, CDC says the outbreak affects only these two resorts on Cozumel, not the island as a whole. So if you’re booked on a cruise that docks at Cozumel later this year, don’t freak. It’s perfectly safe to get off the ship, wander about and enjoy the place.

Secondly, it’s not as if guests at these two resorts have been dropping like moscas. A grand total of nine people from the two resorts have come down with Legionnaire’s disease in the last two years. Not exactly plague numbers.

Still, there’s concern for those two resorts because scientists have yet to track down the source of the bacteria, which spreads from person to person through the air. If you’ve been to either of those resorts in the last two years, talk your doctor.


You can read the entire CDC bulletin here.

Meanwhile, an infection of a different sort, Mexico’s horrific, blood-soaked struggle against that country’s drug cartels, has triggered symptoms in the cruise industry.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines each is pulling one of its ships out of the Port of Los Angeles and sending them elsewhere because markedly fewer people are taking cruises to the Mexican Riviera.

Royal Caribbean is moving its Mariner of the Seas to Galveston, TX, while NCL is transferring the Norwegian Star to Tampa, FL.

Aside from giving West Coast cruise vacationers fewer options, this puts a real dent in the livelihoods of a lot of people, from LA and Long Beach to Los Cabos, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.

You can read the entire LA Times piece here.

This became more or less inevitable as soon as the cartels started taking their bloody turf battles to places like Acapulco and Cancun, even though they seldom come anywhere near tourist zones. When it comes to Mexico in the eyes of tourists, perception often trumps reality.

Seeing the mayor of Cancun arrested on drug trafficking charges last year probably didn’t help.

To us, still clawing our way out of a recession, this is a pain in the neck. To Mexico, it’s closer to a kick in the nads.

Depending on whom you ask, tourism is the third or fourth largest source of revenue for the country, which also happens to be the 13th largest economy in the world.

For a lot of our neighbors to the south, who have done nothing wrong, an already difficult life is about to get harder.


Happy Birthday, Mexico

It was 200 years ago today that a priest launched the battle for Mexican independence with the cry of “¡Viva Mexico!” These days, Mexico is battling negative images and stereotypes in a bid to get its tourism back on track.

Fewer Americans visit Mexico these days, some in fear of getting caught up in the country’s bloody battle against drug cartels, others to show their disapproval of illegal immigration.

Despite all of that, it remains the first truly foreign country that many Americans visit. It also has a sizable population of expatriates, mostly retired Americans. Whether as visitor or expat, their reasons for coming are as varied as they are.

They come for the lower cost of living. They come looking to jump-start their art, writing or photography in the mountain serenity of a place like San Miguel de Allende. They come for the hot beaches of places like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Islas Mujeres and Huatulco, or the diving in Bahia de los Angeles, or to get up the colonial flavor of Taxco, Guanajuato and Zacatecas.

Others come for the tropical, mountainous beauty of Oaxaca, or the all the happenings they can find in the urban mini-state that is Mexico City. They come for the pyramids at Teotihuacan or the Mayan ruins at Tulum. They come for the food, the culture, the nightlife, the wildlife. They come for the five-star resorts and for the chance to raise a tent and roll out a sleeping bag in a cove miles from anything.

Among visitors south of the border, the easiest way to start an argument is with this question: “What is the real Mexico?” The most honest answer is that there is no one Mexico, but many.

In its geography and its climate, the country seems to have a bit of almost everything — mountains, deserts, arid plains, jungles. Not two, but four long coastlines, once you throw in the Baja California peninsula. Much of Mexico is beautiful beyond description.

But for me, Mexico’s greatest attraction is her people, who are as diverse as the land they live in. In my time working there as a journalist, they taught me a lot.

They taught me Spanish (Actually, they’re still teaching me Spanish!). They taught me the importance of relationships, that good manners still matter, that no amount of difficulty in life prevents or exempts you from being kind. That in its best and truest form, friendship is nothing casual. It’s for real, and for life.

Warm, proud, creative, courageous, loving, utterly devoted to family. They know how to work. They know how to party. Facing obstacles and challenges that would wither the souls of others, they just smile, shrug, and keep on going.

This country has known a lot of hardship, a lot of hard times, in its 200 years. It still does. But these are people who persevere, and manage to smile — and make you feel welcome — while they do it. It’s but one of the things that makes them, and their country, worth getting to know.

¡Viva Mexico! indeed.

Images by David Poller. Check out more of his work HERE.



A roundup of the good, bad and bizarre from the world’s best travel media

cathedral in Mexico City
© Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com

Headlines and hype to the contrary, Mexico is still a good travel destination. You just need to be picky about where you go.

Knowing that I used to cover the U.S.-Mexico border as a journalist, more than one person has asked me if I’d feel safe returning to places like Tijuana, and my answer is always “no” — but not for the reason they expect.

They expect to hear about blood-curdling murders and wild shootouts between soldiers and hired gunmen, all a part of Mexico’s ongoing drug war. But with the capture of certain high-profile drug dons in the region, there’s an awful lot less of that in TJ and the rest of Baja California these days. As a result, the region’s tourism sector is gradually coming back to life.

No, the thing that keeps me away from Tijuana’s terrific restaurants, long beaches and bangin’ nightlife is the same thing I used to suffer when I worked down there — those horrendous long lines at the border.

After spending all day and/or half the night playing gringo tourist, who wants to spend an hour or more — sometimes much more — sitting in their car or standing in line, waiting to go through customs and immigrations checks, inhaling exhaust fumes in the bargain?

Tijuana. Otay Mesa. Tecate. Mexicali.
It doesn’t matter. Wherever you cross, virtually whenever you cross, it’s the same nightmare.

But if you’re willing to go a little farther — to the beach resort cities like Los Cabos, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, or further south to Oaxaca, you can still have a great trip, and you won’t have to deal with that craziness when you fly back to the United States.

Yes, you may have to stand in line for a little bit to clear immigrations and customs, but believe me, it’s not nearly as bad.

Even Mexico City could be a great trip, especially if you’re interested in Mexican art, culture and history. Sept. 16, Mexico’s independence day, is coming up, and there celebrations being planned that visitors might really enjoy. I’ll have more on that later this week.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

from Smarter Travel
Ever wonder what it might be like to spend a night in a towering lighthouse, with ocean waves crashing on the rocks below you, the way real lighthouse did &msash; before automation took over the planet? Here are ten lighthouses that will fulfill your fantasy.

from Smarter Travel
It’s not just airline fees raising the cost of flying. Governments at all levels treat airports as cash cows, with multiple taxes and fees. ST’s Ed Perkins tells you how to avoid the worst offenders.

from Google News via Agence France Presse
If the rest of the Mother Continent wants to ride the wave created by South Africa’s tourism success with this year’s FIFA World Cup, they’ll have to do something about flying in and around the rest of Africa. In the 21st century, it’s still a hot mess.

from the New York Times
A weekend in Montreal may be the cheapest way to get a great taste — literally — of life in French-speaking Canada.

from Yahoo! via Associated Press
In India, the historic and ultra-plush Taj Mahal Hotel, heavily damaged in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, reopens. How plush? One room in the heritage wing: $625 a night.

from the New York Times
Went a little overboard last night on the coquille St. Jacques in that Paris resto? Afraid that chocolate mousse is going to migrate to your waistline? How about a quick 12-mile skate around the City of Light — just you and a few thousand of your new closest friends? Yeah, you can do that.

from the Guardian (London, UK)

Big Ben, the London Eye and the Tower of London too tame and routine for your visit to the United Kingdom? How about a day in stunt school? See jolly Olde England — while being flipped backward over the hood of a speeding car. Cheerio!


AVIATION QUEEN: Passport = Freedom, Part Deux

© Val Bakhtin | Dreamstime.com

One of the bad things about my continued march into middle age is that I can’t remember things the way I used to.  In my last post, I wrote about all the places I visited on my old passport, which expired April 12.  But I was going on memory, which was a really bad idea. 

Why? I missed some of the other great places I visited!

I went to Berlin twice. During my first trip, I was smack in the middle of the filming of “The Bourne Identity.” Let me tell you, Matt Damon is a really nice guy. 

I also got to take a tour of the now-closed Tempelhof Airport.  It was a pre-World War II monstrosity that became a symbol as the staging point for the Berlin Airlift. At the time I visited, it was a shell of its former self, mostly being used by private jets and low-cost, European-based airlines.

I went to Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, Canada.  All three cities were unique, and I’d visit all of them again in a heartbeat.  I went to Jamaica –okay, but I probably won’t go back.  Same with the Bahamas.  I went to Puerto Vallarta, where I was chased by people trying to sell timeshares to “rich” Americans. Not pleasant at all. 

And I went to a private jet air show in Geneva, where I had a grand time at the Patek Phillipe watch museum.  I’m going back to Geneva at the end of the month, so look for a post from that trip.

But there were two trips that I should have highlighted in the last post. 

I watched the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and fell in love with the city.  I swore I’d get there some day, and I went in November 2005.  It did not disappoint.  The people were wonderful, the food fantastic, and I continue my love affair with sangria made with cava.  I am a huge Picasso fan, and Barcelona has what the artist considered his favorite museum.  And you can get in for free on the first Sunday of the month.

Barcelona was very easy to navigate, with a great subway and train system.  The city is filled with iconic buildings by hometown architect Antonio Gaudi.  Buildings you must see include La Sagrada Familia temple; La Pedrera residence; Casa Batlló (which looks like it’s made of skulls); and the Park Guell.

The other big trip was to Seoul, South Korea, where I was doing a series of stories on flag carrier Korean Air. 

I was really excited to land at Incheon International Airport, since the facility has won numerous “best airport” awards.  After visiting, I now know why.  It was light and air and very easy to navigate.  It has world-class shopping, free shower/arrivals lounges for all travelers, free wi-fi and free computer stations, places to take tours or play a round of golf during a long layover and a free Korean museum where you can make your own crafts.

While I was there, the city was celebrating Buddha’s birthday, so there were celebrations everywhere.  The local flea markets and crafts areas are a shopaholic’s dream, and I made a point of not eating Western food.  The highlight for me was having lunch at Sanchon, a restaurant owned by Buddhist monks serving “temple” cuisine.  It was a lovely oasis in the city that served all-vegetarian fare — and I am NOT a vegetarian — and wonderful teas.

So go ahead — apply for your passport.  Having one can spur you to find your own adventures!