San Blas, Mexico

Friday, March 30, 2012

Some 30 hours are better than other 30 hourses. Morrissey said that. And I say San Blas, three hours north of Puerto Vallarta, is worth the drive.

The beach is fine -- a dark brown sand beach with no one on it (weekdays, or when it's not Semana Santa) -- and a scrappy little town that's a hoot to spend time in. Particularly when one hour at the boozy San Blas Social Club turns to three, and the tequila bottle comes out. The bartender, Bernardo, is a tiny guy with a thick Hemingway beard, perhaps unsurprisingly considering he once was a bullfighter in Mexico City.

Much more to say, crocodiles and English poets for example, but will just sum up some of what I did in 16 seconds.

NYC Fact: David Lee Roth Walking Tour!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's a great walk. Beginning where David Lee Roth, way after leaving Van Halen, was busted trying to buy a $5 bag of pot in 1993, and ending at historic Cafe Wha?, two blocks south, where a reunited Van Halen played in January 2012. Cafe Wha? is owned by Manny Roth, David's uncle. Whole thing takes about four minutes. You'll love it.

See more 15-second videos on New York City here.

My Favorite Place: Mrauk U, Burma

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I love ruins. I’ve climbed Mayan pyramids, sat in Greek amphitheaters and walked lost Roman roads. It’s not the literal history that draws me -- I don't care that much about kings I'd never heard of before -- but the atmosphere that feels the dream worlds Chip, Nancy and I would concoct in my backyard fort as a kid.

A lot of people have been calling Burma's main archaeological site Bagan's 4000 temples as something like 'the next Angkor Wat' (actually I make the case today for and post a video on Lonely Planet). To me, the ancient Rakhaing capital of Mrauk U -- lost in a remote corner of Burma by the Bangladesh border -- offers more. A site that's not as expansive or artistic as Bagan or Angkor Wat, but more "alive," as there's full overlap between village life and archeological site of 700-some 500-year-old stupas and temples.

Actually I learned the fun begins before you get there. No public roads reach Mrauk U. So after a short flight from Yangon to the faded port city of Sittwe, I boarded a huge double-deck local ferry for the lazy six-hour ride up the Kaladan River, east from the Bay of Bengal. We stopped every hour or so to let on locals, who sat around me in wooden lounge chairs and snacked on insects sold on the stick. One monk in a saffron robe sitting next to me pointed out the tallest of a distant range of Dr Seuss-like hills. “That is Mt 500 Ducks."

A few hours later, the sky then darkened and filled with a smear of thousands of stars, I wrapped up in a borrowed blanket to escape the chill. I could barely see a few feet before my face, then -- as Mrauk U grew neared -- I could just make out on the onshore chatter of a barely visible group of local men, wearing skirt-like longyis, circling a fire before a thatch hut. It felt like a trip back in time.

Early depictions of Mrauk U sometimes show it as a dreamy sci-fi cityscape of skyscrapers connected by air towers. The real thing is just as magical. More people should know about it.

My Favorite Museum: Woolaroc

Monday, March 19, 2012

Researching Lonely Planet guidebooks, you end up seeing dozens and dozens of museums no one would really bother with. Some of them I loved. The Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest, for example, has hand-written signs and an arrow leading to a makeshift "grandma" room. It's filled with various knick-knacks once belonging to various grandmas, with the gentle suggestion that "life is busy, but we should always keep one grandma keepsake after she dies." That's the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

But it's not my favorite museum. My favorite, decked in limestone and nostalgia, is the museum at Woolaroc, a collection of Western and Native American art at the one-time summer home of Frank Phillips of Phillips '66, in the rolling prairies of the Osage Nation outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I've been, probably 20 times (and counting) in my life, often meeting cousins to picnic to the soundtrack of locust buzz and lingering long below paintings of Custer's Last Stand.

There's plenty of wildlife to see and one fake one I love: a (fake) talking buffalo, who used to suck up trash and still tells you not to touch him if you pet him. Which I always do.

The video above is a look at Woolaroc (named for the area's Wood, Lakes, Rocks) in 15 seconds.

Top 10 Leprechaun Questions You're Afraid to Ask

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Getting ready for St Patrick's Day? This year do it armed with truth. Leprechaun truth.

1. Are leprechauns real?
Yes. And they have pots of gold to give if you catch them and don't let them go before the tricksters give it to you. It's all true.

2. Are leprechauns really Irish?
Likely not. They're more likely Scots. Leprechauns originally had different names in different places of Ireland (eg Luricawne in Kerry, Cluricawne in Monaghan, Logheryman in the north). In Ulster, the little men were once known as 'grogoch' or 'pecht,' the latter believed to be linked with the Scottish aboriginal people, the Pict, who were driven out of Scotland via Celts. (Some say they crossed on land bridge.)

Meanwhile, Germany have their hobgoblins, Wales the bwca or brownies, and England the Lob-lie-by-the-fire. Leprechauns may have been pushed to Ireland through attacking Celts or Vikings, and may have originated in Scotland or farther east.

3. Do leprechauns wear green?
They do now, but not originally. Many sources suggest they first wore red. For one, Samuel Lover, an Irish-Anglo writer in the early 19th century, described leprechauns as wearing 'a red square-cut coat.' In 'Irish Wonders' from 1888, David Russell McAnally describes the 'little red jacket' and 'red breeches' leprechauns wear.

4. Leprechauns are big St Patrick fans, right?
Wrong. Per Bob Curran's fun 'The Truth about Leprechauns' (2000), leprechauns do meet and party on March 17, but aren't fans of the patron saint (no fairies are), for they feel he cheated them out of land.

5. What's leprechaun mean? 'Green guy'?
No. It's believed to mean 'half shoe maker,' derived from leith bhrógan. The name comes from the fact that leprechauns are great shoe makers, but only repair one shoe -- half a pair -- picking whichever shoe is most worn from excessive dancing.

6. Are leprechauns nice?
No, not at all. To modern-day leprechaunologist Colin Chapman, who writes on them at, they are 'a difficult kith, belligerent and easily angered.' They're prone to 'a binge of whiskey,' they 'steal horses' (later cars), they're 'liars' and 'gang members.' Other show, per Curran, 'a fondness for abducting unbaptised human babies.'

There is one slight exception: the leprechauns of 'some parts' of Munster, per some sources, where leprechauns are more amiable and sometimes will give a sparán na scillinge (purse of the shilling), which never empties.

7. What's a leprechaun's favorite song?
You'll laugh, but probably 'Danny Boy.' The popular folk song is derived from the melody of 'Londonderry Air,' which is said to have been written by harpist Rory Dall O'Cahan in the 1600s. Though it's believed, as told by Curran, that O'Cahan lifted the melody from a leprechaun harpist he heard along the banks of the Roe River in North Derry. That's right, leprechauns wrote the music for 'Danny Boy.'

8. Is Paul McCartney a leprechaun pirate?
Yes. The first-known record of 'leprechaun' in English is from Thomas Dekker's comedy 'The Honest Whore' (1604). Dekker, a leprechaun lover apparently, was fresh off a hit poem the year before called, get this, 'Golden Slumbers.' Compare his verse with Paul's bit (changes IN CAPS) from the 'Abbey Road' record:
Golden slumbers
Kiss/FILL your eyes
Smiles awake/AWAIT you when you arise/RISE
Sleep pretty wanton/DARLING, do not cry
And I will sing you a lullaby.
9. Are there female leprechauns?
No one knows. According to Curran, 'The leprechaun is understandably reluctant to discuss the matter.' Some believe leprechauns come from the 'illicit' offspring between a human and a fairy.

10. Where can you find leprechauns?
Leprechauns meet regularly for holidays, particularly May Eve (April 30-May 1) at the Beltane Fair of Uisneach in County Westmeath -- which is a hill that marks the geographic center of Ireland. In WY Evans-Wentz's priceless 'The Fair-Faith in Celtic Countries' from 1911, he claims his mother 'once saw a leprechaun beside a bush hammering.' So look for bush hammerings.

If that seems too iffy, just go to Mobile, Alabama:

Just be sure to hide your unbaptised human babies.

The Irish Fireside blog lists more St Patrick's Day-related links.

NYC Fact: Melville was a Terrible Travel Writer

Monday, March 12, 2012

Herman Melville is New York City's greatest writer. He was born here, at 6 Pearl St (now indicated by a plain gray wall and a plaque tucked behind a towering skyscraper in Lower Manhattan) and died here after three decades of obscurity.

Before he wrote "Moby-Dick," he was desperate for "tobacco money," so he turned to travel writing, capped in his 1849 book "Redburn." It was universally condemned. The London Britannia wrote that it he "seems to have taken up with the notion that anything will do for the public." Melville later apologized.

NYC Fact: New York's smallest island

Friday, March 9, 2012

U Thant Island -- a 100-by-200-foot granite outcropping in the East River -- is named for the former UN Secretary General. You can't go. Only cormorants, briefly, live on it (seen in video). But the closest you can get, as I learned on a guided ferry ride last year, is on the East River Ferry.

NYC Fact: Woody Allen's Bench

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I likely moved to New York City because of Woody Allen films. The whole "Annie Hall" thing. But arguably his most famous New York scene is from 1979's "Manhattan," where Woody and Diane Keaton greet the dawn from a bench overlooking Queensboro Bridge.

For the first time in over a dozen years in New York, I went over to look at it today. The spot is on Sutton Square, at the very east end of E 58th St. There is no bench, but the wee park below has a few. And a guy texting in red.

NYC Fact: Midtown Oil Wells

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NY-based German artist Josephine Meckseper created a couple 25-foot, Texas-inspired pumpjack oil well art sculptures, and plopped them in an empty lot on 46th St and Eighth Avenue, a block from Times Square. (See NY Times article.)

I went by today to see them, and if I could record it all in 15 seconds, to fit in the Tout format. (YouTube calls it 16. But I'll take it.)

The cab driver who pulled up to see what I was videotaping guessed the oil wells were owned by either "Pavoratti or George Bush... I don't know."

Talking Oscar for Best Travel Setting

Last week, I appeared on MSNBC with Alex Witt to share how to relive the settings of three Oscar-nominated films in Paris ("Midnight in Paris"), Kauai ("The Descendants") and LA ("The Artist").