What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba.

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SHIVYA NATH AT THE SHOOTING STAR.COM)

 

What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba.

Cuban reggae music played on repeat as I rode on a bright yellow truck from the 1940s, along a bumpy, heavily forested road. While the driver – an engineer by education – and I chatted in Spanish, he casually pointed out iguana lizards chilling by the road, vultures flying low in search of food, deer at the edge of the forest, huge crabs running helter-skelter and an enormous snake that brought us to a screeching halt.

A world away from the photogenic streets and tourist traps of Havana, we were heading to Cocodrilo, a remote, forgotten fishing village on Isla de la Juventud (Isle of the Youth), a remote, forgotten island in Cuba. My plan was to volunteer at a coral reef restoration project set up by IOI Adventures in collaboration with the island community.

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My yellow vintage ride to Cocodrilo!

I had no idea then, that living in a time warp on Cocodrilo, home to only 320 inhabitants, cut off from the outside world by a dense forest and the Caribbean Sea, was going to change everything. Everything I thought I knew about travelling, our consumption patterns, our dietary choices and how climate change is impacting the world.

Here’s what I learnt along the way:

Now is the best and worst time to travel

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Sunset, serenity and solitude in Cocodrilo.

During my recent travel meetup in Hyderabad, I met someone who had explored Ladakh and Kashmir in the late 80s – and said he would never go back because he treasured his vivid memories of their unspoilt beauty. Looking back on my own travels, I often feel the same way about places like Spiti, Georgia, Kumaon and Guatemala.

Unfortunately we can’t turn back time, but we can travel meaningfully and choose to explore places that aren’t yet plagued by mass tourism. Places that are yet to become Instagram hotspots.

Cocodrilo was one of those places in Cuba. Every evening at sunset, as the sky turned many shades of orange, locals poured out on the only street, drinking rum and playing music, heartily sharing both. Mama Yeni, the island’s second oldest resident, reminisced how she had journeyed across the Atlantic on a fishing boat, from Cayman Islands to Cocodrilo in search of a better life – and hers became one of the earliest families to settle here. She remembered the days when there were no roads, no cars, no doctor, no pharmacy, not even a grocery shop on the island. Her family would make a long list of things they needed, and do their grocery run to the nearest big town by boat, leaving early morning to reach the grocery store by evening!

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Mama Yeni, the second oldest resident of Cocodrilo.

Getting into island mode on Cocodrilo assured me that these might not be the best years to travel, but they aren’t the worst either.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

No matter how far we live from the ocean, the plastic we consume ultimately lands up there

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Collecting cans from the sea bed off Cocodrilo. Photo: Anna Berestova

If you can close your eyes and picture yourself on a tiny idyllic island village, with nothing but dense forest, deep blue sea and clear blue skies stretching out around you, perhaps you can picture yourself on Cocodrilo. At a small sparse island shop, the only things one can buy are local rum in a glass bottle, shampoo sachets, basic groceries and the Cuban version of coca cola.

Yet when I snorkelled – with my host on the island and a long-term volunteer – into the deep blue sea that surrounds the island, I discovered a different story. The seabed was littered with plastic bags, beer cans of international brands, shampoo bottles, cigarette buts, plastic straws and menstrual pads. Diving freestyle, we retrieved this plastic trash – only to see more of it appear a couple of days later. You probably know that our planet is 70% water, and most of what we consume these days comes in plastic. Turns out, only 9% of all plastic is recycled. Where does the rest go? Unfortunately, into our oceans.

Aesthetics aside, the plastic trash often gets lodged in corals, spreading harmful bacteria and damaging coral tissue. Worse still, swallowing this plastic has caused the death of many dolphins, whales and other marine creatures; a sea turtle even choked to death when a plastic straw got stuck in its nostril.

Swimming in the deep blue sea off Cocodrilo was evidence that no matter where in the world we live, no matter how from the sea, the plastic we choose to consume in our everyday lives is directly responsible for destroying our oceans.

Also read: Cuba Tourist Visa for Indians: Requirements and Tips

Conversation-focused deep sea diving can help save corals

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The underwater world. Photo: NOAA’s National Ocean Service (CC)

Here’s a confession: The first time I went scuba diving was in the Philippines – and the experience left me disappointed. Sure, the underwater life was incredibly beautiful, but to carry an oxygen cylinder and deep dive while my ears protested, felt like the most unnatural way to experience the ocean. It made me think of humans as an invasive species, who for their own entertainment, will go to depths (literally) that we obviously aren’t meant to.

But speaking to a long-term volunteer in Cocodrilo, who was doing a field report on the correlation between deep sea diving and island communities, changed some of my perspective. I learnt from her that there are two ways of diving. The first, regular scuba diving, is what I experienced in the Philippines; this is diving purely for entertainment, and depending on who you do it with, could end up spoiling the corals and threatening fish (remember: touching the corals or feeding any marine creatures is a BIG no-no). The second, conservation-focused scuba diving, is where you dive for a purpose.

Outfits that offer this responsible form of deep sea diving don’t just teach you how to dive, but also talk about coral cleaning, fish count, invasive species, coral restoration and other conservation activities. You then scuba dive, not just to admire the underwater world, but to help conserve it by participating in a cleaning or counting drive. In Cocodrilo for instance, the broken coral reef is being restored through a tedious process: broken bits of coral are picked up from the sea floor, hung on an underwater stand and cleaned of excess algae and plastic every few days. When over a year old and strong enough, they are replanted between existing corals. And diving to support efforts like that can not only help save corals but also compel us to change our everyday choices.

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies are Changing the Way You Experience India

We need to say no to single-use plastic on our travels and in daily life

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Saying no to single-use plastic straws.

As I took off my snorkeling mask after a hot afternoon spent collecting plastic trash from a small section of the Caribbean seabed, I pledged to do more to cut down my single-use plastic consumption. I’ve long said no to plastic bottled water – choosing to carry and refill a steel bottle or use a Lifestraw filter – and already replaced plastic bags, toothbrush and straws with eco-friendly alternatives. And yet, when I got home to take a shower, I felt immense guilt at most of my toiletries – shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, hair serum, face wash, deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreen, razor, menstrual pads – which were still plastic. It was time to make some inconvenient choices.

After I left Cuba, I switched to:

  • Soap and shampoo bars: There are plenty of choices, but I prefer LushHast KraftsVeganology and other handmade vegan bars at local markets which don’t come wrapped in plastic. The idea of using a bar to wash my hair was strange at first, but I’ve totally grown into it.
  • Hair conditioner: Lush is the only brand I’ve found yet that does an amazing conditioner bar but it’s not available in India. Body Shop in India is soon switching to using recycled plastic bottles.
  • Menstrual cup: After months of procrastination, I’ve finally mastered the art of using a menstrual cup (coupled with cloth pads) – and it’s a life changer!
  • Bamboo razor: The Eco Trunk now stocks bamboo razors.
  • Body mist in a glass bottle: I love Body Shop’s body mist – and luckily it comes in a glass bottle which I hope to be able to recycle.
  • I’m still looking for eco-friendly alternatives to my toothpaste, face wash, hair serum and sunscreen.

In all honesty, choosing some of these alternatives requires extra work. I can’t walk into any supermarket and expect to replace a shampoo / conditioner bar when I run out, for instance. But each time I feel inconvenienced, I think of the majestic corals littered with plastic, dying a slow death. I think of the fish, turtles and dolphins choking to death because of our consumption. And I know that it’s worth going that extra mile to make more sustainable choices.

Also read: How I Fit All My Life Possessions in Two Bags as I Travel the World

What we choose to eat impacts the underwater world

“Here [in the seas], life is collapsing even faster than on land. The main cause, the UN biodiversity report makes clear, is not plastic. It is not pollution, not climate breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing.”
The Guardian, May 2019

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A vegan feast in Cuba.

On a warm evening, we drove in a vintage car to a deserted beach along the Caribbean Sea, to join a night ranger to monitor turtle hatchings. Much to my surprise, the pristine beach was covered in mounds of brown algae, and the ranger lamented that each year, the algae has been growing and turtles declining. Though it was the peak of the egg-laying season, we spotted no turtles as we patrolled the beach under the moonlit sky.

It took me a long time to understand how this algae maybe the direct consequence of our choice to eat seafood. Turns out, the world’s oceans are plagued by overfishing. For every 1 pound of fish caught for food, nearly 5 pounds of marine life is killed accidentally. This imbalance in the marine food chain causes unchecked growth of algae, which tend to crowd out corals and spread disease-causing bacteria.

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Algae mounds on a deserted beach near Cocodrilo.

Although I turned vegan because I couldn’t bear to support animal abuse, I learnt early on that the incredibly high carbon footprint of meat and dairy is raising water temperatures and increasing CO2 in the air, which in turn causes the bleaching of corals. But patrolling the beach that night, surrounded by mounds of algae, made the link between our dietary choices and life in the ocean much stronger.

Also read: How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Anywhere in the World

Individual actions matter

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Nene, the islander heading the coral restoration project with IOI Adventures.

I’ve met plenty of naysayers who think that one person’s choices don’t matter. They’ll tell you that we need government action, policy change, media attention, dedicated organisations or something bigger. And while we do need each of those, we’ll never demand or create them until we start caring on a deep personal level. We’ll never make environmental degradation an election issue and we’ll never raise our voice (or pen) against our consumption or food choices – until we take individual action.

In Cocodrilo for instance, the coral reef restoration and sea clean-up project came about because Nene, a Cuban islander, wanted to conserve the seas in his backyard. He’s been mesmerized by the underwater world since his first dive in 1988 (which he did with a friend but without any training), and many years later, started this one-of-a-kind project in Cuba with IOI Adventures.

Closer home in India, lawyer Afroz Shah’s disciplined efforts to work with the local community and clean up Versova beach in Mumbai every Sunday, brought back Olive Ridley turtles to the beach after just two years! I’ve met and heard of people who now live in climate resilient homes that don’t need air conditioning even in the hot Indian summer, who’ve embraced zero-waste living, and who choose to be vegan – not just for the animals and their own health but for the environment.

Ultimately, the choice is ours. We can wait around for the government or media to do something to save our oceans. Or we can take responsibility for the choices we make everyday.

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Living in a time warp on Cocodrilo changed everything.

Have you learnt any interesting lessons on your travels lately? Have you chosen to make any inconvenient choices?

*Note: I’m really grateful to IOI Adventures for hosting me in Cocodrilo. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.

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French Titans’ Pledges to Notre-Dame Pass €600 Million

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

 

French Titans’ Pledges to Notre-Dame Pass €600 Million

The Arnault and Pinault families were among those who said they would devote resources and skills to the restoration of the cathedral, a symbol of French identity.

Battling the flames rising from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday.Credit Bertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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Battling the flames rising from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday.CreditCreditBertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the aftermath of the fire at Notre-Dame, one of the great symbols of France, the luxury industry — another symbol of the country, thanks to names such as Dior, Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent — has pledged hundreds of millions of euros to the cathedral’s restoration.

The donations were followed on Tuesday by other pledges that soon surpassed 600 million euros, or about $675 million, and included beauty, energy, and finance companies.

On Monday, as Notre-Dame burned and flames lit the sky, the Pinault family — owners of Kering, the second-largest luxury group in France — was the first to publicly offer a significant contribution, pledging to donate €100 million to the rebuilding effort.

“The Notre-Dame tragedy strikes all French people, as well as all those with spiritual values,” said François-Henri Pinault, chairman of Artémis, the family holding company that controls Kering.

“Faced with this tragedy, everyone wishes to bring this jewel of our heritage back to life as soon as possible,” he added. “Today, my father and I have committed to donate €100 million from the Artémis fund to take part in the effort needed to fully rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris.”

The French businessman François-Henri Pinault and his wife, the actress Salma Hayek, in Los Angeles last year.CreditChris Delmas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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The French businessman François-Henri Pinault and his wife, the actress Salma Hayek, in Los Angeles last year.CreditChris Delmas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Shortly afterward, the Arnault family and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, led by Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, announced that they would give €200 million.

“The LVMH Group puts at the disposal of the state and the relevant authorities all of its teams — including creative, architectural and financial specialists — to help with the long work of reconstruction and fund-raising, which is already in progress,” they said.

LVMH is the largest luxury group in the world. Its fashion holdings include Celine, Dior, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton. The group also owns drinks brands including Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot, as well as the landmark Parisian stores Le Bon Marché and La Samaritaine. The group reported revenue of €46.8 billion in 2018.

Mr. Arnault was an early supporter of Emanuel Macron’s presidential bid, and Brigitte Macron, the French first lady, wears Louis Vuitton for most of her high-profile public events. Mr. Arnault also masterminded the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the contemporary art museum in the Bois de Boulogne designed by Frank Gehry that has helped reshape the landscape of Paris and that will ultimately become a gift to the city.

Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of the French luxury group LVMH, and his wife, Hélène Mercier, in Paris in March.CreditFrancois Mori/Associated Press
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Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of the French luxury group LVMH, and his wife, Hélène Mercier, in Paris in March.CreditFrancois Mori/Associated Press

For its part, Kering owns luxury brands such as Balenciaga, Boucheron and Yves Saint Laurent. The Pinault family — also among the richest in France — owns the wine estate Château Latour. The group’s 2018 revenues were €13.67 billion. François Pinault, the patriarch of the family that controls Kering, is building a contemporary art museum in the former Bourse de Commerce in the center of Paris that will be designed by the architect Tadao Ando.

François-Henri Pinault, Mr. Pinault’s son, is married to the actress Salma Hayek. Kering has its headquarters in Paris, and Ms. Hayek posted a message of condolence and support on Instagram after the fire. “As many others I’m in deep shock and sadness to witness the beauty of Notre-Dame turn into smoke,” she wrote. “I love you Paris.”

The two fashion groups are deeply embedded and invested in the heritage of France as a global beacon of beauty and artistic creativity, a tradition that is also carved into the stones of Notre-Dame.

In recent years, the luxury industry across Europe has become actively involved in restoring historic monuments. The Italian leather goods group Tod’s is underwriting the restoration of the Colosseum in Rome for €25 million. Fendi, which is owned by LVMH, paid €2 million toward the restoration of the Trevi Fountain in the Italian capital (the company held a fashion show there when it was completed). Bulgari, a jewelry brand also under the LVMH umbrella, spent €1.5 million on the Spanish Steps in the city. And Salvatore Ferragamo, an Italian luxury goods company, has supported the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Fendi, which is owned by LVMH, held a fashion show in July 2016 at the Trevi Fountain in Rome after renovations the company had underwritten were completed.CreditVictor Boyko/Getty Images
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Fendi, which is owned by LVMH, held a fashion show in July 2016 at the Trevi Fountain in Rome after renovations the company had underwritten were completed.CreditVictor Boyko/Getty Images

The motives are both altruistic — supplying funds that local governments do not have in the interests of saving a joint inheritance — and self-interested — the companies clearly understand that the more closely they associate with masterpieces of history, the more they bask in their glow.

In addition, when it comes to Notre-Dame, donors will benefit from a hefty tax write-off. Individuals in France can get a 66 percent discount on charitable gifts, while companies can deduct 60 percent of their corporate sponsorship expenses — which would most likely include assistance to the cathedral — from their corporation tax, though the amount is capped at 0.5 percent of turnover.

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Paris, however, such distinctions may not matter. The gifts from the likes of the Arnaults and the Pinaults are a reflection of how personally, and how profoundly, the fire has reached into the identity of French citizens and their businesses.

Indeed, just after the announcement from LVMH, Patrick Pouyanné, the chief executive of the French energy company Total, said on Twitter that his firm would contribute an additional €100 million to the cause, and L’Oréal and the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, which is backed by the family that founded the cosmetics giant, pledged a total of €200 million. Offers of aid in the reconstruction effort also came from the bank Société Générale (€10 million) and the advertising firm JCDecaux (€20 million), while the tire maker Michelin also promised a large sum and the construction giant Vinci offered to provide workers and architects.

Their legacy will now be part of Notre-Dame’s future.

Liz Alderman contributed reporting.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman

Chinese Views On The Taj Mahal

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI CHINA’S ‘SHINE’ NEWS NETWORK)

 

Majestic Taj Mahal, a modern wonder and symbol of love

If Varanasi is a holy city of priests and devotees, Agra is a grand city of the emperors — and you can feel it the moment you get off the train at the Agar Fort station.

The Agar Fort, right next to the railway station, was a military base and royal residence of the Mughal Dynasty emperors until 1638, when the capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi.

The Hall of Public Audience to the right of the pathway through the Lahore Gate was where the emperor would listen to public petitions and meet state officials.

Contrary to the joyful squirrels who littered the ground, the huge pillared hall with the white marble throne in the center backstage gave all the authority and solemnity over its subjects standing down under.

As of today, most of the white marble palaces were built during the reign of the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666). However, there were earlier buildings of red sandstone with layers of decorated columns in the inner court, which were also “of great importance to the study of Mughal buildings’ architectural history,” said a teacher to a group of students on the site.

Xu Qin

The Hall of Public Audience (Diwan-i-Am) in Agra Fort

Mounted high on a rocky ridge, Fatehpur Sikri, also known as the “City of Victory,” is a palace city built primarily to afford leisure and luxury to its famous residents during the reign of the third Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), Shan Jahan’s grandfather.

The city was built massively and preferably with red sandstone.

The architecture features both the Hindu and Muslim styles, popular in India at the time, with large domes, large halls and colossal gateways.

The Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti, along with the imperial complex at Fatehpur Sikri, is said to have the most delicate marble screens in India. It enshrines the burial place of the Sufi saint, Salim Chisti (1478-1572), who foretold the birth of Akbar’s son Jahangir.

Today people are often seen at the tomb praying for child birth blessings. With Sufi singers performing in front of the door to the chamber, visitors come in to pay homage to the saint while tying a thread on the marble screens to seek fulfillment of their wishes.

Standing on top of the palace walls, one can enjoy an aerial view of the green Indian countryside with small homes dotting around the rice fields on the outskirts. It is hard to believe the city, due to a lack of water, was abandoned just a few years after its construction.

Xu Qin

Mounted high on a rocky ridge, Fatehpur Sikri is also known as the “City of Victory.”

Xu Qin

The white marble tomb of Sufi saint Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri

Xu Qin

Standing on top of the palace walls, one can enjoy an aerial view of the green Indian countryside with small homes dotting around the rice fields on the outskirts.

The following morning we got up early as the Taj Mahal was desperately waiting to say hello. Sitting on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, the UNESCO-listed mausoleum is perhaps the finest testament to Mughal architecture.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the beautiful Taj Mahal in the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. According to popular legend, Shah Jahan spotted Mumtaz at the marketplace in his royal complex. It was love at first sight for the two, and he quickly made her his third wife. Mumtaz traveled with Shah Jahan throughout India, as his chief companion and beloved advisor. After bearing him 14 children, Mumtaz died, leaving Shah Jahan devastated.

Taking inspiration from the detailed description of Heaven in the Quran, Shah Jahan started building the Taj Mahal in 1632. To ensure that no one could recreate the Taj Mahal’s beauty, Shah Jahan supposedly severed the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen after construction was completed in 1647.

Each year, millions of visitors come to the Taj Mahal to appreciate one of the greatest achievements in human history, and the stories of the loving couple flow from everyone’s lips like new gossip.

Looming out like a mirage in the morning fog, the harmony and balance of the Taj Mahal looks astounding from all directions. Inside the building, the marble screens, calligraphy inscriptions and floral inlays were detailed to everyone’s heart content.

Compared to Shah Jahan, those who built the Taj Mahal were classified as the insignificant others, like most of us who were visiting.

As I pressed my finger tip on the wall and felt along the swirling waves of the patterns, I could hear the sound of their chisels: chip-chip, chip-chip…

Xu Qin

Looming out like a mirage in the morning fog, the harmony and balance of the Taj Mahal looks astounding from all directions.

The inside of the Taj Mahal houses the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan

U.S. official says Washington reviewing North Korea travel ban

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POLITICO NEWS)

 

Jones/AFP/Getty Images

FOREIGN POLICY

U.S. official says Washington reviewing North Korea travel ban

SEOUL, South Korea — The Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea said Wednesday that Washington is reviewing easing its travel restrictions to North Korea to facilitate humanitarian shipments as part of efforts to resolve an impasse in nuclear diplomacy.

Stephen Biegun made the comments upon arrival in South Korea for talks on the nuclear negotiations, which have seen little headway since a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, when they issued a vague vow for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing how or when it would occur.

Biegun said his discussions with South Korean officials will be about how to work together to engage with North Korea “in a manner that will help us move forward and move beyond the 70 years of hostility.”

Toward that end, Biegun said he was directed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to review America’s policy on humanitarian assistance provided to North Korea.

“I understand that many humanitarian aid organizations, operating in the DPRK, are concerned that strict enforcement of international sanctions has occasionally impeded the delivery of legitimate humanitarian assistance to the Korean people,” Biegun said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

He said he’ll sit down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how the U.S. government can “better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly, through the course of the coming winter.”

“We will also review American citizen travel to DPRK for purposes of facilitating the delivery of aid and ensuring that monitoring in line with international standards can occur,” Biegun said. “I want to be clear — the United States and the United Nations will continue to closely review requests for exemptions and licenses for the delivery of assistance to the DPRK.”

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to Biegun’s comments. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled for months, with the two sides at an impasse over next steps following Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore and several trips to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The United States wants North Korea to provide a detailed account of nuclear and missile facilities that would be inspected and dismantled under a potential deal, while the North is insisting that sanctions be lifted first. In the meantime, several reports from private analysts have accused North Korea of continuing nuclear and missile development, citing details from commercial satellite imagery.

Biegun said the United States came to have “greater confidence about the safety and security of Americans traveling to the DPRK” after North Korea in November released an American held for an alleged illegal entrance to the country. “The government of the DPRK handled the review of the American citizen’s expulsion expeditiously and with great discretion and sensitivity through diplomatic channels,” he said.

The United States banned its citizens from traveling to North Korea following the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died days after he was released in a coma from North Korea last year following 17 months in captivity.

Warmbier’s death came amid heightened animosity on the Korean Peninsula, with Trump and Kim exchanging crude insults and war threats over North Korea’s series of nuclear and missile tests.

Tensions have gradually eased since early this year, when Kim abruptly reached out to the United States and South Korea with an offer to negotiate away his advancing nuclear arsenal.

Since its entrance to the talks, North Korea has unilaterally dismantled its nuclear testing site and parts of its rocket engine test facility and taken some conciliatory gestures, including the repatriation of three other American detainees ahead of the June summit.

China Is Now Dominate In World Tourism By Land, Air And Sea

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SHANGHAI CHINA’S SHINE NEWS AGENCY)

 

Cruising through a stretch of rough seas

SHINE

Shanghai Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal in Baoshan District

By land, by air and now by sea, the Chinese have come to dominate world tourism. Cruise lines are now capitalizing on that travel bug, despite some rough seas this year.

“China’s cruise industry is on the cusp of rapid growth that has enormous potential,” said Wang Younong, chairman of the Shanghai Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal.

Last year, 18 cruise vessels were operating out of Chinese ports, carrying 2.4 million Chinese passengers. That was up from four vessels and 200,000 passengers in 2012.

Numbers, however, are expected to decrease to 14 vessels and 2 million passengers next year.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd, the second-largest cruise line worldwide, will operate its Spectrum of the Sea and Oasis of the Seas liners in China in the near future. Spectrum of the Seas will be the biggest and most expensive cruise ship in Asia, with industry cutting-edge technologies.

Costa Cruises, an arm of US-based Carnival Corp, plans to bring two tailor-made ships in 2019 and 2020 to China, according to Mario Zanetti, president of Costa Group Asia. The company introduced cruising to China in 2006 and currently holds 26 percent of China’s cruise market.

MSC Cruise, the industry leader in the Mediterranean, South Africa and Brazil, will operate its MSC Bellissima, a cruise ship featuring rich entertainment, in China, and Genting Group will deploy two 204,000-ton cruise ships that can accommodate 9,500 passengers at the Shanghai port in 2021.

The commitments to the China market may be impressive, but there is an underside to the glowing prospects.

US-based Norwegian Cruise Line, a service with a history of more than 50 years, announced that it is withdrawing Norwegian Joy — the first-class cruise ship tailor-made for Chinese passengers — from the market after one year of operation here.

Cheng Juehao, deputy professor at the Shanghai Maritime University and deputy head of the Shanghai International Shipping Institute Cruise Economy Research Center, said some cruise companies may have miscalculated in their strategies for the China market.

“The Chinese cruise market saw soaring growth of similar products by almost all global cruise operators trying to expand their business here,” Cheng said. “In order to compete with each other, ticket prices nose-dived from 20 percent higher than sophisticated markets such as Europe and the United States, to between 30 percent and 40 percent lower.”

Low ticket prices are the results of sales channels, according to Ye Peng, vice director of sales for Costa.

In China, 90 percent of tickets are sold through cruise agents, who buy up all the berths on a ship and then redistribute tickets by various channels. However, in Western markets, 30 percent of tickets are sold through direct sales by cruise lines.

In China, travel agents make only about 6 percent profit from sales of cruise tickets, a much lower percentage than with other travel products.

As a result, some operators are finding it difficult to remain profitable, and the customer experience is being sacrificed to low expenditure.

SHINE

Costa Cruises, an arm of US-based Carnival Corp, entered the Chinese market in 2006 and currently holds 26 percent of the nation’s cruise market.

Industry officials in China said competition is undercutting business performance in the market. Only operators who improve the quality of cruises and cater to the needs of passengers will come out on top.

Zhang Zhendong, general manager of Tianjin International Cruise Home Port, said China’s cruise industry is in a period of transition.

“In 2017, the market entered adjustment phrase that will last until 2020,” he said. “That will be followed by a 10-year golden age of cruising. Next year may see a temporary trough in the market. However, the market is 10 times larger now than it was in 2012, and the compound growth rate is almost 30 percent, which is rare in the world.”

Roger Chen, chairman in China for Carnival Corp, said his company remains upbeat on the China cruise market.

“We are here to stay in China,” said Chen, speaking at the 13th China Cruise Shipping Conference and International Expo in Shenzhen earlier this month.

Market fluctuations this year are a bit exaggerated, he said, and it’s natural for any industry to have adjustment periods.

“We are collaborating with China State Shipbuilding Corp to build the largest made-in-China vessel as part of a joint venture, and we will operate this vessel in the Chinese market,” Chen added.

Costa China’s Ye said his company needs to advertise cruises as a lifestyle and spend time and effort building and differentiating its brands.

“When Chinese passengers leave the cruise vessels,” he said, “they often don’t even know the ship’s name. We have to work on the branding of the vessel and providing diversified choices.”

ALL THE THINGS TOURISTS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO IN VENICE ITALY

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ITALY’S QUARTZY NEWS)

 

 

ALL THE THINGS TOURISTS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO IN VENICE

By Rosie Spinks 

Venice has long been known as the sinking city, but only in modern times has it begun sinking under the weight of its tourists. Each day, the UNESCO World Heritage site receives up to 60,000 visitors, resulting in a city that is increasingly becoming devoid of actual Venetians.

While Venice is not the only city grappling with the crisis of over tourism, it is taking a more punitive approach than most in dealing with visitors. Earlier this year, the city began separating tourists from locals during busy periods. And in 2017—in addition to taking steps to divert large cruise ships to a nearby industrial town—the city’s tourism board launched the #EnjoyRespectVenezia campaign to remind tourists of everything they can’t do while visiting the fine city. There are even “angels of decorum” employed each summer to ensure the rules are enforced.

This week came news that tourists may soon be banned from engaging in a fairly common activity: sitting. While sitting in and around the famed St. Mark’s Square is already banned, there is a new proposal from mayor Luigi Brugnaro to ban sitting on the ground throughout the city, with offenders facing fines between €50 and €500. The rule will be voted on in October.

If the mere act of resting one’s backside after a long day of sightseeing may be banned, it’s worth asking what else “boorish” visitors—the seemingly preferred adjective of tourism officials—are supposed to avoid. Here is a list of forbidden behaviors in Venice, as well as the fine they incur.

  • Sitting is banned in the following places: “in St. Mark’s Square and in Piazzetta dei Leoncini, beneath the arcades and on the steps of the Procuratie Nuove, the Napoleonic Wing, the Sansovino Library, beneath the arcades of the Ducal Palace, in the impressive entranceway to St. Mark’s Square otherwise known as Piazzetta San Marco and its jetty.” (€200)
  • You can’t idly stand around, even to consume food and drink, unless you are in a restaurant or cafe. (€200)
  • You may not swim or immerse your body parts in any canal, stream, “water spot,” or in St Mark’s Basin. (€450)
  • You can’t litter, although that should be obvious. (€100-200)
  • You may not roam Venice’s historic streets or be in any private or public vehicle “while bare-chested or wearing swimwear.” (€200)
  • You may not scatter food or food waste, even if it’s to feed pigeons. (€50-200)
  • Bicycling is not allowed, “even when led by hand.” (€100)
  • You may not camp, nor lie on benches. And don’t even thinking about standing anywhere in possession of camping equipment, because that is banned too. (€50)

The Great Wall Of China’s Repair Work Is Called “Brutal And Ugly” By Locals

(This article is courtesy of the Shanghai Daily News)

Chinese outrage over ‘ugly’ restoration of Great Wall

中国”最美野长城”被抹平引发众怒

CHINESE social media users were in an uproar Friday over restoration of a 700-year-old section of the Great Wall that has been covered in concrete, turning it into a smooth, flat-topped path.
Known as one of the most beautiful portions of the “wild”, restored wall, the eight-kilometer (five-mile) Xiaohekou stretch in northeast Liaoning province was built-in 1381 during the Ming Dynasty.
Photos posted online showed that its uneven, crumbling steps and plant growth had been replaced as far as the eye could see with a white, concrete-like cap.
“This looks like the work of a group of people who didn’t even graduate from elementary school,” said one user of China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. “If this is the result, you might as well have just blown it up.”
“Such brutal treatment of the monuments left behind by our ancestors! How is it that people with low levels of cultural awareness can take on leadership positions?” asked another. “Why don’t we just raise the Forbidden City in Beijing, too?”
Even the deputy director of Liaoning’s department of culture Ding Hui admitted: “The repairs really are quite ugly,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.
The Great Wall is not a single unbroken structure but stretches for thousands of kilometres in sections from China’s east coast to the edge of the Gobi desert.
In places it is so dilapidated that estimates of its total length vary from 9,000 to 21,000 kilometers, depending on whether missing sections are included. Despite its length it is not, as is sometimes claimed, visible from space.
Emergency maintenance was ordered for Xiaohekou in 2012 to “avoid further damage and dissolution” caused by “serious structural problems and issues due to flooding” and was completed in 2014, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said in a statement on its website in response to public and media outcry.
The government body has begun an investigation into the approval, implementation and outcome of the maintenance work, stating that it would deal with work units and personnel found to be at fault severely, “without justifying their mistakes”.
Around 30 percent of China’s Ming-era Great Wall has disappeared over time as adverse natural conditions and reckless human activities — including stealing the bricks to build houses — erode the UNESCO World Heritage site, state media reports said last summer.
Under Chinese regulations people who take bricks from the Great Wall can be fined up to 5,000 yuan ($750), but plant growth on the wall continues to accelerate decay, and tourism, especially to undeveloped sections, continues to severely damage the world’s longest human construction.

EUROPE BY TRAIN: FIVE GREAT ONE-WEEK RAIL TRIP ROUTES

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘ON THE LUCE’ TRAVEL BLOG ON STUMBLE UPON)

 

EUROPE BY TRAIN: FIVE GREAT ONE-WEEK RAIL TRIP ROUTES

Europe by train: Five great one-week rail trip routes

Train travel is one of the best ways to see Europe – the continent’s fairly compact so it’s easy to get around, and you can sit back and soak up the stunning views with a picnic. But if you’re planning a rail trip, most of the suggested itineraries seem to be geared up for Interailers on month-long trips. It doesn’t have to be this way though – you can have a mini European rail adventure too. Pick a region and a few destinations and get planning (the Seat 61 and Deutsche Bahn websites are great for routes and timetables). Or if that sounds too much work, here are five of Europe’s best one-week rail trip ideas to get you started. All of the routes are possible in a week, but if you’ve got more time then you can take things slower and spend more time in each place. The idea isn’t to wear yourself out trying to see everything in every destination, but to take in some of the highlights and get a taste for each place (and if you love it you can always come back!).

Flamsbana scenic railway in Norwegian fjords

The Flåmsbana scenic train in Norway

NORTHERN EUROPE – CANALS AND CHOCOLATE

Start off in Amsterdam and spend a couple of days checking out the city’s canals, cafés and museums. Then take an early train on to the pretty Belgian city of Bruges (3 hours away). Spend the afternoon feasting on local chocolate and beer then next morning climb to the top of the Belfort tower or take a boat trip before catching an afternoon train to Paris (3 hours). You’re totally spoilt for things to do in Paris, so choose a few favourites to do over the next couple of days. Then take the train on to Switzerland’s oldest city, Chur, on the banks of the Rhine (5 hours). Spend the night in Chur then next morning catch the Bernina Express, one of Europe’s most scenic train journeys through spectacular Alpine scenery to Ticino in Italy, where you change to a local train to connect to Milan (total 7 hours). Then spend your last morning shopping and sightseeing in the Italian fashion capital before heading home.

A one-week rail trip itinerary in Northen Europe

Though Northern Europe from Amsterdam to Milan

ITALY – PALACES AND PIZZA

Begin your trip with a couple of days in Venice – cruise the Grand Canal, get lost in the backstreets and brave the crowds at St Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace. Then take an early train to Florence (2 hours) and spend the afternoon gallery-hopping. Finish getting your fill of Renaissance art the next morning then take the short journey on to Rome (1.5 hours) for the afternoon. Spend the next day seeing the historical sights of Rome before travelling on to the gritty coastal city of Naples (1 hour 10 mins). Stuff yourself in the home of pizza and if you have time to spare you can catch the Circumvesuviana railway to visit nearby SorrentoHerculaneum or Pompeii. Finish off with a couple of days on the island of Sicily – you can take the train all the way as it travels right on to the ferry for the 30-minute boat trip across the Messina Straits (takes 6 hours 45 mins to Taormina, 7.5 hours to Catania or 9 hours to Palermo).

A one-week rail trip itinerary in Italy

Through Italy from Venice to Sicily

EASTERN EUROPE – CONCERTS AND CAKE

Arrive into the Hungarian capital Budapest for a couple of days soaking up the culture, steaming in the thermal baths and partying in ruin pubs. Then catch a train on to Bratislava in Slovakia (2.5 hours), a compact city on the banks of the Danube. Spend the afternoon and next morning checking the city’s mix of 18th-century and Socialist-era architecture. Then travel on to Vienna in Austria (1 hour by train – or if you fancy a change from rail travel then the two cities are also connected by a boat along the Danube). Visit an ornate palace, catch a Mozart concert at the opera house and fill up on delicious sachertorte at a coffee house. Next travel on to Ljubljana in Slovenia (6 hours) for a couple of days exploring the charming old town, or you’re also only an hour by train from beautiful Lake Bled. Then end your trip in Zagreb, across the border in Croatia (2.5 hours), with a day visiting its museums, galleries and churches.

A one-week rail trip itinerary in Eastern Europe

Through Eastern Europe from Budapest to Zagreb

SPAIN & PORTUGAL – PAELLA AND PORT

Start off in the Spanish coastal city of Barcelona and spend a couple of days checking out Gaudi’s handiwork and catching some rays on the beach. Then take an early train down the coast to Valencia (3 hours) where you have the afternoon and next morning to explore the city’s mix of ancient and modern architecture and try a paella where it was first created. Take a short train ride inland to the Spanish capital Madrid in the afternoon (1.5 hours) and spend the next day visiting its parks and galleries. Then catch the Lusitaniaovernight train that evening, leaving Madrid just before 10pm and arriving into Lisbon at 7.30am the next morning. Spend a couple of days in Portugal’s capital spotting street art and feasting on seafood – or you can take a short day trip to the palace at Sintra (30 mins each way). Then finally travel north to Porto (3 hours) to end with a day of port-tasting on the banks of the Duoro.

A one-week rail trip itinerary in Spain and Portugal

Through Spain and Portugal from Barcelona to Porto

SCANDINAVIA – FJORDS AND FUNICULARS

Begin your route with a couple of day in the Danish capital Copenhagen – cycle around the cobbled streets and check out the design shops and Michelin-starred restaurants in Nyhavn. Then take the train over the Öresund Link bridge and tunnel into Sweden and on to Stockholm (5 hours). Spend a day exploring the city, from medieval Gamla Stan to the hundreds of islands in the archipelago. Then travel across the border to Norway and Oslo (6.5 hours) where you can get a dose of Scandinavian culture at the city’s museums and art galleries. Take the scenic rail route towards the coast next – first the mainline train to Myrdal (4.5 hours) and then the Flåmsbana mountain railway to Flåm (50 minutes). Spend the night on the edge of the fjords and take a cruise out into the Sognefjord before travelling on to Bergen the next day (2 hours). Finish off with a trip to the fish market and great views from the funicular to Mount Fløyen.

A one-week rail trip itinerary in Scandinavia

Through Scandinavia from Copenhagen to Bergen

So which would be your favourite route? Get lots more inspiration for travel by train in Europe in the On the Luce ‘Rail Travel Ideas Book’, launching early 2018.

PIN IT

You don't need months to spare to see Europe by train – five of the best mini European rail adventures, with routes in Italy, Scandinavia and more – ontheluce.com

World’s 50 Most Dangerous Countries Revealed For Travelers

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘BORED PANDA’ WEBSITE)

 

World’s Most Dangerous Countries Revealed, And It May Change Your Travel Plans

Just like last year, International SOS and Control Risks have released a map that shows just how tourist-friendly all countries are, and it’s worth looking at if you’re planning a trip for 2018 to a place you’ve never been before. After all, we all like coming back from a holiday with all of our limbs and other valuables.

Collecting data from the World Health Organization and other institutions, the interactive ‘Travel Risk Map’ reveals just how risky countries are regarding road safety, security and medical matters. According to The Ipsos Mori Business Resilience Trends Watch 2018, 63% of people think travel-related risks have increased during the past year. In the paper, security threats and natural disasters were cited as main reasons for changed travel plans.

Scroll down to check out how countries rank up against each other and let us know what you think about it in the comment section below!

More info: travelriskmap.com (h/t)

This is how much travelers will be risking their health in 2018 across the globe

And this is how the world looks from a security threat point of view

Finally, road safety

Puerto Rico, Trapped Between Colonialism and Hurricanes

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Puerto Rico, Trapped Between Colonialism and Hurricanes

Puerto Rican Graffiti. Photo by Flickr user Juan Cristóbal Zulueta. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Puerto Rican Graffiti. Photo by Flickr user Juan Cristóbal Zulueta. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

You came to Puerto Rico for the golden sand and sun—gold, you will recall, was also the basis of our first colonizers’ initial attraction. For the endless piña coladas and rum-spiked mysteries. For the colonial charm and quaint, humble lifestyle. Poverty looks so alluring in the Caribbean, what with the bright colors, crystal-clear waters and the backdrop of lush greens—besides, it’s only for a week. Your friends say it’s the hottest Spring Break spot; the newspapers say it’s a debt-ridden disaster; your parents say it’s dangerous and that the water is undrinkable; and the brochures say it’s a (tax) haven, an absolute paradise. So here you are, in your bathing suit and sarong, mojito in hand, ready to focus on your one task for the week: getting a tan.

But it turns out that the sun isn’t nailed onto the sky, and it doesn’t run on one-million 100-watt light bulbs that never fail. The tides rise and the swells are ferocious. Coconuts, palm trees and branches are potential projectiles. And a hurricane is heading straight for your worry-free fantasy.

So you try to catch a flight out of this paradise-turned-inferno, because a hurricane was not on your must-see itinerary. Instead, JetBlue takes you to a hurricane shelter in San Juan, a hot and humid coliseum, where your beach chair is replaced by a cot; your piña colada by a Walgreens water bottle; your dream, by our reality.

The power was out in my house as I imagined the scenario above, which had taken place the day before, right before Irma’s arrival. After Irma’s passing the next morning there were more than a million households without power. The Electric Power Authority (AEE) was predicting the outages would last two to four months, and almost 80,000 households had lost water service as well. Over 6,200 people were in shelters on the northeastern side of the island, and Puerto Rico’s agricultural industry had suffered $30.4 million in losses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Governor Ricardo Rosselló were still evaluating infrastructural and residential damages. And now a powerful new storm was heading our way: María.

Puerto Rico is no stranger to crisis. Before Irma’s rampage through the archipelago, Puerto Rico was already in the midst of one of the most devastating financial and socio-political crises in its recent history, with an unaudited $74 billion debt under its belt, $49 billion in pension obligations, and several decades’ worth of illegal bond issuances and trading related to its status as an overly-advertised tax haven. Neoliberal policies such as draconian budget cuts and extreme austerity measures had already rendered life in Puerto Rico quite precarious. And the whole thing was being overseen and managed simultaneously by Governor Rosselló, an unelected and antidemocratic Fiscal Control Board, and judge Laura Taylor Swain, all of whom were going back and forth on the country’s fiscal management and debt restructuring processes.

But even as Hurricane Irma headed straight towards it, for many outside of the country, Puerto Rico is a mere blip on CNN’s news ticker, an enchanting US-owned island on a tourist brochure, that exotic place where the music video for “Despacito” was filmed (and made all the better by Justin Bieber), a pebble sinking between an ocean and a sea that have seen too much.

But Irma’s passing and aftermath have once again brought to light Puerto Rico’s primordial conundrum: colonialism.

Puerto Rico has been a US colony (the US prefers the euphemistic designations of “commonwealth”, “unincorporated territory” and “free associated state”) for 199 years, a relationship that has led to the country’s being trapped in a steep downward spiral. The current fiscal and socio-political crisis is only one of the side effects of this relationship.

Hurricane Irma’s passing underscored the damage done by the neoliberal austerity measures imposed by the Fiscal Control Board and the crimes committed by corporations taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. For starters, as a result of the massive closure of public schools, only 329 schools across the island were available as hurricane shelters compared with the 372 available during Hurricane Bertha’s passing in 2014.

Puerto Rico’s infrastructure also finds itself in an advanced state of deterioration, including roads, bridges, the University of Puerto Rico and public service buildings all of whom were critically endangered during Irma’s passing. A good part of the country’s “essential infrastructure” is on the coast, making it vulnerable to flooding, high tides and storm surges, especially during hurricanes of Irma’s or Maria’s intensity.

It is notable that much of that infrastructure was built to benefit the tourist industry and mercantile trade with the US, and the US alone. Money invested in infrastructure tends to go towards revitalizing these “essentials”, not to repairing the potholed roads in our communities, remediating asbestos-filled buildings or replacing crumbling light poles at the mercy of hurricane winds. All of this is further proof of our colonial market dependency and the essentially colonial nature of the tourist industry, which caters particularly to PR’s relationship with the US.

Even the disaster declaration signed by the US President authorizing FEMA assistance for Puerto Rico second-rate, allowing only for search and rescue, public health and safety, and debris removal. It didn’t include rebuilding or even restoration of power, and with the current fiscal crisis and the Fiscal Control Board’s silence since Irma’s passing, rebuilding and restructuring will be a tough feat for Puerto Rico given the lack of available resources.

Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico’s Carla Minet said:

The budget cuts, in an already weak economy, will probably make the storm’s social impact worse.

Minet added that a pre-Irma forecast by the Center for a New Economy’s policy director, Sergio M. Marxuach, predicts that the recently approved the Fiscal Plan would result in another lost decade, continued population loss due to migration and lower birth rates, lower employment, less access to public education, pension cuts, worsening health outcomes, higher mortality and lower life expectancy, and, ultimately, higher rates of poverty and inequality. “Now add in the cataclysm of a monster hurricane that the plan never accounted for,” said Minet.

The Fiscal Control Board is likely to use Irma as an excuse to aggressively push the many policies it has in line, such as the privatization of PR’s Electric Power Authority (AEE). Nor would it be surprising if Gov. Rosselló and the Fiscal Control Board used the occasion to dismantle and privatize the University of Puerto Rico, the only public higher education institution in the country, as well as a number of other public institutions that are defenseless against the colonial rule of the Fiscal Control Board and its blatant neoliberal attacks.

Now, barely two weeks after Irma’s passing, we’ve just been hit by another category 5 hurricane, María. This just as some household have just got back their electricity supply, and while others are still living in the dark; while the ground is still strewn with fallen trees and light posts waiting to take on second lives as projectiles; while many, both locals and refugees from neighboring Caribbean islands, are still recovering from the loss of their homes, their entire reality; and while crisis and colonialism continue to hold hands, as they do every day.

And so, you’re sitting in your cot with your straw hat on, hundreds of locals scrambling around you with what’s left of their lives stuffed into a bag or a suitcase, wondering why JetBlue dropped you off here and high-tailed it; why the shelter is so understaffed; why the power went even though it hasn’t yet started raining and not a gusts of wind has blown; why CNN wasn’t covering Irma’s passing over Puerto Rico. “I’m here, send over an Embassy representative for me!” you yell in your mind as you stare at the screen of your almost-dead smartphone. Why, you wonder, has life had been so unfair to you, ruining your longed-for vacation in the Island of enchantment.

Then your thoughts are interrupted as you spot a window and you walk gloomily towards it and look through pigeon-christened glass, and watch as the storm clouds gather and gusts of wind batter a US flag—oh, and a Puerto Rican one too.

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