Faux Cityscapes: 5 Fake Places To Snap A Tourist Photo

Steve Jurvetson, Flickr

What are the main reasons people travel? To see the world, gain new perspective, learn about other cultures, get a photo of themselves in front of a famous destination. Let’s be honest, in the world of social media, the latter is of the utmost importance, so important that some people will take a fake background rather than the real thing.

Five places you can snap a fake tourist shot:

1. Hong Kong with a bright blue sky
When it’s too smoggy in Hong Kong for a blue sky (and most of the time it is) you can still get your photo taken in front of the city’s skyline, thanks to a fabric backdrop. Because nothing says “I’ve been there” than taking your photo in front of a colored sheet.

2. Paris… in China
Can’t make it to the real Paris? There’s always Vegas. Or in China, where a remade version of Paris outside of Hangzhou isn’t the City of Light, it’s more of a creepy deserted ghost town. There’s even a 108-meter replica of the Eiffel Tower, which is perfect for when newlyweds want a romantic backdrop without traveling to Europe.

3. Afghanistan… in California
Given the US military’s presence in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that they would work hard to train soldiers on the ins and outs of where they will be based. And what better way than with a mock Afghan village? Actors on the Fort Irwin base in California create a fake Afghan village, selling plastic loaves of bread and fake meat to provide some sort of cultural context for military personnel soon to deploy. Even civilians can visit, checking out the village and chatting with soldiers afterwards. Obviously much more less complicated than traveling to Afghanistan.

4. The Taj Mahal… in Bangladesh
Local wealthy Bangladeshi filmmaker Asanullah Moni was apparently tired of traveling to India to see one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, so he built one himself. The structure cost $58 million to construct, and took only five years to build; lightspeed compared to the original building’s construction, which was built over two decades in the 17th century. So thanks to Moni, Bangladeshis can snap their picture in front of the iconic architecture without ever leaving their home country.

5. The Titanic… in the Southern United States
Just because the real boat sank, doesn’t mean you can’t get your photo taken in front of it. Just plan a trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or Branson, Missouri where you’ll find 30,000-square-foot replicas of the ship that sank in 1912. Welcome aboard.

Top 10 Most Outrageous Hotel Fees

Airlines receive substantial criticism for their ever-increasing fees. While complaints about surprise fees associated with air travel are warranted and deserving of productive conversation, similarly unsuspected hotel fees are often overlooked. A recent New York Times piece highlighted the problem and stated that hotels in the United States are on track to earn $2.1 billion this year in fees and surcharges alone.

Some of the most outrageous hotel fees that are being reported:

  1. Charges for donations to local charities (without receiving consent) are being added to bills. This actually happened to me while in Grenada.
  2. Bellhop service charges, even when bellhop services aren’t used.
  3. Housekeeping charges.
  4. Charges for using the business center, fitness center or other areas of the hotel.
  5. Some hotels now charge extra for a new set of clean towels or sheets.
  6. Some hotels add fees for using the in-room coffeemaker.
  7. Sometimes guests are charged for the in-room safe, even if they don’t use it.
  8. Package delivery fees are applied for receiving mail and other items to your room in some hotels.
  9. Bills at some hotels now include an “energy surcharge.”
  10. Paying to use the internet often comes with a fee, and sometimes it’s ridiculously steep.

3 Ways to Avoid Annoying Hotel Fees

Video: Destination Afghanistan

Afghanistan certainly doesn’t rank highly on most people’s bucket lists. This wasn’t always the case. In the ’60s and ’70s Afghanistan was a key stopover on the hippie trail to India. Kabul and Kandahar, cities that conjure up images of explosions and war, were more famous for their melons than bombings (though it’s unanimously agreed that the best melons come from Kunduz).

Tourism in Afghanistan these days takes some convincing, but if there’s anything to help it along it’s videos like this. These images taken by a former aid worker show a country long known for its rugged beauty whose star has sadly dimmed. Our own Anna Brones found reasons to go when she traveled there last year. These images provide a few more.

Balochistan, The Unluckiest Corner Of The World

The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.

That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008’s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.

Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.

I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.

I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.

But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.

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[Photo credit: Jae Pyl, Adam Hodge]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Tribute To Slain Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff

anne smedinghoff The Foreign Service lost one of its own on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that killed 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, three soldiers and one civilian Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan. Smedinghoff was a second-tour public diplomacy officer who was part of a convoy that was delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three Afghans and wounded four State Department employees. (Another American died in a separate incident and 18 Afghans, including a Taliban commander and women and children were also killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend.) She is the first State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be killed in Afghanistan. (A USAID FSO was killed in August in a suicide bombing.)

A devastating loss like this one reverberates throughout the Foreign Service community. I never met Anne but a former colleague who served with her at the embassy in Kabul and also taught a course she took in Washington said she was “heartbreakingly young, and a nice, lovely person.”

Just last week they took part in a quiz night at the embassy with questions revolving around events that happened on or near Anne’s birthday. I lived in River Forest, the beautiful town just west of Chicago where Anne grew up for three years, and after reading about her life and career, I feel certain that we lost someone who epitomized all that is good about the Foreign Service.She joined the Service right out of college and volunteered to serve in Kabul after a tour in Venezuela. According to press reports, she wasn’t the type of person who wanted to remain in the safety of the compound. She looked forward to opportunities like the one that presented itself on Saturday and hoped to make a real impact during her year in the country, which was nearly over. Reporters praised her as someone who was responsive and easy to work with.

FSOs who serve in danger posts like Kabul and Baghdad often get plumb follow-on assignments to cushy posts but Anne actively bid on Algiers, despite the tenuous security situation there and the lack of creature comforts. According to a friend who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she felt that the places she was needed the most were the “scary” and “dangerous” places, not the posh ones.

She had a taste for adventure. Smedinghoff biked across the U.S. (to raise money for cancer research), Australia and from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and she loved to travel. Her neighbors in River Forest have lined the block with white ribbons and American flags to honor her and her smiling face graced the front page of both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune Monday. The stories are a fitting tribute to her but it’s a shame that diplomats usually only make the news under tragic circumstances.

Most Americans have at least some awareness of the tremendous sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make for their country but comparatively few are familiar with the Foreign Service and the sacrifices that FSOs and their families make. People might imagine that diplomats spend the bulk of their careers mingling at cocktail parties in Tokyo or Paris but that isn’t the reality of today’s Foreign Service. Most officers spend the bulk of their careers in places most Americans wouldn’t dream of visiting, even on a brief trip, and these days, many are also being sent unarmed into war zones, where they are separated from friends and family members for a year.

I hope that the press coverage of Anne’s life and death somehow serves to remind Americans of the sacrifices that FSOs make for their country and I hope that it inspires, rather than scares off, other young Americans who might be interested in the Foreign Service because our country needs bright, adventurous, patriotic people like Anne representing us overseas.

Inevitably, her death will lead to more debate on whether unarmed diplomats should be serving in war zones, and FSOs in danger spots around the world will now be under even greater security restrictions, making it more difficult for them to be effective. And the security officials at the embassy who approved this trip will unfortunately have to live with the consequences, which will be a very heavy burden for them to carry.

But this isn’t a time for second-guessing; it’s a time for all of Anne’s friends, family members, colleagues and the entire Foreign Service community to grieve the loss of a bright star. The Foreign Service can be something of a dysfunctional bureaucracy but when tragedies like this happen, it unites everyone who has served, past and present. God bless Anne and her family and all those who are serving their country.

On Tuesday, the military identified the three soldiers killed in the same incident as Anne Smedinghoff as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; 25-year-old Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa of Juncos, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr. of San Jose, Calif. They were deployed with the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Read more from “A Traveler In the Foreign Service


Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2013/04/09/5328844/3-ga-based-soldiers-killed-in.html#storylink=cpy

[Photo credit: Anne Smedinghoff's Twitter]