Urban Camping: Pitch A Tent In Central Park

urban camping in Manhattan
Flickr, Sarah Ackerman

High Manhattan hotel prices ruining your summer travel plans? If you’d like to try urban camping — sleeping under the skyscrapers of New York City — you can try your luck for a spot at one of the city’s summer Family Camping sessions. The Urban Park Rangers lead programs in more than a dozen city parks in all five boroughs, including Manhattan’s Central Park (August 24) and Prospect Park (September 21) in Brooklyn. The campouts are all free, starting with an early evening hike, cookout with food provided (don’t expect anything fancy, but you might be surprised with s’mores) and even a tent — you need only bring sleeping bags. The catch? There’s a lot of competition to join, with only 30 tents available for each night. Each event is open to online registration for 24 hours, with the “winners” chosen by lottery and notified about two weeks in advance. Find all the details and get lucky here.

Where else can you pitch a tent without leaving the city? Here are a few other urban areas with camping options.Austin: Emma Long Park offers campsites for $10-25 per night, depending on utilities, in addition to the $5-10 park entrance fee charged to all visitors. Set beside Lake Austin, the Texas city park is less than a half-hour from downtown. Check out the our adventure guide to Austin for more ideas.

Berlin: An innovative use of “fallow” urban space, the Tentstation project is unfortunately not open this season, but you’ll find other options in and around Berlin to pitch a tent or park an RV, even with a group. In typical German efficiency, some are within a few minutes’ walk to public transportation.

Honolulu: The Hawaiian capital has over a dozen campsites, many on the beach with fishing and surfing opportunities and views to rival expensive Waikiki resorts. Camping permits are issued for 3 or 5 days, and cost $32 and $52, respectively. Interesting note: several of the campsites warn that “houseless encounters are likely,” so look out for beach bums.

Japan: One of the most notoriously pricey countries also has a strong tradition of urban camping. While not officially sanctioned, it’s tolerated and generally quite safe in public parks. It might be hard to actually pitch a tent in downtown Tokyo, but you’ll find many guides online to finding a place to sleep al fresco.

Would you want to camp in a city? Have you done any urban camping?

Measuring Bribery And Global Corruption

corruption
Wikimedia Commons

Transparency International has released its Global Corruption Barometer for 2013, looking at the incidence and perception of corruption around the world.

In its most shocking results, the survey asked more than 114,000 people in 95 countries whether they had paid a bribe to a public servant (bureaucrat, police officer, etc.) in the past year. One in four said yes. Of course the percentage varied widely from country to country, with Finland, Denmark, Australia and Japan at only 1 percent and Sierra Leone coming out at 84 percent. Several populous countries such as China and Russia were not included in the survey.

Some of the results are unsettling. Seven percent of U.S. residents surveyed reported paying a bribe in the past year, and many highly touristed countries have high incidents of bribery. In India, 54 percent of those polled reported paying a bribe. The figure is 22 percent in Greece, 33 percent for Mexico, and 70 percent for Kenya.

Tourists are sheltered from much of this since they don’t deal with most bureaucracy. They’re not trying to open a business or get a land line hooked up, for instance. Sad to say, bribery is the only way to get these things done quickly in many countries.

Tourists do get asked for bribes, however. Personally, I’ve been asked for bribes on many occasions. As far as I can remember I’ve only paid bribes in Egypt, where I joined the ranks of 36 percent of Egyptians and paid a little baksheesh. I did it to get access to closed areas of ancient sites, and got the distinct impression that another bribe would have allowed me to take a few souvenirs home. That’s something I wouldn’t do. “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” applies to ancient temples too. I’ve heard many stories from other travelers of bribery to speed up visa applications or get into closed sites.

The fact that the incidence of bribery in the United States is so high for an established democracy didn’t come as a complete surprise. A friend of mine who used to organize block parties in Arizona regularly paid bribes to the city police in order not to get shut down for breaking the noise ordinance.

The BBC has posted an interesting interactive map from the data.

Have you ever paid a bribe while traveling? Take the poll, and share the dirty details in the comments section!

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Mapping An Unexplored Cave

cave
© Dr Michel Royon, Wikimedia Commons

Want to be an explorer? Want to see places nobody has ever seen? You have three options: become an astronaut, become a deep-sea diver or become a caver.

The first isn’t going to happen for a man my age and the second is expensive, so it’s a good thing I live in one of the best regions in the world to do the third. Cantabria in northern Spain has a large amount of karst, a type of stone that often has caves.

One of them is Luna Llena (“Full Moon”), which has yet to be fully mapped. In my fourth caving expedition in Spain I was part of a team that went to look for new passages. I was thrilled. Seeing unexplored parts of the subterranean world was one of the reasons I got into caving. I didn’t think the payoff would come so quickly.

Luna Llena is at the bottom of an abandoned galena mine from the 1920s. The miners were blasting with dynamite one day and opened up a hole into an unknown cave. It’s been regularly explored ever since but there are still many blank spots on its map.

The mineshaft slopes sharply down into the bedrock. Walking along an old narrow-gauge track past ore wagons and rusted equipment, we soon arrived at the cave. There were four of us, two experienced cavers who would be doing the bulk of the mapping, myself, and another relative newbie named Nacho. I quickly discovered that this would be the toughest cave I’d faced in any country.Karst often forms narrow, deep passageways, the product of underground streams cutting away the stone. These passageways can be five, ten, a hundred meters high. There’s no real floor, just a gradual narrowing until you reach water at the bottom. The only way to traverse these is a technique called “chimneying,” in which you straddle the passage with a hand and a foot on each wall. If it gets a bit too wide you press your feet against one wall and your back against the other. You keep tied into a rope running along the wall so you don’t risk falling into the abyss.

This workout led to a payoff – a low chamber filled with soda straws, thin little tubes hanging on the ceiling that eventually form stalactites. We had to crawl on our hands and knees below these beautiful formations for several minutes before getting to a place where we could stand up.

A little more exploring brought us to a long, high passageway. Several small tunnels led away from it, several blanks on the map. We picked one and crawled inside.

This is where it really got interesting. We were off the map in a place nobody had ever seen. Sadly I didn’t have my camera. My Instamatic died the previous week and I wasn’t going to risk my SLR in these conditions. Nacho brought his, but since he was behind me the only shots he got of me were of the bottom of my boots. The tunnel was too small for anything else.

It was almost too small for us to move. Crawling along in a military low crawl, the tops of our helmets scraping against the roof, we came to a spot where the tunnel pinched.

One of the more experienced cavers turned and looked at me.

“You sure you want to do this?” she asked. “Stop and think about it.”

“Of course I want to do it.”

“You’re not claustrophobic?” she asked.

“If I was claustrophobic I would have started freaking out ten meters ago.”

She shrugged and wormed her way into the tunnel. I gave her time to get through and then went in myself. The only way to enter this part was to have both arms stretched out ahead of me. Even then my shoulders barely made it through. I edged my way forward with my forearms and feet, the tunnel pressing in on all sides. Breathing became difficult. There wasn’t enough room to inhale fully, but I was exerting myself and needed the air. Every move was an effort. I wondered if I would make it through. I didn’t panic, though. My only worry was that Nacho was going to have to grab my boots and haul me out.

Any lingering doubt that I have claustrophobia was snuffed out when my headlamp suffered the same fate. An outcropping in the rock hit the power button and the tiny space I was in plunged into darkness.

It didn’t matter. I hadn’t been seeing anything but the rock an inch in front of my nose anyway. Continuing by feel, I made it to a slightly wider part of the tunnel where I could bend my arm and switch on my light. Ahead of me was an even tinier tunnel turning at an acute angle. The caver ahead of me called back.

“Come on through. It’s like a second birth!”

The birth canal I actually had to push off with my legs and force my body through. I exhaled, crushing my chest as flat as it could go. My head and arms emerged in a little cyst in which sat two of our team. Another push and my shoulders made it. A final effort to get the stomach through, swearing all the way to give up beer. I felt the cave walls pressing against my stomach and the small of my back and then I let out a tremendous fart. The cave literally squeezed it out of me.

Poor Nacho. He was right behind me and had nowhere to run. I hoped he didn’t asphyxiate. He was my ride.

We all gathered in the cyst, Nacho looking a bit green around the gills. During all this time our more experienced leaders had been mapping the passageway. Now we got a chance. This was basic mapping, with a compass, tape measure, and clinometer. It was meticulous work in cramped conditions, yet highly rewarding. All my life I’ve studied maps, especially old ones with their tempting blank spots marked Terra Incognita. And now here I was in Subterra Incognita.

I studied every fissure and formation, hoping to find another passage branching away form the one we were in. None were wide enough to push through. The tunnel soon turned back and rejoined one of the main mapped passageways. We’d mapped maybe a couple of hundred meters. In the annals of discovery this is a very minor footnote. I didn’t care. It made all the scrapes and bruises worth it.

So if you want to be an explorer, consider caving. It’s not as hard as you think. I’m 43 years old and only moderately fit. Chances are you can do what I do. If you live in the U.S., the best way to get into it is to join the National Speleological Society. With more than 10,000 members and about 250 local chapters (called “grottoes”), there’s probably a group near you.

Norwegian Scientists Plan To Freeze Themselves In Polar Ice

polar
Wikimedia Commons

A hundred and twenty years ago, Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen started a journey that made him one of the greatest explorers of all time. He set out to purposely get his ship frozen in the polar ice.

The reason? To study polar currents. His ship, the Fram, was purpose-built for the task. It needed to be; many crews had perished in the far north when their ships got frozen and then crushed by ice. The Fram spent three years stuck in the ice as the crew studied currents, took soundings and gathered a host of other scientific data that researchers are still sifting through. Not content with this adventure, Nansen set off on skis in a failed bid to be the first to the North Pole.

Nansen (1861-1930) was fascinated with the world of the Arctic. He was the first to ski across Greenland in 1888 and wrote about his adventures in The First Crossing of Greenland. This was the first of many exciting travel books he’d write. His most famous is Farthest North, his account of the Fram expedition. Nansen went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping refugees after World War I, including the many victims of the Armenian Genocide. His ship is preserved at The Fram Museum in Oslo.

Now researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute want to get their own ship frozen in the ice. They’re hoping to take an old Arctic research vessel that’s slated for the scrapyard and get it stuck in the ice during the winter of 2014-15.

They plan on studying the conditions of the ice, conditions that have changed markedly in the past few years. With the warming of the poles, most ice is only a year old, instead of being several years old like the ice that Nansen studied. This young ice is thinner, more saline, and has different reflective properties than older ice. Such a study may yield important data on how the Arctic is changing due to global warming.

You can read more about Nansen and the proposed project in an excellent two-part series on Science Nordic.

Google Bringing The Galapagos Islands To Street View

Google Street View comes to the Galapagos Islands
Google

Google’s Street View technology is a fantastic tool for those who love to travel. The service, which is integrated into Google Maps, gives us the chance to take a virtual tour of places that range from our hometown to some of the more iconic places around the globe. For instance, over the past few years, Street View has allowed us to visit Mt. Everest, the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef, all without ever leaving home. Last week, the Internet search giant announced that it will soon add the Galapagos Islands to that list, giving us a glimpse of one of the most naturally diverse locations on the planet.

Located 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are best known for being the place that inspired Charles Darwin to write his seminal work “On the Origin of Species.” It was that book that first explored the concepts of evolution and the idea of natural selection. Darwin’s book would go on to change the way we think about the world around us and how different species adapt to it. The Galapagos served as his living laboratory while he observed his Theory of Evolution in action for the first time.

Working directly with the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Parks Directorate (GNPD), Google sent a team of hikers to trek the Galapagos with its Street View Trekker strapped to their backs. The Trekker is a specially designed backpack with 15 integrated cameras that captures a destination from all angles as the wearer hikes through the environment. Over the course of ten days, the Google Team visited ten unique locations in the Galapagos capturing thousands of images as they went. Those locations included beaches, forests, the crater of an active volcano and even under the ocean.Over the years, the Galapagos have become an incredibly popular destination for travelers. The hundreds of unique species that live there continue to fascinate visitors more than 175 years after Darwin first set foot on the islands. But all of the travelers who go there are also a threat to the fragile ecosystem that exists in this isolated corner of the globe. Google, the CDF and the GNPD all hope that this project will help educate the world about the islands while also spreading the word about how important it is to preserve them.

The Galapagos Islands will be added to Street View later this year.