Pinnacles National Monument Set To Become National Park

California’s Pinnacles National Monument is set to be promoted to a national park after a bill to that effect passed through the U.S. Senate on Sunday. That same bill was approved by the House of Representatives in July and now only waits for President Obama‘s signature to make it official.

Located in California’s Gabilan Mountains, just east of the Salinas Valley, Pinnacles National Monument is the site of an ancient volcanic field. The volcano has long since eroded and moved further north along the San Andreas Fault, but its remnants remain throughout the area today. The landscape features towering rock spires, large boulders, narrow canyons, talus caves and other amazing geological formations, all of which have made it a popular destination for climbers.

The 26,000-acre site has also been instrumental to the comeback of the California condor, giving the birds a place to roost amongst its rocky cliffs. The National Park Service has released 32 free-flying condors into the park since 2003, and it has proved to be a safe home for the extremely endangered birds. Elevating the monument into a national park will provide further protections to the condor’s habitat, improving their chance for continued recovery in the future.

There is no word yet on when the President will sign the bill but its proponents have said that it will help give Pinnacles a higher profile amongst travelers and outdoor enthusiasts – something that should be good for the local economy as well.

[Photo Credit: Brocken Inaglory via WikiMedia]

Video Of The Day: Virtual Myanmar

Visualtraveling – Myanmar” from Patrik Wallner on Vimeo.

A few months ago, President Obama became the first US president to visit the Asian country of Myanmar. Although tourism has opened up in recent years and the country held elections for the first time in 2010, it remains a tightly controlled country that many Americans feel they don’t want to support with their travel dollars. No matter how you feel about visiting the former Burma, you can enjoy this stunning video by Patrik Wallner. With gorgeous portraits of the people and landscapes of Myanmar, it feels like a National Geographic photo shoot come to life.

See a video worthy of being featured as the Video of the Day? Leave a link in the comments below.

Ten Random Observations About Iraq

While traveling in Iraq I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles in my series. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with the country, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. The traffic police have these cool kiosks that imitate their uniform. Looks like this guy left his tie at home.

2. Spongebob Squarepants is popular here. The best photo I didn’t take was of a woman in an abaya at Kadamiyya shrine, one of the holiest spots for Shia Islam, carrying a Spongebob balloon. No child was in sight!

3. The TV commercial for Vaseline Healthy Soap shows a mother washing her son in the bathtub. In an almost identical version the child in the tub is a girl and she’s wearing a bathing suit.

4. None of the hotels I stayed at had plugs for the sink, but the caps for the mineral water bottles fit perfectly.

5. There were many imitations of Western snacks, such as Mountain Rush soda and Wrinkles potato chips. Oddly, these were made by Western companies and distributed by regional ones. I suppose that was a way to get around copyright infringement.

%Gallery-170776%6. Most restaurants only serve the same half-dozen meals: lamb or chicken kebab, chicken tikka, roast chicken with rice, and roast chicken without rice. They’ll often have a nice long menu listing lots of other meals, but you won’t be able to get them.

7. The various security services have a bewildering variety of uniforms. Nearly all of them are available for anyone to purchase in the various shops in the Baghdad souk.

8. Arabic music videos have credits.

9. Iraq uses three types of outlets. Most are UK style, some are EU style, and there’s a third plug that’s unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. You can see one below.

10. No Iraqi I met thinks Obama is a Muslim.

You might also be interested in my ten random observations about Ethiopia and Greece!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

In Italy’s Heel, Obama’s A Rock Star

He may be facing a tough reelection battle in the U.S., but in the heel of Italy, President Obama’s still a rock star. A friend of a friend who lives in Lecce, a picturesque city of baroque churches and crumbling stone dwellings in Puglia, told me that while in town I had to try a pasticciotto, a muffin-like treat that is peculiar to this region.

“We have one that’s named after Obama too,” she said. “Ask for a pasticciotto Oh-Bam-ah.”

“And people will know what I’m talking about?” I asked.

Assolutamente,” she said, reassuring me that I’d have no trouble getting my Obama treat.

We rented an apartment in the city, and I spent the following week wandering Lecce’s atmospheric streets, periodically ducking in and out of pasticerrias and bars asking for Obama pasticciottos. Sure enough, everyone knew exactly what I was after, but no one had them in stock.

But while I didn’t find any Obama pasticciottos during my first week in Lecce, I saw lots of young people, mostly girls, wearing the Stars and Stripes. I spent time in Italy in 2005, 2006 and 2007, during the George W. Bush years, and don’t remember seeing our flag very much, other than outside of hotels.On a day trip to Otranto, we met a group of high school girls on a class trip from nearby Bari, and they wanted to know if we liked Taylor Swift, Robert Pattison and Obama, three of their favorites. For them, Obama wasn’t just a politician; he was a pop icon.

It seems as though the U.S. is back in fashion in Italy, at least among young people, but I don’t know how much of that is attributable to President Obama. And to be fair, Homer Simpson is probably just as popular if not more so.

On our fifth night in town, we stumbled across a place called the Obama Takeaway, a little fast food joint run by Indian immigrants, that features a likeness of Obama tucking into a sandwich (see accompanying photo) on its sign.

A young woman at the counter, who spoke English and introduced herself as Chiara DiPasquale, told us that they didn’t have Obama pasticciottos, but advised us that the most well known place to get them was in a small town called Campi Salentina, about twenty minutes outside of Lecce. Chiara thought that a few places in Lecce also sold them but wasn’t sure.

On our penultimate night in town, we walked by the Obama Takeaway again, and Chiara was standing out front, taking a break. I told her that we never found the Obama pasticciottos and she immediately promised to help.

“I think I know someone who can get you the Obamas,” she said furtively, as though we were discussing buying some crack. “But how many do you want?”

“As many as I can get my hands on,” I said, sounding a bit like an addict looking to score.

Chiara took my business card and said she’d email me. I assumed I’d never hear from her again, but a few hours later, I received her message.

“I found someone who will drive me out to Campi Salentina tomorrow to get the pasticciottos, how many should we pick up for you?”

We have no car in Italy and are at the mercy of the local public transport, which is woefully inadequate, so I told her that I wanted to make the pilgrimage out to the Obama pasticciotto place with them.

The following afternoon I met up with Chiara and her friend and fellow student at the Salento University, Marco Scigliutzo, who was driving a Skoda. After stopping for directions once in the small town, we pulled up in front of an ordinary looking shop that had a large American flag flying on the balcony overhead.

We walked inside and I was immediately struck by a likeness of a smiling Barrack Obama, waving his right hand while holding up a pasticciotto in the left. We’d come to the right place, but all I could see were rows of ordinary, vanilla colored pasticciotto.


But my fear that they were out of Obamas was quickly put to rest, as the counter person asked us how many Obamas we wanted. Could we see the product first, I thought, once again feeling a bit like a guy about to score a kilo of heroin.

Angelo Bisconti, the owner of the place, called Cheri, since 1994, came out with a tray of the little beauties and told us his story. He was inspired by Obama during the primary in 2008 and thought he was going to “change the world.” So he experimented with a special Obama pasticciotto in his honor. At first, he tried to make it with some vanilla and some chocolate, in honor of Obama’s multiracial background, but that didn’t work, so he went with a lava cake approach – chocolate on the outside and on the inside.

Bisconti said that he’d received a letter from the American consulate in Naples thanking him for making these wonderful treats and also mentioned that he went to the U.S. to promote his brand. He also sells bottles of Obama dessert wine with the President’s likeness for €10 a bottle. The Obamas have 457 calories and cost the equivalent of 65 cents. Bisconti claims that he sells about 1,000 of them per day.

The Obama pasticciotto didn’t disappoint. It tasted like a muffin on the exterior but then when we bit into them a bit further, an explosion of hot molten chocolate scorched our mouths. It tasted so good that my brain refused to process how hot the chocolate was, so I just kept chewing into it.

But once the whole thing was safely stuffed into my mouth, I suddenly realized that my gullet was on fire. I had to hop around a bit and get some water to cool off. But I was already addicted. These little beauties are awfully good.

Bisconti admitted that he wasn’t sure if Obama had a sweet tooth or not but said he was confident that the President would love the pasticciottos if he had a chance to try them. He said he sent the President a letter about them, but has yet to receive a response.

Bisconti said that other shops have tried to copy his recipe, but have failed. He claims to have the copyright to make Obama pasticciotto and could sue others who try to infringe on it. On the way back to Lecce, I wondered how someone could get a copyright to use a famous person’s likeness to sell gooey muffins.

“Couldn’t Obama sue him?” I asked Marco and Chiara.

“I think Obama has more important things to do than worry about a guy selling pasticciottos in Italy,” Marco said.

Santorum criticizes Obama for allowing Malia to attend class trip to Mexico

The is-Mexico-safe-or-isn’t-it debate spilled over into the 2012 presidential race on Tuesday as G.O.P. hopeful Rick Santorum criticized President Obama for allowing his 13-year-old daughter, Malia, to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, on a class trip.

“What I would say is that the president’s actions should reflect what his administration is saying,” Santorum said in an interview with conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. “If the administration is saying that it’s not safe to have people down there, then just because you can send 25 Secret Service agents doesn’t mean you should do it. You should set an example. I think that’s what presidents do. They set an example. And when the government is saying this is not safe, then you don’t set the example by sending your kids down there.”

On Monday, Agence France-Presse reported that Malia was on a school trip in the popular colonial city known for its arts scene and vibrant zocalo, with a phalanx of twenty-five Secret Service agents to protect her. According to Politico, a number of media outlets took down their stories about the trip in order to honor a long-standing pledge to protect the privacy of President Obama’s children. The White House confirmed today that Malia and her classmates weren’t harmed in yesterday’s earthquake, which was “felt strongly” in Oaxaca according to an expert cited in a USA Today piece.

A few thoughts…

Mexico is a big country — there are 31 states and more than 100 million inhabitants. A few weeks ago, I challenged the notion that Puerto Vallarta (PV) is unsafe for American tourists and my piece generated nearly 100 comments, most with strong opinions one way or the other. American snowbirds that live in PV, or travel there each winter, believe it’s safe, but many others have been scared off by media reports of violence and think it’s not worth the risk.

According to the New York Times, Mexico welcomed a record total of more than 22 million international visitors in 2011, most from the U.S. So unlike Senator Santorum, it seems that most Americans are able to differentiate between the safe and unsafe parts of Mexico.

The State Department hasn’t advised Americans to avoid the entire country. The notion that the Obama’s are sending their daughter into an area that the government has warned against visiting is factually incorrect. There is no advisory in effect for the state of Oaxaca. I’ve been to Oaxaca before and it’s one of the most vibrant, artsy towns in the country. There have been demonstrations there in years past and an American citizen was killed in one incident in 2006, but it’s generally a safe place, even by U.S. standards.
%Gallery-151129%Is there something inherently unpatriotic about traveling abroad? Several readers who commented on my PV post opined that they were avoiding Mexico and other foreign countries because our economy needed us to stay home and spend our money here.

I can see that point but I think that Americans need to leave the country every now and then. It helps us to appreciate what we have here, it allows us to better understand how others perceive us and it gives us ideas that we can replicate or avoid here. Besides, if you’re really concerned about supporting U.S. businesses, you can travel on an American carrier and stay at a U.S. owned hotel chain.

In my day, we took field trips to the zoo — if we were lucky. Kids are really spoiled these days. I have nieces and nephews who go to Europe for class trips. We used to go to amusement parks and zoos. For the record, I think it’s terrific that Malia Obama has a chance to travel to Oaxaca, a city that I like very much. I’m just a little jealous.

Vacation at your own risk. This is a class trip for a 13-year-old girl but politics and presidential family trips can be tricky. The recent PBS documentary on Bill Clinton noted that the family changed their vacation plans from Martha’s Vineyard to Wyoming because it was perceived as more Middle America. The administration even arranged a photo shoot of Bill riding a horse.

The Obamas like to vacation in Hawaii, where the President was born and spent much of his childhood. But don’t be surprised if his summer vacation this year involves a swing state or two. Some early guesses: Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks or Rocky Mountain National Park.

Photo via the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia via Flickr. Photos of Oaxaca by Dave Seminara.