Sunday, July 26, 2009

But What Have We Done Lately?

A few days ago was the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. From the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, was only 66 years. It seems totally reasonable to expect that by this time we should have orbital space hotels and a Mars colony. But no. The last time humanity set foot on the moon was just about five months after I was born and since then, nothing. I mean, I like the Hubble and the International Space Station and all, but seriously, what have we been doing with our time?

While I can't speak for humanity at large, I personally have been sailing on the Pinta. Well, a replica of the Pinta. The Pinta was one of Columbus' three ships on his first voyage to the New World, along with the Niña and the Santa Maria. A replica of the Niña is with us as well, but we have no replica of the Santa Maria (perhaps because the original sank during Columbus' voyage?). I actually see a lot of parallels between Columbus' voyages and the moon landings.

The Pinta and Niña are essentially a traveling museum. They are historically accurate replicas, built entirely by hand using authentic 15th century tools and methods. We sail from port to port, so that people can come on board and learn about the ships, and Columbus' voyages. The first thing most people say is, "I can't believe they actually crossed the Atlantic in these things. They're so small. People were tougher in those days." I beg to differ. Personally, I think that 500 years from now some guy will build a historically accurate replica of the Saturn V, and that little tinfoil moon lander (using authentic 20th century tools and methods) and fly it to the moon, just to prove that it could have been done. "Wow," people will say, "I can't believe they actually flew to the moon in this thing. It's so small. People were tougher in those days."

The Niña and Pinta at the city marina in Petoskey, MI.

The rudder in the water. The ships are steered via tiller.

The Niña, seen from the Pinta, crossing lake Michigan enroute to Escanaba, MI.

Main yard and furled sail.

The Niña, seen from the Pinta, crossing lake Michigan.

Sailing on the Pinta with our historically inauthentic jib.

Block and tackle in the rising sun.

The Niña, seen from the Pinta, on lake Michigan enroute to Marinette, WI.

P.S. For any of you in the Chicago area, we'll be in Waukegan, IL from July 29th through August 2nd, and in Michigan City, IN from August 12th through August 16th.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

How to Find a Cheap Motel

There's a saying which offers advice on how budget travelers should spend their money: "Eat well, sleep cheap." To be honest, I'm not truly a budget traveler. If I were, I'd be sleeping in my car, or camping all the time. In fact, I camp only to reach areas I couldn't reach otherwise, and I never sleep in my car. I stay in motels because I quite enjoy a bed and a shower. Beyond that, about my only requirement is "clean." Your requirements may be more stringent (or you may be fabulously wealthy, or you may never leave home), in which case you will have no interest in:

Ben's Guide to Finding a Cheap Motel While on the Road in America

1. Motel 6's are great. Not for staying in (though they're fine for that too) but for providing a price baseline. Very often it's hard to know what is or is not a good price. Prices vary dramatically based on area and time of year, and even the day of the week, and very few places post their prices. Motel 6 is the cheapest of the chains, they're ubiquitous, and they usually advertise their price on the sign outside.

2. But don't check in to a Motel 6 just yet. Independent places can almost always be had for less than the price of a room in a chain motel, plus they're more interesting. If there's a Motel 6 in the area, drive by and note the price. Now you know the maximum amount you should have to pay.

3. Look around for an independent place. One good way to do this is to drive off the main highway. Most small towns have a main highway full of fast food chains and gas stations, and a "historic downtown" area that will be much nicer, and may have what you're looking for. If it has "bed and breakfast" in the name, chances are it costs more than you want to spend. What you're going for here is a place that looks scruffy but not scary. This is a subtle spectrum. To be honest, in rural and small town areas, I have never encountered a place that was unacceptable. Things can get dicier in large metro areas. Little known fact one: from the seediest flophouse to the fanciest hotel, no one will be offended or surprised if you ask to look at the room before deciding whether or not to take it.

4. Inquire as to the price of a room. If it's more than the Motel 6, move on. Is it less than the Motel 6, but still more than you'd like to pay? You may be interested in little known fact two: hotel/motel prices are usually negotiable. I myself am a terrible negotiator, but there are things you can do short of saying, "I'll give you $29.95 and not a penny more!" For example, if you simply thank them and start walking towards the door, they may offer a discount. Anecdotally I'd say this works about 25% of the time in independent places. Even chains will sometimes offer unsolicited discounts. Not long ago I got almost 25% knocked off the price of a room in a Comfort Inn simply by asking if the first price she'd quoted me was more or less than the cost of the motel next door.

5. One last discount tip: are you a AAA member? Almost every motel in America offers a discount to AAA members. Are you not a AAA member? You'd be surprised how little that matters. This is roughly how my conversations often go:

"Hi, I'm wondering, how much is a room for one night?"


"Do you offer any discounts?"

"Are you a triple-A member?"


"Are you absolutely sure you're not a triple-A member? I don't need to see your card."

"Um... yeeeeah, I'm a triple-A member."


As I said at the outset, I'm not really a budget traveler. It just happens that many of the ways in which I prefer to travel happen to be cheap. When you stay in some no-name ma and pa place you'll not only save money and support small business, you'll also end up in a more interesting room, I guarantee it. The sole advantage of the chains is predictability, and it is also their greatest drawback.

As proof, I offer the House of Ludington, in Escanaba, Michigan, where I stayed the night before last. My room had a lovely sunflower theme, and a view of Lake Michigan.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Note to Self

If I ever want to get to Morocco, I need to stop applying for volunteer opportunities. I have often thought that I'd like to do some sort of volunteering while I travel. It might be both useful, and an interesting way to be a part of a place, instead of simply passing through. I'd just never felt like an opportunity really presented itself.

Meanwhile, my friend Josh has volunteered for a number of years at Camp Goodtimes, a summer camp for kids with cancer. Pretty much as long as I've known him, he's been on me to join him there. It was starting to seem unfair to claim that a volunteer opportunity had never really presented itself, while an opportunity was jumping up and down in front of me, waving its arms about. So, I just spent the past week on Vashon Island, off Seattle, volunteering at the camp.

I'm not allowed to publicly post any pictures of the kids, so you get to make do with the sign and a few abstractions. I worked in Arts and Crafts, helping with a wide array of fine arts, from dinosaur stamps to bead necklaces.

Volunteering at the camp was an interesting experience, neither as disastrously, tragically difficult as I was afraid it might be, nor as life-changingly wondrous as I hoped it might be. In fact, it felt sort of... normal. Which is quite something in itself.

But whatever it was, it was only a week. The next endeavor promises to be a bit longer. I'm going to be volunteering as a crew member on board a historically accurate replica of Christopher Columbus' ship the Niña. The ship is sort of a floating museum. It sails from port to port, and people come on board for tours. The boat is already sailing around, having started the year in San Diego, California. I'll be meeting the boat in Petoskey, Michigan on the 8th. To answer what may be the first two questions that come to mind, no, I don't have to wear a costume, and no, I don't have any sailing experience. But I will soon!