Saturday, January 30, 2016

#1 of 20 something. The Dominican Republic.

In search of Cipangu and a western route to Asia for the Spanish crown, Espanola was among the first strange islands where Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1492.  Many Europeans believed at the time that Eden itself laid in the far eastern reaches of the Earth, and to get there one could sail west. Columbus was in search of paradise.  And after having seen myself the clear blue waters of this island and watching and hearing the breeze blow in from the Caribbean Sea through the coconut palms, I cant help but think that Columbus must have believed when he reached these islands that he'd found it. 

My experience in DR was not one rich in culture, or with really any local cuisine, music, art or experiences. That's right, in my first venture outside of the borders of the USA I was cloistered in the bubble of an all inclusive resort. The perfect and ingenious answer to the tourist desire of sipping margaritas and eating Japanese food in the Caribbean tropics without having to worry about icky things like poverty, crime and the weird customs of the local people who were no doubt taking care of our turn down service. I'm not trying to be dramatic or on some moral high horse here.... I mean there's a time and a place for simply kicking it in a beautiful place with all of the comforts of the west.... But let's just call it for what it is here. 

As a young boy on my first international trip, I imagine I must have arrived at this tropical paradise with some of the same questions as the good Admiral did: "Where the hell am I??", "Why can't we have this kind of weather back home?", and "Are those local savages not wearing CLOTHES?!" (Except in my day the savages were Caucasian women from New Zealand and the U.K.) I definitely got your typical tourist experience in Punta Cana: Mai tais, pina coladas, fake Cuban cigars and plenty of beach time: a veritable yet inoffensive introduction to what life outside the USA's borders can be like. 

Reflecting back on my trip, I can't say that I know how Dominicans live, what they eat, or what their culture is like at all.  What I did learn: ordering a double doesn't mean one drink for you and a friend, a White Russian is a poor choice for 100 degree weather, and if a guy sells you a box of Cuban cigars on the beach for 3 dollars, they probably aren't the real ones.  A shame that I know this place has so much more to offer, but since it was my first trip and I was being squired about by my parents...I'll give myself a pass on this one for not seeing it. And God bless my crazy parents for taking 6 high school boys on a trip like this. Luckily no one ended up in a Dominican jail.

So back to the US I went. In just a few short months, I'd be overseas again, but this time across the big pond. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Bucket List Project

What is "The Bucket List" Project?

Over the course of the next several months. I'll be posting a short story about several countries. They are all places I've been, some for just a short time, and longer for others. I'll be listing them in chronological order of when I went, spanning over the last decade or more.

Sometimes it may be a short retelling of a specific event or memory, sometimes thoughts about how the country's history has influenced what it is today, and sometimes, heck. A poem. You've heard of all these countries, so I'll try not to bore you with things you can just read in a guidebook, rather I'll bring you back to what I remember when I was there.

Enjoy traveling with me.

The Fine Print

This project is a product of my love of two things: travel and lists. What began as a simple list of a few countries in excel that I used to keep tabs of potential vacation spots slowly got more and more complex. "What if I ranked the counties?" I thought. "What if I assigned attributes and weights to them?" "What is the price of a restaurant in Vietnam compared to India?" "How should this affect where I'd like to go?" With this quest for knowledge and love of lists and traveling, I set out on what has now been a few years' journey, and my first dashboard published on Tableau Public.

Is it really possible to rank every country in the world? Rank based on what? Isn't that all a matter of personal opinions? When I travel, for example, I love to be surrounded by history, culture and a vibrant city scene.... but my wife loves relaxing, good food and stunning scenery.... maybe that means we should head to the island of Malta? Not enough money for that? Vietnam could be a good option to do this on the cheap. Enter: The Bucket List Generator. (if you missed that... that's a link you can click).

The Generator will have to be subjective on some evidenced by the mere fact that there are many interpretations of "what makes a country beautiful?" or " what is good architecture?" or even "what is 'quality' culture?" Here is where I had to take some liberties which I will only defend insomuch as saying I tried my best to be objective, and if you disagree with my tastes, then go blog about it or make your own dashboard.

Other things, however, are objective and can be proxied: Restaurant price indices (affordability), crime rates (safety), urbanization (city life). Any time that I could remove myself from inserting my own opinion into the model, I did so. In the end, I chose ten factors by which to evaluate each country, allowing the user to assign weights to each factor to determine their own personal 'bucket list.'

Hopefully it will be as informative and fun for you as it was to create.

Below is a quick run down of the ten 'factors', and how I went about judging each:

Culture: This is maybe the most ambiguous metric. Culture is really more of an amalgamation of food, art, architecture, music, customs, etc.... every place has its own culture... this metric meant to be whether you really feel that when you are there; how much you really feel immersed and not feel like a visitor.

Gastronomy: Based on a survey of 1,400 Americans by polling extraordinaire Nate Silver and his fivethirtyeight blog team. The survey gauged opinion of the food quality of all of the countries in the 2014 FIFA World Cup (as well as a few key extras). Where data was not available for a country, the score was assigned based on a neighboring country in the same region.

Safety: As proxied by a crime index. This index is based on crime statistics as well as survey data (where available) of how users feel about things like crime, drugs, violence, etc in a given country.

Affordability. As proxied a restaurant price index. Similar to CPI but specifically for restaurant prices.... since this is what you spend a large share of your money on while traveling.

Relaxing: Totally subjective... but... is there a beach? Lot of resorts? Just picture that Zac Brown song about your toes being in the water.... that should remind you of a place that gets a 10 on this scale.

Nature/natural beauty: We do live in a beautiful world, and it's very hard to say one place offers "more" than another in the way of natural beauty. Part of this is accessibility to nature as well (parks, trails, ecotourism, infrastructure, etc).

City Life: Here we use % of the population that is urban. Is debatable whether this is a good measure for how vibrant a country's city life is... but it at least gives a perspective of how important cities are in the lives of a country's people.

Outdoor Adventure: What is there to do outdoors in this place and how easy is it to do? There may be a way to proxy this... but I've yet to find it. In the meantime.... i'll just have to go off of what i read in national geographic.

History: Ok. Every country has "history".... or more precisely, every piece of land on earth has a past. Wars, famines, despotic rulers, revolutions, golden eras. I geek out about all of it. But how can one objectively evaluate a country's 'history quality'? Well.... you can't. But I did. Admittedly this a function of how much I know about a place's history, and how much it interests me. Because, hey: this is my dashboard after all.

Architecture: One of my favorite parts of seeing the world's cities is being surrounded by awesome architecture. I called on my friend and architecture guru Joe Ebert (whose very thoughtful architecture blog you can find here) to help me on this one in hopes to come as close as possible to objectively define 'good' architecture. Maybe Potter Stewart would be helpful here: you can't really define it, but you know it when you see it.

The Bucket List Generator

Before you get started:

A few months ago, I began posting a series of short stories on the countries around the world I've been fortunate enough to have traveled to. The idea came about as a result of the dashboard you will find below. The human brain is an impressive thing, but it can be difficult to consider many (in this case, over 200) outcomes along several (in this case 10) different dimensions.

As an example:

Is being on a budget the only thing important to you when you travel? Then kick the "affordability" slider up to 100 and leave everything else alone. Result: Nepal, India and Vietnam may seem like the best countries in the world. Is being safe equally as important? Bump up the safety slider, and suddenly the Virgin Islands, Fiji, and Belize don't seem so bad. If the thing works correctly, your list shouldn't come as a surprise for the most part; it's just telling you what you already know if you've given any thought to things like this. But challenge what you think you like and let the dynamic nature of the tool suggest places you never thought you'd find yourself. Then get out a pencil, write down your list, and get traveling.