Category Archives: Travel

The Ultimate Dream Life

I want to own a bookstore in Southeast Asia.

It won’t be just any bookstore. It will be L’Etranger in Luang Prabang.

A city of 55,000 in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Mekong River. It is one of the most stunningly beautiful cities in the world, especially for those who love classical Buddhist architecture. But until French-Canadian backpacker Isabel Drean wandered into town for a two-day stay in 2001, it didn’t have a bookstore.

Drean perceived a need for a multilingual shop, café and gallery. She returned home to Montreal to secure the funding, and wound up returning to Laos for 10 years to raise a family. Shen she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking, her mother continued to run the store — named L’Etranger (The Outsider) after Albert Camus’ renowned 1942 novel.

And now, she’s giving it away.

“Rather than sell the business the traditional way,” she says, “I want to show gratitude and change someone’s life. It’s time for a new chapter. So why not give this chance to someone else?”

Along with the shop, Drean will hand over $10,000 to help with the transition, housing, a motorcycle, foreign-investor status and more. In all, this “dream life” is valued at about $250,000.

“It’s like playing matchmaker for an old friend,” she says. “I’m looking to find someone who will keep the magic alive. It’s not about experience, but really about who they are — what’s their story, their passion, their dream.”

I’ve let Dream know that I’m not just interested, I really want to be the person she chooses. I’m a man of letters, a widely published writer who prefers books to television. I’m a student of Southeast Asian culture and religion. My son was born in Singapore when I was managing editor for a publishing house in the 1980s. My desire to return to Asia has only heightened since cancer took his life last summer: My strongest remaining family tie is with my brother, who lives in Japan.

But that doesn’t mean my friends and followers shouldn’t also have an opportunity to bid for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Here’s what you’ll need to do to enter the “Ultimate Dream Life Abroad” competition:

Go to the website, There you’ll be prompted to submit a two-minute video, or write a 200-word essay, answering the question: “Why me?”

That’s the first of three rounds of competition, which closes on June 6 of this year. The winner of each round will then be flown to Luang Prabang, all expenses paid, to plead their case before Drean and her family, and to convince a panel of judges that they can adjust to doing business in a foreign culture.

“There will be fun challenges they will need to complete,” says the filmmaker, who plans to turn this social experiment into a documentary film.

If you win the competition rather than me, I have just one request: Please carry something I’ve written on the shelves of your new bookstore.



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Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest

A stream cascades through Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rainforest (John Gottberg photos)

“There is more biodiversity in this forest than anywhere on the entire North American continent,” said Frank Torres, a ranger for El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

After joining Torres on a walk through the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system — covering 29,000 acres in the eastern highlands of this Caribbean territory, between 2,000 and 3,500 feet elevation — I can imagine how that might be the case.

Frank Torres

The annual rainfall here averages more than 200 inches, substantially more than Washington’s soggy Olympic Peninsula. It occasionally exceeds 300 inches, most of it between June and November.

In all, there are 240 native Puerto Rican trees in this conservationist’s dream, 23 of them found only in El Yunque. Some 150 types of ferns, and 50 native bromeliad orchids, take root in many of these trees and in the rich soil beneath them. Among them is the Lepanthes woodburyana, the world’s tiniest orchid.

Rare vines cling to bark and drape from branches. Leathery “elephant ear” leaves, three feet across, lay rotting on the forest floor. Coral hibiscus, yellow heliconia and bright red bottlebrush add color.

Biodiversity: A snail clings to a bromeliad on a vine- and moss-covered sierra palm.

Torres, an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm, has worked in the forest for 17 years. He took me on a hike through an area where the movie “Predator” was once filmed, pointing out the ruins of buildings left by the Civilian Conservation Corps when it built roads and trails — as well as its own public swimming facility and trout hatchery — in the 1930s.

Puerto Ricans no longer swim here. In fact, no vehicles are permitted on the trails, not even mountain bikes. The trails are for foot traffic only.

“El yunque,” Torres told me, refers to “the land of white clouds” in the language of the long-departed aboriginal Taino people. It was regarded, he said, as the place where the earth touches the sky.

There are no carnivores in this forest, save its 11 species of bats, who feast on mosquitoes and other insects — along with singing tree frogs (“coquis”), lizards and dozens of birds. I had hoped to see the island’s legendary parrot, but “that would be like winning the lottery,” Torres said.

Lepanthes woodburyana, the tiniest orchid

Only about 60 of these magnificent green birds survive in the forest today, he said — but that is up from 13 counted in 1975, when the U.S. Forest Service began a preservation program. In addition to the forest’s wild parrots, Torres said, about 300 more are being bred in private aviaries, and are scheduled for eventual release.

I began and ended my tour of El Yunque from El Conquistador Resort (, where I am staying. This vast resort, situated atop a bluff at the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, is at once old-school and classic, with more than 900 rooms and 11 restaurants. Rainforest tours begin daily at 9 a.m., returning to the hotel by 1.

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Alligator Wrestling in Florida

See you later, alligator (all photos by John Gottberg)

About this time last week, I was wrestling an alligator in Florida.

Okay, so he (she?) was only about two feet long, and his (her?) snout had been taped shut with electrical tape by a handler. And I wasn’t exactly wrestling the beast, so much as trying to kiss it.

But it was still an alligator.

And while this test of strength and wits took place at the Everglades Alligator Farm — and this young gator may be destined to someday become a high-fashion bag or a pair of cowboy boots — it served the purpose of getting me up close and personal with North America’s largest reptile.

Certainly, I wasn’t going to duplicate the stunt in nearby Everglades National Park (

With an estimated 200,000 wild alligators in the park (out of about 1.5 million throughout Florida), the unique “sea of grass” known as the Everglades has been a conservation success story … thanks in part to alligator farming.

As recently as the 1950s, the American alligator was threatened with extinction. The prehistoric reptile was being heavily poached to satisfy a demand for high-fashion items, including shoes, belts and purses.

It was on the endangered species list when the State of Florida licensed commercial alligator farming in the 1980s. Suddenly, the market suddenly had a legal source of hides and meat — and the wild population rapidly rebounded. By 1987, the gator was no longer “endangered.”

I saw about a dozen wild Everglades gators while walking the Anhinga Trail, near a national-park visitor center west of Homestead. This half-mile boardwalk crosses a seasonal swamp; a park ranger assured me that the reptiles’ numbers would greatly increase by the arid season in mid-winter, when many other sources of water had dried up.

On this day, the animals mostly lay quietly in the water-side grasses beneath the boardwalk, or partially submerged in the shallow water. But I didn’t have any fantasies about reaching out to stroke their thick, dark hides. Granted, they can only see sideways — not directly in front of them, and certainly not behind — but 80 teeth are nothing to mess around with.

Back at the Everglades Alligator Farm (, I enjoyed the Disney-like stage show and feeding exhibition, explored the pens filled with baby gators and looked over the alligator breeding pond. But I was most impressed with an airboat ride.

Loud and wet, these flat-bottomed boats carry as many as 30 visitors on a two-mile tour of the swamp next to the farm. They are propelled forward by a column of air that enables them to ride above a seemingly infinite expanse of sawgrass, even with little or no water beneath.

Rare panthers live in this ecosystem, although I saw none. But I did see numerous wildflowers found nowhere else on earth. And I saw several more wild gators.

I won’t be wrestling any of them. See you later, alligator.

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Miami’s Mural Magic


Wynwood district photo by Msk Awr collaborative

I knew what to expect on my visit to Miami, Florida, last week:

Lots of Gold’s Gym-advertisement girls and boys strutting down Ocean Avenue in bikinis and Speedos.

Grand, palm-fringed mansions in Coral Gables, Coconut Grove and manmade Star Island, in Biscayne Bay.

A celebratory parade for the Miami Heat, champions of pro basketball.

Symbols by Los Angeles artist Retna

What I did not expect to see was the way masterful graffiti art has taken over two square miles of the Wynwood Arts District and Miami Design District in north Miami, much to the delight of local merchants.

This area has become, in effect, the world’s largest open-air, street-level museum.

“It’s been legal graffiti since 2006,” explained Marcos Valella, a celebrated local oil painter who supplements his income by working as a tour guide.

Chiseled portraits by Portuguese artist Vhils

“A group called ‘Primary Flight’ positioned itself as the middle man between property owners and graffiti artists during Art Basel,” he said.

A European-born arts celebration, Art Basel has become one of the most prestigious in the Americas since it was established in Miami in 2002.

Each December, more than 250 world-class artists create paintings on walls throughout the city’s old garment district and elsewhere. Arts patrons are able to watch the works in progress, thanks to maps that locate the sites of the murals. These are painted over each year, creating a new “canvas.”

Mural by Greek artist Stelios Faitakis

Northwest 2nd Avenue, especially between 22nd and 29th Streets, is the heart of the district, whose merchants include dozens of permanent galleries, as well as design shops and restaurants.

“Paint manufacturers have even begun making special spray paint specifically for graffiti artists,” Valella said, as he indicated one wall sponsored by the Ironlak company.

Mural by Ryan McGinness

The names of “famous” graffiti artists rolled off the tongue of my artist-guide: Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Kobra, Buff Monster and Ahol Sniffs Glue, to name a few.

These are just a few photographs from the Wynwood district.

American Airlines has begun direct, nonstop service between Seattle and Miami. Flights, which depart at 9:25 p.m. daily and arrive at 6:15 the following morning, take fewer than six hours to travel from the northwesternmost corner of the continental United States to the southeasternmost.

Backbar at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar by artist Shepard Fairey

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Dining with the Shakes in Monterey

Chris Shake at the Old Fisherman's Grotto (Barb Gonzalez photos)

Don’t make the mistake of confusing Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif., with its famous namesake in San Francisco, two hours’ drive north.

And don’t make the blunder of visiting the Monterey wharf without getting to know the Shake brothers.

Unlike its big-city counterpart, which extends for half a mile alongside San Francisco Bay, the Monterey version occupies a single pier about two blocks long.  It is located across a busy plaza from the Old Custom House, a national historic landmark built in 1827 when California was still a province of Mexico.

The original Fisherman’s Wharf was constructed in 1845.  Monterey was then a major Pacific port and San Francisco was still a tiny village called Yerba Buena.  The early whaling industry was supplanted by a sardine fishery that for many decades supported the local economy.

“When I was a kid growing up here,” said restaurateur Chris Shake, “the fishing industry was bustling.  And it wasn’t just sardines—there was calamari, cod, tuna, salmon, crab, LOTS of fish.

Seafood plate, Fisherman's Grotto

“My mom and dad settled here in 1950,” he said.  “My father was Pakistani.  But because my mother was Italian, he became an Italian chef.  Then Dad bought a 40-seat chowder house.  Today it’s my restaurant, the Old Fisherman’s Grotto, and we seat 235.”

Shake, 55, said he watched as the catches of fish grew progressively smaller.  The establishment in 1992 of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary “forced fishermen to look into other businesses to survive. The old fishing businesses started turning into food establishments and gift shops.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, arguably the finest aquarium on the west coast of North America, had opened in 1984 and was drawing throngs of new tourists to the Cannery Row section of Monterey, one mile west of Fisherman’s Wharf.  

“The aquarium gave Monterey a year-round tourist business,” Shakes said. “Before that, we had visitors just three months a year.”

Clam chowder, Fish Hopper

He and his brothers have done well. Most of them remain on the Wharf. Besides the Grotto, Chris owns Kocomo’s Fish Market and the Pirate’s Cove gift shop. Tini has Isabella’s Italian Seafood. Angelo operates Glass Bottom Boat Tours. And Benji runs Monterey Bay Whale Watch. “People came from all over the world last year just to see the blue whales offshore,” Chris said.

Another brother, Sabu Jr., operates The Fish Hopper ( on Cannery Row. And all three family restaurants proudly serve their father’s original clam-chowder recipe. Served in a sourdough bread bowl, it’s a wonderfully creamy potage, rich in clams and potatoes, and for several years now it’s won the “best clam chowder” award in the annual Monterey Wine Festival competition.

At the Grotto (, I supped on a seafood appetizer sampler (crab cake, prawns, calamari, sesame-crusted ahi and a grilled half artichoke) and a delicious macadamia-crusted halibut entrée.

All Shakes restaurants subscribe to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” code. Designed to dissuade restaurants from serving overfished or endangered species, this program has been adopted by seafood lovers across the nation.  For more, see


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Chinese New Year: Popular Practice

Lion dance at Aberdeen Centre

Chinese believe the advent of the lunar new year is a time of renewal, a time to sweep away the misfortune of the previous 12 months and get a fresh start in the new one.

In Richmond, British Columbia — a Vancouver suburb whose population of nearly 200,000 is about two-thirds ethnic Chinese — this is as true as anywhere else on the North American continent.

With large immigrant populations from Taiwan, Hong Kong and, more recently, mainland China, Richmond is virtually an Asian transplant.  Throughout the central city area, known as “The Golden Village,” Chinese script is more prevalent than English. 

God of Fortune

The large shopping centers sell food, clothing and luxury items geared specifically to Asian buyers.  They become community gathering places where important events, especially including the annual Chinese New Year, are celebrated.

The face of popular Buddhism is often very different than the spiritual facet.  In a temple, you won’t find lion dancers nor the bearded God of Fortune.  But you will find them in a Chinese-oriented shopping mall. 

As my Chinese Canadian friend Mijune Pak says, tongue only slightly in-cheek: “The Chinese are all about money and good fortune and prosperity.  Those are the important things in our culture.”

At Aberdeen Centre, the largest and most modern Richmond shopping center (named after a district of Hong Kong), the holiday spirit took over in late January with its Flower & Gift Fair.  Area nurseries offered delicate orchids and colorful citrus plants, while tiny rabbits of gold and banners of red were everywhere.  Indeed, as the primary color of good fortune, red was everywhere.

Wild about the new year

The Fairchild Media Group, a Cantonese- and Mandarin-language broadcasting conglomerate that also owns Aberdeen Centre, presented the new year’s eve entertainment.  Well-attended performances of music, dance and comedy led up to a midnight drop of tickertape.  A highlight was an acrobatic show of lion dancing by a martial-arts troupe.

But a Thursday (New Year’s Day) presentation at nearby Yaohan Centre, attended by Richmond’s mayor, city councilors and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was equally impressive.  Here, the dignitaries painted the eyes on dragon masks before they began to dance.  A long string of firecrackers exploded in sparks and smoke under the watchful eye of the handsomely attired God of Fortune himself.

“The noise and music scare off evil spirits,” explained Taiwan-born Stacey Chyau.  “The animals, whether they are lions, tigers or dragons, are fierce.  They also keep the spirits away.”

Chyau said her family burns paper money so that ancestors can share in their prosperity. “Sometimes we burn paper houses and Mercedes Benzes,” she said.  “This is the only way for our ancestors to receive prosperity on ‘the other side.’”

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Chinese New Year: Visiting the Temple

Offerings to the Buddha

For many Chinese immigrants and tradition-bound Chinese families, it is essential practice to pay a visit to the neighborhood temple on the occasion of the lunar new year.

Last night, Wednesday, when the Year of the Tiger came to an end with a boisterous roar, the Year of the Rabbit was welcomed by the heavy Asian population of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

I observed the occasion at the International Buddhist Temple in Steveston — the second-largest Buddhist temple in North America.  If I said my prayers properly, I parted company with the evil spirits and bad luck of the past year, and opened myself to all the blessings of a new year.

International Buddhist Temple

At the side of the spacious parking lot that flanks the multi-building temple complex, newly arrived temple goers bought sheaves of incense sticks from a row of vendors.   I followed them as they lit the entire bundles in nearby oil burners, and then carried them through a gateway.

Past a classical garden pond with a beautifully illuminated pagoda, I watched worshippers make their initial offering to an alabaster-white “laughing Buddha” icon. 

A few steps further, more incense was presented to a tier of bronze sculptures representing a Chinese Buddhist pantheon.   I recognized Guan Gong, who assures safety, and Bao Qing Tien, the master of justice.

The walkway entered a portal to the main temple grounds.  A gong sounded my arrival.  A wall of murals, to my right, wrapped around a 360-degree statue of GuanYin, presented as a thousand-armed goddess of mercy.

The broad courtyard bustled with activity.  Whirring fans in the good-luck colors of red and gold were being sold to my left.   In front of small icons in all directions, visitors were offering incense and flowers.

At the heart of the courtyard, two dozen steps climbed to the main worship hall.  An enormous image of the seated Gautama Buddha, covered in gold leaf and flanked by attendants, dominated its center.  Pyramids of fruit — oranges, persimmons, pomelos, all round to symbolize the perpetuation of life — were piled in front.   Towers of tiny Buddha images rose on all sides.

At about 11:30, temple monks knelt on cushions before the main image and began chanting.  Their rhythmic song continued until midnight.  Several dozen temple visitors joined in, stumbling over the words to the sutras but never losing the spirit of the occasion.

Thrangu Monastery

Chinese religion is an interesting blend of beliefs.  Those raised in the Christian tradition often consider it blasphemy to embrace other faiths.  But Chinese are Buddhist — and they are Taoist — and they are Confucianist — and they offer basic ancestor worship.  The pursuit of one path does not preclude the pursuit of another.

On New Year’s Day, February 3, I ventured to another, very different, Buddhist temple. The Thrangu Monastery, built just four years ago in Richmond, was the first traditional Tibetan monastery built in Canada.  Few worshippers were in this magnificent temple when I visited, but I was cowed by the 40-foot Buddha that rose over my head, surrounded by more than 1,000 small Buddha images.

Chinese New Year comes early in 2012: January 23.  I’m already making plans for a mid-winter return.

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