Imagining the “new normal” when MLB opens the gates after the pandemic lockdown

By Tony Mangia

In just a few short months the whole world has been tossed a curveball by the coronavirus. An invisible scourge which has disrupted our lives in everything from work, travel to sports and leisure time. In the United States we are experiencing what seem like cataclysmic changes to our lives and not only adjustments to our lifestyles, but to our freedoms as well.

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We know business closures and confinement are just temporary sacrifices everyone has to make and whether through ingenuity, humor or just plain stoicism, most of us have weathered the hard times with flying colors. 

But exactly how short-term will these precautions be? Will we ever be able to congregate like we did before? Nobody seems to know.

Just like after 9/11, our way of life changed dramatically, but slightly over the long run when you look back. Airport security has become stricter and bothersome, but a necessary task. Thanks to the shoe bomber, even removing our shoes in line has become routine. And, just like airports, stadium security at public sporting events will see some major changes after Covid-19. 

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We’ve been through cultural and personal changes due to recent hardships before and have a history of overcoming adversity through adaption and innovation which someway became the norm.

WW2 brought about rationing, blackouts and other inconvenient precautionary measures, but the nation still played sports and could pack stadiums to watch them. 

The terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center abruptly shut down Major League Baseball, but a week later — amongst new security designs — the league was in full swing. The National Football League followed suit and pushed their games back a week.

We coped and we overcame and professional sports went on.

But what will this pandemic bring once we are allowed to attend sporting events after we get the okay to gather en masse and what new patterns of behavior will we have to endure to enjoy the stadium experience again? 

That’s a lot of “whats” and a big when.

Since Major League Baseball seems about the most logical professional sport which might be reinstated this summer, we’ll start there — and with my hometown Yankees and Mets. 

This is all speculation on a lighter note and a prediction that there will be an opening day with fans this season — albeit with the new precautionary and social distancing guidelines.

Let’s imagine the anticipation of the first pitch as newly set-loose fans file out of crowded subway cars and make their way to Citi Field or Yankee Stadium — both which will have instituted unfamiliar and stricter rules to adhere — after maybe months of isolation. Never mind the logic, but will fans have to line up on little marked boxes six feet apart  … after they stepped off those mobbed trains. I imagine that the event staff will all be wearing face masks — probably in home team colors — and all ticket punching will be electronic so there is no physical contact. Cash might become obsolete in stadium settings. 

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As you pass through the turnstile an event staffer will stick a hand-held thermometer to your forehead — checking each person’s body temperature — before allowing you to pass. A cough will never be looked at the same way as before.  God forbid you clear your throat before spouting off how the Astros cheated the Yankees out of a World Series or the Mets have once again been duped out of real ownership and are whisked off to a tent with a big red cross on its side where you will  be further questioned by people in haz-mat suits inside about your physical history.  

The surreal apocalyptic environment will continue once inside inside the arena or stadium.  There will be more of those six-foot spacing boxes at every concession stand and in the souvenir shops where over-priced Purell and official licensed team face gaiters will be big sellers. No more communal condiment tables to pump your ketchup and mustard anymore. Can’t have more hand contact spots or any mingling areas than you need. And in the men’s room, every other urinal will sealed so there is no close contact or chance of spraying your neighbor. Oh yeah, thefts of toilet paper will become rampant.

Every other seat or more will be closed off, so there will be plenty of elbow room in the stands. The empty seats will be filled with cutouts of Jerry Seinfeld at Citi Field and Chazz Palminteri at Yankee Stadium. Sorry Spike, your face will relegated to Knicks game — whether you are boycotting them or not.  And in The Bleachers, like those metal pigeon repellers, the aluminum planks will be proportionately spiked to keep fans at acceptable distances. It’s not like barbed wire ever kept the Creatures from doing anything they wanted anyhow.

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So now with the fan attendance cut down more than half, the roar of a crowd will become a low murmur — sort of like every Tampa Bay Rays home game at The Trop.

Fan behavior will also be monitored. High-fives after a score or good play will banned. So will fist and chest bumps. Fan celebrations will be restricted to rapid blinking at each other.  There will be staff on hand — with six-foot rulers — to discipline drunk social-distance offenders and fans reviving The Wave, making sure they don’t make contact with anyone in the seats around them. And the time-honored ritual of fans passing down a hot dog or a beer from a vendor over to that poor soul seated in no-man’s land will also be a big no-no.  

Baseball stadiums will be netted around the entire field to prevent fans from throwing an opponent’s home run ball back onto the field. And, sadly for Mets fans, Mr. and Mrs. Met broke up during the quarantine period together. She got tired of listening to him excitedly talk about the possibility of J-Lo becoming a team owner and his joke about Miss A-Rod pole dancing to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” — thus giving the 7th inning stretch a whole new meaning.

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There will still be fun. Mascots will fire rubber gloves — with official licensed MLB team logos — from t-shirt cannons over the nets and there will be Lysol Spray Giveaway Night. Although it’s too bad the Kiss Cam will become the I’ll Just Look Endearingly At You From Six-Feet Away Cam

But god forbid a some wiry teenager does manage to get onto the field. That will entail a complete shutdown of the game because MLB has to protect those players.

When this whole lockdown confinement is over and things get relatively back to normal, many of us will have profoundly changed forever — probably a little more introspective and lot more cautious. The idle time gave us more time to think about family, relationships, finances, politics and health. I see a kinder more grateful fan who won’t let little things bother them as much … except maybe how the cheating Astros robbed the Yankees of a World Series.

And then we can all wait for the first NFL touchdown celebration where players act out pandemic social-distancing sometime in the future.

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Will Fans Blame Owners Or Players If MLB Season Is Cancelled

By Tony Mangia

While Major League Baseball owners and the player’s union present their proposals for the 2020 season to commence after the COVID-19 virus pandemic flattens out, a complicated financial and health concern battle is taking place between the two sides. But to fans looking in, the real question is whether the owners or the players will be held responsible for sealing or breaking a deal which ushers in a new normal season of baseball.

And most fans don’t care if they throw spitballs at each other, the only curve they care about isn’t a pandemic, it’s a pitch.

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Photo illustration by Tony Mangia

It’s been over two months since MLB locked its gates. The normal pent-up anticipation of a new baseball season compounded with the onset of the pandemic lockdown has left home-confined fans with a huge sports void many have never experienced in their lives.

There were some intriguing major league storylines which were on the hot stove before the COVID-19 hit. They included would Gerrit Cole’s presence help get the Yankees over their World Series slump? Could Mike Trout win his fourth MVP — and two in a row — or are the Mets rotation and the Dodgers lineup as good as advertised.

So without a 2020 season, fans will never get to see how many times an Astros player gets hit by a pitch either.  Come to think about it, if the season does resume with no fans in the stands, the villainous Astros might be the only team happy to welcome the stadium void because it means not getting booed incessantly at each away game.

If the season does get a reboot, a host of intriguing developments might include how that newly instituted universal DH rule will affect the National League game strategy or how many times players get ejected for spitting out a sunflower seed. And how about that forehead thermometer in the dugout possibly becoming more important than the radar gun behind home plate?

It’ll also be interesting to see if any high-profile celebrity fans get use of the private viewing suites for a price. My money is on Jay-Z, Jerry Seinfeld or Charlie Sheen.  After all, Sheen did buy a whole seating section of an Angels game just so he could catch a foul ball.

All moot points if the season is cancelled.

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Photo by Tony Mangia

Like most American’s lives, almost every aspect of MLB has been impacted by COVID-19. Besides the complete shutdown of the season, the Hall of Fame has since announced its annual induction weekend will not be held as planned this July. Instead, the Hall of Fame hopes to hold a tandem induction weekend in 2021. The draft, meanwhile, has been shortened to five rounds, with draftees receiving significantly less money over the next two years.

So, with plenty of time to contemplate — or stew — in solitude, who will the fans side with or blame if the 2020 MLB season is cancelled?

It’s logical to think that the typical sports fan can sort of relate to the players — more than owners — because most fans are usually salaried workers too. But those same fans might draw a line at that bromance with the professional athletes whom they often perceive as pampered prima donnas making more in a single game than what the average working stiff earns in a year … playing a game at that!

But their perception of fat cat team owners with stacks of old money isn’t exactly relatable either.

Call it a tie between owners and players.

Last week, the owners and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sent a proposal to MLBPA and the two sides began negotiations to salvage the season and, in a few cases, some franchises.

The league’s proposal includes an early July target date for Opening Day. Other plans include the afore mentioned universal DH, an expanded postseason field, precautionary health measures and a revenue-sharing plan that would lead to players taking future pay reductions. Besides the health concerns, that last suggestion is already a major sticking point with the player’s union.

And this is where the average sports fan will side with the owners.

Several players have already spoken out since MLB’s proposal was approved by the owners and submitted to the MLBPA —  and it includes a couple of big names. But, if it comes down to these highly-paid players refusing to take a pay cut causing the season to be cancelled, this might be the last straw for the fans when they take sides.

Can you say boycott?

Adam Jones, who played 14 seasons in the big leagues and is currently with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, called on the game’s star players to speak out against the proposal. Some have, including the Tampa Bay Rays Cy Young-winning pitcher Blake Snell.

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“Bro, I’m risking my life. … If I’m going to play, I should be getting the money I signed to be getting paid.,” Snell opined. “I should not be getting half of what I’m getting paid because the season’s cut in half, on top of a 33 percent cut of the half that’s already there — so I’m really getting, like, 25 percent. On top of that, it’s getting taxed. So imagine how much I’m actually making to play, you know what I’m saying?

“I’m just saying, it doesn’t make sense for me to lose all of that money and then go play. And then be on lockdown, not around my family, not around the people I love …”

A lot of people trashed Snell for sounding motivated by money and not the game, but one one of the league’s biggest and most recognizable stars backed him.

“He ain’t lying, he’s speaking the truth bro. I ain’t mad at him.” said Phillies outfielder, Bryce Harper, about Snell’s statement. “Somebody’s gotta say it, at least he manned up and said it. Good for him.”

Snell, as well as Harper and other players on that side, might see this as righteous, but many fans view him as greedy, self-serving and ungrateful to have a job. A lot of fans remember the baseball strike of 1981 and see this 2020 showdown as another wealthy owners vs. over-paid players battle which leaves the ticket-buying fans holding the bag.

Think about all of the people out of work these days, struggling to pay their rents and mortgages and actually protesting to get back to their jobs. This might be the majority of the MLB fan base. It’s definitely not the main stream media talking heads and do-nothing politicians who preach to the masses about staying home while all the time they are still collecting a paycheck.

Score another run for the owners.

Granted, that with fans watching games on TV in the safety of their own homes and owners doing it from sanitized suites and mansions, the players are taking all of the real health risks. But how bad could it be for players in empty stadiums, with limited and distanced staff and personnel, special transportation, housing and the best preventive measures and professionals to keep them safe? You come in more contact with people scouring the aisles for toilet paper at Walmart.

Why wouldn’t games played in front of empty stands work? Fan-less baseball games seem to be a home run in South Korea… well, at least a legged out triple.

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The KBO started regular season games in early May and could be a good template for how MLB can handle playing in front of empty stadiums. The world’s third largest professional baseball league has instituted new COVID-19 rules which include: players having their temperatures checked twice a day; everyone not in a baseball uniform, including umpires and athletic trainers, wearing face masks and gloves; if a player shows symptoms, he’ll be immediately quarantined and they’ll close the stadium where he played his most recent game; if he tests positive for the virus, contact tracing will figure out others who need to be quarantined for two weeks.

And while nothing will ever replace the smells and energy of a packed crowd, maybe teams could fill the stadium with piped in crowd noise and music to distract the players from boredom?

Not exactly peanuts and crackerjacks, but it’s hope that someday you will go back.

MLB’s proposed early July starting date would be enough time to see a leveling out of the pandemic curve and allow for at least an 82-game schedule. The owners have also proposed a 50/50 split of revenues with the players and that’s where it gets fiscally complicated.

Without paying customers, concessions, souvenir or parking receipts, most of the income will be from broadcast rights (and there should be abnormally large audiences). MLB owners have already announced that they will lose $640K per game without fans totaling $4 billion in final losses by the end of the season. A lot of specifics of the bottom line have to be plainly laid out regarding this untested and hastily-conceived revenue-sharing system between the union and owners and all of the accounting angles that comes with it. Essentially, the players will still be get a paycheck — with a pro-rated paycut —while the owners take all of the real risks with a shortened and ticketless season. It remains to be seen if the odd coupling of owners and players can share millions in profits without driving each other crazy.

Outside of baseball tradition and continuity, there are many reasons to cheer for the reinstatement of baseball. It’s a return to business as usual — or at least as much a return to normalcy in our lives we could hope for right now.

Win for the owners.

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And if beaning Astros and a Yankees’ World Series revenge weren’t enough, Bartolo Colon has declared that he wants to slip a uniform over his portly, 47-year-old body one last time.

So, if not for any other reason that the owners and players come to an agreement, do it for Big Sexy.

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Is India’s Camel Culture Being Wiped Out By Overregulation?

Article and Photos by Tony Mangia

It’s a cultural tradition dating back over 150 years with roots going back as far back as the 10th century when Muslim warriors made their way through the deserts of India on hump-backed beasts by way of the Middle East. Now the Pushkar Camel Fair is fighting for its life and basically the livelihood of thousands of families and their way of existing.

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Every year, for the last century and a half, thousands of Raika camel dealers and their herds converge on the rural Indian city of Pushkar during an annual fair where they show, trade and sell the plump-lipped mammals with the fat-laden (not water) padding on their backs.

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During the week long fest known as Pushkar Camel Mela, the holy city — located about 150 km southwest of the smoggy, congested streets of Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan — turns into a colorful and chaotic mix of camel traders, Hindu pilgrims and curious tourists.  While the fair has lost some of its majesty and commercial importance in modern India, the festival still attracts thousands of Raika and their herds of dromedaries along with thousands more foreign sightseers and local merchants.

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The scene is almost hallucinatory, as throngs of camels — many adorned with bells, colorful necklaces and decorative straps to make them more attractive to buyers — lounge around chewing their cud and bellowing at the sky.

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It’s hard not to notice the circles of peaceful Raika in their bright turbans talking among the braying camels — many of which are hobbled by ropes binding a front leg bent at the knee joint so they don’t stray. But, these days, instead of making deals, the conversations lean more towards how they they can make ends meet. Sunlight from a dazzling blue sky illuminate the brown, weathered faces of the beleaguered tribesmen, but their futures don’t seem as bright.

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Animal rights groups, technological accessibility and government intervention are all playing a part in the disintegration of the camel trade in India and specifically in Pushkar by driving many of these prideful men out of their generational territories through legislation influenced by politically correct movements.

Advocates of camel welfare reform accuse the Raika of animal culture “abuses” such as making the camels walk long distances, being forced into “stressful” commercial exploitation like tourist rides, the insertion of nose pegs, camel racing and general neglect of their herds.

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While their deep-down motives are well intentioned, one has to wonder if these do-gooders are overstepping their boundaries?

The one-time friendly confines of social media which introduced the fair to computer screens worldwide — as well as more prying eyes — is now sometimes besmirching the event with accusations of animal cruelty and environmental destruction or by luring future generations away from the deserts to the cities with the promise of a more modern life. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Farmers and breeders all over India, China and worldwide have watched their agrarian and herding cultures vanish because of the same cyberspace catalysts.

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The Raika camel husbandry community has always been more like a large family than a merchant’s association, and that includes the revered camels — who can live up to 20 years. And throughout their lifetimes, caretakers must provide medicine, food and training for each animal. It’s a costly and round-the-clock occupation.

India, as a country, has the fifth largest population of camels in the world (estimated at around 300,000) and, although the camels’ numbers are increasing globally, in India, that figure — as well as the the Raika’s plight — are falling drastically. This downward slide in camel population and commerce trickles down from the breeders to the traders all the way to the artisans who utilize the wool, skin, bones and even camel dung to make blankets, leather goods, furniture inlays and paper.

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The state of Rajasthan is where nearly 80-percent of India’s camel population is. Gujarat and Haryana are the only other states where camel breeding is allowed.

Recent laws imposed by the government — driven and publicized by environmentalists and animal rights movements — are changing the Raika way of life by restricting tribesmen from traditional herding grounds and resources. Some of the restrictions includes less access to national parkland and stiffer grazing laws — limiting their migratory patterns and making their journeys to Pushkar and other locales more arduous for the camel herds. 

And there are other obstacles the modern-day Raika must overcome to make ends meet — including revising some ancient traditions and spiritual beliefs.

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Historically, there was a ban on the selling of female camels to buyers outside of the Raika tribe and tradition forbade the slaughter of camels for meat entirely. Even selling the wool and the processing of camel’s milk (drinking it fresh is okay) was believed to bring about a sort of bad karma and frowned upon. The only income for the Raika was really through breeding and selling.

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However dire the Raika’s sinking outlook from the quicksand of their circumstances came some flimsy lifelines — namely, new radical and pragmatic attitudes by the Raika.

Bull (male) camels — which were the only ones sold at the fair until 2000, when cows (females) were finally permitted to be put on the selling block — have now been allowed to be butchered for meat by the Raika tribe, but not in Rajasthan where the slaughter of camels is illegal. 

The Catch-22 dilemma facing the Rajasthan-based Raika is that the Rajasthan Camel Act of 2015 provides penalties for taking any camels out of state for slaughter, castration or the insertion of nose pegs. Like a camel’s binding, the legal decree basically restricts the Raika’s ability to supplement their income by selling camel meat.

All states have banned the butchering of any cows (female camels) outright to help sustain the camel species.

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The Rajasthan Camel Act’s strict maxims now drives some herders to sneak them into Gujarat and Haryana for slaughter — albeit illegally — with the possibility of dealing with interference from animal rights activists who reportedly try and rescue the camels.

It’s seems ironic, and almost blasphemous to the Raika, that the herdsmen have been reduced to killing their sacred camels — an act once considered barbaric in their beliefs — to salvage their culture of camel breeding.

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Camel milk — popular in local towns — could become a profitable alternative to traditional camel resources. In many Middle-Eastern and African nations the sale of camel’s low-fat milk and its byproducts have become health food staples and have become widely desired in the west. There have been unfounded claims that the milk heals everything from autism to malaria, but the Raika claim it won’t cure their economic ills, citing production and distribution costs along with other logistical barriers.

So, with regulations by the Food, Safety and Standards Authority in Rajasthan making the killing of camels for meat illegal — and the difficulty for herders to process and distribute the milk at a profit — the act of transporting a camel out of state for butchering is sometimes a more gainful risk.

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In 2015, the one-humped camel became more than just a symbol of a way of life, it became the official state emblem of Rajasthan. Sadly, to traditionalists around those same times, that prestigious anointment and image of pride was already becoming a relic and a reminder of an outdated existence to future generations. 

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Besides the few brash young men persistently bartering deals with fairground visitors for rides on giant two-wheeled camel carts and, whether it’s due to the harsh work and elements, it’s rare to see a herder who even looks under 50 — especially in their glances. 

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The dark, serious faces of the Raika are not being replaced by the new generation of rural adolescents who are internet-educated enough to presume that the camel business is not a worthwhile or lifelong occupation anymore. And in a country with the world’s fastest growing economy, their options are growing.

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So instead of making money only selling their breeds at the fair, the Raika have resorted to hustling desert camel rides to earn some income on the side. They also lease out the camels as props at weddings, parades and the numerous ceremonies that India is known for. 

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And even if they do sell one of their herd, the price of a camel has dropped off significantly over the past few years. The farmers and businesses who once depended on camels for transportation or plowing the fields have replaced the animals with trucks and tractors. Where there were once nearly a million camels throughout India only 20 years ago, the number has dwindled down to the high estimate of 300,000 today. The price of a camel five years ago was normally 10,000 rupees (about $150 US) or a little more if trained. Now the selling price  hovers around 2,000 rupees — a 500-percent drop. In a country where the average monthly wage is $140 US, you are talking a big investment here.

The carnival atmosphere of the fair cannot hide the despair and desperation of the Raika, but under the scenic panoramic views from either the gondolas heading up to Savitri Mata Temple or the seats of the giant ferris-wheel near the town, it’s hard not to observe the herds of horses also among the mix.

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The Marwari, a breed of horse known for its unique inward-turning ears and endurance fill stables all around the fairgrounds. Known in Indian lore as a war horse, the Marwari is locally famous for its service with the Marwar lancers during WWI. Due to careless breeding practices over the years, the Marwari horse almost vanished until making a comeback in the 1990s. Today the breed is valued all over the world.  

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The horse market — which runs the same time as the camel fair — seems to be more prosperous than the camel trade. And although the camels’ equine friends seem better tended to, their numbers at the fair are also down. A point not lost on government officials from the state husbandry department who showed up to meet with the camel breeders while I was there.

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Both sides agreed to push for an amendment to the 2015 Rajasthan Camel Act which banned the export of camels from Rajasthan to other states for slaughter and trading. Besides suggesting amendments to the 2015 act, which the Raika have blamed for hastening the eradication their livelihood, there was discussion about resuming animal insurance which had been stopped earlier this year. There was also analysis reports regarding the development and marketing of additional camel milk projects.

I met an American woman on the fairgrounds who was trying to organize a rally of tourists to attend the meeting as a show of support for the breeders. The intent was to show officials that the Pushkar Camel Fair was a popular destination for overseas tourists and brought income to the town and Raika as well.

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The woman told me that she had been coming to fair on and off for 10 years and couldn’t believe the de-evolution of the event she believes were mostly caused by government actions and lack of support. A busy road through the middle of the fairgrounds and a couple of heliports have reduced the once soft sand dunes — a camel’s compatible topography — to cement-like terrain.

“I remember when all of this was surrounded by dunes for the camels to laze about on,” she said while casting her arm around the wide expanse of flat, hard dirt that hurts a camel’s sensitive padded feet. “And there were five times as many of them.”

The nomadic Raika herders and breeders will still make they way through the Thar Desert to Pushkar next year, but it remains to be seen whether or not their culture can withstand the imperfect storm of a changing job market, political correctness and the regulatory obstacles they face much longer. 

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It’s become an ethical debate between sides either protecting a species of worker animal from what many consider animal rights violations or preserving a centuries old human tradition.

Simply put, is it an animal culture or just an animal industry?

Sadly, I saw little hope in most of the Raika’s straightaway gazes. Their antiquated way of life is slowly disappearing and a once vibrant culture may vanish right before our eyes too.

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Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountain is a day-long trek with twice the reward

Article and Photos by Tony Mangia

Sri Lanka just might still be one of the most colorful and interesting places in the world for travelers looking to get away from it all. From the ancient temples at Polonnawura through the tea plantations of the Hill Country and the aqua blue water surfing in Arugam Bay, the country offers visitors a wide array of activities and sights— all at a spectacularly cheap price.

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Traversing the water drop-shaped Sri Lanka is a little trickier than most places and even the most experienced adventurers might tire traveling the narrow, bumpy and traffic-clogged roadways via bus or rail. But if you came to hike, the rugged paths of the Lakegala Mountain trek — more commonly known as Knuckles Mountain — are well worth at least a day’s visit and just might be the short-term cure for any nature starved hiker.

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Situated about 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of the dusty, tuk-tuk congested streets of Kandy, Knuckles Mountain is as breathtaking a sight for eyes as one could find in the green and biodiverse Central Highlands of this scenic country. The Ceylon British came up with the name which is derived from the rounded, knuckled ridge resembling a giant clenched fist punching its way out of the earth.

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Popular hiking trails include the mini world’s end from Deanston, a trail to Dothalugala from Deanston, a trail to Nitro Caves from Corbett’s Gap, a trail to Augallena cave via Thangappuwa from Corbett’s Gap and the trail to Kalupahana from “Meemure” village.

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I was in Sri Lanka to do some volunteer work and a little scuba diving but, after hiking the Inca Trail last spring, it has become part of my travel routine to hike at least one or two trails where and whenever I can.  And while the one-day Knuckles Mountain trek is not as daunting as the seemingly endless stairs I hiked in Peru, there are some multi day and night treks you can do at Knuckles as well. And the one-day hike is a challenge with one word that put more fear into my heart than any five-day trek anywhere — namely leeches. Yup. Leeches. And not the kind who bogart your water and trail mix on a hike.

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It seems the first thing anyone says when you mention Knuckles Mountain are the blood-sucking, worm-like parasites who attach themselves to your ankles and make their way up your leg before securing themselves to your body for a snack. And in the damp, leafy trails of Knuckles, they are reportedly as abundant as the foliage itself. I hoped the Buddhist blessing I received the day before would protect me from the disgusting little creatures if the application of soapy water on my legs didn’t work.

After some relief hearing that I might only get about half a dozen wormy hitchhikers and that their medicinal benefits surely outweigh the gross factor, I came to grips that I would be latched onto and it was part of the Knuckles Mountain initiation. So off my hiking buddy Jamie and I went.

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Most locals recommend entering the trail on he Thangappuwa side of the range about five miles from the mountain peak and to get a guide. The Knuckles Mountain trek could be described as an intermediate trek filled with plenty of clearly marked, flat rock trails but also has detours going through and up huge boulders, rugged stone stairs and up and down slippery bamboo and jungle-lined tunnels. The steep mountain terrain reaches 1863 meters at the summit of the main Knuckles peak itself (the sixth highest in Sri Lanka) and included stand of rare dwarf cloud forest. Guides are essential and it would be foolish and quite easy to get thrown off course and miss specific wildlife, plants and breathtaking points of interest if you tried it alone. You can hire one by contacting the Forestry Department in advance.

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Our guide was a slight, flip-flop wearing local named Rajah. Though he spoke little English, there was little difficulty communicating with Rajah. And all of Rajah’s knowledge and experience — from his baseball cap down to his leathery feet — came at the cost of a measly 2,000 rupees ($14US) less a tip.

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After a two-and-a-half hour ride through small villages, spice farms and tea plantations via transit car from Kandy, Jamie, Rajah and I ended near a schoolhouse near Thangappuwa at about 9 a.m. There was some confusion about securing a climbing permit for the hike (the permit office was closed!) but luckily Rajah made a phone call and said he would pay the 1000 rupees entry fee ($7US) tomorrow. Fine with me as long as we hiked.

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We set out on the trail almost immediately after settling the entry fee conundrum under the dry, blazing blue skies. There had been no rain for the past three days and Rajah reassured me that the chance of leeches was now almost zero. They were wet weather pests he said. That was a relief but I still checked my legs and arms every minute or so just to check even while we were still in wide open terrain!

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The weather in the Knuckles mountain range is unpredictable and could change within few minutes depending on the season. Thick mists could cover a mountain in a matter of minutes and rain could fall at almost any time. So bring a poncho.

Continue reading

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Article and Photos by Tony Mangia

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Centuries ago the Incans built a network of advanced trails connecting their realm through a vast number of pathways stretching from sections of South America as vast and varied as the continent itself. Through the mountainous terrain of Peru, from Ecuador to Chile and east to Argentina, this nearly 25,000 mile web of stone stairs and walkways was centered around and directed towards the capital city of the great empire— Cusco, Peru.

The most scenic and requested mountain path for today’s hikers is the section which leads into the magical archeological site at Machu Picchu or “The Lost City of the Incas.” This beautiful 43km (26.71 miles) section of mountain trail to Machu Picchu connects the important Incan archaeological sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna (Huinay Huayna). This four-day trek to Machu Picchu is a hiker’s delight and has become known worldwide as “The Inca Trail.”

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This medium level hike is by far the most famous trek in South America and is rated by many to be in the top 5 in the world and manages to combine beautiful mountain landscapes, awe-inspiring cloud-forest, and subtropical vegetation and, of course, a stunning mix of Inca paving stones ruins and tunnels. But the mystery and majesty of Machu Picchu, the final destination of the trail, is the real topper.

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Another hike is known as “The Lares Trek” which is only a three-day excursion, but does traverse some higher peaks than the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail — often called “Km82” because it starts 82 kilometers from a railway station between Cusco and Machu Picchu — can be hiked year round although April till October are probably the best months since the weather is drier. June, July and August are in the high season when the Inca trail can become fully booked so be sure to make the Inca trail reservations at least four to six months in advance. The Inca Trail is closed each year during the month of February to allow conservation work to take place. The months of January through March are in the wet season so hiking the trail can be a little more miserable and slipperier.

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Any group on this trek will arrive late morning at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu on the fourth day — just before the limited amount of bused in crowds arrive at the popular tourist spot. The trek itself is rated moderate and any reasonably fit person should be able to handle the climbs and descents. It is fairly challenging nevertheless, as it has the serious altitude changes (altitudes of 4200m (13779.53 ft) are reached), and the climate changes along the length of the trail. Most important, if arriving from sea level, is planning to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco prior to commencing the trek to acclimatizing yourself with the higher altitude. And spending time in Lima won’t help because that city is about as high as Denver. I saw one women being rushed down a mountain path carried like a backpack after she reportedly had a heart attack and one of the men in a three-day trek passed out from altitude sickness but who was game enough to spend much of his first day flung like a sack of potatoes over the back of donkey and carted up the mountain path. So, although the distance of The Incan Trail is not that great and even non-hikers can complete it, don’t underestimate acclimatizing yourself with the altitude even if you consider yourself an experienced hiker or exceptionally fit.

Compare it to doing a marathon — only up and down staircases with about half the oxygen.

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Acclimatizing to the altitude in Cusco

My two days and nights in Cusco getting acclimated to the altitude were spent mostly walking around the crowded city taking pictures of the colorful locals and locale. The late-April weather was warm (80F) and the sun was bright. It’s good to avoid drinking alcohol (it’s easier to get looped in high altitudes) and decided to put off eating that Peruvian delicacy cuy — otherwise known as guinea pig until after the trek. Yup, those cute little pets of every first grade classroom. Ended up they were delicious with yuca and tomatoes but bony — like eating a giant chicken wing. Anyway, trekkers don’t want to take any chances with your stomach (nothing worse than food poisoning or diarrhea on a four-day mountain hike) so it is best to taste one of the little guys or any “street food” as a celebratory dinner when you get back.

Groups were introduced to each other after we unpacked at the Prisma Hotel in Cusco. A comfortable little place where we could take our last hot shower before the four-day trek. There was the Lares Trek group and mine — the more desirable Inca Trail group. Ours included three women and a man from Chicago, a pair of young couples from Germany and Great Britain, two women from Britain, an older couple from Australia, a teenaged woman from Norway and me. Our lead guide was Elias who was accompanied by his group helpers (no kidding) Edison, Eddie and Eddie 2.

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The day before the trek began we got accustomed to the altitude — and climbing. We visited the Sacred Valley outside Cusco — a small village where local artisans weaved and dyed wool for clothing and blankets before heading off to see the Pisa Ruins which were teeming with tourists and more stairs than I’ve ever seen before. And if I thought making it to the top of these stairs (about 20 minutes of climbing) was tough, it was only a sampler of the miles of stairs I was about to see on the Inca Trail.

That afternoon we visited more ruins at Ollantaytambo — where we would be staying overnight —and were treated to a lively and colorful street festival in the town square where everyone wore costumes and masks while a statue was paraded through the narrow town streets. An amazing swirl of people, color and music permeated the whole scene and left an image of Peruvian life that will be hard to forget.

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Iquitos, Peru

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Photos and Article by Tony Mangia

The humidity outside the airport in Iquitos already slapped me like I was a newborn but the buzz of activity that hit me next was more of a one-two combination.

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After flying in from the drier, laid back vibe of Lima and into “The Capital of the Amazon,” as Iquitos, Peru is commonly known, my senses were overwhelmed by a steamy confluence of color and noise. And just as long as the Coronal FAP Francisco Secada Vignetta International Airport name is the congested, potholed road leading from the airstrip clogged with busses and moto-carros (often called tuk-tuks) those motorized rickshaws that wildly race around this jungle city and would later turn every street crossing here into a wild game of Frogger.

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Situated where the Amazon and one of its tributaries the Itaya River meet 2,300 miles upstream from the Atlantic, isolated Iquitos is a ragged shell of the city from when it was the center of the rubber trade and exported the valuable resource to America and Europe starting in the late 19th century and ramped up the export when the automobile was beginning to be mass-produced. Nowadays, with a population of over 400,000, Iquitos appears as beaten as the backs of the native Indians who slave labored their way through decades of abuse at the hands of their foreign merchants who nearly decimated the Yagua, Witonos, Matses, Boras and Huitoto tribes during that dark period.

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The lavish, Spanish-style mansions of the wealthy rubber barons are still there. But time and neglect have reduced most to abandoned rubble. Others have been reinvented as hotels with only remnants of the gilded, mosaic tile walls and ornate palace doorways remaining. Most of the the churches where Jesuit missionaries left their stamp still chime and a stroll along the banks of the Itaya on a wide walkway that divides the beauty of what is the natural Amazon with the grim reminder of what The Rubber Boom wrought — including the savage treatment of those indigenous tribes who, in a sense, are still enslaved 100 years after local labor laws were enacted.

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Through it all Iquitos has maintained its importance as a major port on the Amazon. Under the singular, dark blue gaze of an abandoned, ten-story former hotel, the city is surrounded by river water on one side and green amazon rainforest on the other three. The only way to get here is either by air or, as most native visitors do, a long, crowded ferry trip.

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As I settled into my room at the no-frills Shamana Hotel I was just thankful for the working air conditioner. I scheduled my trip through Peru purposely in May at the tail end of the rainy season (and before the student tourists arrive) and was lucky enough to enjoy mostly dry weather throughout the month. But this was the Amazon basin and now had to contend with sporadic showers and the ever-present humidity which soaked me over six days here. From the comfort of my chilled hotel room I looked out my second floor window with its panoramic view of the swampy Itaya and all of the river life that surrounds it.  Women scrubbing their clothes outside their wooden shanteys, children splashing through the garbage of the murky swill and unintentionally catching glimpses of men using the Itaya like a public bath house. And I do mean public!

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The Itaya is an ever-changing being on its own — the terrain is unrecognizable from one season to the next. During the dry season (June-August) the banks of the Itaya recede so much men actually set out goal posts and play soccer right where the large passenger ferries now chart their courses. At the peak of the rainy season water levels may increase by nearly 20 feet flooding the garbage-strewn cliffs people walk on now, at the end of May, when the river is full but not swollen.

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The action in Iquitos seems to kick off mornings around 4 a.m. at the main dock on the Itaya and doesn’t let up until nightfall. A loudspeaker blasts a mix of raspy dance music and garbled announcements to the hordes gathered on the water banks below. Unluckily for me, I was sleeping in a hotel within ear shot. Luckily for me, I could photograph the madhouse of activity from my hotel window just as things started out in the morning sun. And what I saw was a constant flow of motorized banana boats (called peka-pekas after the engine’s putting noise) piled high with the green and yellow fruit jostling with the larger ferries and fishing skiffs filled with baskets of giant catfish, piranha and other scaly delectables as they putted into the docks (mainly planks stretched across floating logs). Shirtless men covered their backs with sheets of cardboard and hauled the goods up a long, slippery staircase to the market on the muddy street above while women barked out prices to buyers. Larger ferries bring in everything from motor parts, lumber and tools along with families who endured the weeklong journey down the Amazon sleeping on hammocks slung up in a open area.  Those who can afford it can tuck away in a few cabins outfitted with simple bunks.

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Like lines of leafcutter ants in a jungle of boats, unending streams of men and women navigated the planks on the river and steps leading up to the street carrying anything from their body weight in bags of cement or so many bananas they topple over their heads and cover their straining faces. In one line I even spotted one loader shoulder a whole motor scooter up the hundred or so stairs like it was nothing.

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Just a short walk or boat ride from this mayhem and the main square of town lies a favella called Belén — one of Iquitos’ four districts where the rows  of rickety wooden houses line up on the banks of the river. Whether topped by tin or grass, the homes are either propped up by stilts or floating on logs — rising and lowering at the whim of the rainy and dry seasons.

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Many of the goods brought into port are headed to an area of Belén called the Merkato del Brujo, loosely translated as Market of Witchcraft or Shaman’s Alley, the highlands section where you can usually find anything the Amazon region has to offer on its puddled streets.

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It’s the kind of market you find in most third world cities — an atmosphere that enchants tourists with the merchants’ strange array of foods, crafts and wares. And it doesn’t get any stranger than this place. Every sense is overwhelmed by blocks of street vendors peddling everything from weird species of fish, fruits you won’t find north of Columbia, exotic potions, coca leaves and tempting (but not for consuming) street food. And although I didn’t know if they were for eating or companionship, there were tiny monkeys and giant iguanas you could buy for less than a bag of socks in the U.S.. All under the watchful eyes of mangy street dogs and black vultures gazing down through the colorful tents.

Authentic for sure, but not as real as the possibility of getting robbed. So I was told.

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Almost all of the tourist sites I Googled before my trip stressed how safe Iquitas was —  red flag updespite its reputation throughout Peru as being a hellhole. Visitors are warned to avoid Belén not so much for violence as the pickpockets and thieves. Still, during such petty robbery one can never predict how far an incident could escalate.

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So as a precaution I hired a guide named Christian to take me through the market on a private tour for a few hours one damp morning — although even he seemed reluctant to go into Belén as a hired hand. He warned me that my expensive Nikon would equal a few months wages to any quick-handed strap grabber and briefed me about a British woman who recently had her purse snatched while she was pole dancing on a boat (I didn’t even ask) and lost everything. Christian told me not to flaunt my camera or, basically, anything shiny. At his suggestion, he brought along another guide to trail me through the market so I wouldn’t get jumped from behind. Sort of feeling like Michael Corleone in that scene when he strolls through Sicily or even a president with my own Secret Service — only without the agents procuring prostitutes which, sadly, are common in these slums —  I managed to make it through the crowded streets with more stares than jostles. The only things taken were the bright colored images I got with my camera.

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The real novelty of Belén is the watery roadways. Like a less romantic version of Venice — way less actually — locals go about their business fishing or heading to market cruising the murky canals in their crude, mud-caked dugout canoes. You won’t hear O Sole Mio being serenaded here. And even a cheerful tour guide can’t sugarcoat the poverty, despair and abject conditions which permeate the area.

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And as you coast by a quiet sawmill awaiting the next barge of timber to arrive, you can’t help but notice the crude but colorful structures of the lowlands people call home. Whether rising or lowering on logs or held steady by crooked stilts, the buildings have one thing in common — they all answer to the river’s temperamental water levels.

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These hovels are as bare-boned as you can get and many don’t even have four walls. Using sheets of plastic to serve as rain shields and help keep bugs out at night, some structures are just patchworks of old fences and billboard signs. During the day when the flimsy barriers are lifted, it easy to literally peer into the lives of its denizens and imagine the hardscrabble existence these people endure. It’s all right there. Their best chance for privacy might be behind the ragged curtains that hang from primitive outhouses bouncing on tiny rafts outside the homes.

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Floating in a ubiquitous canoe and hiding behind the lens of a camera doesn’t make you feel less ambivalent about gawking into these people’s lives and making some sort of comparison to your own. That whole ‘Well it’s a simpler way of life’ seemed just an excuse for those of us who have been dealt better hands. Like most children anywhere, the innocent ones here saw me as a curiosity while they frolicked among the filthy river banks but, at least in the adults’ unblinking eyes, it was easy to see that I was just another intruder. And just as hard as it was to blend in, it was even more difficult to be unaffected by their plight.

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Nighttime in Iquitos becomes mostly a matter of safety and common sense for the curious tourist. And, like travel anywhere, being aware of your surroundings is a no-brainer — although maybe a little more so here. Even if you tour in a group just leave flashy valuables at the hotel. Employees at my hotel recommended I even leave my passport at the front desk. Most Iquitos shops are closed at sundown and the nightlife is almost non-existent but I took a short walk to an ex-pat hangout called The Yellow Rose of Texas near the center square. It’s a divey restaurant/bar where the waitresses wear University of Texas t-shirts, the bar stools are real western saddles and you can get American-style food your system won’t regret a few hours later. And while I’ll admit I’m no beer connoisseur and couldn’t distinguish an artisanal brew from Old Milwaukee, that frosted glass of Cristal was heaven to my parched throat.

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Or, if you prefer, there was Ari’s, a Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian fusion cuisine) that seemed to be clean with a friendly staff. Try the juane — a flavorful combination of rice, chicken, egg and olive wrapped in a bijao leaf that is traditionally eaten for the feast of St. John the Baptist. For the more adventurous, there is ceviche — but I wouldn’t recommend it — at least not here in Iquitos.

After almost a week here, I’m just guessing that Iquitos may the most authentic Amazon city you will find in Peru — maybe in South America for all I know.

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Wanderers can enjoy day-long excursions up the Amazon to a village where you can meet and barter with the local Yaqua tribe and there are nighttime jungle tours. For the off-beat, there are the shaman retreats where you can embrace Nirvana with the hallucinogen ayahuasca. And for animals lovers, there is a rescue reserve where you can see large anacondas, blue-beaked toucans and even play with some monkeys. What you won’t see in Iquitos are McNuggets, super stores or city life as you knew it before. So if you want to experience the real Amazon, Iquitos is a good place to start.

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Blizzard ’16

New York City -January 24, 2016  

Photos by Tony Mangia

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Seeing China’s Mystical Li River By Boat

Article and photos by Tony Mangia

China can be a frustrating and exhausting place for even the most laid-back traveller. With all of the pushing and shoving, the smog, crowding and communication barriers, it’s easy to have your enthusiasm smothered as you tour this great country. So it’s no wonder if a short boat cruise away from it all might just be the antidote for your frayed nerves?

Well… yes and no.

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I set off for a few days in Yangshuo from Guilin via a Lijiang River tour boat after three weeks of bouncing around overcrowded Beijing and Xi’an.  After touching down in Guilin — luggage lost by China Air — with no planned itinirery, I began my quest for sanctuary. And, like just about anywhere else in China, nothing seems to be easy as it sounds.

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The Li River, as it is more commonly known, is a winding band of mostly clear water in southeast China that flows  about 430 kilometers down from Cat Mountain in Xing’an County north of Guilin into the West River. I would be traveling between Guilin and Yangshuo, an 83 kilometer liquid ribbon which traverses through thousands of mystical and scenic mountains rising like giant bumps in the land. The banks of the Li feature spectacular landscapes and dozens of small towns and villages which still have an old-style architecture.

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The reflections of the magical mountains ripple in the greenish water as numerous waterfalls spill from the cliffs replenishing the river in the rainy season.

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And in the month of May, when I started my little excursion, it is the beginning of the monsoon season — or as it more poetically known — ‘plum-rain weather.’

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While waiting in the airport terminal for my missing luggage, I found a tourist kiosk manned by the first English-speaking person I’ve encountered in what seemed like days. The young woman in the booth gladly helped me find an inexpensive hotel in Guilin and bus directly to its lobby.  The 200 yuan-a-night ($30US) room with queen -sized beds was clean, had a TV and, yay, a regular sitting toilet. Bad knees made every one of those in-floor toilets where you have to squat a disaster waiting to happen and, so far on the trip, no crash landings.

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She also helped me book my 400 yuan ($60 US) boat cruise to Yangshuo. Which was good because I found out that some of the outside travel agencies charged up to 200 yuan more and booked you for boat rides that only travelled on the Li River through Guilin. The price of the tour I booked included transportation from the hotel to the boarding dock and a meal during the 4-1/2  hour cruise. Getting back was left up to you but there are regular busses leaving Yangshuo to Guilin which cost a measly 20 yuan.

The missing luggage put my travels on delay, so I spent the extra day exploring Guilin in the same sweat-soaked clothes I had been wearing for two days. As a consideration, Air China gave me 200 yuan ($30US), after an epic ugly-American rant, to purchase toiletries and clothes until my luggage arrived.

And those reparations went straight to finding what little solitude I could muster.

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The Guilin Nanxishan Scenic Area is a park featuring two giant camel humps of earth which rise up in the middle of the city. You’ll get a good workout climbing the stone stairs up the mountains for a view of the city and a large cave to explore.

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The temples and cherry blossom gardens were quiet and blissful all morning until the Chinese tour groups started arriving at lunchtime. But until then, compared the mobs scenes at Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City in Beijing, the park was relatively serene.

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Then there was the Guilin Zoo. A nondescript park with surprisingly few visitors inside. None, in fact, from what I saw. Surprisingly, I was the only person watching the pandas munching on bamboo shoots and leaves at feeding time. And for about an hour I quietly watched as the carefree bears sat like Buddha, rolled on their backs and stuffed their black-and-white faces. Not another soul in sight.

One of the little things that make a trip memorable.

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The next morning I started the day of the cruise with a hot bean curd drink and square of mango cake from what looked like a popular — and clean — food stand in the street. A light rain fell as I later waited for the tour bus in the lobby of the hotel.

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After a couple of more hotel pick-ups, the bus ride to the boarding dock at MoPan Hill wharf was only a short jaunt from Guilin. The bus was a mix of small European and American groups and more than a couple large continents of Chinese families. Our tour guide named Valerie gave a us a quick history of the Li River and its featured landmarks along with a reminder about the small raft river rides in Yangshuo — first in English and then Chinese.  Before you knew it, the 45-minute ride was over.

At MoPan Hill wharf there were about a dozen of the 60-foot cruise boats hundreds of us would be boarding. And by China standards, it was a relatively orderly procession onto our chimney-puffing craft — only a little pushing and shoving at the front of the pack.

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The boats had two floors with an observation deck on top. A open-air galley took up the rear of the craft and I hoped the two bathrooms would not be a problem for the hundreds aboard. (It wasn’t) The boat was packed. There were plenty of windows along the sides but with the family-style seating, it was difficult to get next to one. I planned to stand up on the top deck all day, so I wasn’t concerned.

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That was until the rain started coming down. And did it ever.

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We shoved off amid a heavy rain and besides my dampened photo expectations, the humidity wreaked havoc on my camera. The lens immediately fogged up from the inside as we shoved off. Luckily for me, the diffusion effect made for some very atmospheric photos of the mountains.

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As the fleet of cruise ships chugged away from the wharf and down the now muddy Li, our convoy was joined by a number of fisherman on traditional bamboo rafts. And if there were any questions about how fresh the seafood at lunch would be, that query was quickly answered. The rafts pulled up alongside — their nets filled with the morning catch.

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As the larger boats steamed down the river, the fishermen hitched their rafts to the tour boats and handed over the carp and catfish to the chefs right next to the ship’s hot engines which were already warming pots of food on top of the cylinder heads.

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We slowly chugged by the numerous green mountains and passed landmarks with names like CaoPing Scenery and Beauty of Crown Cave. It was really funny when we passed The Painted Hill of Nine Horses and, despite the torrential rain,  almost everyone crammed the top deck in order to see it. Legend has it if you can spot the images of all nine horses in the cliffside, you’ll come into some grand luck. Rain be damned, good luck was at stake.

Lunchtime was a madhouse of babies crying, table hopping and a aromatic stew of strange food mixed with engine exhaust wafting through the air.

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The Chinese families who basically commandeered most of the tables had what looked like a more exotic meal served to them while the rest of us had to line up for a regular buffet downstairs. It was pretty standard local fare which included steamed bread, snails, choi, rice, some tiny sweet potatoes and cookies. Not gourmet, but nourishing enough.

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After the meal was served, the craft wound down the river through some hairpin curves — passing mountains with enchanting names like Green Lotus Peak and Page-Boy Hill. From the top deck perch I held fast, I was able to take photos through the raindrops.

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Along the shores Chinese men and women in their coolie hats tended to their simple daily business like they probably have for centuries.

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They washed clothes in the rain, planted rice and fished. Maybe the the bamboo rafts are now powered with small motors and they hear about the outside world from their children who have fled to the cities looking for work and an advanced education but, from where I stood, it seems little has changed — and they could care less.

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We finally docked in Yangshuo, a busy tourist town filled with narrow streets overflowing with shops, hotels, restaurants and home of the famous cormorant lantern fisherman of the Li, at about 2 p.m.

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I was soaked by rain and awash in a visual imagery that will be hard to forget.

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China’s Scooter Culture is Revolutionary

Article and photos by Tony Mangia

The first thing visitors probably notice on the city streets of China is the vast number of mopeds and scooters flying down the streets. Not surprising since almost an estimated 200 million of them are buzzing through the traffic-clogged roadways everyday.

With the prices of cars too high and the hoards of bicycle riders declining rapidly, there is now an explosion of electric bikes and scooters spreading around China — with another 150 million more of them expected to be rolling by 2018. Even those who can afford automobiles are trading the four-wheelers in for the e-bikes to make zipping around traffic less of a chore.

So when tourists aren’t dodging the Frogger-like obstacle course on the congested streets and sidewalks, they might actually take the time to do a little scooter-watching.

And the two-wheeled trend is cool  — without trying too hard to be.

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Whether on the 10-lane wide stretches of Beijing or dirt paths outside Yangshuo, the electric scooter culture — which really kicked off right before the 2008 Olympics — of China is widespread and growing. The 500 watt motors usually top out at around 40km/h — about the same pep as a 50cc gas engine — but without the noise or harmful emissions.

The similar factory designs give the e-bikes a sameness that screams for some personal flair. So the scooters are often tricked out with special decals, an upgraded paint job or even a little gold glitter to give the owner a special identity. Call it the Mods meeting Mao. But in the end, mostly, the two-wheelers have one main function — to get the riders around.

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Even the wet weather isn’t a factor as hordes of riders find an array of ingenious ways to stay dry and scoot along. Apparently there’s no storm a colorful poncho, plastic shield or well placed umbrella can’t handle.

And sometimes a little hint of innovative fashion sticks out from underneath all the scooter monotony.

Young women who color-coordinate their outfits with their bikes ride alongside weary workmen hauling everything from pigs heads to air conditioners and everything in between. While customized surgeon masks (for the smog) outnumber helmets (there are no headgear laws) — sunglasses, face shields and fancy hats are all part of the e-bike style.

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Moms stand their kids on the floorboards for their morning lift to school. Girls in miniskirts ride sidesaddle, head slumped over their boyfriends’ shoulders and it’s not uncommon to see a family of five lined up on a single seat of a scooter flying down the bike lane.

That’s not to say the scooter explosion in China is not without its critics. Many claim the swarms of scooters and mopeds crowd the streets, disrupt traffic and cut off cars and traditional bicyclists. They say the 30km/h speed limit does little to prevent the two-wheeled menaces from causing additional accidents and nudging pedestrians from the crosswalks and sidewalks into the paths of incoming traffic.

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Beijing actually banned the e-bikes in 2002, only to change their minds in 2006. The Chinese government threatened new regulations in 2009 to curb the influx of e-bikes on the streets — rules that would have made them the legal equivalent of a motorcycle, only to reverse their decision in 2010.

There are also environmental concerns surrounding the electric bike phenomenon. While the e-bike doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it takes electric charges from power plants that do. And the recycling and disposal of the millions of used batteries is leaving a giant ecological footprint. The lead-acid battery production has been increasing by double-digit percentages and, in part to meet demand for e-bikes, China is manufacturing nearly 50 million of them each year. And that is one big foot.

All of those eco repercussions mean mostly nothing to the Chinese consumer since it takes only about 1 yuan (15 U.S. cents) to charge an electric bike’s battery for the whole day. And when one-way city bus fare costs more, it looks like the e-bike has the common man’s vote.

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So if you make it to China and the thought of actually straddling an e-bike (you’ll need a license) and jostling handlebars with the locals isn’t your cup of tea, grab a Snow beer and sit back. Watching the scooters and their riders is a fun way of getting to see a way of life in China.

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Here are the All-Star Game’s ‘Apples on Parade’ (Photo Gallery)

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Photos and story by Tony Mangia   The world knows New York City as the Big Apple and — in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the first placement of All-Star statues around the host cities — MLB has scattered … Continue reading

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