January 17, 2013
Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea usually kick in an hour after the victim gets on the bus, I told my brother Andrew. He was eagerly attacking his first cooked meal in a week—a fillet of fish and fried potatoes from a small seaside restaurant in Tortugas. “It does’t matter when you get on the bus,” I elaborated. ”It’s an hour after you get on the bus.”
But he never got sick. In spite of numerous warnings from experienced travelers and stodgy medical doctors that street food, cooked food or any items that have been exposed to tap water, dirt or insects should not be eaten in Peru, we have both retained stalwart health since we began expanding our diet after a week of eating mostly fresh fruit. We started with chicha—Andean corn beer, which comes in several colors—and enjoyed its tart, fizzy bite in the town square of Huarmey. In the northern town of Tumbes we bought a hunk of local cow cheese. It was hard and aged, and it frankly left us hankering for a piece of cheese fresher and creamier, yet the fat and protein were a welcomed change. We look forward to buying more. We eyed the street vendors selling hard-boiled quail eggs for days, and now we have incorporated them into our diet. We have begun eating, as well, fresh corn—lumpy, stocky cobs sold for a few cents by street vendors working gas-powered grills. Andrew, thinking big again in the town of Puerto Pizarro, bought a whole rotisserie chicken with a three-pound bag of cooked rice and monestra (stewed beans) for 20 soles—about $8—and devoured most of the bird in less than 30 minutes. We haven’t gotten to Peru’s famous ceviche yet, though we will.
And while so much savory, hot food, heavy in oils and protein, has been a happy change for us, I have to admit I’d still rather hold out for fresh and exotic fruits. I told this to a French woman we recently met on a beach near Tumbes. She flatly said I was not experiencing Peru. “Like heck I’m not! I’m riding a bike through Peru and eating locally grown specialties,” I said. “How Peruvian is that? I was in France last year cycling. I never ate foie gras or escargots but I shopped at markets and made my own meals and got a great taste of the country.” I just don’t believe that one must have a restaurant staff tiptoe around you every day at feeding time to truly experience place and culture.
Rather, I find the outdoor markets of Peru to be endlessly entertaining galas of color, smells and flavors. Foreigners can expect to find new and unusual items at almost each visit—some variety of passion fruit, avocados the size of footballs, sapotes, mameys, guaba fruits like giant bean pods or sugar cane juice. Notably, Andrew has overdosed on cherimoyas and now grows nauseous every time I start talking about them. He even observed quite astutely during his final cherimoya meal—won’t touch them now—that the fruits smell sweetly like our chain grease. Yum.
But if cherimoyas turn a man’s stomach, the markets themselves are still a joy to browse. Aside from the food we take away, I also enjoy interacting with the vendors—asking names of fruits, exaggerating my surprise at the size of an avocado, asking for prices and holding out for the next stall, where the lucumas just might be ripe (most are sold three days before ripeness). Perhaps especially, I relish the power of leaving no long-awaited meal to chance—because a burning appetite for calories is nothing to waste at the end of each day. I ride my bicycle with potent visions of tropical fruit heaps luring me forward, and though a few hard-boiled eggs might tide me over until the marketplace, I will let no street vendor on the edge of town spoil my glorious meal of victory. The roving ceviche carts and meat grills are colorful pieces of street scenery, and we are enjoying some hot, savory food each day—as several readers advised we do—but eating a creamy cherimoya, a sweet and starchy lucuma or a pineapple with flesh as white and sweet as sugar could be the truest taste of Peru.
I’m usually forgiving of harsh wine while traveling. After all, just about anything from a bottle that gives a bite is appreciated late at night in a tent. But we are losing our patience with Peruvian wine. We had a bottle our first night at the Sol de Santa Rosa campground, on the bumpy road to Canta. It was a Miranda Cahuayo Semi Dry. I set aside my cherimoya to pop the cork—and the smell attacked me instantly. We had already been warned that Peruvian wine was bad, but we had disregarded the advice as the nonsense of a wine snob. But the wine was truly intolerable, smelling and tasting like rancid grease and spoiled raspberries slurried into a bucket of muddy charcoal dust. We tried again the next night with a Peruvian red whose name I neglected to record. Another disappointment—a wine so sweet and pungent that we couldn’t drink it. We vowed then to buy only wines from Chile, Argentina or other reputable producers. But the next night we got duped by a bottle with “Santiago” printed prominently on the label. A closer look during dinner revealed it was a Peruvian wine made of Concord grapes. We crossed our fingers and pulled the cork. It was a sweet, oily-tasting juice, like antifreeze. I’ve made wine in a plastic jug strapped to the back of my bike that was better. Grumbling, we poured it down the drain. A valid critic gives his subject many chances before making a conclusive statement—but how many chances must we give Peruvian wine? If someone could direct me straight to the good stuff—heck, just drinkable would be a start—I’d be grateful and would try again. But for now, we are afraid to buy another bottle.
What else can one drink in Peru? Cheap lagers are available at most grocery stores, but the main national brands taste like the cheap beer from anywhere else. There is also pisco, if you like distilled spirits. Pisco is Peru’s rendition of brandy and is often marketed by grape variety and frequently carries a nice scent of the starting grape itself—surprising for a liquid that has traveled through the tubes and chambers of a commercial still. But in a hot desert after a long day of cycling, sometimes the best drink is water.
We have both gotten sick. We should have known. Book-smart medical doctors and experienced travelers warned us that eating street food or nearly anything out of a kitchen here was liable to make us run for the bathroom. Shows what they know—the bus had no bathroom. We’re going back to cherimoyas.
January 10, 2013
The cyclist who comes to Peru having heard warnings about malaria, rain and polluted water may be as alarmed as I was as we descended from the mountains into a landscape of flailing-armed cacti, spiny succulents like giant artichokes and sand dunes like mountains. Peru’s coast is home to one of the most barren, most imposing deserts I have seen. No place in Greece or Turkey compares in dryness, and even other bona fide deserts, like the cacti wonderland of Baja California or the shrubby sprawl of the Kalahari, cannot match this one—called the Sechura Desert—in sheer lifelessness.
As we crested out at sea level and began our northward advance along the Pan-American Highway, fantastic scenery unfurled—miles and miles of sprawling sand hills, some of the dunes hundreds of feet high, and running all the way from the eastern horizon to the ocean. In places, settlements of inhabited shacks clung to the mountainsides, with rags, bags and torn burlap flapping in the wind. We have come more than 200 miles in two days on the coast, and for much of that distance we have seen not a living blade of grass—just barren scorched rock and dunes. We saw four huge, soaring vulture-like birds yesterday that may have been condors, a few dogs and too many roadside human memorials to count—the sad reminders of traffic deaths. We know the land will turn green eventually, as we have heard Ecuador is a tropical haven, and we’re anticipating that transition. So far the desert shows no signs of relenting, outside of occasional green and irrigated valleys of mango and avocado orchards.
The Sechura Desert is truly an anomaly of a place. Look at the other great deserts of the world. There is the Atacama of Chile, the Kalahari of southern Africa, the giant Sahara of northern Africa, the Mexican-American Sonoran Desert and the great desert of Australia. For all their distinguishing points, these regions all have one prominent feature in common—their latitude. Each one is situated between about 20 and 30 degrees south or north of the Equator. This is no coincidence. Rather, this latitude zone is simply where deserts happen. It’s a function of wind patterns and sun, high pressure and a persistent absence of cloud formation. (There are a few exceptions to this global pattern—namely the mid-continent, high-latitude deserts of Asia and the American West, these areas denied water largely due to their distance from the sea and moisture sources.)
But the Sechura Desert lies between about 5 and 15 degrees latitude south. Why? The Andes. They tower just a few miles to the east, 15,000 to 20,000 feet high all the way from Ecuador to central Chile, creating in certain places what geographers call a rain shadow. That is, air coming from the east via the trade winds waters the Amazon basin generously, as well as the east-facing slope of the Andes. Here, the air rises and cools. Condensation occurs, and clouds drench the mountains. But as that air begins to descend on the west face, cloud formation halts as the air warms. Rainfall ceases. And at sea level, there is a desert, waiting for the water that rarely arrives. The Sechura receives just ten centimeters of precipitation each year in parts.
The beauty of this place is fleeting yet very real in an almost horrifying way. Thankfully, we have had a screaming tailwind for days. Yesterday, we averaged almost 15 miles per hour—great time on loaded bicycles. At about 3 p.m. we passed Paramonga, a town that probably would have had a cheap hotel or campground. But it was too early to quit. “Should we get water?” Andrew suggested. “We have two liters, and we’ll hit another town before long,” I said. But we didn’t. About three hours later, a road sign told us that the next big town—Huarmey—was still 75 kilometers ahead. The afternoon shadows grew longer and the road continued seemingly without end. In places, it shot ahead like an arrow—as often as not uphill. We began to tire, and we wondered where we would sleep, and whether we would have dinner. At last, after ten miles of unhappy silence between us, we saw a truck stop ahead. It was a cluster of restaurants and grocery shacks. We bought water first, then purchased the only onsite food that we considered safe from microbial dangers—beer. A truck driver eating dinner observed our obvious hunger, went outside to his truck and produced a bag of apples and peaches. We thanked him profusely, then thought about bed. It was too late to continue, and we asked the owner of one of the café shacks if we could camp out back. Without a thought, he waved us in. He and his family lived without running water on a bare earth floor. In back, in a yard of trash and blown sand, was a small clay and wood shack. ”How much?” we asked. He waved away the mention of money. We settled in, had our beers and fruit, and read our books until we nodded off. We learned our lesson and will keep a supply of water and food available. I am not afraid of sleeping in the wild, but to finish 100 miles without a dinner is not my favorite sort of suffering.
We took a break at the beach for a morning in Tortugas, a beautiful bay on the Pacific ringed by rocky shores and cliffs and restaurants. We went for coffee at the El Farol Hostal and chatted with our waiter about local fish species, diving, spearfishing, the average visibility in the water and other elements of the seascape. He told us the water is cold enough to require wetsuits—even just several degrees from the Equator. He also said halibut live here—a pleasant surprise for Californians who grew up pursuing the local rendition of the fish. We wished we had time to stay in Tortugas, but we’ve discovered that cycling from Lima to Quito in 20 days means booking it in high gear.
Aside from scattered moments of rest and joy with coffee or mangoes or lucumas on a plaza bench in the shade, the nonstop tailwind is our chief joy out here. Yesterday, as we went the last 15 miles to the town of Casma, we rode for five full kilometers on level ground without pedaling at all, watching with laughter as each kilometer marker came sailing past. I’ve never known a wind to fly so forcefully, so directly along a roadway as this wind does. We have made incredible time with the southerly in our favor, and we’re especially glad to see this desert go by, although at scattered vista points we can’t help but stop and remark that this lifeless, endless landscape is amazing to see. But the desert is wearing us down—especially the daily skirmishes we have with each big town. These are nightmares of congestion, dust and discomfort. Consider one recent image seared into my mind: On a hot, windy day in Huacho, we were battling the frantic heat and dust, looking for a fruit market and dodging the aggressive three-wheeled moto-taxis. Then, across the raging boulevard, I caught a glimpse of a girl, seated, holding a smaller child in her arms. The bigger girl’s head hung in despair—and I noticed then that the smaller girl sagged limply from head to toe. Scores of people were walking past. Wasn’t anyone going to help them? I wasn’t sure what to do. Somewhere else I would have stopped immediately—but here, in Huacho, Peru, four lanes of snarling traffic separated us from the girls. Neither Andrew nor I had a cell phone, spoke fluently in Spanish or knew where a hospital was. A moment later, a blast of heat and dust from a passing bus swept the sight from mind, and we continued forward, battling the streets in defense of our own lives, and hunting for a watermelon.
December 7, 2012
Nowhere in the world is it legal to hunt wild tigers, as each remaining subspecies of the giant cat is infamously on the verge of extinction.
Yet the close cousin of the tiger, the lion—almost equally large, equally charismatic and, in places, equally threatened—is legally killed by trophy hunters across its shrinking African range. The remaining lion population, centered in eastern and southern Africa, has declined by as much as 30 percent in the past 20 years, and the cats are considered seriously imperiled. Yet every year 600 lions fall to the bullets of licensed and legal tourists on safari hunts. The activity is opposed by many, but those in favor argue that trophy hunting of lions and other prized targets generates employment and revenue for local economies. The Huffington Post ran an editorial in March 2011 in which the author—lion researcher Luke Hunter—condemned the act of shooting a big cat but still argued that lion hunting is an important tool in generating revenue for land preservation. The author reported that trophy-hunting tourists may pay $125,000 in fees and guide services for the privilege of killing a lion, and he questioned the wisdom in protecting the animals under the Endangered Species Act, an action the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering. A hunter’s organization called Conservation Force also makes the case on its website that African “tourist safari hunting” benefits land, wildlife and communities while imparting “no detrimental biological impact.”
But a report published in 2011 says otherwise—that the environmental and economic benefits of trophy hunting in Africa are negligible. The paper, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, states that in 11 sub-Saharan countries that allow trophy hunting of large game, 272 million acres—or 15 percent of the land—is open to the sport. However, returns from trophy hunting are dismal. While hunters in Africa kill, in addition to lions, 800 leopards, 640 elephants and more than 3,000 water buffalo each year, among other species, they leave behind only 44 cents per acre of hunting land. In Tanzania, that figure is much smaller—a per-acre benefit of less than two cents. A closer look by the report’s authors at seven of the 11 countries—Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Benin—revealed that trophy hunting employs not even 10,000 people on a permanent and part-time basis. About 100 million people live in these seven nations.
The IUCN’s report points out that since the economic benefits of trophy hunting appear to be virtually nil in Africa, the only way hunting can be used as a conservation tool is by allowing it as part of carefully designed conservation strategies. Which beckons the question: What species are to gain by hunters prowling their habitat? Certainly, in some cases of overpopulation—usually of grazing herd animals—hunting can serve a direct purpose and even benefit ecosystems. Even elephants are widely said to be overpopulated in certain locations and in need of intervention via rifles.
But for lions, can the intentional removal of any animals from remaining populations be tolerated? Their numbers are crashing from historic levels. Lions once occurred in most of Africa, southern Europe, the Arabian peninsula and southern Asia as far east as India. But nation by nation, lions have disappeared. In Greece, they were gone by A.D. 100. In the 1100s, lions vanished from Palestine. The species’ greatest decline occurred in the 20th century, when Syria, Iran and Iraq saw their last lions die. In 1950, there may have been 400,000 left in the wild; by 1975, perhaps only 200,000. By the 1990s, their numbers had been halved again. Today, an isolated population in the Gir Forest of India numbers more than 400 and seems even to be growing. But the current African population of 32,000 to 35,000 is declining fast. (Defenders of Wildlife has estimated that not even 21,000 lions remain.) In Kenya, the situation is dire: In 2009, wildlife officials guessed they were losing about 100 lions per year in a national population of just 2,000 and that they might be extinct within 20 years. The causes are multiple but related; loss of habitat and decline of prey species are huge factors which, in turn, mean increased lion conflicts with livestock herders—and, often, dead lions; and as numbers drop, the gene pool is dwindling, causing inbreeding and weakened immune systems. Disease outbreaks have also had devastating impacts.
Then there is trophy hunting, which may remove powerful breeding males from a population. David Youldon, the chief operating officer of the conservation group Lion Alert, said in an e-mail that no existing lion population needs culling. The only potential benefit from hunting could come as revenue for land preservation and local communities—but this, he says, isn’t happening.
“Hunting has the potential to generate conservation benefits, but the industry needs a complete overhaul, improved regulation and greater benefit to Africa if such benefits are to be realized, and I see little motivation within the industry to make those changes,” he wrote.
Incredibly, as lions disappear, tourists spur the decline; they may still shoot lions in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Ethiopia also allows very limited hunting. Fifty-three percent of the cats are taken by Americans, according to Lion Alert, which has reviewed the IUCN’s report and warns on its website that the societal benefits of hunting in most of Africa are so minimal that the activity, in effect, creates little or no impetus to preserve land for the activity, maintain populations of target animals or stop poaching.
So what can travelers do to help? Take more pictures, perhaps. “Photographic tourism” generates 39 times the permanent employment that trophy hunting does, the IUCN report says, while protected lands generate on average two times the tourist revenue per acre as do hunting reserves. That is still just pennies—but at least it leaves the lions alive.
Other Big Cats to Protect—and See While You Can:
Tiger. Since 1900, tiger numbers from Turkey to Malaysia have dropped by 95 percent. Today, between 4,000 and 7,000 remain, and the outlook is grim. The largest population lives in India, where tourists have the best chance at seeing wild tigers in Ranthambore National Park, Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park.
Cheetah. The world’s fastest land animal once lived in 44 countries in Asia and Africa, with a population of possibly 100,000. Today, most cheetahs live in Africa, where numbers are down to as low as 10,000. A gene pool bottleneck thousands of years ago has left a legacy of inbreeding, one of the major threats to the cheetah’s survival. For now, an excellent place to see cheetahs is Kafue National Park, in Zambia.
Snow Leopard. The granite-colored snow leopard of the Himalaya numbers possibly 6,000 in 12 nations, but, like most wild cats, the snow leopard is disappearing. Trekkers in the Himalaya (PDF) have the best chance, though unlikely, of catching a glimpse.
Clouded Leopard. Perhaps the most mysterious of the big cats—and definitely the smallest—the clouded leopard ranges from Tibet through southern China and south through the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. The animals weigh just 30 to 50 pounds and spend much of their time in trees. The current population is unknown but believed to be less than 10,000 individuals and shrinking. Seeing clouded leopards is rare—and we may take satisfaction simply in knowing that this beautiful creature exists.
December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.