Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lake Atitlan: shining jewel of Guatemala

Combine volcanoes, a beautiful crater lake, a fascinating mix of cultures and experiences, and you have Lake Atitlan, a breathtaking lake in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala. Lago de Atitlan was formed thousands of years ago after volcanic explosions formed a huge hole known as a caldera, and has a rightly deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

Spending a week in this gorgeous but very affordable spot a few years ago made for of the most memorable vacations of my life. The lake features no less than three volcanoes—Atitlan (on the north rim of the caldera) and San Pedro and Toliman, both of which lie within the caldera itself.

A number of different villages can be found ringing the lake, each with its own unique personality. The native Maya culture is alive and well in these villages, and you can see many people living much as their ancestors did, and wearing traditional Mayan dress. Roads around the lake are few and primitive, so to get from one town to another you'll be taking one of the many boats that ply their trade ferrying passengers around the lakeside communities.

Panajachel is the biggest tourist destination in the lake area. Since the 1960s it has been a popular destination for expatriates from the U.S. and other countries, and it still is a haven for hippies (both old and new). In Panajachel you can also find vendors selling native crafts, souvenirs, and food from throughout Guatemala, and the town is known for its active nightlife. What's more, Panajachel features boats to take you to nearly every other town on the lakeside, making it ideal place to start your exploration of Lake Atitlan.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Getting great free music from the Web (legally)!

With all the hubbub about music being downloaded illegally from the Internet, podcasting has opened up a great way for artists, radio stations, and record companies to share their music legally. And since commercial radio is so bland and repetitive, podcasts have become the best way for me to discover new (and not-so-new) music.

I'm hoping artists and labels keep participating in podcasting. It's a good deal for them, since it has enticed me to buy the recordings and concert tickets of many artists I wouldn't have heard of otherwise. Here are some of my favorite music podcasts, covering different types of music. All can be found in Apple's iTunes. This public radio station from Santa Monica, California offers several music podcasts. The Morning Becomes Eclectic podcast presents live in-studio performance from the station's acclaimed show of the same name. Two sets of music enveloped by conversation. There have been performances from everyone from indie rockers to alt-country bands, from Spanish-language pop bands to electronica artists.

KCRW also features a Today's Top Tune podcast that features one song daily.

CBC Radio 3: Who'd have thought so much of today's innovative rock and pop music would come out of Canada? This one-hour (give or take) podcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation features full-length versions of songs from rock, pop, folk, and hip-hop artists from the well known to the unknown.

The Roadhouse: An hour of "the finest blues you've never heard"–old-style, contemporary, and everthing in between–comes your way in this podcast from Iowa City, Iowa. Host Tony Steidler-Dennison knows his stuff and plays a wide range of blues styles and artists. And with his deep voice and informal approach you'll feel like you're sitting next to a buddy on a barstool in a honky-tonk with a great blues jukebox.

Ritmo Latino: Like The Roadhouse, this podcast covers all styles and genres of its chosen form–Latin music, in this case. The host, an American living in Micronesia, spins tunes ranging from old-school music from Tito Puente and Carmen Miranda to modern Spanish-language rock and pop stars including Mana, Cafe Tacuba, and Shakira to reggaeton superstars Daddy Yankee.

The Tartanpodcast: Host Mark Hunter claims that Scotland is one of the leading centers of great music in Europe and, after listening to a few shows, it's hard to disagree with him. Singer-songwriters, pop bands, rock outfits, and more are all featured here, and while Hunter doesn't work in the music business, he nevertheless has a good ear for talented musicians.

All Songs Considered: Despite the clunky name, this podcast from National Public Radio offers a great wealth of pop and rock music in several forms. The weekly ASC podcast covers songs from about a half-dozen artists with snippets of each tune (you can hear full versions at the show's Web site). What I really enjoy are the archived live concerts that ASC Webcasts monthly from a Washington, D.C., also at the show's Web home. You can hear the full concerts from artists such as Sleater-Kinney, The New Pornographers, Toots and the Maytals, James Brown, and many more. For some you can even download the entire concert in MP3 form; the others you can stream to your computer.

Protecting yourself from the sun

With the virtually limitless array of sunscreens available today, you'd think that people are better protected from sunburn and skin cancer than ever before. Ironically, though, the American Cancer Society reported last year that more and more people under 40 are getting nonmelanoma skin cancer, the most common type of skin cancer.

Sunscreen products can provide a false sense of security and actually lead to overexposure to the sun's harsh rays, even if sunscreens are used properly (which they often aren't). Here are some tips to get the best protection from the sun.

Play the numbers game. Use sunscreen (and lip balm) rated SPF 15 or higher.

Better sooner than later. Lots of folks don't start applying the sunscreen until they're already outside at the beach or the tennis court. But since it takes 15 - 20 minutes for the chemicals in sunscreen to react with your skin, this means the skin is unprotected during that time. Remember to apply sunscreen before you go outside.

Don't use it lightly. A thin film of sunscreen won't be enough to protect you. Experts recommend using a shot-glass full (1 1/2 ounces ) for the entire body.

Reapply often. Despite manufacturer's claims of being waterproof, sweat-resistant, or offering all-day protection, you definitely need to reapply sunscreen every two hours that you're out in the sun, or after you've been swimming or sweating. And don't forget that the sun's dangerous rays are still reaching you even on overcast days.

Sunscreen is only part of a sound sun-protection strategy. Wearing a long-sleeve shirt and long pants also help, as does wearing a hat with a brim. The American Cancer Society is using an easy-to-remember slogan to promote sun safety--slip, slop, slap (which the Australian government has also been using). It's simple: slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen, and slap on a hat.

No matter what you call it or how you remember it, this is a sound strategy for protecting yourself from sunburn and the potentially deadly effects of skin cancer.