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Product review: Solio Hybrid solar charger

How green is the Solio® Hybrid 1000?

The Solio is so green you could toss it in with some lettuce, croutons and parmesan cheese, drizzle Caesar dressing over everything and eat it raw (right before a big helping of 'tofurkey', obviously).

This beautifully crafted bundle of eco-feel-good bliss makes the necessary evil of killing batteries a little less disagreeable. Using the glorious power of the sun, it recharges a multitude of devices such as mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, PDAs, MP3 players, handheld gaming systems, digital cameras, GPS units and more.

Slim and compact (it's 198 x 68 x 18mm or 7.7 x 2.7 x 0.7 inches and weighs about 0.5 kilos or 1.1 lbs.), the Solio is surprisingly rugged, complete with an integrated carabiner clip so you can affix it to just about anything.

Showers forecasted for the next week on the Appalachian Trail? Give your Solio a base charge before you leave by plugging it into your laptop. Not as eco-friendly, but hey, your mobile phone won't judge you when its batteries are dead.

Genius idea, brilliant design, but does it really work? People, it works like a charm – though not quite up to the extents alluded to on the box.

Book Review: "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner

Add another page to the "Why Didn't I Think of That?" file.

The concept is so elegantly simple: take what is arguably the top two human aspirations - happiness and travel - combine them, then flesh out a book proposal. I bet that book deal was inked on the strength of the overview alone.

Thusly inspired, I'm already 2,000 words into my latest book proposal about Lamborghinis and orgasms, but I digress...

"The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World" (Twelve), a memoir/travelogue by Eric Weiner, beautifully blends the timeless search for happiness with an amusing on-the-ground examination of the dispositions of people in 10 of the most (and least) contented countries on Earth.

A confessed "mope", Weiner (coincidentally pronounced 'whiner' - ki ki ki!) admits straight off that he's a hard sell on happiness. You'd be too after two decades working as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, reporting on wars, disasters and the ancillary misery. Untold years of introspection, therapy and a metric ton of self-help books have yielded little progress and having recently entered the Heart Attack Years, he confesses that his happiness attainment optimism is flagging.

Stick around after the review to see how you can get your hands on a copy of the book for free, just in time for Christmas!

Let's Travel Safe out there

My name is Leif and I'm a serial battery killer. When I travel for work, I carry the following battery-powered items:

• Laptop
Blackberry Curve
• Palm Pilot Tungsten T5
• Digital camera
Wireless laser keyboard
• MP3 player
• Mobile alarms (2)
• Shaver

Over the years, I have reached a zen-like state with my battery-powered items. Indeed, I'm a battery whisperer. I can coax out the full reliability and power capacity of all batteries that I come into contact with. Sadly, not everyone can be one with their gadgets. The US Department of Transportation knows this all too well, so when they started an awareness campaign about traveling safely with batteries and other potentially hazardous materials, they came to yours truly to help spread the word.

In addition to several prudent tips about traveling with loose batteries and battery-powered gadgets, the Safe Travel web site provides rules and recommendations about traveling with other potentially hazardous items such as aerosols, ammunition, lighters/matches/lighter fluid and fireworks (I'll save you some reading time, no fireworks allowed on airplanes, ever).

Admittedly, many of these good-intentioned tips sound like they were compiled by Dr. Obvious MD. Some of the less earth-shattering kernels of knowledge they have to offer include "avoid dropping laptop computers or other devices", and "NEVER attempt to recharge a battery unless you know it is rechargeable."

Yes, but what if I drop my laptop while I'm recharging a non-rechargeable battery? Is that coo?

As you read some of these items resist the urge to click away, thinking that only the recently lobotomized are going to attain battery enlightenment with these no-brainer guidelines. What's obvious to a battery whisperer isn't necessarily going to occur to people with lesser battery-driven lifestyles, like your mamma and your mamma's mamma, to name a few. And you can never know too much about safely transporting things that go 'boom' as far as I'm concerned.

The fact is that people still try to bring hazardous material onto flights each day and are genuinely surprised to learn that their prized machete collection can't be stored in carry-on luggage. Take a minute to run down the list. If you learn nothing, then you're already an expert traveler and you should treat yourself to some brand new, properly packaged, carefully stored rechargeable batteries.

Elite Green Car - and other unusual word combinations

Here's a Super-Duper Secret Leif Pettersen Tip to Hilarious Writing (SDSLPTHW): when you're hurting for a joke, just throw in unexpected word combinations.

Examples: "muscular fart", "righteous taco", "likeable president"

Accordingly, when I tried to write the first paragraph of this post and had to arrange the words 'luxury', 'eco-friendly', 'chauffer', 'Lexus', 'hybrid' and 'Atlanta' in an interesting way, it was unexpectedly funny. Not ha-ha funny, but you know...

Elite Green Car is the cause of today's wordsmith oddity. Launched this month, the company offers eco-friendly chauffeured transportation in the Atlanta area via their fleet of luxury full-size Lexus RX 400 hybrid cars. (See what I mean? Tee hee!)

All kidding aside, there's a certain inexplicable thrill to tooling around in a swanky, Super Ultra-Low Emission Lexus that boasts "maximum fuel efficiency along with capturing lost energy from braking and deceleration as electric power to recharge the battery", currently rated as the most energy efficient car on the market.

Elite Green Car is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mike Kersten, a certified pilot, avid outdoorsman and father of two. Concerned about Atlanta's notorious environmental stresses, Kersten resolved to "fuel" his passion for the planet by launching the Elite Green Car service in his adopted home town.

So, you're traveling in style with a minimal carbon footprint, what else do you get for your money? Elite's vehicles are equipped with XM NavTraffic, GPS Tracking ("ensuring that the fuel-efficient ride travels the most efficient routes, minimizing toxic emissions"), WiFi services, Sirius Satellite Radio, DVD, CD, surround sound capabilities and DriveCam's behavior-based risk mitigation solution. Is technology great or what?

Elite's primary services include airport transportation, corporate travel, VIP/Executive transportation and special events and occasions. Though, I don't think they'd be opposed to (unexpected word combination warning) "environmentally responsible gnarly joy ride, dude" (SDSLPTHW: that's called a "throw back joke").

Kersten is planning on expanding to Nashville, Charleston, Birmingham and, the eco-friendly center of the universe, San Francisco in 2008.

Indie travel guides - pipe dream or way of the future?

With all due respect to my generous client Lonely Planet, without whom I'd still be an obscure, broke, moonshine junkie in a forlorn corner of Romania, guidebook authors wallowing below the Sushi Line are increasingly probing new "Screw the Man" applications for their hard-won expertise - namely their very own online travel guides.

There's certainly something to be said for a trusted brand name guidebook, but equally independently produced, digital travel guides allow authors to toss in all kinds of wacky content in addition to the usual sights/eating/sleeping content, uncorrupted by editors, guidelines, house styles and meddling lawyers.

A 2,000 word, absurdly detailed walking guide to Tijuana? Why not? A sidebar entitled "Top Ten Curse Words You Should Know Before Attending an Italian Football (Soccer) Match"? Bring it on! Why [insert your least favorite German city] sucks? I'm all ears.

This developing genre was recently augmented by the completion of Robert Reid's online guide to Vietnam. As Reid rightly points out, the advantages of an independent online travel guide are numerous:

• It's free - Guidebooks cost $25. Why pay?
• It's fresher. Unlike a guidebook, turn-around time is immediate.
• You can customize it. The most common complaint guidebook users have is having to tote around 400 pages they'll never use.
• It's more direct, personalized. With my site I can 'tell it like it is'.
• Anyone can talk with the author. [Just] hit 'contact'.

In addition to this excellent resource, other free sites serving the online travel community include Croatia Traveller, Kabul Caravan, Turkey Travel Planner, Broke-Ass Stewart's Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco, and (cough), the Romania and Moldova Travel Guide (now with extra moonshine).

For the time being, these independent travel guides are usually not money-making ventures (and boy do they take a lot of time to put together!), thus the current scarcity. However, as print media gasps to its inevitable conclusion – one decade, mark my words - the online stage is set for authors to leverage their expertise and provide autonomous, interactive, up-to-the-minute travel information for anyone with an internet connection.

A Keyhole into Burma - Robbie Williams owes me

On my last afternoon in Bagan, I went in search of a meal that would serve as both lunch and dinner, before boarding my flight to Yangon. I settled on a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant called Myitzima.

The LP author researching Bagan certainly earned his fee the day he discovered Myitzima, located over 50 meters off the main road, down a decidedly uninviting dirt alley. It seemed impossible that a restaurant could be in such an unlikely place. Even with my LP in hand, I almost retreated thinking that I'd taken a wrong turn. Yet, sure enough, Myitzima appeared, with its pleasingly designed courtyard and open air seating area, decorated with startlingly gifted paintings from local artists. Furthermore, the dish of stir-fry chicken, peanuts and veggies they whipped up for me was the most savory meal I'd had outside Yangon.

In a possible effort to impress me, one of the young guys hanging around the restaurant popped a Robbie Williams CD into the small stereo. The guy was clearly proud, not only to own this non-junta approved music, but because Robbie was name-dropping a Myanmar city in one of his songs ("Road to Mandalay").

The guy's English was exceptional. He explained that he'd purchased the CD purely for the Mandalay tribute, which he loved out of admirable national pride. He went on to describe how he enjoyed all types of Western music, particularly Bob Marley, though he was having trouble acquiring new CDs due to a recent ban on all non-Burmese music.

A Keyhole into Burma - What is McDonald's?

"Please, may I ask you a question?" Kusala preceded every question with this solicitation of permission, like he hadn't already been putting me through the question-answer ringer for 15 minutes.

"Yes Kusala. And you don't have to ask me if you can ask me a question every time. I give you everlasting permission to ask me questions until we get back to my bike, OK?"

"I thank you. What is 'McDonald's'"?

I hesitated for a moment, staring at the sky as the young monk patiently waited for my reply. We were walking across U Bein's Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer wooden bridge that connects Amarapura to Kyauktawgyi Paya, 11 kilometers outside of Mandalay. How do you explain a world famous franchise restaurant that sells questionable food, which may or may not be physically addictive, hawked by a clown with gender identity issues? It's a tricky concept to illustrate, even when you have the full catalogue of the English language at your disposal, never mind when you're limited to a few hundred, one and two syllable words.

A Keyhole into Burma - Goldfinger

The majority of Burma's impossibly thin tabs of gold leaf - a fixture at all pagodas (temples) - is produced out of several shops in a neighborhood just outside central Mandalay. The tabs are sold in packets of 10, 50 or 100, with each tab being about one square inch, which worshipers apply to Buddha figures and other religious relics as a spiritual offering.

I tooled down a bumpy dirt street on my bike, skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of a non-descript short building, home to the "Gold Rose". I was greeted the instant I dismounted my bike by the shop's "tour guide".

The guide fed me cold water as I recovered from my ride and gave me some tissues to stem the flow of sweat gushing off me. In time I was led to the shop's 'hammering area' where four men rotated through hammering duties, beating hair-width gold leaf down to microbe-width gold leaf. Tabs of gold sheet are packed into bundles of 400, separated by a layer of bamboo paper, then beaten with a six pound sledgehammer for 30 minutes. The newly flattened and enlarged leaves are then divided into four pieces, re-bundled into packages of 1,200 and beaten for another 30 minutes. Finally the tabs are divided again, re-bundled into stacks of 750 pieces and hammered for an astounding five hours.

Despite what seems like pure grunt work, the hammering is a carefully monitored, meticulous process, with adjustments being made depending on subtle variants such as air temperature.

Just as I was commenting on how arduous this work appeared to be, I was led into the air-tight cutting room. Here a team of very young girls worked 10 hour days, sitting on thin bamboo mats, cutting and dividing the gold leaf for the hammering process, then packaging the final product into painstaking piles of perfect square tabs. The youngest girl was 11 years old. Each girl has to go through three years of training before being trusted with leaf cutting duties, meaning they were starting work as young as seven or eight years old.

A Keyhole into Burma - A boy and his bike

Cycling around Mandalay provided the most intense adrenaline rush I'd had since I jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down.

The traffic is particularly lawless in a country where most driving conventions are improvised. Certain death is faced and somehow magically avoided every few seconds while plunging through traffic that would make a New York cabbie weep. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris that coat your body, while you suck down the hot, foul, fume choked air makes it look like you really did something at the end of the day. Not like those pansy package tourists in their vans with tinted windows, stereos, air conditioning, cold beverages and genuine seats with seatbelts! Rubes.

OK, it sounds horrific and it kinda was, but it wasn't beyond endurance, even for my delicate constitution. And it was liberating to be in charge of a vehicle (of sorts) for the first time in months. Moreover, jockeying the bike through Mandalay's dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions proved to be faster than any other form of transport, including motorcycles. I covered a fantastic amount of ground and was very productive on that bike, a travel writer's wet dream.

A Keyhole into Burma - When the tourist becomes the sight

Take Venice, rebuild it in wood and bamboo, remove most of the dry footpaths and the double-wide butted tourists, then add waist-deep wet farms and that's Inle Lake's 17 water villages. The waterway "streets" were lined with surprisingly large, two and three story, longhouse-like dwellings, with kids hanging out windows shouting 'hello' at me and a few people climbing into the family canoe to run errands.

After a perfunctory tour of one of the larger villages, my captain/guide motored down a narrow canal, finally stopping where the canal became choked with parked boats. He indicated that I was to get out and walk to the market, "25 minutes" away. This development sparked a confused, five minute Q&A. Yes, I was to go tour the market. No, he would not be accompanying me. Yes, it was really a 25 minute walk in that (vaguely pointing) direction and - despite having a wide open view of the landscape and seeing nothing resembling a market all the way to the distant mountains - no I shouldn't have any trouble finding it.

I tentatively set out.

The road was bordered by wet and dry fields with the intermittent, far-flung house dotting the landscape. Once in a while I'd encounter a wobbly old man or a house-sized wooden cart being pulled by two water buffalo, piloted by a couple kids under the age of 10. There were no signs confirming that I was heading in the right direction, but as my captain had promised, neither were there serious forks or turns to deliberate on, so I could only assume I was still on the right track.

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