Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


March 12th, 2013 by Mariah is pleased to announce the upcomimg launch of our redesigned website!

We are confident that the changes in place will make the overall experience of the site better for both members, and their potential guests.

Some exciting changes include:

  • Complete redesign of the site, with a bold, eye-catching, yet user-friendly new look.
  • New search functions, making it easier for guests to find the perfect property.
  • Members will have the ability to upload their own photos.
  • Interactive map features, and Google maps.
  • Links to TripAdvisor for property reviews.
  • Mobile version of the site compatible with all major devices.
  • Extended social media marketing.
  • Updated blog look and content.

In addition, your member log in information will not change, and your renewal rate will not increase. As we do not currently have a set launch date, each member will receive an email letting them know when they can expect these exciting changes to occur. It will be within the next month or so.

Thank you again for your membership and support, and we look forward to a great 2014!

Mariah Morris
CEO of


March 12th, 2013 by Mariah


(CNN) — U.S. gasoline prices broke a nearly three-month upward spiral in early March, and motorists can expect a bit more relief in the coming weeks, according to the latest Lundberg Survey.

The average price of regular across the continental United States stood at $3.74 on Friday, a 5½-cent drop from the last Lundberg report on February 22, survey publisher Trilby Lundberg said. That comes after an increase of nearly 54 cents since late December, she said.

Crude oil, which makes up about 70% of the price at the pump, went down slightly in the past two weeks, Lundberg said. Most refineries have finished their seasonal maintenance and are gearing up for spring and summer driving demand, meaning fuel supplies are “more than adequate.”

“More pump-price declines seem to be on their way, maybe more than a dime,” she said.

The Lundberg Survey canvasses about 2,500 filling stations every two weeks. The most expensive gasoline in the latest survey was in Los Angeles, where fuel averaged $4.23 per gallon; the cheapest was in Billings, Montana, at $3.31.

Average per-gallon prices in other cities:

Atlanta: $3.71

Boston: $3.78

Chicago: $4.00

Denver: $3.52

Houston: $3.56

Long Island, New York: $3.97

Miami: $3.83

Minneapolis: $3.68

Norfolk, Virginia: $3.59

Portland, Oregon: $3.77

Tulsa, Oklahoma: $3.50

TSA partners are opposing plan to allow some small knives on planes

March 12th, 2013 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) — When the nation’s top transportation security official announced a plan to allow some small knives on planes, he spoke to a group receptive to his message: international aviation folks that already allow knives.

It may be the only receptive group.

In the week since Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole made his announcement, a parade of groups has stepped up to voice opposition or concern.

The list is a virtual who’s who of what the TSA typically calls its partners or stakeholders in aviation security.

Among them:

– The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents the nation’s 50,000 airport screeners.

– The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a nonprofit group that represents an undisclosed number of federal air marshals.

– The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, a group of five unions representing 90,000 flight attendants.

– The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents pilots.

– U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

– Major airlines, represented by their trade association, have expressed concern with the policy as a group. But individually, three of the five biggest carriers — Delta, American and US Airways — have come out against it.

Supporters of the initiative are more difficult to find.

None of the groups that the TSA labels “stakeholders” has publicly endorsed the small-knife policy, and only a handful of policymakers, lawmakers and security experts have lent it their support.

The Air Line Pilots Association International, the nation’s largest pilots union, has neither supported nor opposed the knife rule directly, saying only that it supports initiatives such as Pre-Check that “focus on the real security threats instead of objects.”

Despite opposition, TSA sticks with decision on knives

Pistole’s predecessor, former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, supports the move.

“In retrospect, I should have done the same thing,” Hawley told CNN.

“The air marshals and the flight attendants have legitimate concerns, certainly, for their own safety. But the threat of taking over a plane with a small, sharp instrument is zero. And I think with locked cockpit doors, the air marshals themselves, the pilots, the passengers, the screening that goes in … you cannot necessarily prevent violence on an airplane, but that is not the TSA’s mission. TSA’s mission is to prevent a successful, catastrophic terrorist attack, and you cannot get a successful, catastrophic terrorist attack with a small knife or a whiffle ball bat,” Hawley said.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the screener representative, voiced this concern:

“TSA has created a situation where TSOs (transportation security officers) will be required to discern the length and width of a knife blade in a very short period of time. Disagreements over the TSOs’ determination as to whether the knife will be allowed through checkpoints may result in a confrontation,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement.

“Far too often, TSOs are threatened and even assaulted by irate passengers at the checkpoint; this ambiguous new policy will only escalate those incidents. In addition, TSOs face possible discipline from an increasing number of checkpoint disputes surrounding the new policy.”

The TSA said this week that Pistole will stick with the policy and implement it, as announced, on April 25. In the meantime, he will advocate for the change Wednesday in a meeting with flight attendants and Thursday at a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee.

No New Pope Selected

March 12th, 2013 by Mariah

Rome (CNN) — Black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel Tuesday night, indicating that cardinals gathered at the Vatican to elect a new pope had not chosen one in the first ballot of their conclave.

The start of the secret election got underway earlier in the day, as the heavy wooden doors to the chapel swung closed on the 115 Roman Catholic cardinals charged with selecting the next pontiff.

The next round of voting will begin Wednesday morning. Results will be revealed by puffs of smoke from the chimney following each ballot.

Black smoke, no pope. White smoke, success.

On a day rich with symbolism, the scarlet-clad cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel in solemn procession, chanting prayers and watched over by the paintings of Renaissance artist Michelangelo.

Led by the conclave’s senior cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, each of the cardinal-electors — those under age 80 who are eligible to vote — then swore an oath of secrecy.

A designated official then gave the order, in Latin, to those not authorized to remain, “Extra omnes” — that is, “Everyone out.”

With all those not taking part in the conclave gone, the cardinals will remain locked in isolation until one candidate garners two-thirds of their votes.

That man will emerge from the process as the new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

Selecting a pope

Huddled under umbrellas as rain came down, crowds of onlookers watched on big screens set up in St. Peter’s Square until the doors to the Sistine Chapel were shut.

‘Noble mission’

Earlier, the cardinals celebrated a morning Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, where they prayed for guidance in making a choice that could be crucial to the direction of a church rocked by scandal in recent years.

Applause echoed around St. Peter’s as Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, offered thanks for the “brilliant pontificate” of Benedict XVI, whose unexpected resignation precipitated the selection of a new pope.

Sodano’s homily focused on a message of love and unity, calling on all to cooperate with the new pontiff in the service of the church.

“My brothers, let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart,” he concluded.

Members of the public had waited in long lines Tuesday morning to join the Mass. As the service began, the morning sunshine came to an abrupt end, with the skies letting loose thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour.

Before the service, the cardinal-electors had moved into Casa Santa Marta, their residence at the Vatican for the duration of the conclave.

Jamming devices have been put in place to stop them from communicating with the outside world via mobile phones or other electronic means as they make their decision.

Rome is abuzz

Rome was abuzz Monday with preparations for the conclave, from the 5,600 journalists the Vatican said had been accredited to cover the event to the red curtains unfurled from the central balcony at St. Peter’s, the spot where the world will meet the new pope once he is elected.

Tailors have completed sets of clothes for the new pope to wear as soon as he is elected, in three sizes.

Video released by the Vatican over the weekend showed the installation of a pair of stoves inside the chapel. One is used to burn the cardinals’ ballots after they are cast and the other to send up the smoke signal — the one that alerts the world that a vote has been taken and whether there’s a new pope.

Workers scaled the roof of the chapel Saturday to install the chimneys.

Possible papal contenders

When cardinals elected Benedict in 2005, the white smoke signaling the decision came about six hours after an earlier, inconclusive vote, Lombardi said.

It took another 50 minutes for Benedict to dress, pray and finally appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he said.

The longest conclave held since the turn of the 20th century lasted five days.

On Monday, cardinals held the last of several days of meetings, known as General Congregations, to discuss church affairs and get acquainted. Lombardi said 152 cardinals were on hand for the final meeting.

As well as getting to know their counterparts from around the world, the cardinals discussed the major issues facing the church, including its handling of allegations of child sex abuse by priests and a scandal over leaks from the Vatican last year that revealed claims of corruption, as well as the church’s future direction.

Church rules prevent cardinals over the age of 80 from participating in the conclave but allow them to attend the meetings that precede the vote.

Who will be chosen?

Meanwhile, the Italian news media are full of speculation about which cardinal may win enough support from his counterparts to be elected, and what regional alliances are being formed.

According to CNN Vatican analyst John Allen, also a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, the race was wide open as the cardinals entered the conclave.

Unlike in 2005, when Benedict XVI was believed to be the favorite going into the election, no one has emerged as a clear frontrunner this time around, Allen said.

Some names have cropped up in media reports as possible contenders, however. They include Italy’s Cardinal Angelo Scola; Brazil’s Odilo Scherer; Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Canada; U.S. cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston and Timothy Dolan of New York; and Ghana’s Peter Turkson.

More than 80% of Africans believe their continent is ready for an African pope, but only 61% believe the world is, an exclusive survey for CNN has found.

A mobile phone survey of 20,000 Africans from 11 nations, conducted by CNN in conjunction with crowd sourcing company Jana, found that 86% thought an African pope would increase support for Catholicism in Africa.

Italy potentially wields the most power within the conclave, with 28 of the 115 votes, making it the largest bloc in the College of Cardinals. The United States is second with 11. Altogether, 48 countries are represented among the cardinal-electors.

“Many would say it’s all about politics at this point,” Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, head of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat on Divine Worship, told CNN, “but I think it’s important to remember that they also recognize that this is a very spiritual moment.”

Once the doors close and the conclave begins, he says, it’s less about politicking and “more about prayer as they each in silence write their votes.”

Sixty-seven of the cardinal-electors were appointed by Benedict, who stepped down at the end of last month, becoming the first pontiff to do so in six centuries.


February 27th, 2013 by Mariah is pleased to announce the upcomimg launch of our redesigned website!

We are confident that the changes in place will make the overall experience of the site better for both members, and their potential guests.

Some exciting changes include:

  • Complete redesign of the site, with a bold, eye-catching, yet user-friendly new look.
  • New search functions, making it easier for guests to find the perfect property.
  • Members will have the ability to upload their own photos.
  • Interactive map features, and Google maps.
  • Links to TripAdvisor for property reviews.
  • Mobile version of the site compatible with all major devices.
  • Extended social media marketing.
  • Updated blog look and content.

In addition, your member log in information will not change, and your renewal rate will not increase. As we do not currently have a set launch date, each member will receive an email letting them know when they can expect these exciting changes to occur. It will be within the next month or so.

Thank you again for your membership and support, and we look forward to a great 2013!

Mariah Walters
CEO of

10 signs you are a bad traveler

February 27th, 2013 by Mariah

You know the guy who’s always holding up the plane by trying to cram five bags, a jacket, and a pillow into the overhead compartment? Don’t be that guy. Read on to discover 10 warning signs that you may be a terrible traveler.

You Have an Expired Passport and You Don’t Even Know It

Some countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months after the completion of your trip just in order to enter. You may think you’re in the clear if your passport expires in 2014, but if you’ve got a trip planned for November 2013, you’d better get it renewed before then. Always research entry requirements, including visas and vaccines, and be sure your passport is up-to-date. (If you find out the night before that your passport is expired, read this simple solution to a last-minute passport snafu to learn what you can do to save your trip.)

Your Bags are Overweight (and You’re Surprised)

If you’re at the counter frantically repacking your checked bags to get under your airline’s weight limit, you might be a terrible traveler. Invest in a luggage scale (or a bag with a built-in weighing system, like the Delsey Helium Ultimate 25-Inch Expandable Spinner Trolley suitcase) and never be socked with an overweight fee again. Always double-check your airline’s weight allowances and make sure the limits apply to connections, especially if you’re going from an international to a domestic flight.

You Haven’t Done Your Research

Will things be open this time of year? What currency does your destination use? What language is spoken there? If you don’t know (and you don’t care), you might not be the greatest traveler. There’s a difference between being spontaneous and adventurous and being foolishly unprepared—the former leads to exciting stories and fun possibilities, and the latter leaves you in tears and stranded without a hotel during a major festival.

You’re Cutting It Too Close

Years ago, maybe you could have rolled into the airport a half hour before takeoff, but not these days. Always leave a little bit earlier than you think you need to for the airport, train station, or bus stop—you never know if security or check-in lines will be long, or if you’ll need extra time due to getting lost, roadwork, etc. Better to kill a few extra minutes at the gate than to miss your transportation.

You Don’t Know the Carry-on Rules

The TSA may overlook knives and other weapons on a fairly regular basis, but they’ll always find that 4-oz. bottle of shampoo you’ve stashed in your carry-on. Moral of the story: Know your 3-1-1 rules. Triggering a search of your carry-on bag really clogs up the line behind you.

You Spend All Your Time on the Computer

“Joe Schmo has checked in at a deserted beach (with Wi-Fi!).” ” Joe Schmo is living the dream in paradise.” “Joe Schmo has Instagrammed 500 new pictures.”When you see hundreds of real-time social-media updates from the same person on your feeds, don’t you wonder if he’s really making the most out of his trip? Don’t view your vacation from behind a screen. Uploading pictures and editing your Facebook status can wait until you get back, so put down the smartphone and step away from the computer!

You Don’t Check In Online

Did your flight time change? If you didn’t check in online, you might not know. Waiting to check in at the airport also makes you more likely to be bumped if the flight’s full—or even worse, stuck in the dreaded middle seat of the last row. If you want to snag the best seats and get updates on your trip, check in online as soon as you’re allowed to. You don’t need to be near a printer, either. Many airlines let you check in and display your boarding pass on your smartphone, and most airports offer kiosks (usually with much shorter lines) so you can print your pass when you arrive at the airport.

You Didn’t Make a Packing List

Don’t be the traveler begging the front desk to borrow a power converter or the guy who doesn’t know how to reach an English-speaking doctor to prescribe the medicine he forgot. Consult this ultimate packing list, use an app, or simply make your own checklist. You’ll be able to pack everything you need (and nothing more) for your trip, even at a moment’s notice.

You Brought Too Many Carry-ons

If you’re trying to circumvent the rules by bringing on an oversized suitcase plus multiple personal items, please stop. When you’re blocking the aisle, trying to shove your laptop under the seat or filling your entire row’s overhead compartment with your giant puffy jacket, full-sized pillow, and yoga mat, just know that everyone else on the plane hates you, you terrible traveler.

You Yell at People

The ultimate sign that you’re a terrible traveler is yelling at or otherwise being rude to travel staff or fellow tourists. Don’t take out your anger about a canceled flight on a helpless gate agent who is just trying to do his or her job. Likewise, it’s not your fellow passenger’s fault that you’re stuck in a middle seat, so stop passive-aggressively sighing and trying to invade her personal space. By all means, stand up for yourself—but be polite. And if you’re not getting any results, try a different approach or contact a different provider to help. Just don’t stand at the hotel’s front desk screaming at someone and holding up the line behind you.

– By Caroline Morse

Why The American Airlines-US Airways Merger Won’t Be All That Awful

February 27th, 2013 by Mariah

I’ve been reading some rather dire predictions about the fate of the U.S. airline industry as a result of the American/US Airways merger. Here are nine reasons why the merger actually might be good for consumers. Call it “silver lining” reasoning, but consider:

1. There will be real savings, which can be passed along to consumers (or at least put a brake on fare rises). Better use of fuel-efficient jets between the two fleets (AA can get rid of those gas guzzling MD-90s); back office savings (accounting, marketing, IT, management, sales, PR, etc).

2. Fares won’t increase all that much, if at all. If airlines have learned one thing, it’s that people stay home, drive or video-conference if fares go too high. Most air travel is discretionary, not “must do.”

3. If fares on certain routes do go higher, that will make it more profitable for competitors to step in and lower fares once again. Yes, fares on “duopoly” nonstop routes (those where only US and AA fly nonstop, such as Dallas DFW-Charlotte, Philadelphia-Miami) may go higher at first, but that will open the door for VirginAmerica, JetBlue or another carrier to step in profitably. In fact, once the airline industry becomes consistently profitable, we may see another JetBlue enter the fray.

4. Service should improve. Bankrupted airlines lead to grouchy employees, dirty planes, and generally a bad experience. Maybe they’ll bring back coloring books for the kiddies.

5. You’ve been paying for these bankruptcies through the backdoor anyway, all these years. Every time an airline files Chapter 11, it reneges on its pension plans, and the U.S. government takes over–that comes out of your taxes. And investors (banks, pension funds, etc.) who lose money on airline investments pass the losses on to you one way or another.

6. You’ll still have at least four options to get from A to B on many routes, or as many as 9 on some routes (New York to LA for instance).

7. Foreign-based airlines are expanding service from the U.S.–Emirates, Turkish, Air Berlin, Qatar. That may help keep international fares moderate.

8. You’ll have more ways to get where you’re going if there’s a delay or cancellation. Pre-merger, American wouldn’t put you on a connecting flight through US Air’s Charlotte hub if your flight via Dallas is canceled; but a combined AA/US will do just that. More flight combinations will be possible.

9. You’ll have more miles to play with. If you have 10,000 in US and 15,000 in AA (not enough for a free trip), now you will have enough.

This may seem contrary to logic, and a bit Pollyanna-ish, but airline consolidation is a reality and it’s not going to be as bad as some consumerists predict. In fact, it may be a win-win.

Budget cuts would hit private air traffic in effort to spare airlines

February 27th, 2013 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) — Federal aviation officials are telling airline and airport executives that they are working to minimize any disruption from imminent government budget cuts to passenger airline service, but warn the mandatory belt-tightening will impact air traffic overall.

At a meeting in Washington on Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would give priority to 77 “core” facilities — large airports and their related air traffic control centers, which it did not identify.

But the agency would reduce staffing system wide and would likely close 238 control towers at less busy airports. Those towers handle 5.8 percent of all commercial air traffic, the FAA said.

“It was clear at the meeting that the brunt of the cuts were at the cost of general aviation (private and business aircraft), and the agency even recognized that,” said Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group representing private pilots in Washington.

The Transportation Department faces about $1 billion in budget cuts through the end of the fiscal year unless Congress acts by Friday to avert them. The cuts are part of a political impasse affecting spending across the government.

Much of the agency’s austerity will hit the FAA, which employs about 15,000 controllers and oversees traffic at more than 400 airports used by commercial airlines, business jets and private pilots.

Large airports will also be impacted.

All FAA employees have been told they may be furloughed at least one day every two weeks, inevitably meaning that aviation facilities will have fewer controllers.

While the cuts would inevitably reduce the number of operations — take-offs and landings — the FAA said it would maintain the highest level of safety.

The impact would be greatest at the nation’s small- and mid-sized airfields, the FAA acknowledged.

The 238 control towers facing possible closure met a criteria established by the FAA: They have fewer than 150,000 operations a year and fewer than 10,000 commercial airline operations.

Opinion: Cuts will turn off voters GOP is courting

Of those towers, 189 are “contact towers,” operated under FAA supervision by independent contractors. The remaining 49 are staffed by FAA controllers.

FAA officials said it would consider removing a tower on a case-by-case basis if advocates could justify a change. But any towers spared from closure would have to be off-set by cuts elsewhere, they said.

Most of the changes would occur at the start of April, and would ratchet up over a period of months. The first furloughs would begin April 8, according to a meeting participant.

If a tower is closed, operations at those airports would continue. But controller operations would be shifted to other facilities, or to the pilots themselves, who would radio their intentions to take off, land, and maneuver on the ground.

Ground operations could present the biggest danger to pilots, since it would remove from service controllers who are trained to look for conflicting movements on the runways and taxiways.

Critics say the FAA failed to consider important factors when compiling its list of towers, including whether the towers were also used for military operations and for search and rescue missions.

FAA officials also said Tuesday it would suspend development of its NextGen navigation system so it could reassign employees to control towers. And it would suspend its redesign of airspace — an ongoing program to make the area around airports more efficient.

The FAA also said budget cuts would force it to cut back on maintenance and repairs at “non-core” facilities. Only power, voice and navigational systems would be fixed at those facilities, the FAA told the industry executives.

Rudinger said while the FAA disclosed a few new details about its plans to deal with forced spending cuts — known in Washington as sequestration — it was “certainly not as much detail as we were looking for going into the meeting.”

Participants in the meeting questioned whether the FAA is making the smartest cuts.

”Clearly they have to make the cuts,” Rudinger said. “What’s unclear is how they came up with them. There hasn’t been any transparency in the process.”

3 undeniable reasons to explore Mexico

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

(CNN) — During a recent visit to Mexico, a woman on a bus in Cancun expressed puzzlement to me about why anyone would choose to travel to her country right now.

After a lengthy description of the violence in her hometown of Veracruz, she left me with emphatic advice: “No confia en nadie,” meaning “trust no one.”

That advice seems extreme. With a well-developed tourism sector, there are legions of people whose livelihood depends on helping you have a good time, and beyond that, most locals are warm and friendly. The drug violence that grabs most of the headlines shouldn’t define a country so rich in world-class attractions.

Yet safety should always be taken into account. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to many Mexican states, mostly in the north and west. Though southern Mexico goes about business as usual (and the State Department does not warn against travel to the area), it’s important to exercise caution and remember that danger can arise anywhere.

I’ve visited Mexico three times and have got a lot more to see, but here are three undeniably good reasons I’ve discovered to visit Mexico:

Gastronomia: Fried grasshoppers, perhaps?

Mexican food as a category needs little introduction; it was even recognized by UNESCO as part of world heritage in 2010.

But regional specialties abound. Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico is famous for multiple moles, complex stewed sauces served over meats. The Oaxacan treatment of the tortilla is the tlayuda, an open, crispy tortilla slathered with a bean paste, topped with cheese, meat or other toppings.

More adventurous Oaxacan offerings are the famous chapulines, grasshoppers fried to a crunch and spiced with chile and lime. They are better than they might sound (unless you’re wise enough to realize that anything crunchy with chile and lime is going to be good).

Chocolate originated in Mexico, and they still make it best.

Oaxaca is ground zero for chocoholics, where chocolate shops show visitors the transformation from beans into bars in the store. Chocolate here is most popular as a hot drink with water served alongside a sweet roll, but you can get it with milk or in bar form.

Coastal cities such as Campeche or Cancun on the Gulf of Mexico have great seafood, notably ceviche. Mexican ceviche usually adds tomato to the citrus marinated fish and shrimp. Also often added is ketchup, though this usually is called coctel instead of ceviche. (The tomatoes are acceptable, the ketchup is an abomination).

The Yucatan has specialties ranging from cochinita pibil (citrus marinated roast pork) to pavo en salsa negra (turkey in black salsa, a seriously funky dish made with burned chilies).

You can get a pretty mean taco almost anywhere. Mexican tacos are usually soft corn tortillas, a small pile of meat and little pickled vegetable or onion. Salsa is around, but you have to add it yourself if you want it.

The ends of many worlds

Mexico’s many pre-Hispanic sites are among the country’s most interesting destinations.

They carried extra weight last year for eschatologists with 2012 being the end of a cycle in one of the Maya long-count calendars. The Mayas never said it was the “end of the world,” just the end of “a” world. So they will be there for you to enjoy in the new 14th baktun.

Archaeologists aren’t sure who built the massive pyramids at Teotihuacan, but the site was long abandoned by the time the Aztecs were dominant (they reckoned it was built by gods). It is easily reachable from Mexico City but as such can be crowded and is packed with vendors.

Near the city of Oaxaca, the hilltop ruins of Monte Alban were once home to the Zapotec.

Palenque, a Maya site in a lush jungle in Chiapas, is also extremely impressive and interesting, but it is in the interior of the country and not really easy to get to from anywhere. The site’s jungle seclusion gives a trip there a more adventurous feel.

Expect to pay extra at these sites if you want to shoot video or use a tripod. Fees are posted near the entrances. It will likely be hot (in the summer especially), but vendors inside and out of the parks offer drinks as well as a vast array of trinkets, ranging from respectable to ridiculous.

Mysterious swims

Mexico’s beaches are plentiful, varied and justifiably a major draw. This year, I went for the more sedate environs of Tulum, a nice uncrowded beach with perfect turquoise water (and a beachside Maya ruin). But the cenotes are much more unusual and interesting.

Cenotes are a geological occurrence that are found in the Yucatan and very few other places. Because most of the peninsula sits on a limestone shelf, there are no surface rivers, and rainwater quickly seeps underground where it gathers and forms subterranean bodies of water known as cenotes.

They are present throughout the Yucatan and some have been developed into near-theme parks, where you pay a substantial admission price and there are vehicles, boats, zip lines and more. Others are tiny sinkholes known mainly to locals and are free if you can find them.

Many fall somewhere in between with a small admission fee (equivalent of $5-$10), perhaps a changing area and maybe some lights or ropes. Other than that, it’s just a natural swimming hole. Some go underground for hundreds of meters or more, and they are a popular attraction for intermediate divers.

They’re also perfect for just plain swimming. The Yucatan is hot and sticky; the water in cenotes is fresh and ice cold since they are partially or completely underground. In some cases, sunlight shines through holes in the cavern ceiling, illuminating the beautifully clear, blue-tinted water giving it an otherworldly feel.

And many cenotes attract swallows, which you might — as I did — mistake for bats. They constantly fly in and out squeaking busily. Though the clear water might trick your brain into thinking you’re in a sterile pool, you are not. There is wildlife present, mostly in the form of little fish that will nibble at your feet if you are still, as well as the occasional turtle or snake.

Some recommended cenotes for swimming:

X’kekén near Valladolid is a beautiful underground spot. Cristalino off the main highway near Playa del Carmen is mostly exposed and has a fun cliff you can jump off (it’s only a 15 foot or so drop). Grand Cenote near Tulum has some exposed and some subterranean areas and lots of wildlife running or swimming around.

So whether you go to Mexico for cave swimming and ancient sites or for mole and margaritas, it’ll be worth it.

Confia en mi — trust me on that.

Toyota Recalls 1 Million Cars in US

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

Fresh from reclaiming its crown as the world’s largest automaker, Toyota has been hit by another major recall.

The Japanese carmaker said Wednesday it was recalling more than 1 million vehicles sold in the United States over faulty airbags and windshield wipers.

The airbag control issue affects about 752,000 Corolla and Corolla Matrix cars sold in 2003 and 2004. And the windshield wiper issue affects some 270,000 Lexus IS models sold between 2006 and early 2012.

Toyota (TM)said there was the possibility that the Corolla airbags could deploy inadvertently, and the Lexus wipers may not operate if restricted by a heavy buildup of snow.

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) is the leading automaker in the world’s two largest markets, China and the U.S. But Toyota is a clear leader in its home market of Japan, where non-Japanese automakers have had trouble competing due to limited dealerships.

Sales of Toyota vehicles totaled 9.75 million in 2012, beating GM’s 9.29 million and propelling the Japanese firm to top spot in the global car market.

In 2011, Toyota’s car sales were hurt by the earthquake and tsunami, and in 2009 and 2010 sales were hit by damaging recalls.

During those two years, more than 8 million Toyota vehicles were brought in for a potential problem involving sticky accelerator pedals.

Sales and production of eight models were suspended temporarily, and the company agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a related class-action suit by owners who claimed they suffered losses because of unintended acceleration.

The automaker also suffered two major recalls in 2012. In October, it recalled 7.4 million cars due to a power window problem that posed a fire risk. And a month later it recalled 2.8 million cars over problems with steering and hybrid systems.

Man kills Alabama bus driver, holds child hostage underground

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

(CNN) — A gunman boarded a school bus in Alabama, killed the driver, took a 6-year-old boy hostage and hours later was still holding him in an underground bunker, police said.

The incident started Tuesday afternoon and continued Wednesday morning with authorities still desperately trying to free the young child.

Late in the evening Tuesday, the man had the child in some sort of underground bunker or storm shelter, and authorities were communicating with him through a PVC pipe, CNN affiliate WSFA reported.

“We will continue to work diligently through the night in an effort to bring closure to this incident as quickly as possible,” the Dale County Sheriff’s Department said late Tuesday.

Adding to the tension was the fact that the child needs medication that has to be taken daily, CNN affiliate WDHN reported.

Overnight, authorities were able to send the child’s medication down the pipe into the bunker and also determine that the boy had not been physically harmed, WDHN reported.

The incident started at about 3:40 p.m. (4:40 p.m. ET) near a church in Midland City, Alabama, in the southeastern corner of the state.

Michael Senn, a local pastor, told WSFA that he spoke to several students who had been on the bus.

He said a girl described the shooter getting aboard.

“He told most of them to get off the bus,” Senn related. “And then he grabbed a little boy and shot the bus driver four times.” The driver’s body was removed from the bus early Wednesday, WDHN reported.

Mike Creel, the suspect’s neighbor, said he also talked to some of the children who escaped the bus. It was a terrifying scene, Creel told the affiliate.

The suspect initially demanded two children, Creel told WSFA.

“The one child he got ahold of actually fainted,” said Creel. “That was the reason he was able to grab him. And now he is hidden in his homemade bomb shelter.”

Creel said the suspect had been living in the area for about two years and began building the shelter right when he moved in.

Authorities have not released the name of the suspected gunman.

Early in the morning, local authorities allowed the FBI to take the lead in the hostage situation, WDHN reported.

Harrowing stories emerge from nightclubs ashes

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

Santa Maria, Brazil (CNN) — The teacher who lost four students. The mother whose son died, while another clings to life. The photographer who survived but is haunted by guilt.

As the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria began to buzz again Tuesday with cars and people, a somber mood still ruled the streets, where a nightclub fire Sunday claimed 235 lives.

Just about at every corner you could hear angry voices raised in talk about who is to blame for the massive blaze at the Kiss nightclub. Protesters rallied, demanding justice for those killed and tighter enforcement of regulations.

In addition to the deaths, 74 people remain hospitalized in critical condition, Brazil’s health ministry said.

In Santa Maria alone, 100 of the dead were buried Monday in three different cemeteries.

That night, the streets were filled with thousands of mourners who marched to the burned-out club.

The shouts of grief and prayers were overtaken only by the wailing of mothers who stood before the building. One woman shouted: “My son, why did you have to die here?”

Police have questioned about two dozen people, including four individuals they arrested — the two owners of Kiss, a member of the band Gurizada Fandangueira and a promoter.

Police identified the club owners as Mauro Hoffman and Elissandro Spohr. Band vocalist Marcelo de Jesus dos Santos and show producer Luciano Bonilha were also in custody.

Kiss was filled well beyond its legal capacity, when a crowd of 2,000 people packed the club to hear the band play.

About 20 minutes into the concert, the musicians ended a song with pyrotechnic effects. The ceiling caught fire, state officials said. It spread fast.

The crowd panicked, breaking into a stampede, and it hit a bottleneck — the only exit was the front door, down a dark, narrow hallway.

It clogged quickly.

A firework set off in the club was not made for inside use and the band, which purchased it, knew that, said Marcelo Arigony, with the Santa Maria police. He accused the band of intentionally purchasing the firework made for use outdoors because it was cheaper.

He also said investigators have found evidence of faulty and fake fire extinguishers at the club, which had expired fire and municipal licenses. The club’s original license permitted just 691 people inside.

While the investigation centers on the pyrotechnics used, Gurizada Fandangueira’s guitarist told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that it was not clear yet what may have caused the fire.

“There were many wires on the ceiling, and there could have been a short circuit,” he said.

More stories emerge

For residents of Santa Maria like Vinicius Serafim, the tragedy that unfolded at the club was unthinkable, even as the first reports began to come in.

“Most of us were thinking, ‘OK, there is a fire, people got out and that was it,” he said. “In the morning, where they started saying 40 dead, 50 dead, then we started noticing and really knowing (what happened).”

Serafim, an English teacher, lost four students in the blaze, and others are in intensive care units.

“Everybody is completely destroyed because they were young people, people that we knew. We worked with them for at least one year,” he said.

One survivor, 24-year-old Mariana Magalhaes, told Brazil’s state-run Agencia Brasil news agency, that she witnessed the band’s singer unsuccessfully trying to put out the fire with an extinguisher.

She was working as a photographer at Kiss, and had already been to 15 funerals when she spoke to Agencia Brasil.

Magalhaes was one of the first to exit the building, and admits that she felt she was overreacting at first by screaming and running out. Only later did she realize her panic saved her life.

“No one could imagine the seriousness (of the fire),” she said. One danger was that the club’s sound insulation was made of styrofoam, which releases toxic fumes when burned.

“It was a very silent enemy,” she said. “People were exiting fine and walking, when from one moment to the next they started to fall, to have convulsions, to vomit.”

Magalhaes escaped with five friends, but in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy she was filled with guilt, too.

“You can count five people on one hand,” she said. “We don’t feel fortunate for surviving because there are mothers who won’t be able to hug their sons. My mom is hugging me, but at the same time I felt lucky and guilty.”

On a Brazilian television program, one mother lamented the death of her son and the injuries to a another son.

Elaine Goncalves was able to locate her injured son as he was being transferred to a hospital, but she could not accompany him because she had to go claim the body of her other son.

“It’s terrible, very sad,” she said. “My sons left the house looking nice, happy, playful, the two brothers together. My son left to go to a party and now he is here, inside a box. I demand justice.”

Brazil’s minister of health, Alexandre Padilha, said the most serious cases involve patients who require permanent dialysis, medications to maintain blood pressure, and assistance breathing.

Many of the injured were transferred to hospitals in bigger cities, while others were kept in Santa Maria.

“The transfer was for patients with serious burns because our specialized centers are in the city of Porto Alegre and also in order to free up beds in the intensive care unit here in Santa Maria,” Padilha said.

Some were in such critical condition that it was not believed they could survive the trip to another facility.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff honored the victims during a meeting with newly elected mayors on Monday.

“The pain which I witnessed is indescribable,” Rousseff said. “I speak of that pain to remind us all about our responsibility, the executive branch, with our population. In the face of this tragedy, we must make a commitment to ensure that it will never happen again.”

Bag fees key to airlines bottom lines

December 19th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) – Bag charges may mean financial pain and aggravation to a lot of airline passengers, but they are a lifeline and profit-driver to formerly financially strapped carriers.

Recent numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that Delta Air Lines had the second-highest operating-profit margin among U.S. airlines in the third quarter of 2012, and also took in the most checked bag-fee revenue: $233.1 million.

No mere coincidence there.

Prior to the airlines’ current and growing ancillary revenue blitz, there was a lot of red ink going around as escalating fuel prices and competition from other carriers exacted much hurt on the airlines’ bottom lines.

But in today’s U.S. airline industry, the top 10 airlines all posted an operating profit during the third quarter, and bag fees, charges for premium seats and meals, and industry consolidation had much to do with the turnaround.

Delta’s third quarter profit margin of 14.6% was only eclipsed by the much-smaller Alaska Airlines at 18.7%, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Interestingly, Alaska’s third quarter revenue from bag fees was more than $44 million, well up in the BTS ranking in sixth place ahead of Spirit, Allegiant, JetBlue and Frontier despite the fact that Alaska was only 10th in passenger enplanements over the first eight months of 2012.

Delta generally charges $25, $35 and $125 for the first, second and third checked bag each way, while Alaska charges $20 each.

Part of the reason that Delta took in more bag fee revenue than any other U.S. airline in the third quarter is it has been running second so far this year in enplaned passengers, behind Southwest and ahead of United. Southwest carried about 12 million more passengers than Delta did from January to August 2012, but Southwest’s first-two checked bags fly free policy brought down its bag fee revenue in the third quarter to fifth.

After Delta, the remaining top 10 U.S. airlines in bag-fee revenue in the third quarter, in descending order, were: United, American, US Airways, Southwest, Alaska, Spirit, Allegiant, JetBlue and Frontier.

The key role of ancillary revenue initiatives to airlines’ health can be seen in Southwest’s announcement last week that it would be increasing its ancillary fees as it seeks to take in an additional $100 million or more in ancillary revenue in 2013.

The first two checked bags fly free on Southwest, but the combined Southwest and AirTran (with bag fees of $20, $25 and $50 for the first three checked bags, respectively) attracted $46 million in bag-fee revenue — the fifth highest — among U.S. airlines during the third quarter.

In addition to AirTran’s bag fees, Southwest collects fees for third-checked bags ($50) and excess bags, and its numbers are pumped up by the fact that Southwest is among the largest U.S. airlines in terms of passenger traffic.

The BTS notes that U.S. passenger airlines garnered $924 million in bag fees from July to September 2012, and that comes on top of the $652 million they collected from a poor second cousin, change fees.

And, these numbers are only part of the airline ancillary revenue picture because U.S. airlines are not required to report other ancillary revenue, including fees for seat upgrades, food and beverage, and entertainment, including Wi-Fi.

That means that the airline fee frenzy is even more integral to carriers’ financial health than is immediately apparent — and most of them have plans to up the ante in 2013.

Mark Zuckerberg donates $500 million

December 19th, 2012 by Mariah

FORTUNE — Mark Zuckerberg donated Facebook shares worth $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with donors to allocate funds according to their interests. The gift is the largest ever received by the foundation, which finances projects locally and around the world, and Zuckerberg said he planned to focus his giving in health and education.

Zuckerberg announced the gift in a post on Facebook, where he noted that he and his wife Priscilla Chan had previously signed the Giving Pledge, an effort led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage billionaires to donate most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. In 2010, Zuckerberg pledged to donate $100 million in Facebook (FB) shares to an effort to improve public education in Newark, New Jersey.

“Today, in order to lay the foundation for new projects, we’ve made a contribution of 18 million Facebook shares to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation,” Zuckerberg wrote. At Tuesday’s closing price of $27.71, the shares are worth $498 million. “Together, we will look for areas in education and health to focus on next. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to have as positive an impact in our next set of projects,” Zuckerberg wrote.

In a statement, Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation said: “Mark’s generous gift will change lives and inspire others in Silicon Valley and around the globe to give back and make the world a better place. We are pleased and honored that he has chosen to continue to partner with us to help him achieve his philanthropic goals.”

Treasury to sell remaining GM shares

December 19th, 2012 by Mariah




The Treasury Department announced plans on Wednesday to sell the 500 million shares of General Motors it still owns, closing the books on the $51 billion bailout that started four years ago.

But even with the $12 billion to $14 billion Treasury will likely recoup from the stock sales, taxpayers will probably lose out on the GM bailout when all is said and done.

Treasury said GM has agreed to repurchase 200 million shares by the end of this year for $27.50 a share, a nearly 8% premium above Tuesday’s closing price. Shares of GM (GM, Fortune 500) jumped more than 7% in early trading Wednesday on the news.

Treasury intends to sell its remaining 300 million shares through various means in an orderly fashion within the next 12-15 months, subject to market conditions. Sales could start as soon as January.

After the repurchase of shares by GM, there will still be $21.6 billion of bailout funds yet to be returned to taxpayers. The average sale price on the remaining 300 million shares would have to be nearly $72 in order for Treasury to break even. That’s nearly triple Tuesday’s closing price.

Related: Two very bright signs for GM

GM started to receive bailout funds in late 2008, with the bulk of the money being used to fund its operations during its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization.

Although GM has returned to profitability since the bailout, the stock has not done as well as hoped. Treasury is getting less than the $33 per share it received at the time of GM’s initial public offering in November 2010. GM CEO Dan Akerson has apologized for the automaker’s weak stock price despite strong earnings.

Related: GM’s next bailout – in Europe

Still, it is estimated that 1.5 million jobs were saved by keeping General Motors and smaller rival Chrysler afloat through bailouts, according to the Center for Automotive Research. That’s why many economists argue that the bailout worked, even if taxpayers are not completely repaid.

Van Conway, a Michigan restructuring expert, said the overall hit to the economy might have been hundreds of billions of dollars if GM and Chrysler had gone under, due to the loss of businesses across many different sectors.

“If we had not bailed out GM and Chrysler, it would have affected companies that no one ever thought about,” said Conway.

GM has bounced back to earn record profits in 2011, as it recaptured its title of the world’s leading automaker. It is hiring workers once again.


“The auto industry rescue helped save more than a million jobs during a severe economic crisis, but TARP was always meant to be a temporary, emergency program. The government should not be in the business of owning stakes in private companies for an indefinite period of time,” said Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability Timothy Massad.

Despite the success of GM since 2009, the bailout remains controversial. It was a major point of contention during the recent presidential election. Mitt Romney arguedgovernment funds should not have been used the bailout. GM has been eager to have Treasury sell its remaining stake due to the opposition of some potential car buyers to the deal, who mockingly referred to the company as “Government Motors.” The final sale of stock will also remove limits on executive pay at GM.

“This announcement is an important step in bringing closure to the successful auto industry rescue, it further removes the perception of government ownership of GM among customers, and it demonstrates confidence in GM’s progress and our future,” Akerson said in a statement Wednesday.