Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Staycation idea: Virtual vacation

Virtual worlds are becoming more and more popular on the Internet. Web sites such as Second Life www.secondlife.com allow you to customize an avatar and interact with others in a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” If that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. The sites actually allow you to shop, with real money, for virtual items. I’m just not into spending real money for a virtual pair of jeans. I don’t care how good the jeans look on the virtual me.

That’s not what I mean by virtual vacation. I’m referring to creating a trip overseas by immersing yourself in a different culture through cuisine, language lessons, and films. The Wall Street Journal had a story about a woman in New York who did that. She viewed Japanese films, shopped at traditional Japanese markets, and bought souvenirs there. She ordered in Japanese at the restaurant and partook in traditional activities such as running down a road screaming, “No! No! It’s Godzilla!”

OK, not that last part. I apologize for comparing modern Japanese culture with its well-known cinematic export.

Back to seriousness. If there’s a country, or area of the U.S., that you want to visit or know more about, you can take a virtual vacation there. With a library and the Internet, it’s easier than ever to find information about customs, clothing, food, films, music, and the history of an area.

You can also take advantage of Google Earth (www.earth.google.com), a free Internet application that provides satellite images, maps, terrain, and 3-D views of buildings from all over the world. A few years ago a global poll decided the new “Seven Wonders of the World.” With Google Earth and other Web sites on the Internet, you can virtually visit the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India, and the other new wonders of the world.

You can also look at stars and galaxies with Google Earth. It’s a great educational tool for you and your kids, and can be combined with a trip to an observatory or stargazing during a camping trip. And here’s another free Google treat to check out:

Google maps (www.maps.google.com) offers street-level pictures for areas all over the U.S., as well as in several other countries. Google sends out teams of people with cameras mounted on dashboards to take photos all over the country. The result is a massive collection of photos of downtown areas, tourist spots, and residential areas that you can find on a map. It’s fun to look at different areas of the country, especially if you’ve lived in several areas and want to see your old stomping grounds. It’s addicting, but even if you waste time, you won’t waste money. Virtual jeans are not for sale.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

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