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november 30 -> the sunrise scam

I am going to let you in on one of the biggest scams in the travel industry.  Not hidden commissions, or overbooked flights, or rigged taxi meters.  I am talking about The Sunrise Scam. 

Today, in thousands of places around the world, dawn is breaking on freezing tourists who have been forced out of bed at unreasonable hours to watch the sunrise.  They have clambered up the temples of Angkor Wat, drove to the Ayers Rock parking area, scrambled up boulders near the Grand Canyon, and struggled up sand dunes in the Sahara.  There they sit, cold and anxious, waiting for a fiery orb that cast crimson rays on the cotton ball sky, or something literary like that.  Sometimes, they are very lucky.  In most cases, they feel stupid and very tired.

Of course, if you are a professional photographer, there is a good reason to be up at dawn.  That is when the light is at its softest, a half hour window of golden hues.  But most of us are getting up for the sunrise itself.  And when it comes, we suddenly realize that we don't know how to take a photo of a sunrise.  We're not professionals.  We don't have tripods and can't tell an F-stop from a shortstop.  We shield our eyes and squint and end up with a bright fuzzy blur caused by too much light and our shaking, frostbitten hands. 

Don't get me wrong.  Sunrises can be beautiful and romantic.  But if I get up at 4:00 am, and hike for three hours up the side of a Cliff that some over-oxygenated Nepalese decided to call a Hill, I want see God's own fireworks.  I climbed that Cliff.  Its name was Poon Hill.  ‘Poon,' I later learned, is Nepalese for ‘fool.'  So who is behind this foul scheme?

My theory is that tourist organizations around the world use what I call The Sunrise Scam to increase tourism dollars.  Just answer this simple multiple-choice question:

Q: Tourists tend to spend more money when they are ___________.

a)      Asleep

b)      Awake

The answer, of course, is ‘b,' and what better way to get people spending then to get them really excited about waking up at 4:00 am to catch the sunrise.  Afterwards, maybe a Big Breakfast at McDonald's.  Ooh, it's time to fill the car up with gas!  How about a Grande Cappuccino to get you through a long day of sightseeing and paying entry fees?  And at the end of the day, there is nothing like a good sunset to let you know it's time for a big, expensive dinner!

Anyone who has traveled to a natural wonder or a famous monument knows what I'm talking about.  The guidebooks are complicit.  Grab any book of the shelf, say Lonely Planet Paraguay.  I can pretty much guarantee you that they will list as one of the highlights ‘viewing the sunrise over a Mennonite deck chair in the Middle Chaco' or something like that.  I've failed to be impressed by sunrises and sunsets on four continents.  And I'm certainly not alone.  When I bring up my theory of The Sunrise Scam to other frequent travelers, they all have a story to tell. 

So what makes a good sunrise?  I spoke to Gale Fortz, meteorologist at WND Chicago to find out.  Interestingly, the presence of a famous landmark nearby did not make it on the list of top ‘beautiful sunrise' criterion such as patchy cloud cover, atmospheric dust and high humidity.  In other words, you are no more likely to see a ‘beautiful sunrise' over the Taj Mahal than you are at home, unless your home is England.

Sunrise watchers drive me crazy.  They arrive at least two hours early to designated sunrise-watching viewpoints.  Ideally, they have an old Volkswagen bug, which they will climb on top of, so that they can most easily cast disapproving glances at the latecomers, who clearly don't appreciate sunrises as much as they do.  A goatee also apparently aids sunrise watching.

Typical conversation with a sunrise watcher:

Scott: Hey!  Did you manage to get up for the sunrise this morning?

Sunrise Watcher: Yeah.  It was my third.  It just keeps getting better each time!

Scott: Really?  I was there this morning, and nothing happened.  It was just a regular sunrise.  It was dark.  Then the sun came up.  No colors.  Nothing special.

Sunrise Watcher: Were your eyes open?  It was beautiful, man!  It started off pumpkin-colored, and then it went yellow like a canary.  The clouds looked like they were on fire.  It was amazing!

Scott: You must be on crack.  There was no pumpkin, no canary.  Didn't you see all the cars pulling out early from the viewing area?  They were disappointed that they got up at 4:00 am for nothing!  So was I!

Sunrise Watcher: Typical tourist pig.  You wouldn't know a good sunrise if it crawled up your butt.

The next time you are encouraged to get up early for sunrise or stay out for sunset, keep The Sunrise Scam in mind.  You'll be glad you did.

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