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Saturday, March 04, 2017

Greedy Airlines Found A Partner In Crime-- The Trump Regime Wants To Encourage More Rip-offs Of Passengers

A week or so ago, we took a quick look at how Trump's policies are hurting the American travel industry-- and how pissed off the travel industry is at him and his regime. It looks like it will be getting worse too. Thursday the EU Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the reintroduction of visa requirements for American citizens, a little tit-for-tat over Washington refusing to give visa-free travel access to 5 EU nations (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania).
In the vote on Thursday, the Parliament gave the European Commission two months to take legal measures to impose visas for American travelers to the European Union unless the Americans offered reciprocity to all citizens from the bloc.

European officials in Brussels have balked at making travel to Europe more difficult for Americans, saying doing so would have an economic cost and would most likely not even resolve the hurdles facing citizens of the five affected countries.

The Parliament’s measure was approved in a show of hands and was not expected to worsen the standoff with the United States. But in the event that the court in Luxembourg were to rule in favor of Parliament, the commission might be forced to impose visa requirements on Americans.

The Trump administration, finding itself in a tit-for-tat battle over access, would then almost certainly do the same for travelers from the European Union.
(It would probably be prudent for Trump to add Cyprus-- a shady Russian Mafia den of iniquity-- to his travel ban altogether. But that's not going to happen while the Trump kakistocracy is in power.)

Anyway-- back to the travel industry-- it looks like one segment of that industry-- the airlines-- are happy with Trump again. Elaine Chao (Mitch McConnell's beard wife) is the Secretary of Transportation and she's already starting to roll back regulations that protected the public from the runaway avarice and greed of the U.S. airlines. Travel Weekly posted about it Thursday. The Trumpists came down firmly on the side of the airlines when it comes to ripping off passengers with hidden fees for baggage, etc.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) on Thursday indefinitely suspended public comment on two proposed consumer-protection measures that the Obama administration put forward during its last months in office.

The DOT took the steps to "allow the president's appointees to review and consider this action," it said in Federal Register filings.

Last October, the DOT issued a request for information from consumer groups, airlines and other industry stakeholders to determine whether it should regulate the common airline practice of displaying only some content offerings through indirect channels, such as OTAs and GDSs, while displaying their full offerings on their own websites. In late December, the DOT extended that comment period to March 31 from its initial end date of Dec. 31. That comment period has now been suspended while the DOT reviews its merits.

The DOT has also suspended the final airline-related rulemaking process that was begun during the Obama administration. On Jan. 19, just three days before Obama left office, the DOT proposed a requirement that airlines and ticket agents (including travel agents) disclose fees for carry-on and checked bags from the beginning of a fare inquiry.

If enacted, the rule would mean that carriers couldn't show a ticket price on a web interface, then only later in the sales process show fees for baggage.

Public comment on that proposal had been scheduled to close on March 20.

...The trade group Travel Tech, which represents OTAs, travel search sites and GDSs, said Thursday that it is disappointed with both suspensions.

"Consumers deserve transparency in fare and schedule information and ancillary fees," Travel Tech president Steve Shur said in prepared remarks. "DOT must live up to its mandate on consumer protection and ensure consumers have access to all the information they need to make a purchasing decision."

President Trump has said reducing regulations will be a key policy goal of his administration.
Needless to say, the airline lobbyists were giddy with joy. Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio: "We applaud Secretary Chao’s leadership today and look forward to an era of smarter regulation that protects consumers from unfair practices, but does not step in when action is not warranted. Today’s action is a common sense measure reinforcing that the airline industry is capable of making the decisions that best serve our customers, our employees and the communities we serve."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

TNT Packs a Rum Punch!

One of the mask competitors at Trinidad’s carnival. Mask traditions go back to Africa, representing ancestral spirits offering protection during slavery and servitude. Fevered competitions abound in a variety of music styles, like steel pan.

Seeking a travel break from the intrigues of a perforated ship of state? Perhaps from the curious undertows dragging the DNC out to sea? Here's a vicarious escape you might consider giving a real embrace next year. I don't think the need for an escape that shakes up the scenery will lessen.

A Melting Pot on a Carnival March Across Musical, Culinary and Cultural Battlefields
Text and photos by Skip Kaltenheuser

At Trinidad’s Dattatreya Yoga Center and Mandir, this giant statue of Hanuman Murti, the Monkey God, is the largest outside of India

Heads of state sometimes gather in Port of Spain to jockey for position, with some reaching out and some more antagonistic. Often overlooked is a lesson in personal diplomacy that the entire world might take from the host country, Trinidad and Tobago. The two islands, quite different from each other, form a single country, and have the Caribbean’s most intriguing culture. People who are often at loggerheads elsewhere in the world get along just fine here, thank you very much.

The historical layers that built Trinidad and Tobago have created one of the most splendid melting pots in the world, with a remarkable degree of affability between the diverse groups that built the nation. Understanding those historical layers is key to appreciating the country’s many grand offerings to visitors. Like many other Caribbean islands, the original population was Arawak and Carib Indians, after the latter came to the islands and conquered the former. Columbus landed on Trinidad in 1498 during his third voyage, during which he again missed India but discovered South America, thinking it part of Asia. In keeping with their usual pattern, the Spanish wiped out most of the Indian population, and assimilated the survivors. Trinidad was a magnet for French, free blacks and other non-Spanish, but Spain ruled it until the British captured it in 1797.

Tobago was much more in play. French, Dutch and British forces perpetually contested possession. During colonial times, the island changed hands twenty-two times, setting the record for West Indies turn.

African slaves formed a majority of the population, but after slaves were emancipated in 1838, the melting pot became much more interesting. The Europeans needed to fill a labor shortage, so in 1845 they begin bringing in both Muslims and Hindus from India as indentured servants in order to work the large sugar and cocoa plantations.

Meanwhile, Chinese started finding their way to the islands. A couple hundred came in 1806, on the ship Fortitude, part of an experiment in setting up a settlement of farmers and laborers, in anticipation of the eventual ending of slavery. It was a disaster, and the couple dozen who remained started shops or did carpentry or gardeners. A second wave came in the mid-1800’s after slavery ended, mostly from Macao, Hong Kong and Canton, as indentured laborers. A third wave came after 1911 and the Chinese revolution of that year. The pace picked up between the 1920’s and 1940’s, most of them families and friends of immigrants who’d arrived earlier. Instead of working on estates, they adapted to roles as peddlers, traders, shopkeepers and merchants.

Additionally, many Chinese from elsewhere in the Caribbean came to Trinidad after they’d finished their indenture obligation on other islands. When China started opening up to the outside world in the late 1970’s, a fourth wave of migration began. In 1960, Sir Solomon Hochoy was knighted by the Queen of England and became the only nonwhite British governor of Trinidad and Tobago, becoming Governor-General when the country became independent in 1962.

A parade group prepares to rush the reviewing stand for its do-or-die dance moment, perhaps to a song by Super Blue, aiming for Carnival glory

People from these divergent backgrounds have blended their heritages, and often their families. Although the number of unmixed Chinese Trinidadians, or Sino-Trinidadians, probably peaked in 1960 at eight and a half thousand, many more islanders have some Chinese in their ancestry. Among the much larger Indian population, it isn’t unusual for Muslims to marry Hindus, with a marriage in each religion to please the families. The families then just double down on the religious holidays. The racial and religious tensions found in much of the world’s regions are hard to find here. It’s a very refreshing experience.

If you ask a cab driver his family’s ancestry, be prepared to hear a long story about a well-branched family tree, likely to include Europeans, Amerindians, Africans, Indians, Chinese and others such as Portuguese, many of whose ancestors were also indentured laborers, and Arabs. They all bring something to the cultural mix, not always in proportion to the size of the population. For example, Buddhists may only be a percent of the population, but the country was recently fascinated by introduction of the Shaolin Martial Arts of Ch’an Buddhism.

Puja prayer flags at Trinidad's seaside Hindu Waterloo Temple

One of the pleasurable spill-overs of this melting pot is the cooking pot, and its been simmering for centuries. Consider the dish of curry chicken and roti, inherited from indentured laborers from India, along with curry versions of crab, shrimp, duck and potato. The roti is of various ingredients, including cowpeas. Sometimes its served on a skewer with eggplant relish and tomato chutney vinaigrette. A sample from Africa is callaloo, a spicy dish made from dasheen leaves, okra, crab, coconut milk and cilantro. Many dishes are stewed, barbecued or curried with coconut milk.

Spice is king. Hot peppers concoctions, including a hot sauce called “mother-in-law” that makes some people’s faces sweat just from thinking the name, often figure in. Mango chutney and curry mango are among the treats resulting form fusing the broad array of delicious fruit with spice.

Breakfasts include fried corned beef with onions and tomatoes. Fried figs with saltfish-- cod in a packet-- is common. Homemade coconut bread with black pudding-- a blood sausage including onions, pork fat, oatmeal and spices-- is a hit.

Bake and shark is popular at breakfast and at any time of day. The moment the shark shacks open up at Trinidad’s stunning Maracas Beach, long lines appear in anticipation. The local shark is deep-fried and and stuffed in pocket of deep-fried batter that is similar to the fry bread of American Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. Maracas Beach, one of the beautiful beaches on the north side of Trinidad, is protected by a deep bay. The broad beach is dotted with tall palm trees and hardwoods, with soccer games making the sand fly about. The hour or so drive to the beach from the capital, Port of Spain, goes through mountains covered with rainforest and along cliffs overlooking the coast. One overlook area has roadside stands selling dried sour prunes, red mango and other preserved fruits with hot spice that locals can’t resist.

Rich soups and stews are known as “blue food.” The seafood offerings are superb, particularly curried crab and dumplings, and king fish. A small fresh water fish, the cascadura, is used in a rare specialty dish, with the legend that those who eat it will return to Trinidad to spend their days.

The most popular drink is a rum punch made from sugar water, dark rum, lime juice and Angostura bitters.

The hardest working man in show business, a small cog in a giant steel pan machine in an orchestra competition, utilizing perhaps the only major musical instrument created in the prior century. This T&T original is one of wide variety of musical styles celebrated in the country.

The historical melting pot has also brought forth unique recipes for music. Among them is the steel drum. It’s a brilliant innovation that began in the 1930’s as orchestras of dustbin lids, prying pans and oil drums. The tops of 55 gallon drum tops are hammered into a pitched percussion instrument called a steelpan, with pitched notes based on the size of the ovals in the pan. One might have thirty soprano-range notes, another only three bass notes, necessitating a player to have six pans. There’s a large range of instruments between them, and pan orchestras might have a hundred or more players. High tech techniques are continually developed to better tune the pans, and some are designed at the outset to be musical instruments, including by one manufacturer in Switzerland. The music a good orchestra puts out is a marvel to hear.

The pan evolved from traditions of African drums and sticks used by slaves to communicate, which were suppressed on the islands. Percussion bamboo sticks were banned in 1883 after they were used as weapons in conflicts between groups who lost control during the Mardis Gras carnival celebrations inherited from the French. Drumming traditions were also strong in India. After the initial bans, bottles and spoons were used until the pans were created.

Another of Trinidad and Tobago’s musical gifts, Calypso, has its roots in attempts at communication between slaves. Strongly harmonic and rhythmic, the songs are often in the language of a French creole that was created to allow the melting pot to better communicate, as the slaves from different tribes and the other inhabitants originally came with very different languages. Songs are led by a griot, a poet and wandering musician who is both witty and very knowledgeable on local history and events. The griot style has been traced to West Africa and the old Mali Empire of seven hundred years ago. After slavery was abolished on the islands, carnival festivals began to develop in the 1830’s, with large tents for Calypso concerts and competitions.

Soca music is a more recent local creation, from 1963. It originally included instruments from India, though they were used less when the form later adopted elements of American soul and funk. Good times are at the core of the songs. Soca is also the venue for lively carnival competitions.

Other variations on these musical forms include Extempo, a type of freestyle calypso war for which the lyrics are improvised on the spot. Singers don’t just compete for the carnival title of Extempo Monarch. Some wander the streets with a guitar or walk onto a bus and make up songs on the spot about the people they see. Rapso is another musical style, with more political and spiritual themes, and Chutney, which grew from the Indian populations. These and other styles are woven into the carnival competitions but are prevalent throughout the year.

A Dame Lorraine, sporting one of carnival’s long-lived traditional costumes. It began as a way to make fun of the wives of French plantation owners

Rapso is well-suited to the carnival street party J’ouvert, which uses any materials that are handy to beat out rhythms. The celebration starts around three or four in the morning and lasts until a few hours after sunrise. The calypso and soca bands that lead their followers are now often on large sound trucks, with beverage trucks close by. Celebrants, known as Jab Jabs, throw colored powders and water, and smear paint, mud or oil on each other. The customs come from a disturbance long ago that became a riot, with people disguising themselves, and from a festival held by the Indian population, Holi. There are often fire breathers, using a high alcohol rum, who punctuate the darkness with blasts of flame.

Blue Devil in a mountain village. Leave the wallet at home, keep a few singles handy because non-contributors are often embraced, so don't wear the irresistible color white or anything you're fond of

Throughout J’ouvert and the daylight carnival parades, there is a great deal of “wining.” Celebrants, in mud or in risqué costumes, often complete strangers, suddenly do a comical bump and grind with each other to the music, or with onlookers who get too close, for a brief moment, and then move on. Somethings a dozen people might line up for some periodic wining as they dance along. It’s a lively reminder of ancient carnival traditions in Europe that centered on fertility, and on the chance for slaves and the lower class to cut loose. After Christianity gained control of carnival, the wildness and chaos led up to the sober period of Lent that leads up to Easter. But carnival, with its satirical traditions, always retains its resistance to authority, and its embrace of sex.

While the focal point of carnival is in Trinidad’s capital, Port of Prince, it has smaller celebrations throughout the island, including one in a village up in the hills where “blue devils” dance through the street and demand tribute from onlookers. If a dollar isn’t given-- keep the rest of your money well-hidden, the devils will grab what they can-- the devils will smear them with blue paint, (it doesn’t wash out of clothes, this writer attests).

In the evening, as with the steel pan competition, Panorama, with its huge orchestras, and the Soca and Calypso competitions, which include singers, bands and dancers, there is also a “Mas” competition for King and Queen costumes that can only be believed if seen. It’s often accompanied by elaborate music, dancers and impressive stagecraft. One person, aided by no more than two or three small roller wheels, wears a huge costume weighing hundreds of pounds, and its not unusual to see someone collapse after getting his or her costume across the stage. The technical expertise that goes into making these huge costumes wearable is part of the art form, and it’s impressive, though everyone prays there is no strong wind that might sail a contestant off the stage. Themes are often drawn from China, India, Africa and American Indians.

No less impressive are the costumes worn by children at their carnival. It’s also a pleasure to see how inclusive it is, with a good number of children with disabilities, mental or physical, putting on elaborate costumes and joining the parade with everyone else. A large number of kids are up on stilts, often very high stilts, in tribute to the Moko Jumbies. Legends had them walking across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa, to eventually walk the streets of Trinidad in freedom. They also acquired a ghost persona from the Indian population, and powers to protect people by driving off evil spirits. Adults also have Moko Jumbie bands, and the very tall, costumed figures are remarkable dancers.

A bit of incognito “wine and jam” at J’ouert, the 4 am parade beginning carnival’s celebrations, with music and beverage trucks keeping moving before sunrise. Again, don’t wear a tux or anything you're fond of, waterproof cameras recommended. A lot of paint and grease is tossed about, as here with the parade group Caesar’s Army

While many of the costumes are known for their brevity, one of the most fun is a satirical costume tradition that pokes fun at the wives of the French plantation owners of long ago, who liked to dress up as aristocracy. The carnival version adds wildly exaggerated rumps and busts, and sports parasols. There are many other traditional costume characters, including Navy sailors, Fancy Indians from North America, dragons, Minstrels with faces painted white, and Bats with big wing spans. While Tobago, better known for a huge jazz festival in April, also celebrates carnival, it’s much less grandiose. For many Trinidadians, it is a post-carnival retreat where people can calm down. They hop a plane or ferry to get to the country’s alter ego island. While Trinidad’s modern economy leaned heavily on oil and now is focused on being a major producer of natural gas, Tobago’s riches are mostly in its unspoiled natural environment.

Trinidad and Tobago’s long and varied melting-pot history includes Chinese ancestors, their spirits honored here. Senior king and queen contender costumes can weigh up to 200 pounds, and an assist of up to three wheels is allowed. Beware of the wind.

Among its natural offerings is the Main Ridge Reserve, created to ensure that sugar planters wouldn’t fell all the trees for timber. There was a remarkable realization by a mid-18th century scientist, Stephen Hales, that taking down the trees would eventually end the moisture cycles that brought rain, turning islands like Tobago into a desert and ending all agriculture there. It was a tough sell in the British Parliament, where many members also owned plantations in Tobago. But after eleven years of effort, one member, Soame Jenyns, convinced his colleagues that Hales was correct. Protected by law in 1776 not to preserve royal hunting and pleasures, but to protect the watershed, this is the world’s oldest legally protected forest reserve of its kind.

The act creating the reserve is a marvel of environmental foresight that much of the world could still greatly benefit from emulating:
"Did also in pursuance of your said Instructions remove to Your Majesty a tract of Wood Land lying in the interior and most hilly parts of this island for the purpose of attracting frequent Showers of Rain upon which the Fertility of Lands in these Climates doth entirely depend."
-William Young

Assented to by his Honour the Commander in Chief this Thirteenth day of April One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Six.
The reserve now covers over two-thirds of the island. Most of the forest is very similar to the type of forest that dominates in the Amazon. Unlike Trinidad, there are no poisonous snakes in the forests of Tobago, making them a worry-free pleasure to hike. Waterfalls abound, including Argyle Waterfall, which has 54 meters of stepped cascades and cold, deep pools one can swim in. Along the walk to the falls from a visitors center, one can see caymans in a river, and some of the 469 species of birds on the two islands, including many humming birds.

Beyond the local birds, from August to October the islands are visited by many migratory species form North America. There are also interlopers from South America, such as the nation’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis. It breeds in Venezuela, which is so close it can be seen from Trinidad, but spends most of its time feeding in mangrove swamps on the islands.

Many visitors to Tobago spend their time at the western tip, Crown Point, with its restaurants and bars, and the beautiful beaches of the peninsula Pigeon Point. But this writer found a great retreat at the far eastern tip. One can meander on the drive there, visiting sites like old colonialist forts and the ruins of sugar mills being reclaimed by jungle. Be very cautious on the winding roads, it’s easy to be absorbed by the views of many stunning bays, cliffs and beaches, when you really need to have your eyes on the road. Better to stop at safe places to take in the sites, or to take a cab.

The North End of Tobago is the island’s most mountainous, and the beautiful bays on the Caribbean side are great for swimming, with extensive protective reefs for snorkeling. One might recognize locations like Pirates Bay that were used in the 1952 film, “Swiss Family Robinson.” You might have to hike a ways from small villages on the Caribbean side, but it’s not unusual to find coves and beaches that you can have entirely to yourself.

Just off the southeast side of the far end of Tobago is a small island, Little Tobago, across from Starwood Bay and the resort, the Blue Water Inn. There is good snorkeling and diving, with the world’s largest known brain coral and many leatherback turtles, but the Atlantic currents are powerful and one needs a good guide and experienced boatman who can keep you from harm’s way. The area attracts many sport fishermen.

Little Tobago is a bird sanctuary with boobies, terns and the red-billed tropic bird, and offers some challenging hiking up steep slopes covered in parts by cactus and dry forest, but with much denser forest toward the top, and huge ferns. Whether or not you make it all the way to Little Tobago, Tobago is well worth exploring if you seek an experience that truly gets you away from crowds for the chance to experience environments that have mostly disappeared from the Caribbean.

Trinidad and Tobago offer a tale of two islands. Between them the diversity of people and offerings is one of the most satisfying in the Caribbean.


The Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain is an excellent carnival headquarters that also organizes carnival involvement. The hotel is also favored by heads of state, as at a Summit of the Americas, and by business travelers.

Blue Water Inn on Tobago.

Trinidad and Tobago Tourism

The eyes have it, revelers jubilant even sheltering from a passing rain.

Monday, February 27, 2017

One Way To See China For Free-- Or Even Make Some Money In The Process

Now that she's moved away to New Orleans, I don't see Ricky Lee Jones much any longer. But she was in town last week and we got together for dinner to catch up. She had just been in China. I didn't recall her having much of a following there from when we were both at Reprise, so I was very curious about how the economics of that trip worked. As best I can understand, a wealthy guy in suburban Shanghai put up a very large amount of money for her to play a kind of prestigious show for a small number of people. nice way to see China-- or at least suburban Shanghai-- and walk away with a tidy sum to boot!

The story reminded me of an HBO Vice episode from last year, "Rent A White Guy," about how it's possible for westerners, specifically white westerners, to make a bundle in China by... being white. I knew that China-- among other Asian countries-- will pay a lot for white models. But this story goes way beyond that. I mean how about being the westerner who gets hired to go out on the town with a group of rich Chinese kids who just want to make an impression-- of looking "cool and worldly?"

"White Makes You A Winner"

I was in Bangkok for much of December and January. Everywhere I looked there were billboards and signs advertising skin whiteners (or lighteners); it was overwhelming and it's creating a neurosis among Thai kids-- of both genders-- that darker skin is unattractive. I didn't like it and couldn't escape from it. Apparently it's even worse in China. The episode makes the point that "there's a grey market for whites in China. A white face isn't just a marketing ploy, but a substitute for actual professional credentials." Even doctors-- like the fake "vice chairman of clinical urology at the University of Virginia," lecturing actual Chinese doctors about chronic prostatitis, about which he knew exactly nothing at all.

The rent-a-laowai business is for real in China. And ruminative enough for an enterprising American to go over there, sign up with an agency and make enough money to live... and then some. As long as you're ok with being a prop, or even a fake celebrity. This is especially lucrative in third and fourth tier cities, not in cosmopolitan places like Beijing and Shanghai. And very often there's something shady about those hiring the foreigners to pretend to be something they're not, a white something they're not.

Friday, February 24, 2017

How Many Billions Of Dollars Will Trump Cost The U.S. Tourism And Travel Industry?

Roland and I go away twice a year-- once in the summer and once around Christmas. Last June we went to Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia and Baku in Azerbaijan. We're thinking about a Paris trip and a Tierra del Fuego trip for our next two. But Roland's worried that Trump is going to make it tougher for Americans to travel safely and comfortable abroad. How friendly are Mexicans going to be, for example, towards Americans if things keep getting worse. And Parisians may be able to laugh at Trump's ignorant fear mongering about their city now but sooner or later someone, somehwhere is going to think he's not funny.

In fact, Frommer's took a look at Trump's impact on tourism and travel from the opposite perspective-- how his idiocy is killing the multibillion dollar U.S. tourist industry. Arthur Former himself wrote about a Trump Slump that is already causing a "devastating drop in tourism to the U.S. and that "the loss of tourism jobs could be devastating."
Though they may differ as to the wisdom of the move, the travel press and most travel experts are of one mind: They are currently drawing attention to an unintended consequence of the Trump-led efforts to stop many Muslims from coming to the U.S., pointing to a sharp drop in foreign tourism to our nation that imperils jobs and touristic income.

It’s known as the “Trump Slump.” And I know of no reputable travel publication to deny it.

Thus, the prestigious Travel Weekly magazine (as close to an “official” travel publication as they come) has set the decline in foreign tourism at 6.8%. And the fall-off is not limited to Muslim travelers, but also extends to all incoming foreign tourists. Apparently, an attack on one group of tourists is regarded as an assault on all.

As far as travel by distinct religious groups, flight passengers from the seven Muslim-majority nations named by Trump were down by 80% in the last week of January and first week of February, according to Forward Keys, a well-known firm of travel statisticians. On the web, flight searches for trips heading to the U.S. out of all international locations was recently down by 17%.

A drop of that magnitude, if continued, would reduce the value of foreign travel within the U.S. by billions of dollars. And the number of jobs supported by foreign tourists and their expenditures in the United States-- and thus lost-- would easily exceed hundreds of thousands of workers in hotels, restaurants, transportation, stores, tour operations, travel agencies, and the like.

While, earlier in the year, the Administration had boasted of saving 800 jobs in the Carrier Corporation, the drop-off in employment resulting from the travel ban would eclipse that figure.

According to the Global Business Travel Association, in only a single week following announcement of the ban against certain foreign tourists, the activity of business travel declined by nearly $185 million.

Other observers, including local tourist offices, have reached similar conclusions. In referring to New York City’s $60 billion tourist industry alone, the head of the city’s tourist effort complained that his agency’s effort to portray the United States as a welcoming destination to foreign citizens “was all in jeopardy.” Several other tourist officials have made like statements.

As you can see, there is plenty of evidence for a negative conclusion.
The World Travel & Tourism Council has been highly critical of Trumpy-the-Clown's attempt to ban travel to the U.S. by nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. The council's CEO, David Scowsil,l challenged the fascist regime directly, warning that Trump's idiotic approach could bring about a long-term slump in tourism to the U.S. He told Travel Weekly that "The more people travel, the more people spread understanding, the better off we'll be around the world." He spoke of "the reverberation that America is closing down, is not open for any business and that people are looking at whether they want to travel here or not, for both business or leisure. So there is a risk if this is not turned around that we will see a drop-off of international passengers coming to the U.S."

When confronted with Trump's rationale for the ban-- safeguarding Americans-- he simply pointed out that Trump's scaremongering is bullshit. "There is no incident in the last 30 years of a national from one of those seven countries coming to the United States to commit any type of terrorist killing. If you compare that with the domestic shootings that happen in the United States, for the last 10 years there has been an average of 11,700 Americans killed in domestic shootings. The message is: focus on what is going on domestically and don't assume that any of these gun incidents are going to be committed by people flying in to do that type of activity."

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Unplug From The Rat Race And Switch On To Nature

Last fall Jenny Holt and her husband, having been inspired by Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail. "While we were well prepared," she told me, "our progress was slower than expected and we got into some difficulty and ran out of food. It was ok, we were not too far from civilization and completed our trek safely, if a few days later than expected. However, it did make us wonder how well prepared we are for a situation where we were much further from help/shops etc..."

Jenny is a health and travel writer, and she has come up with a delightful hiking advice sit, Backpackerverse, to develop a guide on outdoor survival skills covering the basics anyone should know before hiking in the wilds; especially if travelling in a foreign country or remove landscape. Perhaps knowing the connection between this blog and DownWithTyranny, she wrote this post especially for us.

-by Jenny Holt

You’d have to be living on the moon to have avoided all the political headlines at the moment. Everyone seems to be talking and worrying about the recent state of global affairs. But you don’t actually have to go and live on the moon to escape from it. There is a more practical, cheaper, and achievable solution. Just switch off, unplug and get outside. And we don’t mean to go and sit in a coffee shop. We mean out out. In the great outdoors.

Disconnect and Reconnect

When we are at home or work, we are always so busy and surrounded by distractions. But when you are in the outdoors, you'll likely find yourself outside of cellphone coverage or email reach. So, it's just you and the world.

  It doesn't have to be expensive either. Depending on whether you just want to hike a trail for the day or escape for a few days, you don't have to spend a fortune on kit. And once you are out in the great outdoors, everything is free.

Staying Safe

If you have got a taste for escaping to the great outdoors, you will need to do a little preparation before you head out.

In case you get lost or just fancy venturing off the beaten track, you should make sure you know some basic survival skills to keep you going until you make it back or are found. While it's encouraged to disconnect, there are gadgets that can help you when you are out in the wilderness. But they can break or stop working, so you still need to know what to do if you are unable to rely on them. Last year a Dutch woman survived five days in bushland without the help of any gadgets. Bushcraft experts have said she would have died if it wasn't for her quick-thinking survival skills.

Good for the Mind, Body and Soul

Apart from the obvious benefits of getting some fresh air and exercise, being outside in nature has some huge mental health benefits too. Experiencing nature regularly can actually help to improve complex memory tasks and has been said to help people suffering with dementia. Just being exposed to the natural environment can lower stress levels, aids with symptoms of anxiety and depression and helps improve cognition in children with attention deficit disorder.

Escaping the Hamster Wheel

Getting outdoors offers a brief escape and refuge from the pressures of the world. It may not be for everybody of course. Some people prefer lazing on sandy beaches and enjoying hot showers and clean sheets. But for some, exploring the outdoors is the perfect remedy to some of the absurdity going on in modern life. So, switch off and get outdoors, you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Traveling Abroad In The Age Of Trump? Wear Dark Clothes

Roland and I just got back from 3 weeks in Thailand. People there aren’t obsessing over Trump. Thailand, which I started visiting first for holidays, then for business and now for holidays again, is a profoundly pro-American country. But pro-American culturally, not necessarily politically. Without exception, people who mentioned Trump to me, did it humorously— which is pretty much how people I met last summer in Russia also referred to him. (It was different in Azerbaijan, where he is best known for his business relationship with a notorious criminal clan, his partners in the now shuttered Baku Trump Tower.)

Roland has been asking me for weeks how I thought travel for Americans would be impacted by Trump’s presidency. I started traveling abroad while Nixon was president and found people sympathetic. In Holland I was the subject of a documentary about a Vietnam war resistor living in Amsterdam. Folks I talked about politics with in Iran, India, France, Germany, Hungary and Sri Lanka (then still Ceylon), Afghanistan, Finland, Sweden and, of course, Holland, were very aware of the difference between an anti-war, anti-Nixon American like me and whatever they themselves hated about Nixon’s policies.

Sunday, Newsweek dealt with Roland’s fears about American travelers being unwelcome. I mean, Russia was OK, but we’re not planning on going back and… there is the rest of the world. Colby Martin is an intelligence director for Pinkerton and he warns that “a potentially controversial president means you have to prepare. Americans traveling abroad need to have a comprehensive plan for staying safe.” But, no real need for worry since most Americans who go abroad just travel to Mexico and Canada anyway. We love Mexico and we love Canada but that is how our travel habits could be described. And, accordng to Newsweek, experts say that “wander outside the well-trodden areas, and things could get interesting.”
"The likelihood of any impact on American travelers abroad" will depend on what policies the new administration enacts, says Scott Hume, the director of security operations for Global Rescue. He says you shouldn't be surprised by people who ask you direct questions about American foreign policy and politics. If your goal is to avoid those conversations, "Take care not to stand out as an American," he says.

So how do you do that, exactly?

Taryn White, a writer and frequent traveler based in Washington, tries to maintain a cover. "You have to look the part," she says. "This means no white sneakers, 'I Love NY' T-shirts or sweatpants. It also means being considerate of local customs and dress."

One simple trick: Pack black. Darker colors are versatile and ensure you don't stand out. Beyond the wardrobe selection, it means downplaying American mannerisms like laughing out loud, smiling a lot or using hand gestures.

But others say now may also be the best time to identify yourself as an American. Kori Crow, a political consultant from Austin, Texas, and a world traveler, says that counterintuitively, the more fractious a country's politics are, the better your experience could be.

"They're more forgiving because they don't usually equate elected leaders as a reflection of its citizens," she says.

Crow says people understand that American visitors are not its ambassadors. "You'd be surprised at how many foreigners will over-compliment you just to try and make you feel more welcome," she adds, mentioning a particularly warm welcome at Vietnam's American War Crimes Museum.

All of the above is true. There are times when you'll want to fade into the crowd, but ultimately you have to be true to yourself. And as the experts say, don't leave anything to chance.

How do I know? Because I grew up in Europe during a time of controversial American leadership. Most people I met were smart enough to know that American citizens do not represent the American government, and they knew from personal experience that democracy is imperfect.

In fact, I think we should all travel more internationally during the next four years. Just to show the world that Americans are a far more varied lot than the politicians they see on TV or read about in the paper.

Three things you should do during the Trump years
Apply for a passport. Less than half of Americans have a passport. You'll need one if you want to travel abroad… Cost: $110 for adults, $80 for kids under 16. Does not include a $25 "execution" fee.
Learn another language. No matter where you go, knowing a few words in the native language will take you far. The next four years are a perfect time to pick up Spanish, French, German or Mandarin…
Build a bridge. Whether you strike up a friendship with someone who lives outside the U.S. or take a volunteer vacation outside the country, you can use your travel to show the world what Americans are really like. Check out organizations like GlobeAware or tour operators such as REI, which offer extensive volunteer vacation programs.
Also worthwhile, take a look at the State Department’s travel advisory updates— warnings and alerts. Just since Trump was declared the winner on Nov. 8, travel warnings have been issued for 15 countries— North Korea, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mexico, Algeria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Philippines, Mali, Jordan, Egypt, Congo, and, last week, South Sudan, Bangladesh and The Gambia— and alerts were issued for Haiti and Europe. There were already warnings in effect for Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, El Salvador, Turkey, Iraq, Libya, Chad, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Laos, Tunisia, Israel and Palestine, Iran, Cameroon, Honduras, Nigeria, Lebanon, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. And that’s just 2016 and the first month of 2017! Tip: everyone's wise to Canadian flags sewn into your backpack.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How Desperate Would You Have To Be To Stay At A Trump Hotel?

As you know if you're even a semi-regular reader of this blog, I travel a lot-- always have. When I was a kid I would crash wherever I could. I hitch-hiked out to San Francisco for what the media later dubbed "the Summer of Love" and wound up sleeping on a step on a staircase in an old Haight-Ashbury Victorian. Years later I spent several years living in a VW camper can as I drove from London to India. Still later I wound up as president of a large company and stayed in the major luxury class hotels like the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Principe Di Savoia in Milan, the New Otani in Tokyo, the Prk Tower in Buenos Aires, Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton's everywhere... But never, under any circumstances, a Trump-branded hotel. Trump hotels-- like the one I wrote about in Baku last June when I visited Azerbaijan always have a reputation for being glitzy and third rate. These days, when I travel, I tend to rent apartments or houses and use them as a base to explore. The idea of walking into a Trump property-- even for a dinner-- has always been inconceivable, long before he decided to jump into politics. His properties are as phony and superficial as he is.

This week, Benjamin Freed, writing for the Washingtonian was just the latest to laugh at all the tasteless Arabs rushing to hold their gawdy, ostentatious events at Trump's new hotel in DC. A match made in heaven. Freed's review is brutal-- and not in a good way. "Before the Trump International Hotel opened," wrote Freed, "Donald Trump liked to brag that the business he and his family built inside the Old Post Office would be 'one of the great hotels of the world.'" It's worth mentioning that part of the deal when you pay Trumpanzee to use his name to brand your hotel is that he will publicly state that when the hotel opens, no matter how much of a pile of crap it is, Trump will put out a press release calling it "one of the great hotels of the world." Every hotel he's ever been associated with gets that worthless accolade for their worthless promo packet, often backed up by the same worthless pronouncements from Ivanka and one of the sons (who Trump himself referred to on camera as "retards.") Freed continued: "But according to a year-end list of new luxury hotels from a travel group that specializes in high-end accommodations, it’s one of the world’s worst. The Trump hotel rated as the world’s third-lousiest new hotel, according to the membership-only United Kingdom operation LTI-Luxury Travel Intelligence. Maybe not quite as bad as Trump Grille in NY's Trump Towers, but still really gross.
“The building itself is undoubtedly impressive, but once inside we start to ask questions,” LTI’s review begins, acknowledging the Old Post Office as a marvel of late-19th-century Romanesque Revival architecture and design. But from there, the review is brutal.

“LTI finds the décor a little garish and more quantity over quality,” it continues. Few who have been inside the hotel might argue differently. In Trumpian fashion, the hotel is a pageant of too-muchness, from the gold-colored bathroom fixtures to a $29 bowl of hummus to the crystal spoonfuls of sickly-sweet Hungarian wine that go for as much as $140.

It goes on.

“Service is poor on occasions and lacks confidence,” LTI founder Michael Crompton writes. “The whole experience seems a little forced, and therefore this place is not for the true discerning luxury traveller.”

no comment
For supporters of the president-elect or his hotel, Crompton’s suggestion that his DC hotel is not truly luxurious might be the most cutting. Throughout his business career, Trump has resembled a spoiled outer-borough brat robing himself in glitz and luxury to get in the good graces of rich Manhattan swells, and his political rise could very well be a response to DC establishment types laughing him out of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

Only two hotels-- anywhere in the world-- fared worse in LTI’s rankings: a Four Seasons on Oahu, Hawaii, and the Palazzo Versace in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

While LTI’s review does not make explicit mention of Trump’s election or the brewing mess over the Trump Organization’s lease from the General Services Administration for the Old Post Office, it does acknowledge that it is unlikely to have much impact on the hotel. “But no doubt the tourist hordes will keep the place eternally busy,” Crompton writes.

UPDATE, 5:48 PM: In an email to Washingtonian, Crompton piles on to his publication’s initial criticism, writing that the Trump hotel’s gaudiness—and that of the larger Trump brand-- runs counter to recent hotel-industry trends. “For quite a while there has been a move towards an understated elegance in new luxury properties,” he writes. “We had similar feelings towards Trump Turnberry (one of Trump’s golf courses in Scotland).”
You think there's any chance at all his presidency will be any different? I don't.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ever Get Caught Up In A Revolution?

Cairo, revolution

-by Eden Bowditch

I met Eden Unger because I used to do a alt-metal rock show on KUSF in San Francisco and she was in an all girl hard core band, Rude Girl. Great band! Eventually, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, The Clash) was going to produce their debut album for my record label and CBS, which had bought my company, was going to release it. But it never happened and I can't remember what exactly why or what transpired next. I remember Eden being a metal sculptor working with a blow torch and then the next thing I knew decades had passed, she was an author with a family and living in Cairo, teaching at the American University. Time flies. Her new book The Strange Round Bird is coming out in a few months, the third book in her trilogy, The Young Inventors Guild. It must have been at least a couple years ago that I asked her to share some of her thoughts about the Egyptian revolution with DWT readers. There's already been a counter-revolution, but today she sent in her post! You know metal people, right? And sculptors? Writers? Egyptians?

Aftershocks of a Revolution
-by Eden Unger Bowditch

The strangest thing was that we learned to live with the sounds of gunfire. As daylight began to fade each evening, Nate and Julius, our eldest son, who was 15 at the time, would join the other men in our building and barricade the glass entry. This was how the Egyptian revolution unfolded for us, in Cairo, in 2011.

Actually, that was how the unfolding continued. The beginning was just as much of a surprise for us as the rest of the world. Lyric, our daughter, was in Abu Dhabi for a Global Issues Network conference with other 7th graders from Cairo American College. She had plans for a slumber party with her two best friends when she returned that Friday. Julius had the lead in the HS musical, and Cyrus, then 6, was hanging out and being cute. And there was Olive, the dog, too.

The first night of the HS musical was Thursday, 27 January. There had been a massive protest on Tuesday, 25 January (now the date considered to be the Egyptian revolution) but that was on the other side of town. In truth, it was the 28th that everything went crazy. When Julius went to school to prepare for the Friday performance, he was told the school was closed. Closed? After months of preparation, his first thought was ‘Crap! No show?’ Looking around, he realized everything was closed. It wasn’t until later that the revolution dawned on us all.

Actually, technically, it wasn’t a revolution. It was the deposing of a dictator with nothing to fill the gap. At the time, we only knew we were in the middle of it, whatever it was. At 3am on Saturday, our car disappeared along with fifty other cars on the street. Tanks were filling the streets. At dusk, we and the other tenants barricaded the glass front doors of the building. Curfew was set at random hours, one day 4pm, the next day 1pm. We’d have to run home, hiding behind the ad hoc militia’s safe points (broken fences, benches, tires or chairs or other detritus blocking the road) where the local shop owners and bawabs (doormen) would band together to check for bombs and guns and folks who did not belong. Every few blocks, there was a different color of arm band, made from plastic bags. We had yellow. This allowed us to pass without being searched.

Then, they shut off the internet and mobile phone service. We had the only land line in the neighborhood that could call out of the country. This is how we contacted friends in Germany who contacted the hotel where Lyric was in Abu Dhabi. They found the teacher and told her to assure the kids that parents were OK. The teacher had no idea what was happening. They had been at the conference and had gone to sleep, never checking the news. Once they knew, The Global Issues Network kids crowded around the television, watching the tanks in the streets and the burning buildings. Still, it was surreal to them and they could not relate this to their own neighbourhood.

Back in Cairo, we had lines of friends and colleagues coming to our flat. Everyone was calling loved ones abroad to let them know they were alright. Many were scrambling to get to the airport. Those who tried to leave first were stranded at the airport for days before getting flights anywhere. Evacuations began in earnest and buses of colleagues started leaving. One of our dearest friend, former bureau chief of the New York Times in Cairo, now in Berlin, would call every few hours to let us know what was happening since we were cut off from our own news. He wanted us to leave, but we couldn’t. Lyric was still in Abu Dhabi and we had to be here when she got back. She was, we had heard, en route.Then we heard that flights were blocked leaving from Abu Dhabi to Cairo. The kids had to fly back through Bahrain. They flew from Bahrain to Cairo. Days later, Bahrain fell under a violent rebellion. That was too close.

When Lyric returned from Abu Dhabi, life had changed. Utterly. The friends who were planning the slumber party had evacuated, never to return. There were blockades in the streets, our jeep was gone, and there were tanks in the streets in front of our apartment building. The curfew sent people running through the streets for shelter. Lyric arrived at curfew. We ran.

For the next week or so, we would close the window when the gunfire became too loud or if we could smell clouds of teargas coming. We’d make whatever we had in the house since, without internet or ATMs, no use of credit cards or means of getting cash, we had few resources to buy food. Then, Cyrus began having nightmares of Bionicles taking over the city. The curfew became The Curfew, like The Bogeyman, and make us all run through the streets for shelter. It was time to get out of Dodge.

When you evacuate, you are flying away from something, not going to something, so you just get on the next plane out. We were put on a plane to Germany. In Frankfurt, they met us with blankets and fresh water. It was surreal. We called our New York Times friends when we landed and took the train from Frankfurt to Berlin. I remember thinking how strange the tanks at the airport looked… until I realized they were luggage vans. In Berlin, I was anxious about making lunch plans because of the curfew. But of course, we left that behind. Or did we? We were touched in ways we could not measure. Having been in uncertain circumstances has made us all more aware of the residual effects, the reverberations, of every experience we have in our lives.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hertz Has Terrible Service, And I Want To Know If They Are Running A Scam

-by Melody Siegler

Before I get to my thoughts about a possible Hertz scam, let me give some background.

I’ve had to go to the L.A. area several times over the past months, as executor of my mother’s estate, flying in from Atlanta. So far, I’ve rented cars from Hertz. I will not rent from Hertz again, for many reasons, culminating in my most recent “adventure,” thus:

Somehow, before my last trip, I was made a “Gold Plus Hertz member” without asking for this. The apparent upside to this is that I can change to another car, no questions asked, if I don’t get the one I want. So, last time, flying in to LAX, I got some car other than the 2016 Toyota Camry I had asked for. So, I decided to go to the LAX Gold Plus Hertz “change your car” area and wait around to see if a 2016 Toyota Camry appeared.

Why did go to this trouble?

Because on the previous trip (flying into Burbank), I happened, by chance, to get a 2016 Toyota Camry. It was wonderful to drive, and not at all hard to figure out various things that had caused me “car rental hell” on four previous trips. Just one example of that: Like how to change the mirror to “night view,” which on one previous trip, driving a rental car of a brand I can’t remember, I tried to change the mirror view, and instead I ended up pushing a button on the mirror that got me in voice contact with some internet site. Just what I didn’t need.

So, my waiting for a Camry at Hertz LAX was rewarded (or so I thought). I got a Camry. I drove the Camry to the exit gate. Gold Plus members can just drive to the exit gate, and they get all the rental ticket stuff printed out there. And so I did. But, I asked “don’t I/you have to fill out the form that notes all damage/ imperfections to the car?.”

I asked because on the previous trip, Camry Hertz rental from Burbank, the woman at the exit asked me for this “damage form” (what damage form? I wasn’t given one.) So, she filled it out for me (at Burbank).

Back to most recent experience at LAX. I was told that was not necessary to fill out this “damage form” because I was a Gold Plus member. Note this detail. It becomes important later in this rather long story.

So, I drove out of the LAX Hertz lot in the Camry, and got on to the 405 North, to drive to the Valley. A neighbor was waiting there, to give me dinner. It was rush hour, stop and go on the 405, after dark. For an hour and a half, I felt every bump in the road, and every time I had to put on the brakes. I am especially prone to motion sickness, and by the time I arrived at my neighbor’s for dinner, I was close to throwing up. Instead of eating dinner, I sipped an Alka-Selzer on the rocks for about an hour, and then was able to eat a bit of dinner. But, I took a bowl with me when I went to bed in her guest room, in case I had to throw up. Thankfully, I didn’t throw up.

The next day, I drove the LAX Camry on various errands. I knew that there was something wrong with this particular car. Remember, I’d driven another Camry on my previous trip, and had had no complaints. It was as if the suspension on this particular car was damaged-- again I felt every slight bump in the road to the max.

I decided to take advantage of the “Gold Plus exchange this car” priviledge. I phoned Hertz, and arranged to exchange the LAX Camry at Burbank Airport, giving the reasons stated above. It was a Saturday, and thankfully a good friend in L.A. had driven to my place of abode in the Valley. He went with me to exchange the car at BUR. I simply wouldn’t have driven there alone, because I was afraid of getting motion sickness again.

And, my (our) experience exchanging the car at BUR was gawd-awful. I’ll abbreviate the story, so that I can get around to the part where I started wondering if Hertz was running some kind of a scam.

So, every person, from the moment I (we) drove into the return lot at BUR was rude from the get go. The general theme was “you can’t park here.” Okay, fine. And lots more that I am leaving out.

After many travails, I finally made it into the desk of the “Gold Plus” place. As things progressed, I happened to hear a woman standing at a nearby computer telling the person at the computer-- “The windshield is cracked. It has to be replaced.” I said “Are you talking about my original rental car (LAX Camry)? “Yes”, she said. “Show me,” I said. So, we went outside to the car, and she pointed out a small nick on the outer side of the winshield, driver’s side, about halfway up. It was maybe 1/8 an inch in diameter. I felt the spot, and yes, it was slightly rough.

And now I get into the “hmmm, I wonder if this is a profitable Hertz scam” part.

So, in discussing this nick, the woman said “Maybe you got it on the freeway.” (That would be me driving on the 405). Given the speed I was going, 5-10 mph, I thought to myself that this was very unlikely, and also, I didn’t remember anything hitting the windshield. The woman said repeatedly, staring sternly at me “But the windshield will have to be replaced.” She didn’t say that I would have to pay for this, but that was the strong implication. The friend who was with me witnessed this, and had the same impression.

I finally said “I have a loss-damage waiver”, or whatever that expensive daily insurance Hertz provides, is called. Her tone changed immediately. “Oh, then you’re golden.” No worries.

So, the Hertz scam part-- supposing you or someone else didn’t have the expensive insurance that I did. And, you happened to overlook this tiny nick when inspecting the rental car, assuming you were given the damage form at all. I’d never been given such a form in all of my previous rentals from Hertz. You would be on the hook for considerable dollars for a windshield replacement.

I very much doubt that Hertz replaced the windshield on the rental Camry I returned. I suspect that they put the car back in rental circulation. I wonder if some poor “fool” will eventually be entrapped. Seems like it makes for a great Hertz scam, no?

And, back to the suspension problem with the LAX Camry I returned. Dave, the mechanic at BUR, yes, that was the name on his shirt (he was the only Hertz person who had a name) was eventually called up to assist my friend and I in resetting the clock on my “new” rental. Dave was the only person I encountered who was polite from the get go. It took him only 20 mins to figure out how to reset the clock.

After this was done, I told him about the suspension problem in the Camry. His response-- “Those idiots at LAX-- the tire pressure was probably 400 when it should have been 300.” Made immediate sense to me-- if the tires are overinflated, then they have no “give.” Stiff as a wooden wheel on those old Conestogas. No ability to absorb irregularities on the road surface.

Scam or not, I’m done with renting cars from Hertz.