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Friday, February 24, 2006
Michael Snyder is an old friend of mine from San Francisco-- as well as a talented writer, discerning critic and celebrated raconteur. He's the Around The World Blog go-to person for all things New Orleans. And he just returned from there and wrote up a report anyone interested in visiting post-Katrina New Orleans will want to read.
New Orleans Lives!
Make no mistake.
It's more than a bit broken. But New Orleans and its people are unbowed, and I had a tremendous time there this past weekend.
Yep, I'm back in San Francisco after my usual early-Carnival sojourn to the Big Easy. It was exhilarating, exhausting and left me feeling a little melancholy. And I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
The areas of town that are geared to entertainment -- the French Quarter, the Marigny and the Garden District -- are fine, although you can see evidence of repairs in progress, and some places (such as the Acme Oyster Bar) have yet to reopen due to personnel shortages. The first parades ran (albeit a little scaled-back) with a slew of cuttingly satirical, and brutally-topical floats, and beads and doubloons a-flying; the parties rocked, especially the annual all-night bash at Jamie's warehouse (a wild menagerie of fun-loving, incredibly creative people in beautiful, sexy and/or hilarious costumes); the food was exquisite (i.e. dinners at Irene's, Adolfo's and NOLA; beignets at the Cafe Du Monde; and some libations to delight: Restoration Ale and Carnival Bock from Abita, and the Chocolate City Stout from Crescent City Brewhouse); the Krewe of Barkus doggie parade went off without a hitch on Sunday afternoon as canines and their owners, done up in hilarious fashion to reflect this year's theme "The Wizard of Paws," strolled the Quarter to appreciative crowds; and my friends -- those who stayed or returned, and those I only just met -- were as gracious, warm and welcoming as ever.
I don't want to forget the music and clubbing I did: There was some eloquent small-combo chamber jazz from pianist Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the musical Marsalis clan, at Snug Harbor; techno-house dancing at Oz; the Bob French & Friends jam session Monday night at Donna's with the great Kermit Ruffins -- the Satchmo of the modern era -- sitting in on trumpet and vocals, and the brilliant humorist and comic actor Harry Shearer kicking back at the bar; and an ass-whuppin' midnight show by Nashville Pussy (X-rated, trailer-trashy Deep South metal-punk) at the best rock club in the Quarter, One-Eyed Jacks.
A mordant sense of humor was in evidence, no matter where you went. The Krewe of Carrollton dubbed its parade "Blue Roof Blues," in reference to the omnipresent blue tarps that FEMA used to cover houses left open to the elements by the storm; they recycled old floats to fit the "blue" theme. So, to pay tribute to the Blue Man Group, they took a float that was previously used as a tribute to Gandhi, completely spray-painted the bald figure at the front of the vehicle in a rich shade of blue and -- Voila! Hairless spiritual sari-wearing pacifist becomes freaky, post-modern performance artist!
And the novelty T-shirts, at souvenir shops from Bourbon to Decatur, were particularly prickly: a "Girls Gone Wild" shirt with the meteorological symbol that represents a hurricane duplicated under the names "Katrina" and "Rita"; a FEMA shirt that spelled the acronym "Federal Employees Missing Again"; a New Orleans Police Department shirt that said "Not Our Problem, Dude"; New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard depicted as the Three Stooges; and my favorite, which takes the poster art for the recent film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," and replaces star Johnny Depp's face with Ray Nagin's, alters the background to a post-Katrina NOLA skyline, and the title to "Willy Nagin & the Chocolate City -- Semi-Sweet & a Little Bit Nuts." Anger transformed to humor.
This is not to diminish the tragedy. Parts of the city are devastated. For instance, I made it over to the periphery of the Ninth Ward, and even now, it looks like a bomb went off and laid waste to everything. Although it will take years (and a much better series of levees) before those neighborhoods are back to something approaching they're previous condition (or hopefully, something better), there are clean-up crews and builders who are toiling every day with the determination to resurrect and improve upon that which was destroyed.
New Orleans will survive, and it's ready to accommodate those who love it, or will love it if they visit. It's a national treasure, and it needs us. I encourage any and all of you to go there and support the most unique, exotic and seductive metropolitan area in North America.
There are a few more days left until Mardi Gras. And how about Jazz Fest in April? It's coming up, and it's a music-lover's dream. I'm just sayin'...
Sunday, February 19, 2006
USE PARSIMONY IN PACKING BECAUSE THE AIRLINES LOVE TO LOSE YOUR BAGS. DELTA AIRLINES: "LOST LUGGAGE IS US"
When Nixon was being impeached I decided to end my self-imposed exile and return to my native country, the U.S. of A. (Also I was worried because, after 4 years in Amsterdam, I had started dreaming in Dutch and that felt a little uncomfortable). Anyway, I had been away from home for nearly 7 years. I flew home with 2 bags. I never fly with more. You know why? That's all the airlines allow you to carry on. And I ain't checking nothing with those luggage-losing losers.
It's true that I have a natural disaffinity for waiting around for luggage to be unloaded. On the other hand, there's something kind of sexy to sit down on the plane with no bags to worry about. That's so trumped though by the odds that the airline will lose your bags and put you through the misery incumbent with that nightmare. What are the odds?
Well, they're worst if you fly Delta. Of the 81 million unfortunate souls who found themselves flying on the absolute most horrible of all the big U.S. airlines, over half a million Delta passengers had their luggage go missing. In fact the U.S. airlines lose 10,000 pieces of luggage PER DAY! (Suprisingly, it's even worse in Europe.) This problem has been getting worse and in 2005 over 3.5 million passengers of all the domestic airlines reported missing bags-- a 20% increase over 2004. Many of the lost bags eventually find their way back to their owners, though not before spoiling a trip and often damaged.
I'm not the only person who has noticed this and now, more than ever before, overhead bins are over-stuffed and late-arriving passengers are often t a loss about what to do with their carry-ons. A few weeks ago I was flying back to L.A. from Atlanta and the attendant-- in first class where there was once a time when they were trained better-- seemed to take great delight in the predicament of the passenger across the aisle from me who couldn't fit his bag in the overhead. "You have to check it," she smirked with a self-satisfied, rotten look. I could see he really didn't want to and I offered to help. I thought the attendant was going to have us both arrested as potential terrorists and I would swear that smoke came out of her ears when I showed him that if he turned the bag around the bumpy part with the hardware would face the roomier back end of the compartment and the door would close. I mean, this is what she should have told him. Instead she just stomped off in a huff to wherever they turn Delta attendants into such miserable wretches.
People handle the fear of losing luggage in different ways. I have started taking less. I've long found myself over-packing anyway. I mean how many times do I have to travel to third world countries before I learn that I don't really need a suit and tie? I remember once badgering poor Roland to be sure to bring his Hugo Boss sports jacket on a trip to Egypt. He just acquiesced to shut me up. Turned out some fundamentalist psychopaths slaughtered a busload of Austrian tourists at Luxor and Egypt instantly emptied of Western visitors. Except me and Roland. We had one f those fantastic Nile river boats that normally hold a couple hundred people to ourselves (+ a couple of old Brits on the way back to London after a lifetime of service in Oman). Roland never wore his sports jacket once but it came in very handy for him on a bus ride across the Sinai one night when he used it as a pillow against the filthy greasy window of the bus. I think I'm finally starting to carry less clothes, although I now bring along so many nutritional supplements that it almost balances out. (I've even come up with ways to lessen that load a bit lately.)
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Lately I've been stuck. I know I have more to write about Bali and, of course, I need to get going on Thailand. And I've got a yen to write about Egypt and Cappadocia... but every time I sit down at the computer Down With Tyranny beckons louder and I wind up doing the Paul Revere thing and writing about encroaching fascism under George W. Bush. But I'm not writing at a computer terminal right now. I'm writing on the back of a corporate executive summary for a board of directors meeting I'm on my way to. I'm at the Burbank Airport at the Southwest Airlines terminal on my way to Oakland, about an hour away, as the (big) bird flies. My meeting, in San Francisco, starts in about 3 hours. To me, Bali and Thailand and Abu Simbel sound a helluva lot more exotic and interesting-- as least as tour destinations-- but I know San Francisco is one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. So I'm not going to let the fact that I lived there for the whole of the 80s stand in the way of me dealing with this short trip as a kind of travelogue.
Preparations were easy. Southwest has lots of flights between Burbank (convenient and less hideously encumbered with hassles than LAX) and Oakland (almost as hideously encumbered as SFO but still a bit more convenient, especially for arrivals. Leaving... well I'm convinced that whichever bureaucrat who runs security there either is bucking to be the most gratuitously obnoxious security czar of any secondary airport in the country-- or is just the reincarnation of some concentration camp kapitan with some unfinished issues to work out.) And the fares are cheap and the airline amenable to discounts for early bookings.
And the hotel... well, when I was president of Reprise Records and TimeWarner was picking up the tabs, I got used to staying at suites in the Ritz-Carlton. Now I'm either traveling on my own dime or, as today, on the dime of a much (much) smaller company and their corporate discount is with a boutiquey hotel owned by Kimpton, The Triton. The location is great-- downtown, a couple of hops and skips from the Chinatown dragon gate-- and I was able to walk to every meal and every meeting and to the Museum of Modern Art. Besides which-- its a pretty good hotel. Rooms start at $149 and work their way up depending on things like supply and demand and room size. (I'm jumpin' ahead a little but they have these cool, cool suites-- starting at $239-- each designed by the celebrity for which it is named: Jerry Garcia, Santana, Woody Harrelson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Graham Nash...) It's a rock'n'roll hotel and it feels very comfortable in a pleasantly eco-friendly, artsy, odd-ball kind of way. There's great music in the lobby and elevator (sounds like my iPod), very friendly, down-to-earth service, bold, vibrant colors and fabrics and loopy furniture everywhere, bizarre art, a masseuse and a tarot card reader in the lobby and a wine hour every evening... very San Francisco contemporary. Sumptuous luxury like the Ritz? No. Comfortable, efficient and friendly? BIG TIME!
Friday night after the meeting that was the raison d'etre of the trip, 2 old pals, Sandy Pearlman, who I know since 1965, and Michael Snyder who I first met in the late 70s when we were co-writers on the BERKELEY BARB, joined me for dinner at Piperade a Basque restaurant at 1015 Battery. None of us had been there before although the chef-owner, Gerard Hirigoyen, is an old friend and has founded an old fave of all of ours, Fringale. Piperade is much better. Gerard has always been a sublime chef but years and years of perfecting it has culminated in one of San Francisco's great foodie havens. The menu is mind-blowing and unique (but only hints at what your palate is about to experience. (A few weeks ago I wrote about a Basque superstar restaurant in Madrid, el Amparo, widely acclaimed one of Europe's best. Piperade was far better-- and far more healthful (and far better priced).
All 3 of us were completely sold when our 3 tipiak (small plates) arrived: dungeness crab salad "Txangurru" with basil, roasted pepper and mango; piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, pine nuts and golden raisins; and grande white beans with chopped egg salad and boquerones (sort of like anchovies). The flavors were distinct and vibrant and I kept thinking how I should have just made a dinner of an assortment of these incredible appetizers (about $10 each). I stopped thinking that when the handiak or big plates, came. Michael has filet of monk fish with braised fennel, carrots and lemon-cumin relish. Sandy and I each ordered braised seafood and shellfish stew in red pepper sauce. Let me just say that I do not remember the last time I took up a spoon to scarf down the last of any sauce left after I had eaten my meal! So did I really, really like Piperade? I brought 2 other friends, Jimmy and Maureen there for dinner the next night!
Saturday, February 04, 2006
THAILAND IS A REAL TOURIST PARADISE. BUT IS IT ALSO A FASCIST DICTATORSHIP ? WELL... IS GEORGE BUSH'S AMERICA?
My original impetus for starting the Around The World Blog was that I wanted to write a restaurant guide of Bangkok. I still haven't gotten to Thailand, but, of course, I haven't forgotten. I was thinking I'd finish up on the series I'm doing on Bali and then get to Thailand after that. But this morning I got an e-mail from a friend in Thailand, T., and it... shall I say inspired me to write something about one of my favorite places on earth. I can't believe that the first thing I'm going to write about Thailand, a place I've been to a dozen times, is going to be something negative. Not just something negative but something that barely even impacts on tourists in any way at all-- at least not directly.
If you've been following this blog at all, you may have noticed that I rarely mention the politics of any of the countries. I save that kind of stuff for Down With Tyranny, my political blog. But T's letter got me thinking. I was in Thailand several times when Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister, was running for office. He's a Thai version of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, the richest man in the country, a populist who thinks rules and laws are for other people, not for him. His elections, particularly his re-election one year ago, were rife with fraud.
T. wrote that "In Thailand the PM spent the past two years re-shuffling the army [he put in his less than qualified cousin as commander-in-chief], destabilizing the courts, bribe-packing the senate, rushing through odd loopholes; and now, he just sold the national satellite, phone company and BBC to Singapore-- All profits in his pocket, all legally within the newly minted laws. And no chance of a last minute coup or even election to put it all right."
Thaksin always gets compared to Berlusconi-- a whiff of fascism-- but lately people are also seeing a resemblance to George W. Bush. Like Bush's Republican Party, Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party once again proved Stalin's famous dictum: "It isn't who votes that matters, it's who counts the votes." And in 2005 Thailand had an awful lot in common with Florida and Ohio, with plenty of Katherine Harrises and Ken Blackwells. Last year even as mild-manner a bunch as CNN accused him of being a dictator and in July the very establishmentarian ECONOMIST wrote "THAKSIN SHINAWATRA'S shrillest critics have long depicted him as a dictator and a bully. Now the Thai prime minister has the legal powers to live up to the insults. An emergency decree signed into law on July 17th allows him to detain suspects without trial, tap phones, ban public gatherings, expel foreigners and censor media reports that could adversely affect state security, peace or public morality.…"
Bush's catastrophic (non)-response to Hurricane Katrina, the grotesque incompetence of the lackeys and cronies around him, was also something that everyone compared to Thaksin's response to the tsunami that devastated so much of southern Thailand. The American Prospect talks about how Thailand's corrupt and incompetent dictatorship really has impacted on the lives of its citizens. The writer, Josh Kurlantzick talks about a recent trip to Thailand
"when the country was threatened by a major outbreak of avian (bird) ﬂu, which was spreading across Asia at the time. As with the tsunamis-- and with the previous SARS epidemic in 2003-- Thailand’s increasingly authoritarian government, run by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, initially denied that anything was wrong. Thailand’s neutered press and civil society, threatened by the government and co-opted by Thaksin, whose family has bought into important media outlets, essentially played along with the bird-ﬂu cover-up. Civil servants also said little, even as the crisis worsened. (Over the last four years, Thaksin has replaced or retired most independent thinkers in the government.) And even when the government began to admit the scope of the virus (after several Thai children had already died), Thaksin had created such a culture of top-down rule that important ofﬁcials seemed paralyzed, unable to decisively launch a cull of potentially infected birds."
Everyone who goes to Thailand who I ever met come away thinking about the Thai people as the sweetest, kindest, most polite and accommodating people they've ever met-- and with good reason. So it's difficult ti imagine these smiling, gentle, peaceful, easy-going Buddhists as having anything to do with fascism. It's a juxtaposition that doesn't compute. But it's a very rich country with an awful lot of very poor people-- and not a whole lot of very, very rich ones. Thaksin represents the interests of the latter and has been very adapt at placating the former with empty verbiage. The unique Thai social contract is fraying around the edges a bit.
OK, that's it for politics and Thailand for me (although I just did find this really interesting post from a Thai website called Fringer on which Mr. Fringer has also been very viscerally struck by the rather unpleasant similarities between Thaksin and Bush and their authoritarian propensities). From now on I'll just be reporting on how much I love Phuket, how much I used to love Koh Samui (pre-airport), how much I love Bangkok, Chiang Mai and every single place I've ever been in Thailand.
APRIL 4th UPDATE: THAKSIN STEPPING DOWN!
Last night the odious Tom DeLay said he would resign from the U.S. House of Representatives. Now it turns out the equally corrupt Thai Prime Minister is also bowing to public pressure and leaving office. Sunday's elections-- even as rigged as they were-- dealt Thaksin a stunning blow. If only George Bush would follow suit!
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
One of my favorite things about travel, as I explained in my Morocco blogs (here and here) is eating. I love trying new and exotic foods, especially natural, healthy stuff that so many traditional societies are still into. Wait 'til I write about the eats in Thailand, but even from what I wrote about food in Sri Lanka, you probably could guess that spicy, tropical foods turn me on big time. And Bali and I were made for each other!
I had never been to Indonesia when Rebecca, Brad, Craig and I went to Bali last spring. But, though Indonesian cuisine is not that well known in the U.S. yet, I spent nearly 4 years living in Amsterdam, where Indonesian restaurants are as common as Chinese restaurants are here. And, with lots of vegetarian specialities and delicious and subtle-- and not so subtle-- spices, I was always a big fan. But there's another reason I might not be a perfect tour guide to the intricacies of Balinese cuisine. Almost all my breakfasts, lunches and dinners were prepared by the incredible Wayan, a first class chef who "came with" the villa we rented. So the kind of restaurant tour guide I'm planning to write for Bangkok isn't going to translate that well for Bali. On the other hand, in all cultures, the best food is fresh, home-cooked food-- and fresh home-cooked food is all I ever ate in Bali.
Don't get me wrong; if you want the worst and most unhealthy garbage man has ever eaten in history, you can find it in Bali: Burger King, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried... that crap is all crowded into the tourist ghettos down south in the relatively hideous sprawl of Kuta, Sanur, Legian and more up-market Jambaran. And Balinese restaurants per se don't actually exist. Eating out is note a balinese custom. There are Javanese and Chinese restaurants and restaurants in general-- at least in the way we think of restaurants in the West-- really are just for (wealthy; if you got there, you're wealthy by south Asian standards) tourists. The Balinese eat mostly at home. The Javanese and other Indonesians who live and work on Bali eat in padangs (Sumatran restaurants that serve lots and lots of very spicy small dishes like tapas and only charge you for what you eat) and warungs (a small roadside eating stall/coffee-shop-gossip place) and in night markets.
Before we left for L.A. I faxed Wayan my dietary complexities-- fresh vegetables, fruits and fish, no sugar, no canned stuff, nothing made with flour and light on the #1 staple of Balinese eating: rice-- and only brown rice at that. Seemingly effortlessly she was able to adapt that to traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine. The food she served, three meals a day, was always astounding delicious, as well as healthy. I can barely remember all the delicious new fruits she introduced me to at breakfast everyday: jackfruit (which I couldn't get enough of-- especially cooked in savory dishes), campedak (which is I think what pirates referred to as breadfruit), mangosteens (my favorite of all, something that I still dream about), rambutan, sakaya, durian (a delicious but smelly fruit I remember from my days in India), snake-fruit, starfruit... as well as lots of more familiar things like mangos and papayas and oranges pineapples, bananas... Breakfast was always such a joy in the incredible dining room open to the world, overlooking the Ayung river, birds singing away. Balinese life is very integrated with the outdoors. It took me-- insect-phobe that I am-- about 2 minutes to get over all my retiscence and embrace it completely. Every day after breakfast I would sit down with Wayan and go over the two cook books (with color pictures) she has, one for Balinese cuisine and one for Indonesian cuisine and pick out dishes for lunch and dinner. Then she'd go shopping.
Indonesian cuisine, which is more sophisticated than Balinese cooking, has obvious influences from India, China, the Middle East-- Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, although Bali is a majority Hindu island-- and even Europe and Japan. The food tends to be spicy-- and unless you make it clear that you don't want it that way-- very spicy. I like the "very" part. Rice (nasi) is the center of most meals, although I did fine without it. Nasi goreng and nasi campur are, respectively, fried and plain rice mixed with... whatever. Sate is a big deal too-- grilled, skewered meat or shrimps dipped in delicious spicy peanut sauce. Gado-gado is something almost anyone will love-- vegetables smothered in peanut sauce.
It was tempting to eat every single meal in the house because I was sure no one would come close to Wayan's meals, not to mention the fact that I knew everything would be healthy. But, of course, I had to try a couple restaurants, right?
My instincts were right. Home cookin' is always better! And Wayan is even better than most home cooking! There's no way we weren't going to try the restaurant that is supposed to be the best in Bali, Mozaic in Ubud. The chef is Chris Salans from the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, a spectacular restaurant. The patio-dining environment was exquisite and the food-- perhaps the best restaurant food in Bali-- was good... but not even close to Wayan's. And Mozaic is really expensive! We also tried the Cafe Lotus, a longtime tourist classic in the center of Ubud. It was ok-- just tourist food though. So in Bali too... there's no place like home!