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Sunday, December 30, 2007


A little subtle Myanmar propaganda across from the U.S. Embassy

I loved driving through Bulgaria in 1969, and not just the bit that was on the "Hippie Trail" between Nis and Istanbul. I took the better part of a month and drove from Sofia to the Black Sea, met up with some fun-loving Bulgarians and drove all over the country with them. Earlier I had decided I liked Budapest more than Vienna; it seemed freer and more... romantic, less uptight and stuffy. I was blind to the oppression and tyranny in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria even though it pervaded these places. I just didn't notice. Years later I was living in West Berlin. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the wall dividing the city was coming down. There were already holes in it and most of the guards looked the other way-- at least when West Germans went back and forth. I persuaded some West German friends to take me across one night. It didn't look free and romantic; the oppression, tyranny and decrepitude were apparent and tangible... and chilling. It scared and repulsed me. I was happy to get back to West Berlin.

A few hours ago, decades later, I just returned from a place like that, a place you read about in books by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: Myanmar.

Myanmar was Burma when I was a small boy (and avid stamp collector). I remember there were military coups when I was in elementary school. It was one of those closed off places-- exotic, mysterious, impenetrable, vaguely dangerous, like Albania, Mongolia, North Korea... places no one ever went. In the 80s the military junta took the name SLORC (an unfortunate-sounding acronym for State Law and Order Restoration Council). It sounds like something from a James Bond movie. For the people there, I just discovered, it doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a nightmare that never ends. Paid Republican lobbyists and operatives in DC got the military dictators to ditch the SLORC moniker for SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, which sounds far less ominous-- like Bush's Clear Skies Act).

One of the first things I noticed is that the oppressive, paranoid tyranny in Myanmar exists in a parallel world next to a beautiful traditional Buddhist culture. The gentle people, predisposed to kindness, seem a little nervous-- hundreds of beloved and revered monks were brutally and ruthlessly murdered by the regime a few weeks ago after peaceful demonstrations-- but when you shoot anyone (except some of the soldiers) a mengalaba (hello) their wariness invariably breaks down and they smile. They are friendly and the reserve often vanishes quickly and, at least in Yangon, more of them spoke English than anywhere else in Southeast Asia I've ever been.

The whole city seems to be rotting and breaking down, although it may also be a work in progress of sorts. The city is immense-- but kind of slow and quiet... kind of left behind as the rest of the region rushes headlong into the 21st Century and globalization. Roland says Yangon reminds him of Havana in many ways.

It is easy, fast and cheap to get a visa directly from the visa section of the consulate in Washington, DC-- way smoother, quicker and far less expensive than working with the outsourced visa company India now forces you to work with to get a visa for that country. We flew Air Asia from Bangkok, a kind of Southwest Airlines for SE Asia. It is cheap and only takes an hour and a 15 minutes. (The flight back was delayed for a few hours and they gave us a signed chit so that we can get our money back, an Air Asia policy for flights that are delayed for over 3 hours. (The guy who runs it, Tony Fernandes, was the head of our Malaysian company when I worked at Warner Brothers. He learned a lot more about customer service than most music industry execs ever did.)

The currency exchange system in Myanmar is a real mess. If there even is an "official rate" it's around 500 kyats for a dollar. But dollars are the preferred currency in Yangon-- as long as the bills are new and crisp and have no marks or tears-- and even taxi fares can be paid with them. The street rates of exchange vary between 1,000 and 1,500 per dollar (depending on your bargaining ability)-- a very wide disparity. The whole thing is kind of shady and bizarre and, for a normal tourist probably pretty disorienting. Few places accept credit cards and the ones that do, charge an exorbitant fee. When you leave the country you pay a $10 airport exit tax. They want it in dollars. If you insist on paying it in worthless kyats (which can't be exchanged outside the country for any real currencies), they charge you 16,000-- not just far more than the "official rate," but more than the best black market rate!

On the other hand, we found the December weather absolutely fantastic-- warmer than Delhi and cooler than Bangkok. Bangkok is hot and steamy, never under 90 with lots of humidity. Yangon is dry and in the 80's. It gets hot in the sun in the afternoons but it's pretty comfortable and without the hellish man-made weather of Bangkok.

Part II next time I get to a computer.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I travel with my pal Roland a lot and he loves going to strange and exotic places, as I do. He also likes checking out weird scenes like synagogues in bizarre countries. Recently I wrote a post about the remnants of the Jewish community in Cochin in Kerala, India. In 1991 we were traipsing around Egypt and Roland talked me into getting on a Sinai bus for a dusty drive to see the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. A few years later he even managed to find an Iraqi synagogue in Singapore and 3 days before it was blown up, a synagogue in Istanbul. He's an atheist whose distant ancestors he thinks were Catholic (he's unsure).

Anyway, now we're in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly Burma) and a less "Jewish place" you could never imagine. I thought about looking into it and thought, "Nah; not a chance." I was wrong. We were wandering around in a squalid Muslim neighborhood this morning when all of a sudden we see a star of David and Hebrew writing on a building.

It isn't "officially" a synagogue any longer. There are only 8 Jewish families left in town, most of them having fled when the Japanese took over in 1942 and the rest when the nationalistic socialists got control in the early 50s. The last rabbi left in 1963. So officially the synagogue is a museum and community center. There's a trustee instead of a rabbi, Moses Samuels, who helps keep the joint going and he has a son in NYC, Sammy who graduated from Yeshiva University and says he plans to return to Yangon and run it after his father. The official name is Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue and it' on 26th Street, not that far from the Bogyoke Market.

There weren't any Jews around, just a Burmese caretaker. Later a Canadian Jewish tourist from Thunder Bay wandered by. We saw pictures of Sammy Samuels and he looks Burmese. Outside I asked a couple of guys lounging on the street who looked like Al-Qaeda recruits if they were Jews and they giggled.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Flying out of Delhi's international terminal is, to put it mildly, stressful-- even more stressful than air travel has become in general-- and chaotic. Not only is it the most aggressively anarchistic place I've ever been in, at least 75% of the passengers look like they could be featured in a Watch For Terrorists ad-- if not an al-Qaeda recruitment poster. An American profiler would short circuit.

There may be, on an office flow chart in someone's desk somewhere, a schematic for how it's all supposed to work... but I doubt it. At every step along the way, among the pushing, shoving crowds-- many of whom seem to have never been confronted with the concept of "a line" before-- there is something designed specifically to hold up the process and make you return to Go. If you ever thought getting to the airport two hours before your departure was too big a waste of time, let me assure that they must have had Delhi in mind when they made that rule of thumb... and they were being optimistic.

The first nightmare involves getting the bags you intend to check into a great big cavernous black box and collecting it on the other side. Somewhere along the arduous quest for departure someone is bound to tell you about this-- usually the man at the end of the 30 minute line in front of the check-in counter. Black box first, check in after. But once you get through the crowds to the black box and figure out vaguely what's supposed to happen and how, you need to confront several hundred Osama bin-Laden look-alikes jostling in front of and all around it. I thought I was at the Kaaba. Nothing really seems to happen-- just a tremendous amount of seemingly unfocused kinetic energy but no discernable movement towards any goal. I knew I'd be OK eventually but I couldn't help wondering if the fragile looking elderly ladies lurking apprehensively on the outskirts of the melee would wind up stuck at the airport forever.

Eventually you find someone with an airport smock, slip him 10 rupees (like a quarter) and he shoves your bag into the box, gets a security string tied around it and you're good to go-- back to the boarding pass counter line. It was worth the 10 rupees because he alerted me about the need for a security stamp or some kind before you can get your boarding pass that allows you to proceed to the security check. I'm sure regular Delhi Airport commuters are well aware of this quirk.

Once you pass through security, it's less chaotic-- but just a little less. There are families (or tribal groups) camped out on the floors, apparently not having chairs as part of their culture. (Later, on the Air India jet, I realized some of my fellow passengers were among the 700,000,000 Indians I wrote about at DownWithTyranny a few days ago who have no access to sanitary facilities. Besides explaining seat belts and oxygen masks, the flight video does a tutorial about how to use a toilet.) But first I had to find a gate for my flight. There were just 3 question marks where a gate number should have been on my boarding pass and the loudspeaker announcements were so garbled and so unintelligible that it was impossible to tell if they were in Hindi, English or something else. Eventually some airport employee started walking around the terminal shouting "Bangkok flight, Gate 11." That worked. I won't have to brave this nightmare again for another month. And in a couple of years this will place will be left to domestic passengers since India is building a new international airport on the other side of Delhi. I only hope it is as well-planned as the brand new Bangkok international airport.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I've always loved Indian food and I've spent enough months in India since 1969 to not need a getting-used-to-it period when I get here. Now, I know it sounds a little trite, but you know what they say about how the best food in any country is what people prepare in their homes? Well, it's even more true in India than anywhere else I've ever been. But that isn't only because the home cooking is so good-- which it is-- but because the restaurant culture is so, surprisingly, stunted and undeveloped.

A few nights ago I went to see an operatic presentation sponsored by the Italian embassy at Delhi's 16th century Purana Qila (Old Fort) with my friend Daleep, his mom and cousin. By the time we got back to their house, around 9pm, we were all starving but no one much fancied a restaurant. As we walked up the stairs, Daleep's cousin mentioned that he had a hankering for brains; I mentioned that I'm a vegetarian. By 10 we were eating a sumputous 7 course feast-- including brain curry and lots of vegetable preparations. [I passed on the brain curry of course, but as always in India there was plenty for non-brain eaters to feast on.] Of course, it helps to have lots of good help. I only wish, though, that Delhi restaurants were nearly as good.

The problem-- and a silver lining-- is well-illustrated by 2 very different Connaught Place eateries within a minute of two from each other, Veda and Vega. Ask any concierge at a top hotel where to go eat and they will invariably mention Bukhara (more on that later) and Veda. Most of the top restaurants, like Bukhara, are in hotels. Veda isn't. It's a trendy, transnational Indian fusion restaurant catering to the call center crowd and to tourists daring enough to eat outside the hotel scene-- but only so far outside. The food isn't bad; it just isn't exceptional, although the prices are. Basically the food is kind of Indian and kind of arty/trendy... but not really Indian, just arty/trendy.

Down Connaught Circle a block or so is Vega, a vegetarian restaurant no one will ever call in-crowd. Vega is just behind the lobby of a small, modest hotel, the Alka. It's the next best thing to home cooking I've found in Delhi. And they just keep bringing heaps of delicious food until you absolutely insist that they stop. I ordered a thali and it included any and every kind of bread as well as every Indian veggie dish you ever heard of although just the normal, traditional ones, all cooked without onions and garlic. And the bill came to about a tenth of what the fancy places-- like Veda up the street-- cost.

Park Balluchi advertises that it has been voted the #1 best restaurant in India year after year. They're mixing up "best" either with "popular" or "richest food." The setting, in Hauz Khas' Deer Park, is lovely, the service is fine and the plates are gargantuan. The mewa paneer tukra (grilled balls of soft "cheese" stuffed with nuts, raisins, mushrooms and cream) was opulent and over-the-top. I managed to eat almost half an order.

Bukhara, in the Sheraton, makes the Park Balluchi seem like a soup kitchen by comparison. If being around trendy people turns you off, skip this place but it really is "the best" restaurant in town, at least from the international, cosmopolitan perspective. They started with 17 items on the menu when they first opened and they've never changed anything. Daleep's cousin works in mangement at the hotel and he told me that the ratio between lentils and butter in their famous dal makhrani (black lentils simmered for 12 hours in tomatoes, ginger and garlic) is one to one! It's impossible to get in without a reservation.

The Imperial Hotel-- the best in town unless you don't like traditional places-- has a whole slew of top restaurants, from a sumptuous All-India epicurian festival, Daniell's Tavern, to the hipsterish Spice Route, a pan-Asian (mostly Thai-oriented) extravagenza in one of the most gorgeous rooms in the city. They've also got the best Italian restaurant in Delhi, San Gimignano. Three other hotel restaurants of note are Masala Art at the Taj Palace, Dum Pukht at the Sheraton, both over-the-top, and the more reasonable Chor Bizarre, a Kashmiri restaurant in the Broadway Hotel.

I tried a couple of South Indian places I liked a lot, Swagath, which serves the unique seafood-and-coconut based cuisine of Mangalore (in Defense Colony Market) and Sarvana Bhawan, part of a very reasonably-priced, respectable chain. My advice is to stick to the free-standing places that non-trendy, middle class Indians eat in and to avoid the over-the-top (mostly hotel-based) joints that will be as bad for your health as they are for your wallet.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I'm a firm believer in traveling as light as possible. For one thing I hate checking luggage. "One in every 138 checked bags was lost during the first nine months of this year, compared with one in 155 bags a year earlier." Now that statistic is for U.S. carriers, which are much worse than reputable international carriers, like British Air, which is what I'm flying on to India. Nevertheless, I don't want to bring anything extra or check anything. So the weather becomes a problem. In Delhi, my first stop, the temperature dips down into the 40s and it cane get colder. That means I need a jacket. In Yangon and Bangkok it never gets below the mid-70s and is as likely to be in the low-90s; no jacket needed. Maybe I can just bring one I hate and leave it in Delhi when I fly to Bangkok.

But what about the monkeys? Do I bring monkey food? Or pick it up when I get there? Are you supposed to feed the monkeys. The ones I've run into in Nepal in 1970 were pretty nasty and aggressive. When I returned 20 some odd years later they had replaced them with tame, friendly docile monkeys. I hear the ones infesting Delhi this year are neither tame, friendly nor docile. They're eating people's small pets, attacking people and trying to steal babies. Does it sound like a Hitchcock movie with simians instead of birds?

Troupes of monkeys are out of control in India's northeast, stealing mobile phones and breaking into homes to steal soft drinks from refrigerators, lawmakers in the region have complained.
"Monkeys are wreaking havoc in my constituency by taking away mobile phones, toothpastes, sipping coke after opening the refrigerators," Hiren Das told Assam state's assembly Saturday.

He said the primates were "even slapping women who try to chase them."

"It is a cause of serious concern in my area, with more than 1,000 such simians turning aggressive by the day," fumed Goneswar Das, another legislator representing Raha in eastern Assam.

And last month the deputy mayor of Delhi died when he fell off his balcony defending himself against a monkey attack. Another bunch broke into Sonia Gandhi's daughter's apartment and wrecked it, while others have been ransacking hospitals and attacking patients. They're out of control but devout Hindus believe they're the incarnation of Hanuman and can't be killed.

The problems stems from humans displacing monkeys from their natural habitat. Tens of thousands of them have moved into Delhi... where the livin' is easy. Gee, and I though all the danger on this trip was going to be in Myanmar.

Friday, November 23, 2007


One of the things Roland loves doing when we go to Bangkok, something that basically makes no sense to me at all, is to buy fake Rolex watches and other brand name tokens to the excesses of consumerism. I like buying jade Buddha heads and traditional art. Last night we were pouring over tour books and planning out our trip to Burma and Roland blurted out, "Oh, I bet they have some cheap Rolexes at the Bogyoke Aung San Market or at the Theingyi Zei" (which is even cheaper and offers another Roland specialty that goes right over my head: a snake section that features the fresh blood and organs of various snakes; some live ones are disemboweled on the spot for medicinal consumption). Let a psychiatrist deal with the snake thing. I want to talk about the fake Rolexes. Actually, what I really want to talk about is a story in today's NY Times by Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.

Ms Thomas deals with luxury items made in China and other places that are neither Italy nor France, but not the illegal counterfeits Roland craves, the super-expensive, authorized ones that have become a mainstay of the "democratized," newly middle class, luxury industry. "For more than a century, the luxury fashion business was made up of small family companies that produced beautiful items of the finest materials. It was a niche business for a niche clientele. But in the late 1980s, business tycoons began to buy up these companies and turn them into billion-dollar global brands producing millions of logo-covered items for the middle market. The executives labeled this rollout the 'democratization' of luxury, which is now a $157-billion-a-year industry."
Maybe this is where Bush gets his ideas about democratizing Iraq and the Middle east and any country he doesn't like. This is mostly bait-and-switch production, with the newly corporatized-- rather than democratized-- name brands outright lying, or just deceiving, about where and how their overpriced consumer garbage is made. Example: "To please customers looking for the 'Made in Italy' label, several luxury companies now have their goods made in Italy by illegal Chinese laborers. Today, the Tuscan town of Prato, just outside of Florence and long the center for leather-goods production for brands like Gucci and Prada, has the second-largest population of Chinese in Europe, after Paris. More than half of the 4,200 factories in Prato are owned by Chinese entrepreneurs, some of whom pay their Chinese workers as little as two Euros ($3) an hour."
Luxury brand executives who declare that their items can be made only in Western Europe because Western European artisans are the only people who know what true luxury is are being not only hypocritical but also xenophobic. They are not selling “dreams,” as they like to suggest; they are hawking low-cost, high-profit items wrapped in logos. Consumers should keep in mind that luxury brands are capable of producing real quality at a reasonable price. They know better, and so should we.

I avoid that stuff. Two days ago I noticed my Levys were precariously hanging together in a few sensitive areas by some threads so I braved Roland's scorn, drove over to a K-Mart and plunked down $15 for a new pair of Levys, which I intend to wear 'til they get drafty. And today, like I said earlier, is a Buy Nothing Day at my pad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I left home when I was 13, but only temporarily. I hitchhiked from New York to Florida. I only got as far as New Jersey when I was arrested on the Turnpike. The police called my father and made him come pick me up. He was pissed but he gave me the bus fare to get to Miami Beach. It wasn't until later in my teenage years that I left home for real-- this time to go to Tonga, a small island between New Zealand and Hawaii. I hitchhiked all the way to California before being arrested this time-- having stowed away on a ship in San Pedro. After that I discovered airplanes. I had never been on one and they were incredibly convenient. I mean, compared to hitchhiking... they got you there so fast.

It wasn't long before I also discovered that you are better off not checking bags. My primary motivation was getting out of the airport fast and the baggage carousel was always a place I didn't like hanging around. And on top of that checked bags get lost-- a lot. It's easy for me; I travel light. After nearly 7 years living overseas I came back to America with 2 bags; no need to check anything.

Today's NY Times published a story on the worsening checked luggage situation in the U.S. (I never noticed it overseas and I usually feel far more confident checking luggage on foreign carriers. When I fly overseas I never use U.S. carriers, always British Air if I can or another foreign carrier if there's no B.A. flight. "One in every 138 checked bags was lost during the first nine months of this year, compared with one in 155 bags a year earlier."

Holiday travelers can expect to feel the effects of six years of airline downsizing in one way or another. About 27 million passengers are expected to fly during the 12 days surrounding Thanksgiving, 4 percent more than last year, the Air Transport Association said.

But there are fewer airline employees to look after them, and their bags. And to squeeze more flights out of the day, planes are sitting on the ground for shorter periods between flights. So predictably, more bags fail to join their owners, particularly on connecting flights.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for failure,” said Hans Hauck, manager of baggage operations at American’s headquarters in Fort Worth. Since Mr. Hauck started his job in September 2006, American has not met its bag-handling goal in any month. As of late last week, though, Mr. Hauck remained optimistic that he would make his November number. A look at American’s bag-handling operation, which is the biggest of all United States carriers, shows it is making lots of little improvements but still losing ground. American misplaced 7.44 bags for every thousand passengers through Sept. 30, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported, up from 6.04 for every thousand a year earlier. (All but a tiny fraction of misplaced bags are ultimately reunited with their owners.)

And American isn't the only U.S. carrier that can't do the job. Actually none of them can. Anecdotal evidence shows Delta being the airline most poorly run, although supposedly statistics show that the small regional airlines do even worse than Delta when it comes to lost bags and American Eagle was the worst of the worst.

Two of the biggest problems are downsizing, with fewer employees to do more work, and an inability for the system to read at least 10% of the bar codes on checked bags.

About 2 percent are misread and dropped onto the wrong pier. Then, it is up to a worker stacking the bags on carts to notice the mistake. “He better,” said Ms. Wilewski, the baggage manager.

American and other domestic airlines have resisted investing in radio frequency identification tags, which are used by big retailers to track inventory and are far more accurate. The tags cost about 20 cents each so it would cost $50,000 a day for American’s 250,000 bags, plus the cost of hardware to read them at each step in the process.

“We don’t lose enough bags to justify that investment,” said Mark Mitchell, American’s managing director of customer experience.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Ten years ago Roland and I arrived in Egypt just as everyone was leaving. The airport was packed with tourists and they were all headed out. Sixty or so tourists had been slaughtered at the temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor by some Islamic extremists from al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. Not only did we have the temple of Hatshepsut to ourselves, and not only did we have the Luxor region to ourselves, we pretty much had all of touristic Egypt to ourselves. We also had an entire luxury ship cruising the Nile to ourselves... well it was Roland and I plus 2 elderly Brits on their way home to England after a lifetime of foreign service on the Arabian Peninsula. Four of us. It was the best. Not for the 60 dead tourists who were chased through the ruins and chopped up with scimitars... but for us, the following weeks.

Anyway, when the military regime in Myanmar started responding to peaceful protests from monks in Yangon by wholesale slaughter Roland suggested that this might be a perfect opportunity to visit. I mean not that week but after the troubles died down. We were planning on spending most of December in Thailand anyway.

The only really great hotel in Yangon is The Strand, an old colonial Victorian palace in the heart of the city. It's a small, opulent hotel with only 32 suites, all with lavish, up-to-date amenities. And prices to match. But they're not fools either and when I pointed out that foreign tourists would probably be passing on Myanmar this season, I was able to get a drastically reduced rate. (According to today's NY Times "up to 90 percent of bookings by tourists have been canceled," since the unrest. And Reuters is reporting that "the military junta's ruthless and bloody crackdown have hit tourism hard, with some hotels slashing prices by 80 percent to try to attract visitors," which are still largely empty.)

I got a little nervous yesterday when I saw that Bush had slapped more sanctions on the military dictatorship there, but this morning I saw that the regime (theirs) has lifted the curfew and the ban on public gatherings. The regime (ours) is still grousing about this and that but it doesn't look like they will do anything to ruin our trip-- or do as much damage to the already damaged country as they have to Pakistan with their misguided, DC-centric, foolish policies.

That isn't to say that the whole enterprise-- for Roland and I-- isn't a little hairy. Every other day one of us asks the other if we're making a mistake going.
An ominous calm has settled here, less than a month after the military junta crushed an uprising for democracy led by the nation’s revered monks. People have quietly returned to the squalor and inflation that brought them to the streets in protest. There are even suggestions of peace: young couples embracing under trees around scenic Kandawgyi Lake; music from a restaurant drifting across the placid water.

But beneath the surface, anger, uncertainty, hopelessness-- and above all, fear of the junta-- prevail.

...After the government shut down Internet access and denied visas for outside journalists, keeping much of the world at bay, terror continued to rage through Yangon, the main city, for days, according to witnesses and dissidents here. Soldiers raided homes and monasteries to arrest demonstrators, witnesses said, using pictures taken by government informers during the protests.

Even back when the Times Travel Section did a big feature on Myanmar in 2006, tourists were grappling with the morality of traveling to the country. On the one hand, "As Southeast Asia modernizes rapidly-- Starbucks appears to be colonizing Thailand-- Myanmar, as Burma is now called, remains the last country in the region preserved in amber... Western influences are almost nowhere to be found." On the other hand, the reasons aren't because the people are charmed by the quaintness of yesteryear.
There's a reason for this sensation of being stuck in time, of course. Decades of rule by one of the world's harshest military regimes have left the country isolated and its economy a shambles, discouraging tourist arrivals, putting modern amenities out of many people's reach, and keeping the Burmese wedded to traditional life. (In 2005, Myanmar received some 660,000 foreign visitors, according to the government, compared with the more than 11 million in Thailand in 2004, as reported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.) "There's only one destination where we won't market holidays, and that's Burma," said Justin Francis of Responsible Travel, a British travel agent promoting socially responsible trips. "We'll market trips anywhere else where we think it'll benefit local people-- even Zimbabwe."

...Like Responsible Travel, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy opposition leader, many Myanmar-oriented human rights groups support a boycott of tourism, which they see as endorsing the government. The groups draw up "dirty" lists of travel agencies that send tourists there, blast publishers of Myanmar guidebooks, and try to shame celebrities who visit, like Mick Jagger. "It's naïve to say you can help as a tourist," said Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a British group advocating responsible tourism, who believes that most of the tourist infrastructure remains closely linked to the regime.

For other travelers, convinced their tourism dollars will help average Burmese, the appeal of the last truly Asian place in Southeast Asia is exactly the reason to come. "When I was in Burma, I've never met anyone who said that I shouldn't be there," said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia's poorest nations.

The call for a boycott has sparked fierce debate on Web sites and in hotels across the Asian backpacker trail. "I don't know of any debate that's as vocal as this one," said Brice Gosnell, a regional publisher at Lonely Planet. That's not necessarily bad. The debate educates potential visitors, and many independent travelers I've encountered have waded through political tomes before choosing to go.

Monday, September 03, 2007


Guinea, not Jackson Heights

I'm in NYC this week and judging by the taxis, I really am in one of the most cosmopolitan, international city in the world. The guy who drove me from JFK to my hotel on the Upper West Side came here from Kandahar, Afghanistan. He came as an illegal immigrant, spent 3 months in jail and eventually was granted political asylum. Each of his two younger brothers came and remained here the same way. His wife and elderly parents are in Qetta in Pakistan and he's hoping to bring them here too. He works 7 days a week and sends a lot of his earnings to Qetta. The two younger brothers work in a fried chicken restaurant. They live in Queens. His American odyssey seems very much the same as the story of immigrants I've heard all my life.

We drove through Queens to the 59th Street Bridge through whole neighborhoods of Muslim immigrants, from Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, India... some from Afghanistan, Egypt and other countries.

Last night my friends Charlie and Sharon got married and I dressed up in a Zegna suit and a Fray shirt, reminiscent of my old corporate days-- not something I thought would be the right dress for the subway. I waited for one of those van-looking yellow cabs. The driver, Mohammed, was also a refugee who sought and was granted political asylum. He was the first taxi driver-- or anyone else-- I had ever met from the small West African country of Guinea. When I was a child Guinea was granted independence from France and I remember the fiery president, Sekou Touré coming to the UN and pushing a socialist agenda. He was demonized by the American media. When he died in 1984, General Lansana Conté staged a coup and became president and still is. He's more pro-American and a pretty brutal, if ineffective, dictator. In 1998, Mohammed, my driver, was elected to the city council in Fria, just north of the capital, Conakry. Unfortunately for him, his party, the UPR, won the national elections and Conté decided to kill lots of them and... change the results. Mohammed was one of the lucky ones and he escaped to the U.S.

Guinea is a desperately poor country and would like to encourage a tourist industry. Their propaganda refers to the country as the Switzerland of Africa, which is clearly absurd, although it does have mountains. The tourism industry has potential and promise but they only get about 100,000 tourists a year (few Americans). You can fly there from Paris. There aren't many hotels, though the best one in the country is a Meridien with 96 rooms and there is also a Novotel.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


I'm busy making reservations for a trip to India this winter. Everything seems so much more expensive than I remember it. And it wasn't that long ago that I visited Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. The first time I went to India, though, that was like a whole different world and a whole different age. I had just graduated from college and I drove across Europe and Asia to India. It was still 1969 when I got there-- December 1, 1969, in fact. I remember because it was a major day in my life. I was waiting for my paper work-- or my van's paper work-- to get processed at the Pakistan-Indian border (Wagah, I think) and it was very hot in the sun. I had spent a year being very frustrated about not being able to stop smoking pot and hash. But suddenly at that remote, desolate border crossing I felt a hand reach inside me and rip away the desire for drugs. Gone; forever. I never desired to use a drug again after that. What a great way to start my trip inside India.

Eventually I made my way down to Goa and rented a house on the beach. When I left I decided to drove to Sri Lanka. In between was Kerala, a very green and beautiful state. I remember they had the most Christians and the most Communists. In fact they had a Communist state government that was working far better than any of the other state governments. I was pretty carefree and drove wherever my fancy took me. I wound up one day in Cochin, a seaport on the Arabian Sea. Today's Washington Post has a story about the city, now (since 1996) called Kochi, In India, A Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers.

When I visited in 1970 is was a real outpost with nothing going on at all. I don't remember it as a city, just more as a village. Now there are around a million people and it's a major port and historically it was a place filled with traders from all over the world: Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Jews. And Cochin has been somewhat famous in the west as an oddity, a Jewish enclave in Hindu India.

I was curious about Jews living in such a place and I decided to investigate. I found very little-- an old synagogue but no actual Jews around. The Indians boys eager to take the three or four visitors a day on a tour weren't Jewish and they said the Jews had all moved to Israel. Legend says the first Jews to have settled in Cochin came when Solomon was King of Israel. A thousand years later there were Jews from Europe arriving and at the time of the Inquisition, more Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived. In the middle 1500's the Jews of the area sought protection from the Hindu king against Muslim oppression and he let them build their own "Jew Town" in Cochin.

It was still called Jew Town when I visited, although I didn't see a single Jew. According to the story in the Post there are only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews left. "In Kochi, there is concern that Jew Town soon will be little more than a quirky tourist destination." That's certainly what it was in 1970 when I visited. Occasionally Jewish tourists from the U.S. or Israel come by but it's the kind of place that's not worth more than a pleasant afternoon on the way somewhere.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


When I first drove down to Morocco from Spain in 1969 I had heard enough about Tangier to think I should avoid it. We took the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta (a cheaper alternative than Algeciras-Tangier). Ceuta is technically part of Europe-- the last Spanish enclave in Morocco, just a couple hours drive northeast of Tangier. We headed for Tetouan instead, avoiding Tangier entirely. At least for a while. We drove all through Morocco, loving it-- I've been back a dozen times since-- and then decided we were old Moroccan hands enough to brave the weirdness of Tangier. I must have picked up my preconception about Tangier from meditations on Paul Bowles' most brilliant novel The Sheltering Sky-- although they were strictly my own meditations, Bowles having loved Tangier so much that he decided to live there... forever. It didn't take me long to start liking it either.

Yesterday I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum, which takes place in Moscow, London, Madrid, New York and... Tangier. I've never been to Moscow but the movie didn't evoke anything special for me geographically in the other cities-- except Tangier. The scenes-- shot on location, of course-- were beautiful, action-packed, exciting and realistic real and I recognized almost every spot they shot.

The last time I was in Tangier, December, 2005, I was already thinking about starting a blog and I took some notes and pictures and wrote it up. These days I wouldn't think about leaving Tangier out of a Moroccan itinerary. It's a sophisticated, exotic and unique city, very different from any other place in the country. The energy is powerfully kinetic-- young and vibrant and bursting at the seams. It's pretty cosmopolitan and very much it's own thing.

Here's some footage of two chase scenes shot in Tangier.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Normally my wonderfully resourceful and infinitely patient travel agent, Jeannine, books most of my hotels. I still get incredible corporate rates based on my old corporate president days-- and upgrades and extras... lovely; and I'm thankful to the universe. On my most recent trip-- to DC and Chicago-- she worked her magic in Chicago (more of that in a moment) and I decided to let the organization which had asked me to come to Washington handle the hotel details there. That's because Washington's third-rate, overpriced hotels are always booked up in awkward ways. If you'll be there Monday thru Friday, everything is cool except one detail-- like Tuesday isn't available. So, knowing the organization had a "deal" with a conveniently-located hotel that wouldn't cost me an arm and a leg, like the dependable but expensive Ritz Carlton, I decided to let them sort it all out. Mistake.

I arrived the day before the meeting and, the St. Gregory, a somewhat renovated, self-described "luxury hotel" didn't have a room. They did ask me for "picture ID," making me wonder if they've been having security problems. Someone behind the desk spoke passable English and we finally figured out that my reservation started tomorrow. And, of course, they were booked solid. In fact, they told me, everyone was booked solid. I didn't relish walking around M Street with my two bags-- nor did I relish spending an hour trying to decipher the barely comprehensible English of the person pessimistically offering to help me find somewhere else to stay. I looked around at this gussied up dump (at $314.88/night) and wondered if I could charm my way into the Ritz. What's another $200 a night? It didn't matter; they were booked. The Four Seasons was booked. Literally all those hotels on M were booked, like The Fairmont and the Park Hyatt.

Then I decided-- my bags starting to feel heavier than I remembered-- to climb down off my high horse and go across the street to the Westin Grand. Sure, it's like a somewhat trumped up motel, but I was thinking I could save some money. I was correct about the motel quality of the service but not about saving any money. They didn't care that I'm a Starwood VIP cardholder or that my corporation has a great discount. I hadn't made any reservations in advance and they were very aware Washington was solidly booked and if I wanted the room, it was $500 a night, internet access extra. In fact, everything is extra. I admit, the room was nice. It was the only nice thing about the place and I was happy to check into the hideous, security conscious St Gregory early the next morning.

They too charge for internet access, as sporadic and undependable as it turned out to be. The first time I ever went to Europe-- 1969-- I arrived in Luxembourg at night and my girlfriend and I were considerably less picky than I've since become. It was already night and we just plopped down in the first place we found. In the morning we discovered it was a whore house. Years later I visited an old friend who was residing in the same type of establishment in Bangkok. There's something about the St. Gregory-- maybe the way you have to insert your key to make the elevator run-- that reminds me of those places.

I don't know the restaurant scene in DC. Sometimes people take me out. Once I even got invited to a state banquet at the house Bush is currently occupying. Normally I just eat at either of the two Noras, the Asia Nora on M Street or the regular place at Florida and R. They're both as conscious about health and serving organic food as they are about serving great-tasting food. I had all my dinners in one or the other this time and all the dinners were delicious and reasonably priced.

I have to admit, though, that I was happy to be flying to Chicago. I always forget how much I love that city-- 'til I get there. It's even relatively nice flying there from DC since you can go from that conveniently located National Airport, a $20 cab ride away. National claims to have free WiFi but they don't, at least not in the United terminal. I made due, happily, with my book.

And when I got to Chicago, Jeannine's efforts kicked in. I stayed at the Park Hyatt at 800 North Michigan Avenue. Before I explain why this is a world class luxury hotel, let me also say that it cost me considerably less than either of the two dives I stayed in in DC. The staff is impeccably trained and whether it was real or an act, they were all always friendly, cheerful and helpful. The place has the feel of a boutique hotel and it wasn't until a day or two after I got there when I was walking to it that it dawned on me that it is actually a huge hotel. The rooms are unbeatable; everything beautiful, comfortable, user-friendly, tasteful. Even f I was paying the outlandish prices at the Grand Westin or the St. Gregory I would have at least felt I was getting my money's worth.

First night I ate at the Green Zebra on West Chicago Avenue, just down the road from my hotel. It's an upscale mostly vegetarian restaurant dedicated to perfect service and serving fresh, seasonal, flavorful food. It isn't cheap and the plates are small but it was delicious, engaging and interesting and I'd eat there again. The following night, however, the restaurant was chosen based on size. We needed a place that could accommodate 20 or so bloggers. I don't remember the name; no need.

My favorite spot in Chicago: the Art Institute. Yep Chicago has one of the world's greatest art museums, certainly better than anything on the West Coast and right up there with the Met and MoMA in NYC, the Tate, the Louvre, El Prado...

Nighthawks the Hooper I was eager to see again was on tour but I got to marvel at some of the amazing works by Gustave Caillebotte, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francis Bacon, Magritte, Seurat and hours worth of paintings before I had to catch my plane back to L.A. Before leaving I booked a week at the same hotel in August.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


On April 30 I was flying between L.A. and Jacksonville. There may be other, less horrible, airlines that fly that route, but I wound up on Delta, the flying garbage can. I guess I should be thankful it takes off and lands. The stewardii insisted we all toast Delta because they came out of bankruptcy that day. I don't drink. And I hate Delta.

Not that Im a big fan of any of the U.S. airlines anymore. I just flew from L.A. to DC to Chicago to L.A. on United and it was generally as bad as Delta. "The overall performance of U.S. airlines worsened in 2006, its third consecutive year of decline, according to the 17th annual Airline Quality Ratings released here Monday. Its performance fell in three of the four categories measured by the study: on-time arrival, involuntary bumping and mishandled luggage. The customer complaint rate was flat."

Hawaiian Air was #1 and JetBlue was #2. All the big airlines stunk. United was #8. American was #10 and Delta was #12. I fly "first class." The so-called first class sections of all three of the big three are not particularly better than JetBlue's economy class. On my United flights last week there were no foot-rests on any of the cramped seats. The staff was unprofessional to the max on each flight, as though they had never gone through any training at all. The food was abysmal and the seating areas filthy. The planes took off and landed on time.

Today's New York Times examines one sordid aspect of the industry in depth: overbooking policies; it doesn't look good.
The summer travel season is under way, and so many planes are expected to be full that, if you are bumped, you could end up waiting days for a seat on another flight to the same destination.

The number of fliers bumped against their will is expected to reach a high for the decade this year.

How could that happen? The industry's "widespread practice of airline overbooking... Airlines, of course, overbook to avoid losing billions of dollars because of empty seats. Inevitably, though, they guess wrong on some flights and too many people arrive at the gate."

Airlines would overbook far more than they do-- they certainly don't give a rat's ass for their passengers-- but fear of passenger anger holds them hold to 6 or 700,000 a year.


The NY Times is reporting today that delays are getting worse this year. Maybe it's just too simple to blame Bush-- although, instinctively-- I do.
The on-time performance of airlines has reached an all-time low, but even the official numbers do not begin to capture the severity of the problem.

That is because these statistics track how late airplanes are, not how late passengers are. The longest delays-- those resulting from missed connections and canceled flights-- involve sitting around for hours or even days in airports and hotels and do not officially get counted. Researchers and consumer advocates have taken notice and urged more accurate reporting.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a study several years ago and found that when missed connections and flight cancellations are factored in, the average wait was two-thirds longer than the official statistic. They also determined that as planes become more crowded — and jets have never been as jammed as they are today-- the delays grow much longer because it becomes harder to find a seat on a later flight.

That finding prompted the M.I.T. researchers to dust off their study, which they are updating now. But with domestic flights running 85 to 90 percent full, meaning that virtually all planes on desirable routes are full, Cynthia Barnhart, an M.I.T. professor who studies transportation systems, has a pretty good idea of what the new research will show when it is completed this fall: “There will be severe increases in delays,” she said.

Very severe-- and longer-- 39% longer than last year, to be precise. Republican anti-union ideological mania has wrecked the air traffic control system and the general anti-union permissiveness of the Bush Regime has made some airline employees... "grumpy." As the Times put it, "after taking big pay cuts and watching airline executives reap some big bonuses, many workers are fed up."

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I wouldn't recommend this, but Americans do travel to Iraq. I went out of my way to miss Iraq several times-- starting in 1969-- because I never had the feeling it was a safe place for Americans. And since Bush invaded and occupied the country and presided over the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the complete breakdown of civil society and the onset of a catastrophic civil war... it's no exaggeration to say it's considerably less safe.

One of my friends, Fred, is over there working. I tried to talk him out of it but he feels he owes the Iraqi people the completion of an important project that has been utterly botched by the incompetent and larcenous Bush Regime, a completion that will require his unique expertise and dedication. From time to time Fred sends me stories about life in the Greed Zone and I post that at Down With Tyranny. Today's installment talks less about politics and more about how one physically gets from Amman (or Kuwait) into Baghdad. I thought I'd share that part, although I recommend the whole piece for, at the very least, context-- like knowing water will be hard to come by and that there are some natives who may be less than friendly towards Americans for some reason.

Traveling to Baghdad under US Government auspices is a dilly of an experience. It was so fascinating that I took notes along the way. After arriving, everything seemed so surreal that I continued taking notes. I was here in mid-2004 but somehow I either was not exposed to the more weird aspects of life in the Green Zone or did not notice it. Anyway, here is the first part of my story for your amusement.

It took 20 hours to get to Baghdad by plane from Amman, Jordan. Prewar, one could drive it in about ten hours. The trip was bizarre to say the least. I even had written instructions and tried to follow them to the letter but alas, a few things were left out.

The delays started even before travel begins. Someone in Baghdad must first verify that you have a CAC or Common Access Card, country clearance, a Letter of Authorization (LOA, at the airport they referred to them as Travel Orders) and that there is room for you in the inn, i.e. is there an empty bunk in one of the several thousand trailers or other billets in the International Zone (better known as the Green Zone)? None of this happens in parallel, all must be done in a specific sequence. When all is gathered, a seat is reserved for you on a C-130.

Two days a week, a C-130 flies from Kuwait to Baghdad, then Baghdad to Amman, then Amman back to Baghdad and finally from Baghdad back to Kuwait; all very orderly, but intentionally (for security reasons) not on any discernable time schedule.

On the afternoon before the flight, specifically between the hours of 4 and 8 pm, you are obliged to telephone (or inquire via the Internet) the transportation people and ask for the Amman to BIAP (Baghdad International AirPort) ‘show time’. I telephoned at the appointed time and was told that show time at Marka airport-– an old airport now mostly devoted to general aviation-– was “oh-nine-thirty.”

At 8:15 the following morning, a colleague drove me to the airport. On the drive, I mused that the usually brown hills had turned green as the result of a tiny bit of rain a few days earlier and thought of it as a good sign. Such is life in a desert environment.

Marka airport dates from an earlier era. The terminal looks as though it had just slipped into a hole in the ground. It is small, nearly empty, dimly lit and dreary. Other than the employees, everyone in the terminal appeared to be headed for the same flight to Baghdad.

After standing in line for an hour, I paid the departure tax, gave someone at the ticket counter (no tickets were actually issued) my luggage bag and a copy of my LOA and was checked in. One carry-on is permitted – as long as you can carry it on your lap.

After checking in, we passengers gathered in a small open area overlooking part of the runway and waited some more. A forlorn looking Duty Free shop was open as was a stand that sold cookies, sodas and such but otherwise the joint was empty.

After a rather long wait, Jordan Immigration opened a departure counter and someone called out that the immigration line was open. So, I had the dubious pleasure of yet another line in which to stand. Having completed that task, everyone re-gathered into a glassed-off waiting area and, of course, waited some more.

At 12:45 pm, a bus pulled up and after more waiting, a group of us crowded onto the bus and were taken to the plane. This being a C-130 we boarded by walking up a ramp at the back of the plane. The seats are web mesh on aluminum frames. Down each side of the plane a row of seats faces inward; down the center of the plane two rows of seats separated by web mesh faces outward. I’ve attached pictures for your amusement.

The web mesh is the seat back. For those sitting in the middle rows of seats only the mesh separates each persons back from the back of the person on the other side. The plane narrows in the middle to accommodate the wheel wells. Passengers seated in that section find themselves sharing knee space as well. Amazingly enough, several passengers seemed to sleep or toil away (play?) on laptops that were truly on their laps, despite the rather uncomfortable arrangement. When one of the air force types (shall I call him the flight attendant?) went from the front of the plane to the back, he did so by stepping carefully between the knees of the passengers from one seat edge to the next.

Some 70 of us crowded onto the plane. The toilet on the plane is a bucket behind a curtain, if anyone is desperate for relief.

Our baggage, collected on a pallet and wrapped in plastic wrap like a piece of meat at the supermarket, was fork-lifted onto the plane, the ramp raised, the door latched and off we went. The plane jerked forward from a standing position but climbed into the sky quite nicely. The flight was noisy and uncomfortable but not overly long.

At 1:54 pm, the pilot landed the plane in a spiral motion-– rather reminiscent of the time I did my pilot’s biennial with a stunt pilot as my check pilot. In this case however, the reason for landing in such an unusual way was to avoid flying over areas where the troublemakers like to shoot at low flying planes. Touchdown was rather sudden and abrupt.

Even leaving the plane is an experience. First the luggage pallet is removed – we probably could not get off the plane otherwise – then a hippy-looking chap yelled “skull caps off” and “follow me." We stumbled off the plane, in two remarkably straight lines, for some distance behind the plane. The reason was immediately obvious. The engines were still running, the noise was deafening and the wind the engines generated was incredible. We next pushed off to a tent/building where our arrival was registered.

I was instructed to call upon arrival at BIAP but told not to give any flight times, etc. over the phone (seemed strange as the flight was over) but I followed the instructions. I had to borrow a phone as my Jordanian phone did not work despite receiving a SMS message welcoming me to Iraq from Fastlink Jordan.

It is not obvious where the luggage is placed upon arrival, and given the impression I had that the bags continued to the Green Zone with the passengers, I did not go fetch my bag-- a bit of a mistake-- but that’s another story.

For most folks who arrive on a C-130, getting to the Green Zone from BIAP is via steel-plated buses called Rhinos. The color, size and hulking shape of these beasts suggest that they are well-named. Unfortunately the Rhinos do not run until the wee hours of the morning (to avoid being shot at during the daytime, when folks can be along the road without appearing suspicious). So for those of us who arrived via C-130, it’s a 6 to 10 hour additional wait.

Having time to kill, I went exploring. I found a Dining Facility (in Green Zone-speak, a DFAC) but they would not let me enter with my laptop (security has its own peculiar logic) and there was no place to store it safely. I found a PX (Post eXchange) and cluster of trailers housing a Burger King, a Subway sandwich shop, a Green Beans (a Starbucks-like coffee shop found on military bases), a jewelry shop, a barber shop, a beauty salon and a gift shop. All seemed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by churned up and hardened mud with large river stones in place of paving. The whole business was surrounded by concrete T-walls (blast protection).

Later I took a bus to Camp Striker (where the Rhinos pick up their passengers). The bus was accompanied by a van onto which they place any luggage that passengers are carrying (again, all in the name of security). At Striker, the waiting area is housed in a large temporary building with coffee, tea, television, and wireless internet (for a fee), etc. For those who can tolerate endless propaganda there are some couches and chairs around a couple of televisions with identical smatterings of Fox News and military pep talk pieces. There are also a few books and magazines to read.

At about 11:00 pm, the Rhino passengers queued up, identified themselves and had their names placed on a manifest and were told the number of the bus that they are to take to the Green Zone. Rhino passengers are required to have a flak jacket and helmet. Of course I did not have these items (and did not get any for several days). But I did receive a lengthy lecture on the subject. Just where, how or when I could have acquired this equipment was left out of the lecture.

The Rhinos finally arrived, an announcement was made and we we went out to meet them. The luggage was lined up in a row and sniffer dogs examined them after which the baggage and other boxes were tossed into a shipping container that sat on a flat bed trailer.

Five or six Rhinos (one purposefully empty) took us to the Green Zone. We were escorted by humvees with a pair of helicopters watching overhead. At the Green Zone, the luggage truck was unloaded, and again inspected by other sniffer dogs.

I was not told beforehand that I would be going into the Palace that morning, and thus did not get the necessary temporary badge. By the time someone came to get me, the badge person had left and my escort and I had to wait until someone of higher rank arranged for a temporary badge. The badge was needed simply to let me pass through the Palace on my way to a “Transient Hootch”, Hootch being the name given to the sleeping quarters that are trailers or modified shipping containers. It is a Vietnamese word for huts that serve as living quarters. The US military borrowed the name from the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war and have used it ever since. Once a temporary badge was issued, my escort took me to Billeting, picked up a room key and finally, at 4:00 am I crawled into bed.

So, you see the waiting is unbelievable, especially when you realize that everyone who enters or leaves the airport via this process loses a day in entering and a day in leaving. The drag on individuals and the cost to the USG must be enormous. I think the C-130 holds about 70 people. My guess is that the people cost alone easily exceeds $500,000 each trip. My logic: each trip 65 to 75 people travel to Amman and 65 to 75 from Amman plus similar numbers going through Kuwait – each person loses 16 to 24 hours in traveling this short distance-- the average fee expended for the services of these people likely exceeds $1,000 per person per day (my estimate may even be low)-- add in the cost of the C-130s, the security personnel, the Rhinos, the escorts and the number soon staggers the imagination-- all this in the name of security.

The costs go on. You cannot just change planes in Amman or Kuwait and fly on to Baghdad. Thus folks other than the military who are traveling to Iraq for the US Government must of necessity be lodged in a hotel for a day or more until such time as they can continue their journey.

I don't think the Baghdad Tourism Department is paying John McCain to do tv ads for them. I'd have to guess John McCain is insane.


Tomorrow's Washington Post carries a report from Josh Partlow, a journalist stationed in occupied Iraq, Flying Standby On Air Baqubah: Sun, Sand, Fleas. Sounds like Josh didn't have any more of a pleasant time than my friend Fred did. He was at a forward operating base north of Baghdad and wanted to fly back to lovely, historic, scenic, cosmopolitan Baghdad on a Chinook helicopter. The day started with a little sandstorm.
At 9:30 p.m. I reported to the airport lounge-- a gravel lot with one wooden bench-- to wait for my flight to Baghdad. I had a relatively clear view of the moon. How sandy could it be?

It turns out that pilots who don't want to crash also don't want to fly through sand, so we were on "weather hold." Not canceled and not subjected to some defined delay, just on hold. In this purgatory, I tried to amuse myself. This was difficult. The waiting area apparently was prime habitat for the notorious Iraqi sand flea. I'm not sure they were sand fleas. I never saw them. I just felt their tiny bites again and again and again, in places both public and private. In between swats I would look up, see the moon and remark to a fellow traveler, "How sandy could it be?"

The hours passed. At midnight I peeled off in search of food. Say what you will about the inhumanity of 15-month tours and denying soldiers beer in a desert, there is one indisputable example of military kindness: "midnight chow." After a hamburger, fries and banana milk, I felt renewed. The moon looked good. I counted a couple of stars. But the hold still held firm. Around 3 a.m. we got the word: all flights canceled.

So he was on standby for the next day-- and it was "somewhere north of 110 degrees hot." And boring. "Thursday morning, my colleague in Baghdad had to postpone his flight out of the country because I hadn't returned, and I woke up wearing the same sweat-encrusted clothes I'd worn the past three days." He fantasized about dressing up like an Iraqi and taking a taxi through the war zone, which is basically all of Iraq except, sometimes, on U.S. bases. Eventually, because he knew someone who knew someone who had a 'copter, he made it back to the Green Zone. "Just after 7 p.m., with a thick red pelt of bites and clothes that could stand on their own, I was home. In 46 hours, I had traveled 37 miles. Walking would have been faster."

Friday, May 11, 2007


Well, I have to admit that the only tiger shark I actually saw was one a local fisherman caught off the pier-- and it was about 18" long, maybe two feet. He used it to try to scare children before throwing it back in. I'll get to my tiger shark adventure in a moment. I had come to St. Simons, an island off the south Georgia coast, for a conference. As is my habit, I arrived a day early so I could get the lay of the land. I'm glad I did. It's a beautiful, sleepy resorty kind of place; very quiet and relaxing.

I flew from L.A. on Delta, a crappy airline that had just come out of bankruptcy that day and insisted we all applaud and drink some champagne. I did neither. There was a layover in Atlanta before I got a plane to Jacksonville, Florida's cozy little airport-- which boasts free internet, something I tried using several times coming and going... to no avail. (I had only been to Jacksonville once before, a stopover on a Greyhound when I was 13 years old and lost my virginity among some huge tires to an older woman; she must have been 17 or 18 and seemed to know what to do. I certainly didn't.) Nothing like that happened at the airport. Instead my friends picked me up and drove me north over a series of causeways to lovely St. Simons. We drove straight to a random restaurant, Mullet Bay. It blew.

Southern food isn't exactly my cup of tea, as Ken pointed out at DWT after I called him from the island to complain about Mullet Bay. Everything was fried and a deadly serious homage to cholesterol. Even at the estate, where the food was more... contemporary, our hostess had to intervene forcefully with the purist staff about serving collard greens without the ham hocks for the two dozen vegetarians in the crowd.

I stayed at the SeaPalms Resort, far from the beach, kind of in the middle of nowhere unless you're there for the golfing. It was OK, although internet connectivity isn't one of the amenities that works well; expensive but non-fuctional. The room was... roomy and quiet, so I won't complain. The breakfast buffet was... generous-- if life threatening.

I was excited to go kayaking. And I didn't let the fact that I ignored instructions to bring a bathing suit stop me. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to leave my cell phone, wallet and valuables back at the hotel. The beach was gorgeous-- and filled with eye candy-- and the water is warm, far warmer than the Pacific, even warmer than my pool! I soon learned that ocean kayaking isn't like white water kayaking (which I've done before). I think what threw me was when the kayak renter casually mentioned not to go out over the sandbar because, he claimed, it was the "biggest tiger shark breeding ground off the East Coast." My immediate thought was to go back to the hotel and read my book. But I was with 3 friends and they didn't take any notice at all. My second thought was to wonder if anyone had told the breeding tiger sharks to stay near their end of the sand bar.

That's what I was thinking, about 3 minutes into the adventure when I was hit by a 6 inch wave mid-ship; you're supposed to keep your nose pointed into the waves. I must have lost my balance because the next thing I knew I was man overboard. Do you think I panicked? I don't know what scares me more-- sharks or alligators, but when I saw several fins in the water I almost fainted. But that was over in 30 seconds when I realized it was a pod of dolphins. I convinced myself dolphins protect people from tiger sharks. My friend Matt, who fell in about half an hour later, went one further: dolphins eat tiger sharks. I never did check that out... but the dolphins did seem to stay between us and the ominous sandbar; maybe they hoped we were bait. Or maybe it's a spiritual thing; I hope so. I never eat canned tuna.

I didn't get bitten and the rest of the weekend was nice and peaceful, although there are alligators in the pond of the estate. I wound up in a party of two golf carts driving around the shore looking for them. Never did see any.


The Sunday NY Times has a travel story about people who don't inadvertently fall off plastic kayaks in a shark breeding ground like I did but who go out looking for them-- like I would never do. And Great Whites at that! It's beyond belief that people get in the water-- voluntarily-- with sharks. Even though only 50 or 60 people are attacked by sharks a year, I walk around my swimming pool every single morning to make sure there are no sharks (or alligators) in it before jumping in to do my laps. It's an indoor pool.

Joshua Hammer writes about his shark safari off the coast of Dyer Island, South Africa. Peter Benchley's Jaws had gotten to him, just like to the rest of us. "In the last 15 years, 'cage diving' has gone commercial. Thousands of tourists a year are now squeezing into wet suits and plunging into shark-infested waters off Australia and South Africa for an intimate look at the predators, which grow as long as 25 feet, can weigh more than a ton, and live between 30 and 50 years." Joshua was there in February, the height of tourist season but human tourists, not the peripatetic shark tourists (who come in late summer to munch down the Cape fur seal pups).

Already three people had given up and clambered out of the cold water and back onto the boat, named Shark Team, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits. I rubbed my hands together, and absent-mindedly wrapped my fingers around the front bars of the cage, prompting a warning from Grant Tuckett, our guide on this morning-long expedition, that I risked having them bitten off. Then, Mike Ledley, another crew member aboard the Shark Team, shouted out: “Shark! Get ready!”

I took a gulp of air and dropped below the surface, 12 pounds of lead weights strapped around my wet suit to counter my natural buoyancy. Feet wedged at the bottom of the cage, I pressed my mask against a face-wide aperture between the bars and waited for a monster to swim into view. The visibility in the water, which was thick with sand and algae blooms, was less than three feet. On the deck, the crew dragged ropes tied with fresh bait-- shark liver, chunks of yellowfin tuna-- around the boat, trying to lure the great white into proximity. “Here he comes,” Mr. Ledley yelled.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I was just in the mood for someplace new to eat, someplace I hadn't tried before. And I didn't mind driving. My 2007 Zagat for Los Angeles is so worn already that I knew I was unlikely to get any new inspiration there. And then it struck me-- I had seen a story a few months ago in the New York Times about L.A. area Chinese restaurants. I hadn't had Chinese food in 4 years-- ever since my doctor told me they tend to cook the food in extraordinarily cheap and cancer-causing oil and to steer clear. But I was in the mood.

It was easy enough to pull up Mark Bittman's Times story, The East Is West: The Best Chinese Restaurants in Southern California, online. It was all about going out of town, away from the traditional Chinatown and east on the I-10 towards Jacksonville, Florida (just not that far). And not even as far as San Bernardino, although Bittman's point is that the whole 50 mile stretch of the I-10 between L.A. and San Berdoo is "a string of multiethnic communities that all have a large, dynamic Chinese population. There is strong evidence of this in the chains of Chinese supermarkets, the likes of which exist nowhere else in the country. (In these stores, announcements are made first in Mandarin, then in Korean, then Vietnamese; then Spanish, and last English. Really.)"

And one of those towns is Alhambra. Bittman was unequivocal "Follow my advice, drop everything, and rush to eat at Triumphal Palace."
The restaurant follows in the tradition of popular places such as NBC Seafood, Mission 261-- about which, more in a moment-- and the ill-named New Concept. Their menus are large and long-- several pages, at least — and often feature esoteric and very expensive ingredients such as abalone, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

For my money-- and though it’s upscale by comparison, it doesn’t take much-- Triumphal Palace is the best of the lot, with food that is full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame. The roast duck, which looks like every other Chinese roast duck you’ve ever had, is so good I suspect it’s not “roast” at all, but fried in clarified butter; it’s that crisp, tender and flavorful. It needs nothing, and certainly not the accompanying marmalade-like substance, which you should not allow to touch the duck. Other dishes are similarly simple, and just about as good: stir-fried Dungeness crab with scallion and ginger; pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops; a pretty dish of chicken slices, huge shiitakes, ham and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), served in layers.

For all of this, Triumphal Palace is perhaps better known for its dim sum (served every day at lunchtime) than for its dinner dishes. Like many of the grand West Coast Chinese restaurants, from Vancouver on south, the dim sum is ordered from a menu-- you’re invariably given a short pencil and a printed sheet, to tick off what you want-- cooked fresh and served hot, rather than being hawked from steam carts. (Still, the problem of everything coming at once can only be solved by staggering your order.)

Six of us-- one of whom now claims she will be married here-- shared 24 dishes (about 18 of which came within 10 minutes), and while all except the predictably sad desserts were good, some were incredible. These were barbecue pork belly, firm cubes of slow-cooked, crunchy-skinned fresh bacon that, I swear, were a dead-on replica of a dish Alain Ducasse used to serve at about five times the price; Chiu Chow-style dumplings, with thick, chewy, slightly crisp rice-flour exteriors filled with (could it be?) jasmine-scented meat; deep-fried carrot cake, in fact a savory-sweet custard-filled dumpling; boiled baby bok choy in fish stock, which, like the duck I’d had at dinner, contained some secret ingredient that was the Bomb; and a wonderful layered creation of pan-fried sticky rice with egg.

On a recent Sunday morning, the place was packed, as usual. The design is faux Deco-slash-modern, not horrible, but with the inevitable stark lighting. Still, the walls are of wood, there are tablecloths, and the chairs are padded and comfortable. At dinner the napkins are cloth, and the plates are changed frequently.

Bittman is clearly insane. But I didn't know that until after I ate in this dive. Although I did know it before I came down with severe MSG poisoning. Before I left for Alhambra I decided to look and see what Zagat reviewers thought. The food rated a very undistinguished "20" (out of 30) and the review touted a "lit-from-behind Lucite bar" and "a spacious aquarium." Well, this New York Times food critic probably is a lot savvier than the John and Jane Does who did the rating for Zagat. Oh, was I wrong.

Let me take Bittman's review apart paragraph by paragraph. The menu was not "large and long;" it was medium-sized. The food was far from "full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame." It was crap, MSG-flavored garbage and not "sometimes almost tame; always very tame. I took his advice and ordered the closest thing on the menu to what he called "pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops," a soup that claimed those ingredients but which had no trace of scallops-- or flavor. I had asked the waiter if there was MSG in the food before we sat down and he shook his head enthusiastically. I figured he didn't understand. I was wrong.

I also asked him if the soup was enough for me and my friend. He said it was enough for 6 people. He wasn't exaggerating. All the dishes were oversized, which doesn't make up for quality in the slightest. My main course was a shrimp dish that was really bad and my friend had beef chow fun which he said tasted the same as beef chow fun does in any Hollywood dive.

Alain Ducasse should sue Bittman for comparing his creations to this swill. When I was around 16 I hitchhiked across the U.S. and a merchant seaman picked me up in a Cadillac and drove from Ohio to California. He claimed he had eaten in the best Chinese restaurants in Peking, Canton and Shanghai and that he would tale me to one that was better than any of them right down the road in Amarillo. I hadn't been to China yet but I had eaten enough Chinese food in Brooklyn to know that good Chinese food was not going to be served in a restaurant with baskets of rolls and rye bread on the tables. The restaurant was in a roadside mini-mall off Route 66, but it wasn't that much worse than the one off Route 10 in Alhambra. As for Bittman's other suggestions, if the Triumphal Palace is his "New Favorite Restaurant," I'll steer clear of #2, thru 5.

By the way, the next day I had the first headache I've had in many years and I was dizzy for two days. I didn't dare drive my car; something I never experienced in my entire life. I felt like I was going to fall over several times. My neighbor told me L.A. Chinese restaurants stopped using MSG years ago. I don't doubt it. Alhambra is like 30 minutes away though.

Monday, April 16, 2007


A couple of months ago my old friend Kristin and her husband Nick were thinking about going to Turkey and Kristin checked out what I has to say about Cappadocia after I got back last year. After a quickly arranged lunch she went home and booked her flights and reserved a suite at the Esbelli. This morning I got an e-mail from her and Nick-- from the cave.

Turkey is amazing.  This will have to rank as the best trip we have ever taken....Rein Daddy and Howie you were dead on and we are grateful for your education and advice...We had no idea how beautiful this country was, as well as how fantastic the people are.

We are in Cappadocia right now in the interior of the country. It is snowing outside, but we are toasty warm in a cave where we are sending this email (high speed DSL I might add) resting from a long hike into some deserted caves, valleys, villages, etc...

We have not encountered a single tourist here, let alone an American. We are truly living among the Turkish people, and they seem so fascinated with the site of an American.  On countless occasions, we will be walking into a tiny shop (like 40 sq') to buy a water or something when the owner rushes to grab some old chairs from the back for us to sit in while he serves us apple tea and then just sort of stands there smiling and looking at us.  It may sound strange, but their warmth and hospitality transcends all language barriers. Today, we were in a shop and this older woman (covered as most of them are here) comes up to Kristin like she just found her long lost daughter with a smile beaming ear to ear and just starts touching her face smiling and laughing and saying "Guzel...guzel" which we have learned means beautiful. The fact that this is a 98% Muslim country should not dissuade anybody from coming here. We have felt safe everywhere we've been, except for a crazy taxi ride in Istanbul a week ago.

So far, we have spent around 4 days in Istanbul, 3 days in Selcuk (Ephesus), and now we are in a small town called Urgup in Cappadocia. We have traveled region to region by airplane due to the size of this country and cheap tickets. Istanbul was a great introduction to Turkey, and the different customs and such. It's pretty crazy as you are walking down the street when you hear the Muslim Call to Prayer echoing from loud speakers throughout the city. This goes on about 5 times a day.  It's pretty cool, except at 5 am when you are trying to sleep. So, we went to the massive and impressive Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, Topkapi Palace, as well as shopped at the Grand Bazaar.  Of course, we did a lot of eating too. The food here is pretty damn good. Sort of a East meets West...The spices remind me of sort of a mix between Moroccan, Greek, and Indian, and Kapabs are the big thing here. I must have had a couple dozen by now. Turkish pancakes (like quesadillas) and Pide (like pizza) are also favorites of ours.

In Selcuk, we felt like personal guests of the hotel owner -- Erdal. We just couldn't believe he had other hotel guests, because he was our personal guide throughout the region. He drove us to all of the major sights, restaurants, and even to run our errands.  Anything we wanted, Erdal was there to provide.

Ephesus was, bar none, the best ruins that we've ever experienced. You are in an ancient city with tons of history-- Alexander the Great was here, Jesus's disciples Paul and John were here, the Virgin Mary was here, multiple Emperors were here. It's so easy to imagine what life was like 2000 years ago and what a bright and vibrant time the 200,000 citizens must have experienced. The frescoes, mosaic floors, fountains with multiple statues, and terrace houses were amazing and well preserved. The houses even had hot and cold water running in them!

If you come to Turkey, you are nearly required to purchase a carpet, and we've met our quota. We are thrilled with the 9x6 and 4x6 carpets that are on their way to California as we speak. Any carpet salesman is delighted to give you an education of Turkish carpet making (only women make the carpets), but we decided to buy from Erdal and his partner, Nazmi and we think we got a pretty good deal. 

We're on our first day in Cappadocia and we are in one of the greatest hotels that ever existed. We feel like we've landed in a parallel universe that is featuring "Cave Hotels of the Rich and Famous."  It's called Esbelli Evi (look it up online) and much like our experience in Selcuk, our host Ramazan has taken us under his wing and is directing our tour of the region. For the next three days we are hiring a driver to take us to see sights throughout the region. This costs nearly the same as renting a car and doing it by ourselves. We just can't wait!

Cappadocia's terrain is frequently compared to being on the moon with incredible rock formations, mountains, and valleys that are one of a kind. We were prepared for it to be a bit cooler in this region, but didn't expect snow. Don't worry too much about us too much though, 
today we bought 2 pairs of wool socks, 2 pairs of wool gloves, and 2 hats for about $15.00 and lunch consisting of 2 pizzas and 2 drinks set us back a cool $4.80 with tip.

Well, just as we were sending this a couple from Toronto just checked in to the "cave" and agreed to explore and hike Cappadocia with us and our driver making this even more affordable. I think $15 a head for an entire day with a private car and driver. As they say in Turkey, Hoshchacal for now.  We know about 7 words including two numbers (Bir, Ichi) but we're always learning more.