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Monday, January 22, 2007


Tongass National Park, Alaska [click on photo to enlarge]

(Ken posted this today over at Down With Tyranny, my political blog. How could I not share it with everyone here who doesn't go there?

"There'll be a morning 'Kaffee Klatsch' most days and panel discussions galore explaining how democracy eventually will sweep through the Middle East like wildfire, how to balance the budget and various other issues."
--Al Kamen, speculating in today's Washington Post about the Weekly Standard's upcoming Cruise to Wingnuttia

[For my mother, who has managed to travel a fair amount in her life, perhaps the most memorable trip was a cruise along the Inside Passage of Alaska--the place she often says she most regrets not being able to get back to. I imagine, though, that if anything could spoil that spectacular land- and seascape, it would be traveling in this particular company, as reported by Al Kamen in his "In the Loop" column.--Ken]

In Troubling Times,
Conservatives Head Out to Sea

By Al Kamen

These are obviously not the best of times for Republicans. The House is gone. Ditto the Senate. President Bush's approval ratings are around 37 percent, and ratings on his conduct of the war are closer to 30 percent. The war itself grinds on. What's a beleaguered conservative to do?

It's time to regroup! And what better way to do that than to join the folks at the Weekly Standard, one of the last great bastions of war boosters, on a fun-filled week-long cruise in Alaska?

Yes, it's a week of sightseeing, partying and deep reflection with publisher Terry Eastland and top editors William Kristol and Fred Barnes aboard Holland America Line's ms Oosterdam this June. Other featured speakers include former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and military historian Fred Kagan.

One of the true highlights is just the chance to be "traveling with like-minded conservatives," the promo material says, and not having to listen to we-told-you-so rants from the liberals and leftists that you might find on other cruises.

There'll be a morning "Kaffee Klatsch" most days and panel discussions galore explaining how democracy eventually will sweep through the Middle East like wildfire, how to balance the budget and various other issues.

The ship's show lounge "features Las Vegas-style productions," and while the invitation doesn't mention it, the luxury ship does indeed have a fine casino.

There will probably be cakewalk contests on the Lido deck each night, and spectacular Alaska each day, including a close view of the Hubbard Glacier [right], which, contrary to what radical-environmentalist, global-warming types would say, is "marching to the beat of a different drum . . . advancing while the rest of Alaska's ice rivers are receding rapidly."

There's a day in Ketchikan "in the heart of the Tongass National Forest" [top photo]. Maybe there'll be time for an optional anti-earmark pilgrimage to the proposed site of the famed "Bridge to Nowhere"? Weather permitting, there might even be a hunt for weapons of mass destruction. (Okay, okay, that was cheap.)

All this in your "penthouse suite w/verandah" for only $6,300 per person, double occupancy, or $4,500 per person in the deluxe suite. Single rooms in the cheapo category are only $2,600.

Do not miss the "photo/autograph session," where you can have your picture taken with Kristol, Barnes and Eastland. "Photos will be available for purchase," we're told. Priceless!

But hurry! There are only two penthouse suites available.


If you somehow missed the Weekly Standard's cruise to Alaska and you have a hankerin' to be stuck in a small enclosed space with a shipful of delusional hatemongers, fear not. All the Weekly Standard had to offer was a gaggle of the dullest propaganda scriveners in all God's Creation: Terry Eastland, Fred Barnes, William Kristol, Fred Kagan, and, to spice it up, a former Bush speech writer, Michael Gerson.

Now the National Review... these particular Republicans really know how to put on a cruise. Theirs starts in late July-- also to Alaska-- but what a lineup. How would you like to play some shuffleboard with Robert Bork? Go for a swim with Kate O'Beirne? (Come on; it's better than swimming with sharks, isn't it?) Soak in the jacuzzi with Dick Morris? Maybe take an aerobics class alongside Ed Gillespie? Or see "a Las Vegas-style production" with the likes of Rich Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru, Michael Steele and Arthur Laffer? Does that sound like a vacation or what? And I didn't even mention certifiably insane rightist loons like Jonah Goldberg, Richard Allen, Mac Owens John Hillen and Jay Nordlinger. They're making some mighty tempting promises:

• Moderated panel sessions featuring our esteemed guest speakers, along with plenty of passenger Q&A.
• Plenty of chances to meet, schmooze and enjoy personal interaction with our special guest speakers.
• Exclusive Parties and Dining with our special guest speakers. You will dine with your fellow National Review attendees, so that you have the chance to meet many of your fellow conservative cruisers.
• Numerous private cocktail parties and evening smokers.
• And more...

A tiny bit of investigating led us directly to some of what that "And more" means: Chocolates on your pillow AND

• Spacious, elegantly appointed staterooms, many with private verandahs
• Luxurious Euro-Top beds and premium linens
• Daily housekeeping to tidy belongings and keep staterooms immaculate
• Large, extra-fluffy Egyptian cotton towels
• Lighted magnifying mirrors; massage shower-heads; salon-quality hair dryers
• Luxurious terry cloth bathrobes
• Televisions with DVD and VCR players
• Generous storage
• Complimentary fresh fruit
• Complimentary 24-hour in-room dining
• Nightly turndown service
• Complimentary shoeshine service
• Complimentary ice service

So leave that ice-machine at home; you are covered!

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Sunday's New York Times did a story on "the next great adventure-travel destination": Kabul. "Even though much of Afghanistan remains dangerous, tourists are beginning to trickle back in, some lured by the thrill of the unknown, others by the pleasures offered by such new tourist spots as the Kabul Serena, an elegant $36.5-million hotel that claims a 'five-star ambiance' in the heart of the city. As many as 5,000 Western tourists visited Kabul last year, Jonathan Bean told me, most of them affluent Europeans and Americans who have traveled to '30 or 40' countries, including developing ones. 'Most our clients are experienced travelers,' Jonathan said. 'They’ve trekked in Nepal, gone on safari in East Africa. Some have returned after coming here in the 1960s and 1970s. They see Afghanistan as the next great adventure-travel destination.'"

I'd love to go back to Afghanistan some time. I'm sure I won't; too dangerous. I first went close to 40 years ago, right out of college. It was a major way station on the "hippie trail" from Istanbul to New Delhi. I was driving a 1969 red VW camper I had bought in Weisbaden and Afghanistan was far more than just a way station to me. Driving across Asia, by the time you get to Afghanistan you know for sure you're not in Kansas anymore, nor in Europe. It was the most foreign place I had ever been. So different from anything I had ever experienced. It felt as much as like traveling in time (backwards) as traveling in space.

There never were any railroads to Afghanistan so the only way to get there before the late 50s was as part of an army. Then the U.S. and the Soviet Union built a road around the country. The U.S. built one from Herat on the Iranian border south and east to Khandahar and up to Kabul and the Soviets built one from Kabul up to Mazar-i-Sharif and then on to Herat. Basically it was the only paved road in the country and now, from what I understand, it is mostly unpaved... destroyed by decades of war and civil neglect.

I drove my van from Meshed in Iran to Herat. It was love at first sight-- mostly with the cheap, powerful hash and the Afghan people who were all stoned all the time. It always boggles my mind now how the mainstream media reports on the wars in Afghanistan but never mentions that every Afghan is stoned-- really stoned-- all the time. It probably has a significant effect on their way of fighting. Herat was like this magical medieval city, completely outside my realm of experience. And the next stop, Khandahar was even more bizarre, most strange, more mysterious and foreign. I felt like I was in Biblical times. Before going up to Kabul I visited some college friends who were in the Peace Corps, stationed in Ghazni. So primitive! But wonderful, warm, friendly generous people. They shared whatever they had.

I spent a lot of time in Kabul. Two Canadians who I had driven across Asia settled in to the one western hotel in the city, the brand new Intercontinental. It was a luxury high-rise in the middle of a basically mud city that looked like it would take a week of strong rain to just wash away. I'll never forget the Kabul River, more like a series of trickles and puddles in the middle of town. I recall standing near the royal palace, one of the few substantial buildings in the city, and looking down at the river. Men were on the bank brushing their teeth, washing their clothes, bathing, going to the bathroom, washing a donkey...

The other new thing in this ancient city that year was the Kabul Zoo. It was a wonder for the Afs... a little rinky-dink for the foreigners. But everyone was stoned and everyone was enjoying everything. Except the Kabul Runs. No one enjoys that-- much worse than Montezuma's Revenge. Up and down Chicken Street there were European and Australian hippies staying in cheap flop houses and sick with the Kabul Runs. The music was great and the hash was the best and the food was fine and everything was so cheap. And you'd sit around and talk with people who had come back from Bamyan and the Hindu Kush and Mazar and the Khyber Pass and figure out where you wanted to go next. The king was still in charge and the Russians hadn't invaded yet. I remember seeing some mullahs, straight from the countryside, outraged that 2 young women got out of a car unaccompanied-- albeit covered head to toe (with just a little grill for the eyes) in a chadris (what they call a burqa everywhere else). They spat all over them. The scene has stuck with me for all these decades.


I slept in my van the whole time I was in Kabul in 1969 and in 1972. But friends of mine stayed at the Intercontinental, the only western style hotel in the city country. Various rebel groups over the past 30 years have used it for target practice and blown it up pretty badly. Now foreigners stay at the Serena-- or at least they did 'til today. The NY Times just reported that some Taliban insurgents blew that up too. Yeah, probably a little early (or late) for Afghan tourism just now.

A thunderous explosion struck a 2-year-old Kabul luxury hotel frequented by foreigners on Monday, and the Taliban took responsibility, calling it a coordinated assault by four men armed with guns and suicide belts.

The Interior Ministry said at least six people were killed and at least six were wounded in the explosion at the Serena Hotel, including two foreign officials it did not identify... The Associated Press quoted an American who was exercising in the hotel gym as saying that she heard gunfire after the explosion, and saw a body and pools of blood in the lobby area and bullet marks in the gym area. She asked not to be identified for her safety. Ambulances and American troops in Humvees rushed to the hotel after attack, the A.P. reported.

Things are obviously deteriorating? You think so?

One Year On And Nothing's Any Better

This is a post from a western woman, a filmmaker, working in Kabul. It very much captures the Kabul I recall, only it's much worse. Is it a place you'd be interested in visiting? I recommend reading the whole thing at the link. Here are some excerpts:
Going out to dinner is always an interesting experience. Fully covered from head to toe and always paranoid about forgetting a headscarf (or having it slip off your head in the car) generally make the experience more worrisome than enjoyable. Add checkpoints and Afghan police to the mix, along with bone-shaking car rides (no paved roads) and you get the picture.

In New York and New Delhi, I savored going out; dressing up, wearing new jewelry, getting to try new restaurants before meeting friends at a local bar for a drink. I don’t miss these things in Afghanistan – I came here knowing full well that my social life would change drastically (after all, I could’ve just stayed in NYC or Delhi if that’s all I wanted). But what I didn’t expect to change was the very vocabulary of my behavior.

In other cities, I have never thought twice about the fact that I couldn’t enter places without ensuring that I wouldn’t mistakenly brush past a man, that I had to give all men the right of way, and that I wasn’t allowed to speak to strangers or look at other men in the face. In Kabul, I do.

My first weeks here were the most painful-- having to unlearn everything I had picked up in rambunctious, loud Delhi. In Kabul, I felt like as if I was a captive-- wrapped around the head with a scarf that acted as a leash that instructed me to behave in a certain way. My first week was a string of commands from my male, Afghan co-workers and crew, who for my sake taught me how to behave on the streets – “don’t laugh too loud,” “keep your hands hidden,” “don’t say things too loud,” “try and keep your chin down,” “stop walking like you own the street!” And the ever familiar, “wear your headscarf tighter, Anita-jaan, it is falling off!”

...Like all local women in the neighborhood, I can’t leave the house alone. People outside of Afghanistan are shocked to hear this – “but the Taliban have left, no?” Yes indeed, but the Taliban did not make these rules. Many of these rules were actually enforced and created during the time before the Taliban by warlords who, bloated with arms and cash from Pakistan and the US (in order to defeat the Russians), fractured the country.

After the Taliban were defeated, those same warlords were brought back into power by the US. The Karzai government resumes must read like a list charges at an international tribunal. The human rights’ violations are endless. And it is thanks to them (and not the Taliban) that I have to live in a capital city shuttered by extreme conservatism.

A male partner must accompany me at all times outside the house. This ranges from the chowkidor to my husband to friends. Sometimes my husband’s translator comes along, humming as he walks ahead expecting me to follow blindly. When I want to stop, I ask the shopkeeper a question-- usually the price of something – making sure I’m extra loud to ensure he has heard me, and will stop humming and hurry over to where I am.

He carries everything after I’m done shopping. Per his instructions, I shouldn’t carry anything since I’m a woman. By month three, I have learned to walk behind him, lift nothing and simply head home as quickly as I can. He is a Pashtun from the south and older than I am.

The same translator is puzzled when my husband asks me what I want for dinner or lunch. He looks at our exchanges quizzically. We look Indian to him, and yet behave so differently from the Indians he sees in the soap operas he and his family watch at home. In that world men and women are often just as conservative as the Afghans, with each gender culturally filling very different roles. The women are meant to be docile, devoted wives, while the female evildoers are the ones who break the mould and wreak havoc among the orderly. My husband and I don’t seem to even understand that we’re different genders. We speak as equals. This is clearly confusing.

In the end, we finish dinner and make our way home through the dark and quiet streets. We paid the bill in dollars. Price-wise it would amount to the same if I had dined out in New York City. “Restaurants for expats charge expat prices,” explained a friend when I first arrived, “make sure you always have enough cash.” On the way home, my housemate reminds me that we are paying for more than just plates of pasta – we pay for the experience of normalcy. Or the closest thing to normal at least. We both agree it wasn’t for the food at any rate. It wouldn’t survive a New Yorker or New Delhi-ite’s expectations of a good meal (for the price we paid). But tastes change once you’re living in Kabul.

The only meals I have coveted here have been home-cooked Afghan vegetarian dishes prepared by a friend’s mother. Seated on their living room floor, with huge slabs of naan to catch the oil and juices dripping from our fingers, I have devoured bowls of red kidney beans steamed with onions and tomatoes and spices with plates of eggplant slices sautéed with tomatoes and topped with a tangy yoghurt sauce.

Monday, January 08, 2007


One of the highlights of traveling is always the folks you meet. My trip to Argentina was especially rich in this way and I was lucky that so many people in Argentina speak English and that my L.A. Spanish got me around otherwise. One of the people I was most impressed with is a remarkable woman named Amelia, a music business connection, who I went to dinner with when I first arrived. Our mutual friend Steve, k.d. lang's manager, had introduced us via e-mail. Amelia had been arrested during the time when the generals ran a fascist state in Argentina (the most recent, historically speaking)-- and she's a vegetarian; we got along great. Today she e-mailed me with a critique of a blog I wrote a couple weeks ago about safety in Buenos Aires.


by Amelia Lafferriere

Think back to the ear of Menem, our Arab Muslim-converted-Christian-(for the sake of politics) president (1989-1999), who introduced Argentina to the quick fix policies of neoliberall economic politics with its systemic unemployment policies and de-industrialization. strong introducer(the first after the militars),and Supposedly a close friend and huntig companions of the Bush family, Menem followed the military dictatorship. His policies converted the country into a desert in terms of productive industry and real jobs-- which continued under De la Rua-- and created a deep chasm between rich and poor, nearly annihilating the middle class (a middle class which had been the pride of Argnetina, the only country in Latin America that had managed to maintain a strong and healthy middle class over the decades).

Buenos Aires, where, as you so correctly mention, half of the population live if we put together the Capital and Gran Buenos Aires, started its process of economic and then social degradation. Menem presided over recession, hyperinflation, privitiziation of ultilities and a tidal wave of foreign "investment." Menem's endemic corruption and his quick fix policies got him re-elected but they were catastrophic for the long-term financial and social health of Argentina, leading to bankruptcy and severe dislocation in every sphere of human endeavor. Parallel worlds began to take root-- a world of the rich and a world of everyone else.

Shopping centers and gated communities for the wealthy were sprouting up, here and there-- like gentrified Puerto Madero, funded by international capital... while social welfare was left to rot and whither away on the vine.

People of the suburbs, with no work and no future started to invade the city, sometimes taking empty old abandoned houses and turning to street robbery to get by. The result: growing unsafety and insecurity for the society. (Current policies about this issues are not helping, but that s another song.)

There are a lot of tourists coming all the time and sometimes they are very visible for these desperate people, making them obvious targets, not to say that locals do not suffer this unsafety as well, probably far more, in fact.

Regarding major crime-- like kidnapping and car theft sometimes leading to murder-- it is often that we find bands of ex-policemen working in combination with lumpen proletariat from the exurban villas (barrios), doing all this, most frequently in the suburbs. I'll call this a residual of last military government (what is called mano de obra desocupada, this meaning that these people were employed in kidnaping and robbing people for political reasons and when democracy came back, they had no "legitimate" work... so they changed their targets. We have been in "democracy" since 1983 but this situation continues today.)

What I can conclude is that Buenos Aires at this time has more insecurity and less safety than it had ten years ago. There are neighborhoods that are more exposed , especially those visited by tourists, although all neighborhoods throughout Buenos Aires suffer the situation, Fortunately we can say that so far the kinds of robbery prevelent in Buenos Aires is NOT followed by murder... most of the time. 

Anyway the climax of unsafety of Argentine society comes with the fact that we have a high profile political missing person for over 3 months. Mr Julio Lopez, a worker who had been kidnapped and tortured in the seventies, and who remained alive by chance, has given in the trial to one of his captors ,a miliray government sanctioned murderer named Etchecolaz. After his testimony-- on his way to hear the judge read Etchecolaz' sentence-- he vanished.  

Etchecolaz is now in prison, where he belonged many years ago, but Mr Lopez, a 78 years old man, seems to have suffered a kidnapping for the second time, and we all presume he is dead.

The very idea that this could happen now, is really frightening-- and although it does not affect everyday life on the surface, the way it used to in the seventies, for me is the most serious security and safety problem we have at this moment...

Like in all big cities, but starting in Buenos Aires in the '90s, drugs have become a terrible problem, mostly cheap and low quality drugs that are readily available in the impoverished suburban neighborhoods. That and the lack of opportunities for people are the keys to a developing culture of crime here.

Still, I like to think that the pulse of this city has to be taken in view of the continuous work in the cultural arenas. People are massively working in the fields of music, cinema, theatre, education... putting on festivals. Universities are still free in Argentina and the fact that two graduates have recently won Nobel prizes are a great source of inspiration for many people. Buenos Aires is a place where you find friendly peopl everywhere, where you can spend several hours in a cafe-- and for the price of a cup of coffee, you can read the newspapers of the day, or a book, talk with people who see conversation as a living art, people with open minds who make it possible to have so many different cultural expressions welcome all the time in the city. Still today Buenos Aires is a city with a pacific coexistance of different religions, as Jew (Argentina is the second country in numer of Jewish population after Israel and the U.S.) and Arabs and Muslims. We have often ecumenical ceremonies of all the religions together with Catholic and different Christian churches, together with the Jewish and the Muslim faiths. 

Could this be-- the remains of what Argentina was going to be and didn't come to be, but still a part of it.-- breathing... and helping us all breathe and hope.


I did a piece over at Down With Tyranny if you'd like to look at it from an even more political perspective.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I think the first time I figured out that, generally speaking, renting a place was better than staying in a hotel was 1970. I rented a house for a couple of months on the beach in Goa. Once I figured out the function of the herd of pigs on the property, everything was smooth as silk and I settled in for a nice leisurely stay in my very first post-college home-of-my-own. It took me about 3 days to convince myself that I was actually a Goan and start, relatively speaking, integrating myself into the pulse of the community. I don't recall ever seeing a hotel in Goa although I'd hear from the hippies and other travelers who came to our beach-- the one that was 30 steps from my front door-- that there were hotels.

When you're staying in a place for less than a month, renting a place is tough. After my 10th trip to Thailand I finally figured out that a secluded villa on Phuket was way more what I was looking for than a berth at even the nicest of hotels. I don't think I ever put on any clothes for weeks at a time. And then a couple years ago I rented a villa overlooking the Ayung River in central Bali. Except to go pick up a friend who was staying at the Ritz, I never even visited the tourist ghetto on the island and, as far as I could tell from my vantage over the Ayung, I was indeed the only non-Balinese on the entire island.

These days, whenever I can, I always rent an apartment or a house rather than stay in a hotel. So, when planning my trip to Argentina a few months ago I was delighted when Lieber, an Argentine waiter at my favorite raw foods restaurant, told me that renting apartments was a very normal thing to do in Buenos Aires for anyone staying at least a week. Perfect! I found what looked like a reputable rental agency that specializes in dealing with foreigners and quickly found an apartment in the part of town (Recoleta) everybody was telling me was the safest and best located.

The apartment was perfect, right on Posadas, across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel-- a light, airy, well-kept one bedroom, with a living room, dining area and kitchenette, fully supplied with everything from sheets and silverware to a free phone for local calls, Wi-FI, a doorman and daily maid service. And the price? Prices vary based on location, size, all that stuff, but generally it costs for a week what you would pay for a night in a comparable hotel.

The agency I used was BytArgentina and I couldn't find anything online about them being unscrupulous or anything like that. My experience with the agents I used on Bali, BaliVillas, was superb and I just assumed-- uh oh-- that BytArgentina would be as good. They weren't-- and I mentioned what went wrong in a story I did a couple weeks ago about safety and scams in Buenos Aires.

In this case, the company (or perhaps the owner of the apartment, more likely), shrewdly not accepting credit cards, only cash, managed to separate me from $500. I had no recourse other than to suck it up. Something similar had happened to me in Tangier decades ago at the El Minzah Hotel (best in town), a $100 travelers check having been removed from the safe behind the reception desk! Left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but, after trying a couple of less grand hotels, I wound up back at the El Minzah a few times since. I know for sure I'd never rent an apartment through BytArgentina again (nor from Graciela Ujaque, the owner of the apartment). Would I rent an apartment in Buenos AIres again? 100% yes. Let me tell you why.

Aside from getting a sense of belonging to a culture that most hotel guests can never experience, there are some tangible reasons I like to get my own place. I don't eat junk food and I take breakfast seriously. Even in NYC, where I do stay in a hotel, I always get one with a kitchenette. That way I can stock up on healthy goodies (fruits, nuts, etc) and on breakfast goods (blueberries, melons, papayas, lemons...) and have a place to store them and prepare them conveniently. It is virtually always much less expensive to rent your own place than to stay in a hotel. And it's far more personal.

Not everyone agrees, of course. One of my friends found my luxurious villa (with 4 servants-- including the best cook on the island of Bali-- and a swimming pool) akin to camping out. She was eager to move to the more... sterile environment of the Ritz. (I talked about that syndrome a little when I discussed the Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago.) Some people, maybe most, would prefer to be pampered and to have everything done for them, something more likely in a hotel. Me, I like going to the local markets and shopping for day to day stuff. You start to feel the rhythm of the town's life. Last time I stayed in Marrakesh, I gave up on the Mamounia and stayed in a riad instead, sort of halfway between a hotel and an apartment; well, not halfway, but we definitely had the feeling of being part of the neighborhood.