Search This Blog

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is Albania A Safe Country For Tourists? And What Were The Most Dangerous Countries In 2009?

About as dangerous as it gets in Gjirokastër, Albania

Simple answer about Albania: yes, very safe. On the other hand, when George W. Bush visited it, the one country in the world where he is considered a hero-- for encouraging the Albanian Kosovars to declare their independence from Serbia-- his wristwatch was stolen. Petty crime exists everywhere of course and if you're looking for trouble in Albania-- even stickier trouble than pickpockets and cutpurses-- you can probably find it as readily as you would in Paris or New York or Bangkok.

On the other hand, if you're afraid of Muslims, by all means keep out of Pakistan, Yemen and London... but don't worry about Albania. One of the good things the repressive Communist dictatorship accomplished was putting organized religion where it belongs-- in the personal spiritual sphere and far away from the public sector. Formerly a "Muslim country," it is now estimated that only around 10% of the people here take any of the backward, violent, archaic, Abrahamic, Bronze Age religions seriously.

I guess you could count the environmental catastrophe that is Albania "unsafe." And the roads, which are getting better all the time, are still largely something most Americans would think of as unsafe,
especially up in the mountains, which is most of the country. But unless you try interfering with a blood feud-- yes, after being suppressed for decades, the free market has brought them back in full
force-- the likelihood of you getting into any violent confrontations in Albania is remote.

With an unemployment/underemployment rate as high as 80%, it's startling that there isn't more crime. Even the desperate taxi drivers tend to try to rip tourists off less than in most countries! But if you've been looking for dangerous countries to visit-- or to not visit-- Art Matters reported on the Global Peace Index for 2009 by naming the 10 safest and 10 least safe countries. First the good news: New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Austria, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Finland, and Slovenia. Interestingly, Iceland's ranking went from #1 in 2008 to #4, primarily because it's economy collapsed. The ten least safe countries (at least according to a report in Forbes) are

1. Somalia
2. Afghanistan
3. Iraq
4. Democratic Republic of Congo
5. Pakistan
6. Gaza Strip
7. Sri Lanka
8. Yemen
9. Sudan
10. Zimbabwe
As in 2008, the USA did not rank very well. It ended up as 83rd which is, however, an improvement in comparison with the previous year (going up from 97th position). Among the factors that cause the bad rankings for the USA is for example the ease of access to weapons, foreign wars or the number of imprisoned people.

As for the most dangerous cities to visit, there are different perspectives. In terms of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the 10 worst are:

1. Cuidad Juarez, Mexico
2. Caracaz, Venezuela
3. New Orleans, US
4. Tijuana, Mexico
5. Cape Town, South Africa
6. Port Moresby, Paua New Guinea
7. San Salvador, El Salvador
8. Medelin, Colombia
9. Baltimore, US
10. Bagdad, Iraq

A more tourist-oriented perspective comes from where the list is quite different, although
Ciudad Juarez doesn't fare all that well on their list either:

1. Mogadishu, Somalia
2. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
3. Linfen, China (with the world's dirtiest air)
4. Caracas, Venezuela
5. Detroit, US
6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
7. Johannesburg, South Africa
8. Norilsk, Russia (Siberia's heavy metal capital)
9. Saskatoon, Canada ("first in aggravated assault and robbery, fourth in homicide and sexual assault, 20th in breaking and entering, and 21st in vehicle theft among Canadian cities.")
10. London, U.K.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Albania-- Second Impression: Shqipëria Has Plenty Of Room For Improvement

We've been out of Tirane, traveling around the country on buses. If the capital was all energetic/optimistic hustle and bustle with everyone looking forward to a brighter future with McDonalds and everything that makes life worth living, the interior is probably as wary of anything new and foreign as Albanians have always been. Most people seem resigned. They don't see much difference-- at least not in their own lives-- from the bad old Enver Hoxha days when communists ruled the roost. (A bright spot is that the inevitable excesses of religious fanaticism are nowhere to be seen. If a third of the country is nominally Christian and a third nominally Muslim, 90% are practicing non-believers. London is at least 10 times more Muslim than Albania.)
One guy we met-- who dreams of winning the lottery (and here "the lottery" means the U.S. visa lottery, not the Irish Sweepstakes)-- told us most people, and virtually all older people, would gladly trade in "democracy" and the vagueries of the market system for the security of the bad old days. How is that possible? Start with something like 80% unemployment/underemployment. Our friend down in Gjirokastër said since 1990 it's been all Law of the Jungle. A few natural predators have gotten very rich. Most people feel left behind. One in eight Albanians are working abroad and the country's economy seems to function off remittances from fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, sisters and daughters working in Italy, Greece, Germany, England and the U.S. We see American flags everywhere, indications not of the fealty they feel towards our country but because they have a relative in the Bronx or Westchester sending home money. Here nearly 60% of the working people are farmers, eking out a meager existence through backbreaking toil. We saw it everywhere in the country.

God made Albania beautiful-- green and verdant, wild, rapidly moving rivers overflowing their banks-- valleys, canyons, lakes, a beautiful sea coast... Albanians have turned it into an eye-sore of a never ending garbage dump. Throughout the country every barren tree is decorated with plastic bags. The whole country looks like a landfill for aluminium cans, plastic bottles, and every sort of detritus man uses to pollute the environment. If I were looking to start a business in Albania it would center on cleaning up the environment. In fact, the EU should make Albanian membership conditional on a serious cleanup effort. Just cleaning out the thousands of round Cold War era cement bunkers would employ a good part of the unemployed for years! I can't think of anywhere in the world I've ever been where a good, solid recycling program would do more good. The Albanians, who seem to have a cigarette permanently grafted to their mouths and whose main occupation apears to be working-- or at least hanging around-- at a lavazh (car wash), don't hesitate to throw trash on the ground anywhere and everywhere.
On the other hand... Albania is incredibly cheap for tourists. We're staying in the best hotels in each town we visit and they cost around $25/night. Food is delicious and fresh and... well, we just had dinner in Kerkulla overlooking Gjirokastër, ate starters, main courses, and desserts (and Roland had a pitcher of local red wine-- plus, he says, 3 baskets of the best bread he ever ate) and it cost us less than $20. It's by far the best restaurant in town! Bus trips between cities cost like between $4 and $7. And it's one of the places were the dollar has become more and more valuable in recent years. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Albania-- First Impressions

After living in cold, wet Rome for a while, the first thing you notice on arriving in Albania's one airport-- named for Mother Teresa, of course-- is that's the weather is positively balmy: much warmer, blue skies, sunny, no rain. Naturally that brings a smile to anyone's face. The airport was tiny and easy to navigate. Taxis downtown are supposed to cost $20 according to the guide books but they were only asking $17 (without bargaining or prodding). There was also a comfortable enough looking bus steps from the front door for $4 and we took that. It takes like 20 minutes to the center of time, walking distance from just about any hotel.

People look good and they look fashionable and healthy; nicely-turned out folks. They're friendly and helpful. Romans seemed too busy to bother with people asking directions-- or just frightened. Albanians are mellow and happy to help. We were surprised to see so many people-- at least in Tirane speaking at least rudimentary English.

It definitely a poor country, but one emerging from decades, or even centuries, of poverty. The city has an air of optimism; it's nice. We saw some huge "We love Obama" graffiti painted at the front of the university but we know the government really loves George W Bush, one of the few in the world that does.

The food is delicious. Everything is fresh and we were told everything is organic because the farmers are too poor to afford fertilizer. It's an inexpensive place as well-- and good deals abound if both looking for them. Unfortunately, everyone smokes. At least the country doesn't seemed plagued by religionist fanatics-- far less so than in the U.S. That's got to count for a lot! It took me less than 5 minutes to get the hotel to drop the room rate down by half (after they claimed there's an Albanian rate and a non-Albanian rate).

Tirane was easy to explore by foot and it was also easy to figure out how to use the buses. We also went for an hour minivan drive to Kruja, a more ancient city north of Tirane, built around the ruins of an old castle and rebuilt bazaar. We were the only tourists around and it was easy to get good prices on some really nice kilims.

Everyone says the "real Albania" is away from Tirane-- which was largely rebuilt in a Stalinist architectural mode in the 50s.Tomorrow we head out for Berati, south of here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is Rome A Safe City To Visit?

That's a bizarre question and the obvious answer is that it's as safe-- or unsafe-- as New York or London or Paris or Chicago or Bangkok or L.A. No doubt if you look hard enough, you can find trouble anywhere. I only even bring it up because in Rick Steves' Rome 2010 he inexplicably seems to dwell on all the misery that can befall a hapless tourist at the hands of Romans determined to ruin everyone's good time. I guess he's just doing his due diligence when he warns his readers that "[w]ith sweet-talking con artists meeting you at the station, well-dressed pickpockets on buses, and thieving gangs of children at the ancient sites, Rome is a gauntlet of rip-offs. While it is nowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago, and pickpockets don't want to hurt you-- they usually just want your money-- green or sloppy tourists will be scammed. Thieves strike when you're distracted. Don't trust kind strangers. Keep nothing important in your pockets. Be most on guard wen boarding and leaving buses and subways. Thieves crowd the door, then stop and turn while others crowd and push from behind. The sneakiest thieves are well-dressed businessmen (generally with something in their hands); lately many are posing as tourists with fanny packs, cameras, and even Rick Steves guidebooks. Scams abound..."

Jesus, he makes it sound like hell, and especially singles out "groups of city-stained children (just 8-10 years old-- too young to be prosecuted, but old enough to rip you off) troll though the tourist crowds around the Colosseum, Forum, Piazza della Republica, and train and Metro stations." Jeepers, that's my neighborhood. In fact, I spent the day walking around the Colosseum, Forum, Victor Emmanuel Monument, Capitoline Hill, conveniently, the smallest of the 7 hills of Rome. Maybe the gangs of trolling 8-10 year olds only come out in summer. Winter is cold in Rome. There were few tourists and no marauding bands of banditos.

I've felt safe from the moment I arrived. I'm staying in a flat in an old palace, Palazzo del Grillo, built in the 1600s. I'm sitting at my desk on my new MacBook Air and right out the window, literally spitting distance, are the fenced in remote ruins at the back of the Forum (Foro di Nerva I believe). It's an amazing juxtaposition. If there are ghosts-- and I'm sure there are-- they are friendly, or at least pacific. The vibe is tranquil and... safe.

The neighborhood, Monti, is slightly off the beaten track-- the other side of the Forum being where all the action is and all the crowds. In ancient days it was a crowded home to thousands of poor people and brothels. Now the cobbled, winding streets have a special charm, slightly removed from the hectic turmoil of the city around it. A couple of nights ago, I went for a walk the other night and ran across a street party, dozens of people in the street in front of what turned out to be a gallery. Someone invited me in and I was astounded by the exhibition: hundreds of mounted photographs that told the history of Monti from the late 1800's to the present. I spent hours marveling at how the area had changed-- and how it hadn't. There were even pictures of Mussolini and his black-shirted cohorts walking the same streets I was on.

If there is any sense of danger at all, it's that the drivers are all-- every single one of them-- talking, sometimes quite animatedly-- on cell phones or texting. The traffic seems deadly, although when I got out in it today, I noticed that everyone takes care not to hit anyone and they do slow down if you walk boldly into a crosswalk and stare at them. As for violence... well Berlusconi got slammed in the face with a statuette in Milano, not Roma-- and everyone knows how much the Milanese hate Rome, the Romans, and the central government.

I found an organic grocery store not far and went shopping and I've mostly been eating in while I kick my jet lag and wait for my lost/supposedly found luggage. But last night when I was making my way around Monti, I dropped in to a restaurant that is supposed to be impossible without reservations, F.I.S.H., Fine International Seafood House. Indicative of the season, it was nearly empty and I'm getting the idea that everything that usually hard to get into, from the forbidding lines at the Vatican to La Pergola on the roof of the Cavalieri Hilton. Anyway, F.I.S.H. was very hip and chic, with groovy music and an interesting seafood menu that mostly tended towards the pan-Asian. I had a cream of zucchini soup that fantastic, followed by a delicately curried tandoor sea bass that I can't get out of my mind 20 hours later!

After the above bravado about how easy it will be to get into La Pergola, I decided to call and make a reservation for about two weeks from now-- fulled booked then... and every day before then! Tomorrow I'll be braving the lines at the Vatican at 8:30AM.

Now, this is when the area wasn't safe at all:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Sad Death Of The Queen Of The Skies

When Zagat first started their consumer-driven restaurant guide, I was one of their very first reviewers. I ate out a lot-- and in a lot of cities. A few years ago they started another guide, one for airlines. I fly a lot too, and they asked me to be one of the initial reviewers. There are 6,000 reviewers now and tihs past year I once again voted for British Air as my favorite overall airline. That's probably the last time they'll be getting a positive score from me. For decades I've thought of them as the gold standard of high quality, professional service. I like Singapore and Virgin well enough and Cathay has been pretty good-- if headed in the wrong direction lately-- but all the airlines that are good, always seem to be imitating and trying to catch up with B.A. Those days are over.

B.A. is hurting. Financially they're a mess and abysmal management has driven the company into a hole they're not going to recover from witouth a complete managerial overhaul. Yesterday I flew from L.A. to Rome. Instead of it being the first fabulous part of a trip-- the way I've always considered flying on B.A. flights-- it was a horror show from beginning to end.

Early in the day, the flight attendants union voted to strike on December 21 and come back on January 2. When I called for advice about what to do to prevent myself from being stranded abroad, I could have been talking with someone from Delta, American or United or any airline that puts its customer service department through a rigorous training procedure on how to frustrate and infuriate customers. I spent well over an hour on hold and talking with two customer service clerks and in the end, got nowhere. They said that I could cancel my tickets but since the airline hadn't "officially" cancelled my flight home-- and probably wouldn't until I got to the airport in January-- it would cost me $250 to cancel. And I was lucky because I had purchased a refundable ticket!

I decided to take the gamble-- while the company's disastrous boss, Willie Walsh, postured and acted the tough anti-union thug in public-- and I was immediately sorry when I got on board the flight. Only one of the 3 restrooms was functioning in the business class cabin-- and it was in a sorry state of cleanliness right from the beginning. The whole cabin was in a shoddy condition in fact, way below the B.A. standards that have always attracted me to the airline. It looks like one of the cost savings was those paper toilet seat covers. The crew was the dregs, the sound system wasn't functioning enough to understand a word anyone ever said. And, the food was as bad as you can expect from a third-rate flying garbage truck. Poor British Air!

And poor me! The flight was late getting in and although I made it-- with a second or two to spare-- onto my connecting flight from London, my checked luggage didn't. It still hasn't. They claim it arrived in Rome but they seem to have lost it again. "Seem to," because communication is not a strong point. Last night I stayed in all night waiting for the promised bag; didn't even have dinner. But this morning-- still no idea where my bag is or when-- or even if-- I'll ever get it back.

As the Guardian put it today "the way Willie Walsh has handled this dispute will end up in the MBA textbooks-- as how not to do it. Just over two years ago, the BA boss hailed a new era in its often-troubled industrial relations. Now the atmosphere between management and workforce has become more poisonous than ever. Both sides risk sleepwalking into a strike that neither really wants. They should be forced-- by government if necessary-- to negotiate with each other. Carelessness is no excuse for destroying a business." Too late for that; they need to rid themselves of Walsh and get back to the days when they understood what it meant to build customer loyalty instead of contempt.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Google's Offering Up Free WiFi At Dozens Of Backward U.S. Airports

When I travel outside the U.S., airports seem to all have free WiFi. And they have it at Oakland and in Jacksonville, though it doesn't usually work in the latter. But most U.S. airports seem old-fashioned and predatory when it comes to WiFi. Well Google's about to fix that... at least for the Holiday season (November 10 through January 15). And they're doing it in over 40 airports.

My own local airport, Burbank, is one of the lucky ones and, in fact, they announced that they'll continue Google's generosity indefinately. So will Seattle.

These are the airports getting the free WiFi:

• Austin (AUS)
• Baltimore (BWI)
• Billings (BIL)
• Boston (BOS)
• Bozeman (BZN)
• Buffalo (BUF)
• Burbank (BUR)
• Central Wisconsin (CWA)
• Charlotte (CLT)
• Des Moines (DSM)
• El Paso (ELP)
• Fort Lauderdale (FLL)
• Fort Myers/SW (RSW)
• Greensboro (GSO)
• Houston (HOU)
• Houston Bush (IAH)
• Indianapolis (IND)
• Jacksonville (JIA)
• Kalamazoo (AZO)
• Las Vegas (LAS)
• Louisville (SDF)
• Madison (MSN)
• Memphis (MEM)
• Miami (MIA)
• Milwaukee (MKE)
• Monterey (MRY)
• Nashville (BNA)
• Newport News (PHF)
• Norfolk (ORF)
• Oklahoma City (OKC)
• Omaha (OMA)
• Orlando (MCO)
• Panama City (PFN)
• Pittsburgh (PIT)
• Portland (PWM)
• Sacramento (SMF)
• San Antonio (SAT)
• San Diego (SAN)
• San Jose (SJC)
• Seattle (SEA)
• South Bend (SBN)
• Spokane (GEG)
• St. Louis (STL)
• State College (SCE)
• Toledo (TOL)
• Traverse City (TVC)
• West Palm Beach (PBI)

No New York City, no L.A., no San Francisco, no Chicago and no Washington, DC... but who uses them anyway? Meanwhile though, Google has also worked out free WiFi for its entire hometown, Mountain View, California and "last month it partnered with Virgin America to give the airline's customers free access to Gogo's Inflight Internet" (also ending January 15).

While Google's move to offer free wireless in airports is an original twist, several companies are already running similar sponsorship campaigns on domestic flights.

E-commerce giant eBay said it will provide free WiFi through Gogo on more than 250 domestic Delta Airline flights during the busiest travel week of the year, over the Thanksgiving holiday. From Nov. 24-30, flyers who log in will be taken to eBay's holiday-themed homepage and invited to "complete your holiday shopping while still en-route to your Thanksgiving destination."

Car maker Lexus wrapped up one week of complimentary Internet on American Airlines flights on Friday. The promotion coincided with the introduction of the 2010 Lexus LS line.

We're happy to take what we can get from our benificent corporate masters.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Is Yemen A Safe Place To Visit-- Or Live?

The drive from Sanga in Mali's Dogan country to Timbuktu is not for the faint of heart-- and not even possible without a solid 4 wheel drive, off road vehicle. When we did it a couple years ago, we got lost in trackless wastes-- with an experienced guide-- and broke down several times. But half way between driving over boulders in Dogan and the rutted track through the Sahara there's a stretch of paved road around a town called Douentza. There's not much to the town at all, but there's a roadside cafe where truckers and travelers can stop for a plate of slop and a cold drink and a chance to stretch and possibly realign one's spine. Ahhh... good old Douentza. I decided to fast but Roland had some kind of spaghetti lunch that took an hour or so to prepare. While waiting we met a Spanish architect, his wife and two daughters going in the other direction. We swapped road tips. And, as travelers do, we also swapped travel stories. They'd been traveling the world's forgotten places as long as I had. I told them about Afghanistan and Ceylon. They told us about Ethiopia and Yemen.

Yemen, in fact, was their greatest adventure. It was before the daughters had been born and the two Spanish students had been kidnapped by Yemenite bandits. It was strictly a business affair, no brutality or violence or anything like that. They were treated as guests and a month or so after being detained the ransom was paid and they were released... with the story of a lifetime.

Saturday night, for no particular reason, I tweeted a NY Times story by Robert Worth on how the Yemeni addiction to qat (khat)-- a very thirsty plant that is mildly narcotic-- is making the barely habitable country completely uninhabitable due to the depletion of the aquifers. It's a story of desolation and ruin... and danger. It still isn't a safe place for tourists to visit. On the other hand, it isn't a safe place for anyone, including the Yemenis.

The first time I ever really thought much about Yemenis was when I was general manager of Sire Records. Legendary music man, Seymour Stein, had signed an Israeli-Yemenite single, Ofra Haza (one of her songs is below) and told me how big she was in Europe, how much he loved her and hated her manager and asked me to try to break her in the U.S. We put out several albums and singles by Ofra and she had some success but, while she may have been "the Madonna for the Middle East," her music was more popular in gay dance clubs than on Top 40 radio. I always thought it odd, though, that when I visited Arab countries-- especially Morocco and Egypt-- people were wildly enthusiastic about her. No one minded that she was Israeli, let alone Jewish.

With album titles like Yemenite Songs, Yemenite Love, and Desert Love and with songs "Im Nin' Alu," "Galbi", and "Daw Da Hiya" it would be hard for all but the most casual of listeners to not wonder about the relationship between Israel, Jews and Yemen, an ostensibly hostile, backward, fundamentalist Arab country-- the place, in fact, Osama bin-Laden's family moved to Saudi Arabia from. Saturday's Wall Street Journal fills in some gaps about Yemen and Jews with a fascinating story, Secret Mission Rescues Yemen's Jews by Miriam Jordan. She confirms the country's backwardness and hostility and goes into the ongoing operation of how the Obama Administration is rescuing the few remaining Yemenite Jews and settling them suburban Rockland County, New York in the hamlet of Monsey. (Monsey has around 15,000 people, 112 synagogues and 45 yeshivas and less than half the people there speak English at home.)

The secret evacuation of the Yemeni Jews-- considered by historians to be one of the oldest of the Jewish diaspora communities-- is a sign of America's growing concern about this Arabian Peninsula land of 23 million.

The operation followed a year of mounting harassment, and was plotted with Jewish relief groups while Washington was signaling alarm about Yemen. In July, Gen. David Petraeus was dispatched to Yemen to encourage President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be more aggressive against al-Qaeda terrorists in the country. Last month, President Barack Obama wrote in a letter to President Saleh that Yemen's security is vital to the region and the U.S.

Yemen was overshadowed in recent years by bigger trouble spots such as Afghanistan. But it has re-emerged on Washington's radar as a potential source of regional instability and a haven for terrorists.

The impoverished nation is struggling with a Shiite revolt in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and growing militancy among al-Qaeda sympathizers, raising concern about the government's ability to control its territory. Analysts believe al-Qaeda operatives are making alliances with local tribes that could enable it to establish a stronghold in Yemen, as it did in Afghanistan prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

...Jews are believed to have reached what is now Yemen more than 2,500 years ago as traders for King Solomon. They survived-- and at times thrived-- over centuries of change, including the spread of Islam across the Arabian Peninsula.

"They were one of the oldest exiled groups out of Israel," says Hayim Tawil, a Yeshiva University professor who is an expert on Yemeni Jewry. "This is the end of the Jewish Diaspora of Yemen. That's it."

Centuries of near total isolation make Yemeni Jews a living link with the ancient world.

Many can recite passages of the Torah by heart and read Hebrew, but can't read their native tongue of Arabic. They live in stone houses, often without running water or electricity. One Yemeni woman showed up at the airport expecting to board her flight with a live chicken.

Through the centuries, the Jews earned a living as merchants, craftsmen and silversmiths known for designing djanbias, traditional daggers that only Muslims are allowed to carry. Jewish musical compositions became part of Yemeni culture, played at Muslim weddings and festivals.

"Yemeni Jews have always been a part of Yemeni society and have lived side by side in peace with their Muslim brothers and sisters," said a spokeswoman for the Embassy of Yemen in Washington.
In 1947, on the eve of the birth of the state of Israel, protests in the port city of Aden resulted in the death of dozens of Jews and the destruction of their homes and shops. In 1949 and 1950 about 49,000 people-- the majority of Yemen's Jewish community-- were airlifted to Israel in "Operation Magic Carpet."

About 2,000 Jews stayed in Yemen. Some trickled out until 1962, when civil war erupted. After that, they were stuck there. "For three decades, there were no telephone calls, no letters, no traveling overseas. The fact there were Jews in Yemen was barely known outside Israel," says Prof. Tawil.

After alienating the West by backing Iraq during the first Gulf War, Yemen sought a rapprochement with Washington. In 1991, it declared freedom of travel for Jews. An effort led by Prof. Tawil and brokered by the U.S. government culminated in the departure of about 1,200 Jews, mainly to Israel, in the early 1990s. Arthur Hughes, American ambassador to Yemen at the time, recalls that those who chose to remain insisted: "This is where we have been for centuries, we are okay; we're not going anywhere."

The few hundred Jews who stayed behind were concentrated in two enclaves: Saada, a remote area in Yemen's northern highlands, and Raida to the south.

In 2004, unrest erupted in Saada. The government says at least 50,000 people have been displaced by fighting between its troops and the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group.

Animosity against Jews intensified. Notes nailed to the homes of Jews accused them of working for Israel and corrupting Muslim morals. "Jews were specifically targeted by Houthi rebels," says a spokeswoman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington.

In January 2007, Houthi leaders threatened Jewish families in Saada. "We warn you to leave the area immediately... [W]e give you a period of 10 days, or you will regret it," read a letter signed by a Houthi representative cited in a Reuters article.

Virtually the entire Jewish community in the area, about 60 people, fled to the capital. Since then, they have been receiving food stipends and cash assistance from the government while living in state-owned apartments in a guarded enclave, says the Yemeni embassy in Washington... Raida became the last redoubt of Yemeni Jews, who continued to lead a simple life there alongside Muslims.

Ancient stone homes dot the town. Electricity is erratic; oil lamps are common. Water arrives via truck. Most homes lack a TV or a refrigerator. The cell phone is the only common modern device. Some families receive financial aid from Hasidic Jewish groups in Brooklyn and London, which has enabled them to buy cars.

Typically, the Jewish men are blacksmiths, shoe repairmen or carpenters. They sometimes barter, trading milk and cow dung for grass to feed their livestock. In public, the men stand out for their long side curls, customarily worn by observant Jewish men. Jewish women, who often marry by 16, rarely leave home. When they do, like Muslim women, only their eyes are exposed.

For fun, children play with pebbles and chase family chickens around the house. At Jewish religious schools, they sit at wooden tables to study Torah and Hebrew. They aren't taught subjects like science, or to read and write in Arabic, Yemen's official language.

Here's an original Ofra Haza version of "Im Nin' Alu," although the remix may sound more familiar to you.

UPDATE: Cruise Missiles Could Be Nonsectarian

With the Saudi air force and U.S. cruise missiles sending remote terror into the northern part of the country, there's another good reason to consider postponing that long dreamed about trip to Yemen you've been planning. And, of course, there's always the up-close-and-personal non-remote terror, of a homegrown variety to worry about.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Meaningful Hotels

The Taj in Mumbai

Aswan was the end of the line for our 1997 cruise up the Nile. One of Egypt's periodic anti-tourist atrocities, this one across the river from Luxor-- scores of Swiss and Japanese shot and macheted to death amid the well preserved remains of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (the female pharaoh), led to an exodus of tourists from Egypt on the day we arrived. We had the country virtually to ourselves (not counting the 65 million or so Egyptians). Or we did until we got in Aswan. It only rains there once a decade but for some reason it was the only place in Egypt filled with tourists while we were there.

There's only one serious luxury hotel in Aswan, the Old Cataract which dates to 1899 and is famous for having hosted Winston Churchill, Agha Khan, King Farouk and is renowned as the place where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. After barely seeing another tourist for most of a month, we were told there was no room at the inn. 130 rooms in the middle of nowhere with every tourist in the country having fled Osama bin-Laden's future partner, Ayman Zawahiri and no room for us? Impossible! I wouldn't take no for an answer and we wound up in a windowless storage room that smelled of toxic chemicals. But we did spend a night at the fabulous Old Cataract (which is currently closed for renovations and will open as the Sofitel Legend next year).

Yesterday's Independent featured a travel piece about hotels becoming potent symbols and national institutions, the way the Old Cataract is, although the author doesn't mention it. He concentrates on the Taj Mahal in Mumbai, and three I've never been to, the al-Mansour in Baghdad, the American Colony in East Jerusalem and the Zhiwa Ling in Paro, Bhutan.

Hotels can be more than just places to sleep and eat. The best can be worlds in themselves – indeed for many travellers hotels are their world while lodged in a distant, strange and perhaps dangerous land, and so become of huge importance.

They are at once home and refuge, places of meeting and of escapist fantasy. And if their architecture and ambience is particularly characterful and distinguished, some hotels even take on the role of symbol of the city in which they stand: historic and cultural landmarks that in various and almost mysterious ways represent national aspirations, ambitions or beliefs. These are the most fascinating hotels, always rewarding as objects of study and contemplation.

...* al-Mansour Melia, Al Salhiya Street, Baghdad, Iraq (00 964 1 537 0041). Doubles start at US$60 (£40), room only.

* Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai, India (00 91 22 6665 3366; Doubles start at R16,115 (£208), including breakfast.

* American Colony, Nablus Road, Jerusalem, Israel (00 972 2 627 9777; Doubles start at US$440 (£293), including breakfast.

* Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Paro, Kingdom of Bhutan (00 975 8 271 277; Doubles start at US$198 (£132), including breakfast.

Odd collection of choices. I would have included the George V and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, the Four Seasons in Istanbul, Raffles in Singapore, the Cipriani in Venice, the King David in Jerusalem, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Oriental in Bangkok, Le Sirenuse on the Amalfi Coast, both the Four Seasons and the Principe di Savoia in Milan, and the Mamounia in Marrakesh-- although the Esbelli in Ürgüp is more wonderful than any of them. And in the last few years I've learned that renting villas and apartments is much more suitable for me when I travel-- even if they're not as iconic as the Independent's picks.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Uganda-- A Dangerous And Savage Place To Be Avoided At All Costs

Whenever I talk about my long drive through Asia to Afghanistan and Nepal I try to explain how it was as much a journey through time and it was through space. In 1969 there were parts of Afghanistan that were like 1169. I lived in a "village" for a while where no one had ever experienced electricity or had heard of the United States. (Now they've all heard of the United States-- the faraway country occupying their homeland, bombing their homes, killing their relatives and running around in alien outfits that they would relate to people from another galaxy if they knew what another galaxy was. When I was there, the U.S. had landed a man on the moon; that was not something I was able to explain to anyone.) Anyway, today my other blog, Down With Tyranny is helping raise money for an electoral battle in Maine, where reactionary religious fanatics are trying to take away the rights of same sex couples to marry. Polling shows that the reactionaries will probably lose.

The reactionaries, however, should consider moving to Uganda. It's as backward and venal, at least in terms of rights for gay people, as they are. Just because the Jews (not counting the Abayudaya) rejected it as a homeland in the 1940s, there's no reason for American religionist nuts nit to move there en masse. Normal tourists, on the other hand, should probably skip Uganda. The country's tourism heyday was in the 1960s and it;s been all downhill since then. Lately they're trying for a comeback based on the flora and fauna that the backward, savage and dangerous people live around. They killed off most of the interesting wildlife, making it impossible to compete with the incredible safari parks in Kenya and Tanzania.

The country is trying to build up its tourism industry, emphasizing its Mountain Gorilla population at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Tourists have been killed in Uganda's national parks and prudent travelers will give the country a wide berth, despite the efforts of the government to lure tourists with irresponsible and self-serving lies about how safe the country is.

The Ugandan government on Wednesday said the country is safe for tourists, despite last week' s riots that left 15 people dead, scores injured and property destroyed.

Serapio Rukundo, minister of state for tourism, told reporters here that the security situation in the East African country is under control.

"Uganda is absolutely safe. We are one of the safest countries in the world. What happened was just lack of dialogues," he said.

Rukundo's comments came after some foreign missions issued travel advisories requesting their nationals not to travel to the country and those within the country to stay indoors.

Moses Mapesa, executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority, said riots happened all over the world and has not stopped tourists from visiting the affected destinations. He said what is critical is the country's capacity to contain the riots.

"Uganda is a safe country to visit, we have infrastructure, we have capacity and we have the attractions," he said.

Uganda also has the most viciously homophobic laws of anyplace anyone would ever consider visiting. This month their parliament is determined to make the laws even worse-- way beyond their 2006 ban on gay marriage-- and seems enthralled with assigning the death penalty to homosexuality. Sounds like a veritable paradise for right-wing Republicans, though not so much for many of their elected officials like Lindsey Graham (R-SC), David Dreier, and Patrick McHenry (R-NC) to name a few who pop right into one's mind.

The blog Mad Professah Lectures points out that the atmosphere in Uganda is not just dangerous but "paranoid and hysterical." And the blog GayUganda grapples seriously with the death penalty aspects of the new law, a law that also criminalizes the "promotion of homosexuality, effectively banning political organizations, broadcasters and publishers that advocate on behalf of gay rights." Doesn't sound like the kind of place for a tourism industry to be taken seriously-- not in this decade.

Monday, October 12, 2009

World Cup South Africa 2010-- Guest Post From Robert Tuchman

Meet Zakumi, the official mascot for the 2010 World Cup

I'm planning a trip to Rio for the spring-- way before the Olympics make it unbearable. Long before the Rio Olympics, though, people are buying up every hotel room anywhere near Port Elizabeth. Port who? Next summer, June 11- July 11 the 19th World Cup will take place in South Africa-- in 9 cities, including the brand new Nelson Mandella Stadium in Port Elizabeth. The other cities are Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfonterin, Pietersburg, Nelspruit and Rustenburg. (Saturday the U.S. guaranteed its participation by beating Honduras.)

Robert Tuchman, probably the foremost expert on worldwide sports travel, and author of The 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live, agreed to give us a bird's eye advance look at the 2010 World Cup. His book, which covers everything from the Super Bowl, Masters, Calgary Stampede, Army v Navy Game, Wimbelon, Stanley Cup and Rose Bowl to the Indy 500, Running of the Bulls, Iditarod and the Nathan's Hot Dog Easting Contest, offers plenty of tips and advice on how to access the best tickets, hotel accommodations, private event passes as well as all of the ins and outs of the selected happenings surrounding each event. Here's his report on next year's World Cup:

Every four years near the end of June and beginning of July thousands of countries around the world shut down to watch and tune into the World Cup. Millions fill into the host country’s stadiums, and billions watch from home on their televisions. If you are not tuned into the World Cup you are missing out on one of the biggest sporting events of the given year. But nothing can compare to the enthusiasm from the fans, patriotism and pride for their country, and the passion that you can see in their eyes while watching and being instilled in a game.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to experience the World Cup in host country Germany. I witnessed hundreds of thousands of people who had traveled from all over the world to experience this great sporting event. Passion could be seen in their eyes and heard through their cheers. I have seen many live sports events in my time, but few have been able to match the type of raw energy and enthusiasm that was evident that summer in Europe. The actual matches were only part of the experience. The pride that countrymen felt toward their team, the parties and revelry in the streets in celebrating a victory, and the liveliness and enthusiasm provided once-in-a-lifetime spectacle for me. It was this sporting event that motivated me to write a book called The 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live An Insider’s Guide to Creating the Sports Experience of a Lifetime.

This summer, South Africa is the host nation where soccer isn’t just a sport but for thousands of people a way of life, and something that is either played or consumed on a daily basis. So far 19 teams have qualified for the prestigious tournament including big name countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil and recently the United States. The biggest stadium and venue is Soccer City in Johannesburg, the stadium holds 94,700 fans. The second largest is in Durban holding 70,000 fans. The host country has been working hard on preparations for the upcoming event building five new stadiums, three new match stadiums and two practice facilities. 200 teams have entered the World Cup but only 31 countries will qualify and compete for the prestigious title. The drama, heartache, enthusiasm, and passion will unfold this summer in South Africa. If you haven’t tuned into to the World Cup before the time is now, experience something that motivated me to write a book. Experience more than a sport, but a way of life for most of the world.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Albania-- A Guest Post From Evil Jesus, The Man Who Brought The Internet

My trip overland from Europe to India and back took a couple years. I made one phone call-- from Agra when I found a free phone I could use-- and sent a few letters home and got a few via poste restante in places like Istanbul, Tehran, Kabul and Delhi. I was a lot more connected than the Pilgrims, These days, whenever I go traveling, I need to make a decision about whether or not to take a computer. Do I want the extra weight? Will there be opportunities to find internet connectivity? Is it safe to bring it. Ever since I got a Apple MacBook Air most of the excuses for not bringing one have disappeared. It weighs about as much as a double issue magazine and fits into anything. I figured-- correctly-- that there would be no way to connect in Dogon Country and I wound up not bringing it to Mali. But that was probably my last-ever computerless trip abroad.

For my winter trip I spent some time searching online and eventually rented a flat in Rome. The first thing I always look for is to make sure the place has wireless connectivity. Just about every rental in Rome I looked at did. However, for my side-trip we're spending some time in Albania, a place not nearly as with it and connected. We're staying at a real hotel in Tirana but in Berati, Butrint, Gjirokastra and Fieri... we'll be staying at what amounts to bed-and-breakfasts and my first concern was that we find indoor plumbing.

In 1995 Wired did a piece called Evil Jesus Wires Albania, the Land Technology Forgot. They make the point that "isolated by communism's arguably most paranoid and hellish dictatorship for 44 years, Albania still has a bit of catching up to do with the rest of the world. Though only 60 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the boot heel of Italy, it is decades away from modern Europe. Until three years ago, there were no private vehicles in the country of 3.3 million inhabitants. (Now there are about 200,000, all clunkers, and it's no coincidence everyone drives like they just learned how.) Fewer than 2 people in 100 have telephones."

This year, however, if Bill [Eldridge] can come through, the country is going to have one much stronger link to the modern world: the Internet. On a mission from his own private god, and with funding from the Open Society Institute and the United States Information Service, Bill is working to hot-wire Albania or bust.

Sporting a shaven head, a pointy red beard, and a glint in his eye he calls the "Evil Jesus" look, this 34-year-old Alabaman ex-punk street musician might seem like an odd choice for wiring a nation to the greater world of electronic communication. But Bill is probably as capable as anyone. With degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and (for good measure) Spanish literature, plus having worked as a network administrator in St. Louis and later at the University of California, Los Angeles (after crooning in the streets in Barcelona and New Orleans got tired), he's got the skills required.

Evil Jesus, is an internet pal of mine and he wrote this little essay for us:

15 year ago I went to Macedonia to help set up internet there, and had this naive thought, "it's so small, why not set up Albania with internet too?"

More interesting is just how easy going the country was despite emerging from years of cruelty-- very Mediterranean along with Balkan, just an enchanting place. If you do get time, drives down to the south of the country are amazing, all the way to the sea view looking off to Greek islands (while considering how many Albanians want to swim the distance), a huge plate in the side of a mountain where Soviets hid their subs James Bond style, and a few beautiful well-preserved cities (UNESCO). Then the small things, lots of the best olive oil for nothing, bought in whatever bottles the storekeep found. Haven't been back since 1995, though I know the Turkish head of one of the telecoms there. (In 1995 there were 90,000 phones in all the country, 1/3 of which would go out every time it rained.)

Just met someone from the IARU who'd been doing radio stuff even earlier there, 1989. At night there were no street lights, big potholes in the road, possible to fall in and really hurt yourself. My last night there got in a yelling match with 2 guys who just stood in the road while we almost smashed into them with our bikes. While I scared away one holding up my bike, the other one got a good punch into my jaw as I turned around, explosion of blood and stars.

1995, people had just gotten their drivers licenses, chaos on the road as thousands of new drivers took their acquired-from-who-knows-where cars on the road, remember two guys who almost hit each other, getting out of their cars looking mad, and then giving each other a big hug, presumably while asking how the grandmother's doing, etc. Amazed when I hopped on a train from Tirana to the port city, handed someone $3 not having any Albanian money, later found out it cost probably 30 cents. Stayed in this old warped floor 2-room "villa" with a wonderful garden, right in the middle of town, cats sleeping on the walls, outside trucks and cars would pull up to the neighboring apartment building and honk their horns, no working doorbells. Found out later the owner or his father, forget which, had translated Beaudelaire into Albanian. Besides the Albanian language being descended from pre-Greek times, the Illyrians, it's often hard to imagine that Albania was also part of the Adriatic trade and the Roman trade routes through the Balkans, that people in the 1920's were an extension of Italian culture, that they often spoke Italian quite well and would go across the sea to study.

Shortly before I left, I flew back in from Prague, spoke my broken but earnest Albanian, felt like a prodigal son, the smiles and warmth as I moved through the airport, the feeling of being "home," which for a traveler is a rather hard-to-capture term-- the most obscure places can feel like home at the right time. Reminds me of Dylan, "everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside." Remember my negotiations with Albanian Telecom, came to an agreement after months of negotiations, having our celebration coffee for how we would get use of 64 whole kilobits per second of the monopoly's sea cable to Italy to bring public internet to Albania, or at least a fairly open and balanced subset of government, NGO's, universities... And then the head of telecom looked at me and queried, "but this is just for the school, right? No one else will be using it...." Ah yes, the private monopoly internet.

Fortunately had a few other irons in the fire, otherwise would have seen everything smashed to pieces. Towards the last weeks, I had no time, everything on a tight schedule before I left, would show up to install an antenna and the guy with the key wasn't there. In normal society, that meant, "wait till tomorrow." Instead I'd find some way to run a cable from roof reaching through a broken window with a broom, crawling around rooftops trying not to break through or fall off.

Biking around town each day, Soros building nearby a Microsoft training center where 20-25 amazingly beautiful girls always seemed to be outside on smoke break. A huge pyramid in the center of town housing USIS and just begging kids to climb/skate down. And then we'd hit these ancient places, 2000 year old ruins, huge walls, reminding me of the relatively undocumented civilization that'd been trudging along well before the Romans, long before the Rome-Constantinople split, and still it's hard to remember more than 3 stories about Albania over the last 50 years.

Had spent the last two weeks out of our nice but rickety tiny villa in the center and instead in a rundown apartment with no water on the far edge of town. Woke up the next morning, got a cart to take us to the airport, left behind probably the nicest capsule of time in my life. Like living in Prague in 1990, I'm sure so much has changed in Albania since. Maybe they've even fixed the torturous road from Macedonia over the mountains that in a bus feels like someone kicking you in the kidneys, 20 hours for 180 km from Skopje. Maybe the Macedonians have stopped making Albanians walk through disinfectant to cross the border.

That I doubt.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Peace Without Borders Concert Rocks Havana, Roils Miami Wing-Nuts

Havana, yesterday; maybe Glenn Beck can use this pic next year

When I woke up yesterday morning and checked Twitter I noticed that mad dog Miami Congresswoman and anti-Cuba fanatic Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) was howling about Juanes' "Peace Without Borders" Concert in Havana. Juanes is a Colombian pop idol living in Miami and Ros-Lehtinen, who is already supremely unpopular with Miami's large and growing non-Cuban Hispanic population, was aghast that he was comforting her enemy with his music. Between half a million and a million people showed up in Revolution Square for the event, more than ten times the number of people who bothered going to Glenn Beck's Million Moron March on Washington last weekend. Unlike the Moron Marchers, Juanes' 14-artist concert wasn't about hatred, racism or political paranoia. It was about peace and love and music. Ros-Lehtinen and other far right old school Cuban desperados used to be able to dictate American policy-- always punative-- towards Cuba. Those days seem gone as the long overdue thaw in relations between the two countries takes on a life of its own outside of government interference.

Back in Ros-Lehtinen and the Balart Brothers' Florida-- a corrupt and stale leftover from Batista's fascist regime in pre-Revolutionary Cuba-- "Juanes had endured death threats, CD-smashing protests and boycotts since announcing his plan for the concert in Havana," although the kinds of people boycotting him weren't from his demographic. The Balarts were pulling out their hair because "Spanish-language stations covered the event, and several exile groups voiced support, describing it as a rare chance for Cubans to get a glimpse of the outside world."

Asked during his Univision interview what he made of it, Obama was positive about Juanes' music and had no problem with the event. His administration's go-slow pace of normalizing relations is just starting to talk about sending mail. People are moving faster than he is though, and every month the travel ban becomes less and less relevant. I'm going to guess that as many people weren't born as were when the U.S. slapped its pointless travel embargo on Cuba. It's time for that to end.

UPDATE: Will U.S. Travel Ban Against Cuba Be Overturned This Year?

California Congressman Sam Farr thinks there's a chance. “It is believed we can get to this before the end of the year,” said Farr. “We haven’t had a policy about Cuba. We’ve had policies about getting votes in Florida and Obama changed that by getting those votes... If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily. But if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”
The bill to let U.S. citizens resume travel to the Caribbean island except in times of war or cases in which they face imminent danger has 181 votes in the House and needs 218 to pass, said Farr, a co-sponsor of the legislation. The plan is backed by travel groups such as the United States Tour Operators Association and the National Tour Association and human rights groups such as the Washington Office on Latin America and has been helped by President Barack Obama’s election, he said.

...Ending the travel ban may lead as many as 1 million Americans to visit the island every year, Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association, known as NTA, said in an interview. It would also help push forward talks on human rights issues, Thale said.

“We’ve had a policy for 50 years of isolating Cuba and it hasn’t done anything about the human rights situation,” Thale said. “I don’t think there is some magic solution. I don’t think ending the travel ban will cause Fidel to say let’s have elections, let’s release all the political prisoners tomorrow. What it will do is open the process of dialogue.”

Obama’s administration has been showing a “gradual relaxation and diplomatic opening” toward Cuba, Thale said. He cited the government’s decision to reinitiate talks on migration and direct mail, and also to put down the billboard operated by the U.S. government outside its special interests section in Havana, which he said often displayed anti-Cuba messages.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Right Wing Extremism Threatening Tourism In The Palmetto State?

Since South Carolina secessionist and radical right Senator Jim DeMint is the Senate's most ardent obstructionist and votes "no" on virtually everything, it's sometimes difficult to tell when he really means it. When the Senate got back from their long summer vacation, they immediately took up S.1023, the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 and it passed with a huge bipartisan majority, 79-19. DeMint, as usual, was one of the 19. What's he got against promoting travel? Charleston, Hilton Head Island, Drayton Hall, Fort Sumter, Magnolia Plantation, Myrtle Beach, the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden in Columbia, Murrells Inlet, Mount Pleasant... are all being heavily promoted by South Carolina's burgeoning tourism sector. Now DeMint is still freaked out and hysterical that one year ago his state's tourist industry was catering to gays with an international campaign "South Carolina Is So Gay," a campaign not directly related to the gargantuan number of closet cases dominating the Republican Party hierarchy in the state, from Lindsey Graham and Lt. Gov Andre Bauer to the state Senate President.

But DeMint may not have to worry about gay tourists-- or any other tourists-- coming to his state. Even without any help from Arthur Frommer, it looks like a spontaneous boycott of South Carolina tourism is shaping up.

State and local tourism officials are being flooded by emails and calls from people across the country, saying they won't vacation in South Carolina because they're upset by GOP Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst at President Barack Obama.

The officials said that a number of the out-of-state e-mailers have said they've taken beach trips for years in Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and other South Carolina resort areas, but don't plan to return.

...In a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans said they "oppose what Joe Wilson did during the speech." Twenty-one percent said they support Wilson's behavior.

South Carolina's $1 billion-plus tourism industry, centered around its beaches, had already been hit by the recession as Americans postpone vacations or cancel travel altogether. The state's 11.8 percent unemployment rate is among the highest in the country.

Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said his agency had received 147 emails from people who cited Wilson by name and expressed displeasure with his remark.

"Some of them have been specific and said they won't be coming to the beach this summer for their family vacation," Edmonds said.

Both Columbia and Hilton Head are major tourist attractions in Wilson's district. His wife, Roxanne, of course, won't be joining the boycott, although she did ask her husband, "Joe, who's the nut who hollered out, 'You lie'?"

At 4pm (EST) House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn introduced a Resolution of Disapproval on the floor which passed 240-179 (with 5 voting "present").

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Preparing For My Trip To Rome-- With Penn And Teller And Sabina Guzzanti

I may have mentioned how I'm planning out a trip to remote, mysterious Albania in a few months. In all honesty, most of the vacation will be spent in Rome eating in places like La Pergola, Roscioli, Quinzi & Gabrieli, Colline Emiliane, and Al Ceppo and wandering around the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Castel Sant'Angelo and, of course, the Vatican. Two weeks of that, then Albania; then more Rome. Yesterday, though, Roland, who was raised an atheist and claims to not even know what religion his antecedents were, directed me to a story in the L.A. Times about how Junipero Serra needs just one more miracle and-- BOOM-- he's a saint. It's been 75 years since they've been looking and 22 since he was beatified after being credited with curing a nun in St Louis who had lupus. One place they probably shouldn't look for the second miracle is on the Penn and Teller show, Bullshit!. You, on the other hand, might enjoy it, especially if you're planning a trip to the Vatican-- or even plan to live it vicariously through my reports here.

[This video was originally hosted as a single clip by Vimeo, a company that pulls down videos if anyone says "boo" to them.] LOL! Looks like the Vatican got to YouTube too! OK, I found another copy online. The facsistic Catholic League has been suing to get this episode removed so... watch it while you can:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Will We All Be Visiting Cuba Any Time Soon?

My travel-bud Roland loves Cuba. He's been there three times and every time I bring up some groovy place for us to go, like Myanmar, Madagascar, Mali or Albania he always starts in with how amazing Cuba is. I'm hearing the same thing from one of my neighbors who's working on a movie soundtrack there. But I've never gone. I want to... but I never quite got around to it. I have a feeling it's all greasy food fried in deadly oils and pork and no fresh fruits and veggies like I like to eat. But I was still excited today when I read about New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's trip to Cuba. He said he's for "enhanced tourism travel for Americans." I think most Americans would agree.

But, as a nation, we've long ago ceded our foreign policy in regard to Cuba to a few wealthy gangster families of former Batista operatives and their allies.
"I'm not an envoy of the (Obama) administration. I'm carrying no message. I'm here as a governor seeking agricultural trade," he said.

"Obviously I do plan to submit my impressions to the administration after I conclude," he said. "I will do that as a citizen and as a governor. They're my impressions alone."

As a congressman, Richardson secured the release of three Cuban political prisoners during talks with then-President Fidel Castro in Havana in 1996. As U.N. ambassador in 1997, he held talks on terrorism with then-Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina.

Richardson supported Obama's declaration during last year's U.S. presidential campaign that he would be open to meeting current President Raul Castro without preconditions. The governor also has opposed lifting the U.S. embargo, while advocating negotiations with Cuba to promote human rights.

The Obama administration has relaxed restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel and money transfers to family on the island. Most U.S. citizens cannot visit-- technically, the U.S. Treasury Department bars them from spending money in Cuba-- in tandem with the U.S. embargo imposed in 1962 to weaken Cuba's Communist government.

The U.S. and Cuba also are resuming talks on migration and direct mail, but they have sparred over a U.S. suggestion that Havana release its political prisoners. Cuba insists that any dialogue have no preconditions.

Roland uses the Lonely Planet Cuba Country Guide but for a little context it's also important to read Reese Erlich's book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy And The Future of Cuba. So will we all be allowed to go there? Obama doesn't seem to have much backbone when it comes to standing up to the extreme right-- and he does have a lot on his plate before addressing a problem that's extremely important to one small segment of a powerful special interest. By more and more forces are lining up for a liberalization-- and a normalization-- of relations between a country 90 miles from Florida. I suspect if Obama is re-elected, he'll deal with it then. Meanwhile, a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress seems to be pushing for a quicker timetable.

CUBA UPDATE... From Afghanistan

The aforementioned Reese Erlich wrote me from Kabul, where he's working, to let me know that "Cuba has lots of healthy, fresh vegetables and yummy fruits, not to mention rum with which to mix the fruit." I'll keep it in mind!

And an update from the U.S. Treasury Department: Change we CAN Believe in! Some concrete first steps towards normalization.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Warning From Frommer's: Arizona Too Dangerous For Americans?

Some people check the State Department's website for their list of the most dangerous countries, places they're suggesting Americans avoid-- like Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mali, Algeria. Arizona isn't on the list. But it's on one that makes more sense: Frommer's. First off, I don't know if Arthur Frommer, the guide book magnate, is a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. It never even crossed my mind. On Wednesday, though, he indicated he's not a teabagger.

He's not advocating a boycott of Arizona (yet) but he does say that he's "shocked beyond measure by reports that earlier this week, nearly a dozen persons, including one with an assault rifle strapped about his shoulders and others with pistols in their hands or holsters, were openly congregating outside a hall at which President Obama was speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars."
For myself, without yet suggesting that others follow me in an open boycott, I will not personally travel in a state where civilians carry loaded weapons onto the sidewalks and as a means of political protest. I not only believe such practices are a threat to the future of our democracy, but I am firmly convinced that they would also endanger my own personal safety there. And therefore I will cancel any plans to vacation or otherwise visit in Arizona until I learn more. And I will begin thinking about whether tourists should safeguard themselves by avoiding stays in Arizona.

What Frommer didn't mention is that Arizona is also home to a bizarre bunch of crackpot right-wing extremists who are very, very dangerous. It's a violent part of the country and he's worried tourists will wind up getting shot. Pam Spaulding brought a whole other perspective on this climate of crackpot violence today. Tempe fringe "pastor," Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church has been urging that gay people be executed: "The same God who instituted the death penalty for murders is the same god who instituted the death penalty for rapists and for homosexuals, sodomites and queers... Our country is run by faggots. You know who was the man who was the architect of the bailout? His name is Barney Frank, he is a pedophile..."

And he doesn't stop with Barney Frank. He thinks Obama should be killed too: "God Hates Barack Obama, I hate Barack Obama. I hate Him. God wants me to Hate Barack Obama... Someone who commits murder should get the death penalty." I don't hate Arizona. In fact, I love Arizona. And most people are know from that state are probably as mortified about this kind of crap as you are.

UPDATE: Almost Three Years Later

What a mess! Arizona is, if anything, even worse and even more dangerous for civilians and tourists. Just today, another mass shooting by a local crackpot neo-Nazi! Anti-immigrant fanatic and vigilante lunatic "T.J." Ready murdered 5 people, including an infant before committing suicide. He wa shoping to run for Pinal County sheriff. Probably safer to visit New Mexico or California.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Boycott Travelocity For Underwriting Racism And Bigotry

I try not to mix this blog too much with my political blog Down WithTyranny but sometimes... it's just hard to resist. Americans are boycotting Travelocity and several other companies and I want to make sure Around The World Blog readers know why. Travelocity-- like GEICO-- has been keeping racist inciter Glenn Beck on the air spewing his divisive hatred, They pay for his air time. Unlike GEICO-- which just pulled all their advertising today-- Travelocity refuses to stop underwriting the hatred and racism. Please don't do any business with Travelocity until they stop spending money on Glenn Beck's Fox News HateFest. is a way better site anyway. MediaMatters did a short video clip that puts it in perspective:

UPDATE: Roaming Gnome Relents... Dumps Glenn Beck

The same thing happened to Travelocity that happened to Blue America. Like us, they just did a cable buy and wound up with some of their ads going to underwrite the hatred, racism and violence being incited by Glenn Beck. And like Blue America, Travelocity has asked the cable systems to stop running their ads on the hate shows. After all, how many racists like to travel anyway? Where would they go? From C&L:
Dear Roger - We did not specifically place our ad on the show. We basically buy ads in bulk and then they are placed somewhat randomly. However, we have now specifically asked that our ads do not appear during this show. Thank you for your concern,



Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Healthy Eating In Bangkok and Bali

I was happily surprised to find so much health food consciousness in Bali. Wherever you looked, at least in Ubud, restaurants had signs that said "No MSG" and "organic food." Ubud has several that serve raw vegan food and there really was a lot of options for people concerned with good nutrition. Putu and Made, our cooks happily made delicious, healthful meals everyday combining organic Balinese vegetables with raw food preparation techniques and, homemade food is always better than restaurant food. Still Bali Buddah and Kafe always had good, healthful food including raw dishes.

I was even more surprised when I got to Bangkok. I have to admit I had some anxiety knowing my favorite Thai restaurant had closed this year. I'd been eating at Bussaracum for decades. Last year I even wrote a post, Lunch In The Same Bangkok Restaurant Everyday For A Month-- Bussaracum, The Best Restaurant In Thailand. Where would I eat? The food in Bangkok isn't always so wonderful and a number of my favorite restaurants have closed down or moved away to locations miles away.

Looking back over my own 2006 Bangkok restaurant guide, I was reminded that someone had told me about a raw food restaurant called the Rasayana Retreat. I ate there today. HEAVEN!

Clean, beautiful, wonderful vibes and the food... unbeatable. The food was very seriously raw and health oriented and SO DELICIOUS! I had lasagna and key lime pie and I can't wait to go back tomorrow to try some more. Here's their raison d'etre:

From the moment that a fruit or vegetable is harvested it undergoes change in it’s chemical and nutritive make up. The fresher a fruit or vegetable is, the higher it’s nutritive content. When you cook food a huge percentage of available nutrient is destroyed, and its chemical make-up is altered, in essence stripping the food of the very nutrients that your body is requesting when it signals hunger to your mind and stomach. Nutrient stripped food does not satisfy the body’s hunger, leading to overeating and dissatisfaction with food for many people. But there are also much greater consequences.

In order for the eliminative systems and organs of the body to function optimally a person must eat at least an 80% alkaline diet. The majority of alkaline foods are fruits and vegetables. The majority of acid foods are animal products, such as meat and dairy, or processed foods that have been heated (as in cooked), ground and separated, and/or have added sugar, salt, preservatives, stabilizers, colorings and many other additives as well. If acidic foods are the greater part of the diet, elimination from the bowels, lymph, kidneys, respiration and skin becomes sluggish, allowing a build up of toxins to collect in the organs and tissues of the body. This ultimately leads to unpleasant symptoms and chronic disease.

Eating raw food is like giving yourself high-octane fuel so that your body can be energized, run efficiently, cleanse efficiently, think clearly and work out toxins so that health and beauty can be a reality instead of a distant goal. On a cleansing program a 100% alkaline diet is a necessity if one wishes to get maximum results from the cleanse. A cleansing diet treats food like medicine, using food to assist the body in healing and rejuvenation. A wonderful aspect of this is that Living Food also tastes good.

It's open everyday. It's real close to the skytrain that runs down Sukhumvit. And it is very inexpensive.