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Monday, January 19, 2009

Planning A Trip To San Miguel De Allende

I know, I know, I know, I know, I know... I just got back from a month in Mali and Senegal and I was in Mexico City just a few months ago. But prices in Mexico are so cheap now and two of my friends, Roland and Helen, both have some time off in February and are both jonesin' for a trip to Guanajuato, and another friend, Allisse just got back from there raving about how fantastic it is. And, I feel kind of overjoyed because Obama just announced he's tossing another of Bush's horrible policies, the so-called "Mexico City Policy," into the garbage can of history.

Obama's second full day as president falls on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States.

The sources said Obama may use the occasion to reverse the "Mexico City policy" reinstated in 2001 by Bush that prohibits U.S. money from funding international family planning groups that promote abortion or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion services. It bans any organization receiving family planning funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from offering abortions or abortion counseling.

The "Mexico City policy," commonly referred to by critics as "the global gag rule," was devised by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 at a population conference in Mexico City.

So... San Miguel de Allende here we come! San Miguel is a beautiful, artsy, historic town in central Mexico with perfect weather-- today it is 73 F and sunny-- all year round. It was designated an historic landmark seventy years ago and the colonial heritage is preserved and taken seriously. No neon signs or any of the other hideous trappings of gaudy Las Vegas style tourism that have ruined so many places in Mexico. It's all about narrow, cobblestone streets and the architecture goes back and forth from baroque to gothic. The city has a thriving and vibrant community of artists and writers from all over the world.

So this is what I did. I called Mexicana Airlines and made a reservation for a direct flight to Leon, the capital of Guanajuato and then I booked a stunning villa with 4 bedrooms. The roundtrip airfare from L.A. is $321 and the villa costs $1,550 for the week. Now I'm doing my research on the other colonial towns in the area we might want to visit, like Guantajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Luis de la Paz.


A reader, Eric, sent me a great tipfor the trop: a wonderful inn he had stayed at, Posada Corazon that serves organic breakfasts, even to non-guests (with a reservation). It looks like just the kind of place I'd love.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

88 Lines About 44... Tourist Destinations

The world's new culinary capital?

Tomorrow's NY Times will publish an interactive feature called The 44 Places To Go In 2009. You can vote on each and you can order them by filters such as "luxury," "foodie," "culture," "party," "eco," etc. I've been to 23 of their recommendations, from Reykavik, Buffalo and Washington, DC to Dakar, India, Phuket and Marrakesh. They call Marrakesh, which I've visited a dozen times since 1969, "the culinary destination of the year." I like Moroccan food-- ate at Chameau on Fairfax last night and rejoiced when I stumbled upon La Rose des Sables, Bamako's only Moroccan restaurant, a few weeks ago. And in 2006 I had even posted a story here called Eating in Marrakesh. But I never thought I'd see this:

As the fascination with Moroccan cuisine has taken off-- both in the United States and around the globe-- epicures and chowhounds are flocking to the ancient ochre-hued city of Marrakech. Foreign-led food tours are sprouting. Homegrown cooking classes are multiplying. And high-end restaurants run by European hotshots are opening alongside the city's nonpareil street food and old, homestyle establishments.

Wow! Quite a leap from the communal tables of the Djemaa el Fna! But if you think that's odd, the Time's top destination for "culture" is Doha, Qatar. They contrast it with Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, and point to the just opened Museum of Islamic Art, I.M. Pei's "ziggurat-like structure of white stone... far off the art-world grid, in a corner of a globe known more for its religious fundamentalism than its embrace of cutting-edge art." Doha also has a "raft" of new contemporary art galleries in the historic souk, a cobbled together national symphony orchestra, and-- coming soon-- their own Tribeca Film Festival. All brought to you by the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his 26-year-old daughter, Sheikha al Mayassa (the lucky purchaser of $160 million worth of Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst at a recent Sotheby's auction; we have the same taste!) Still... the #1 cultural destination in the world? Is Qatar a big Times advertiser?

Party central is Florianópolis, Brazil, and it sounds like the kind of place to avoid at all costs. Other party towns include Berlin (well... duh!), the Aegean Sea, Cuba and... Kazakhstan.

On most Friday nights in Almaty, the Uzbek-themed night spot known as the Car Wash-- an ornately decorated rooftop restaurant with enviable mountain views-- is packed with well-heeled Kazakhs smoking water pipes, drinking, dancing and eating extravagantly. Sandwiched between a residential district scheduled for rapid development and Almaty’s business district, the Car Wash is not the only center of hyperactive nocturnal activity.

Infused with newly flowing oil money, Kazakhstan’s largest city is flush with nightclubs and exotic restaurants. The city’s main boulevards are lined with English-language signs; boutiques sell everything from Armani to gem-encrusted Vertu cellphones, and cafes serve the latest in overpriced coffee concoctions.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic Borat character may have imprinted in the minds of many people a sense of ridiculousness about Kazakhstan, but there is little that is ridiculous about this sprawling business hub. Half a dozen luxury hotels are planned or under construction, including an ambitious JW Marriott Hotel opening next summer. The country’s flagship carrier, Air Astana, has added international flights to cities like Hanover, Germany; Dubai; and Bangkok. Wide-bodied Airbus and Boeing jets have joined its fleet.

In short, Almaty is no longer a hardship outpost for the diplomats and the oil industry executives who still dominate the city’s visitor logs.

Still... sounds like quite a stretch to call this a party destination-- even more than calling Doha a world cultural capital. Could be I'm so jaded about Kazakhstan because I just finished reading Ken Silverstein's brilliant new book, Turkmeniscam about the evils of Inside-the-Beltway lobbying, to which that monstrous and grotesque country is no stranger.

And although Kazakhstan ranks up there in this category too, the Times' top destination for luxury is Phuket, an island off the west coast of Thailand. I haven't been there since the 2004 tsunami wiped out the villa I used to rent on the beach, but the Times says Phuket is back-- and better than ever. And the top destination for the frugal traveler? Vegas, the Times apparently mixing up the concepts "frugal" and "cheap."

Since I've just returned from a brief stay in Dakar, I decided to see how my experience jibed with the Times' write-up. I liked Dakar primarily because it was an easy way to acclimate myself to Africa and get ready for the real thing: Mali. I had a great time because of the people I met there and the music scene. Dakar I found pretty nice but not amazing; Roland said it was a waste of time. The Times touts Gorée Island, which is pleasant enough but... nothing to write home about. They also point to the music scene, which I also loved, although I found it in second place behind Mali's.

They may not be Billboard chart-toppers, but Senegalese acts like the rollicking Orchestra Baobab, the soulful pop vocalist Baaba Maal and the poetic lyricist and harmonica virtuoso Ismael Lo-- to say nothing of the international star Youssou N'Dour-- have helped turn the colorful French-speaking city of Dakar into a world-music hotbed.

Their overall #1 destination for 2009? Beirut. OK. And the place on their list I'm thinking of visiting this year? Madagascar, "nature's laboratory," (at #38).

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

How I Lost 15 Pounds Without Even Trying-- And Saw The World's Biggest Mud Mosque

Visiting a quiet Bozo fishing village on the Niger

The alternative title for this post was A How To Guide For Seeing Mali but I thought the one I used would be more eye-grabbing. I suppose if you take all the vaccines that the tropic disease doctors insist on for a visit to Mali-- and thereby not have to worry as much about cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, polio, yellow fever, Hepatitis A and B, meningitis, and malaria (there is no way to protect yourself from Dengue Fever)-- you can eat whatever and wherever and whenever you like. I, on the other hand, only did the barest prophylactic minimum-- the yellow fever vaccine, without which you can't get a visa, and malarone pills, to possibly prevent malaria. The rest... I left to the fates and my own well-honed good instincts for prudently watching what I eat and drink.

I learned about getting sick on the road when I was much younger. In 1969 I drove a VW van across Asia to India on a two year excursion. I was a vegetarian and I quickly attributed the fact that everyone-- like I mean everyone-- around me was coming down with seriously debilitating diarrhea, to the differences in diet between myself and them. I'll spare you the unsavory details of what the Kabul Runs entails, but I can still remember the first time I realized that the slab of dead animal hanging from a hook in every (unrefrigerated) marketplace across Asia was black because it was covered in flies.

These Third World countries are poor and don't have the kinds of infrastructure we do-- even after 8 years of George Bush-- and everywhere you look there are ample opportunities to get really, really sick. Think back to Jamal's earliest flashbacks of the Mumbai slums in Slumdog Millionaire; all that poopie is not poetic license. One of my closest friends, painter Eveline Pommier, contracted cholera in India and died, full of promise and vigor and beauty, still in her 20s. Mali today is at least as bad as rural India was two or three decades ago.

That said, Mali is a gorgeous and unique country with wonderfully, warm, open, friendly people who have a culture unlike anything else you'll find anywhere on earth. It's well worth visiting. So how do you do it? It isn't a place I'd suggest just getting on a plane to, showing up in Bamako, and playing it by ear. There are no really current guide books although the best one I found, Bradt's Mali, Edition 3, is the best out there. First written in 2000, it was somewhat updated in 2004. It was reprinted in 2007 but not changed from 2004. A lot has happened in Mali since 2004 and some of it is even hard to find on the Net. But the Net is where I turned to figure out what to do about my trip. And I struck gold on the first shot.

I found fellow blogger Sophie (aka, Toubab), a Swedish woman who runs a gem of a hotel in Djenné, the Djenne Djenno (which opened in 2006), and blogs about the experience. Sophie's blog is fascinating in and of itself but the big score for me was when I contacted her to book a room, she helped me figure out the best places to stay throughout Mali. And, best yet, she steered me towards a reputable and capable tour agent, Tounga Tours from whom we could get an essential 4WD vehicle with a dependable driver.

I had already figured out that the best hotel choice in Bamako, the capital and the city with the international airport. The Hotel Salam, a relative newcomer at the top of the market, looked like a better choice than either of the two traditional considerably older "best" hotels, Le Grand or Hotel de l'Amitie. But after Bamako I really depended on Sophie's suggestions for which were the best places to stay in each town.

Tounga Tours is run by an unflappable husband and wife team, Van and Ann, in Bamako. Obviously they know all the ins and outs of traveling around Mali. Ann was also kind enough to book me my plane ticket from Timbuktu back to Bamako, which was lucky since it sold out. And she booked the Hotel Salam for me, saving me hundreds of dollars. When it came to the trip itself, my first instinct was to just want to rent a jeep with a driver. Ann patiently explained how we really would need a guide to get the most out of the trip, and an English-speaking one at that. I was resistant but, luckily, I gave in to her good sense. And was she ever right! Our driver and guide were a great team and a pleasure to travel around with. They find their own places to stay and their own food and the whole shebang cost 200 Euros a day, which is very much worth it if you can afford it. We were able to travel in relative comfort and visit Ségou, Djenné, Mopti, spend several days in Dogon Country (the best part of the trip) and then make the iconic road trip to Timbuktu, from which we flew back to Bamako.


We listened to Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder the whole time. Here are some of our pictures set to their music:

Friday, January 02, 2009

Mali's Boutique Hotels

Mopti's exquisite La Maison Rouge

Outside of Bamako, Mali's capital city, there aren't really any hotels similar to American and European style hotels. And even in Bamako there aren't any Hiltons, Marriotts, Best Westerns, Hyatts, Sheratons... let alone Four Seasons or Ritz-Carltons. It's not that kind of a place. Outside of Bamako people camp in tents, sleep on a roof or stay in modest lodgings without regular electricity or hot water. An alternative? Paris, Rome, the Bahamas, Las Vegas...

Thanks to a fellow blogger, Sophie, a Swedish woman who runs a hotel in Djenne and blogs about the experience, I got turned on to an informal network of delightful boutique-like hotels throughout Mali. After I booked a room at Sophie's Djenne Djenno, she helped me, through a series of e-mails, plan out where to stay all over the country. All of the hotels are quite small, utterly unique, and very much geared towards serving the needs of foreign travelers. In Djenne, one of the most memorable places we visited in Mali, the Djenne Djenno, a 10 minute walk from the world's biggest and most famous mud mosque in the center of town, has a dozen rooms. We paid around $40 for what would be the equivalent of a junior suite. The hotel is beautifully decorated, beautifully run and impeccably kept up, from the beautiful gardens and wonderful common spaces to the clean, comfortable rooms (with, thankfully, mosquito nets). The restaurant is really good as well. There's no giftshop selling t-shirts or ashtrays.

Our next stop was Mopti, Mali's second biggest city (and biggest port, albeit a river port). The Kanaga, with 80 rooms, is bigger than any of the hotels we stayed at while we traveled around Mali, and is considered the "best" hotel in town. It has a swimming pool and a good location near the river (the heart of town) but otherwise... not nearly as good as La Maison Rouge, one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever seen. The hotel, which opened about a year and a half ago-- and isn't quite finished-- is the dream of visionary French architect Amédé Mulin, who has been building it for over 4 years. Because of the luxuriant public spaces the hotel looks pretty large, although there are only 12 rooms. The rooms are beautifully appointed (although mosquito nets are very much needed) in earthy Malian design. Our double cost us around $80.

After Mopti we headed out for Dogon country and we based ourselves first in Bandiagara and then in Sangha. Neither actually has what I'd call a boutique hotel and in each case, Hotel Kambary (aka, Chevel-Blanc) in Bandiagara and Campement Sangha, we found pretty basic accommodations (with not many hours of electricity per day in Sangha). Actually the Chevel-Blanc, a series of self-contained geodesic domes, is pretty good, although there are no mosquito nets and the owner, an eccentric Swiss man named Jean Bastian, is a bit too uptight to be running a service business. Campement Sangha may be the best available to that charming and very remote town-- and it is well-run-- but... well, thank God there were mosquito nets. We paid around $70 for a double.

Timbuktu's nicest hotel is another boutique situation, La Maison, a small, well-run, beautiful little hotel in the middle of town. The clean, simple very agreeable rooms are built around a lovely courtyard with a candlelit pool. The rooftop restaurant is a pleasant common space. A double was around $80.

These hotels all have decent restaurants with fair prices and safe food and water. You tend not to spend much time in your room and the common spaces are conducive to friendly interaction with other travelers.