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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Preparing For Danger In Foreign Travel-- Is There Anything To Worry About In Bali?

Most of the e-mails I get about this blog ask me how safe it is to travel to Morocco or Mexico or India or Mali... even Buenos Aires. It's safe, it's safe... almost every place is safe-- if you take the same kinds of common sense precautions you would take as a matter of course everywhere you go outside of the gated community.

Today NY Times writer Nicholas Kristof did a column on evading bandits in foreign countries. I've encountered my share of them too-- machine gun toting militia in Afghanistan in 1969, dacoits in Kerala in 1970, hippie-hating Texas Rangers near Waco in 1967, small time hoodlums, more annoying than dangerous, in Tangier, Fez and Marrakech almost every time I've been to Morocco, a crooked landlady in Buenos Aires in 2006... Luckily I missed the domestic terrorism incident outside a church in Wichita, Kansas today (inspired by Republican Party propagandist Bill O'Reilly on his Fox TV terrorism show).

Kristof has 15 tips "for traveling to even the roughest of countries-- and back:"
1. Carry a “decoy wallet,” so that if you are robbed by bandits with large guns, you have something to hand over. I keep $40 in my decoy wallet, along with an old library card and frequent-flier card. (But don’t begrudge the wallet: when my travel buddy was pickpocketed in Peru, we tried to jump the pickpocket, who turned out to be backed by an entire gang ... )

2. Carry cash and your passport where no robber will find it. Assuming that few bandits read this column, I’ll disclose that I carry mine in a pouch that loops onto my belt and tucks under my trousers.

3. Carry a tiny ski lock with a six-foot retractable wire. Use it to lock your backpack to a hotel bed when you’re out, or to the rack of a train car.

4. At night, set a chair against your hotel door so that it will tip over and crash if someone slips in at 4 a.m. And lift the sheet to look for bloodstains on the mattress-- meaning bed bugs.

5. When it gets dark, always carry a headlamp in your pocket. I learned that from a friend whose hotel in Damascus lost power. He lacked a light but was able to feel his way up the stairs in the dark, find his room and walk in. A couple of final gropes, and he discovered it wasn’t his room after all. Unfortunately, it was occupied.

6. If you’re a woman held up in an isolated area, stick out your stomach, pat it and signal that you’re pregnant. You might also invest in a cheap wedding band, for imaginary husbands deflect unwanted suitors.

7. Be wary of accepting drinks from anyone. Robbers sometimes use a date rape drug to knock out their victims-- in bars, in trains, in homes. If presented with pre-poured drinks, switch them with your host, cheerfully explaining: “This is an American good luck ritual!”

8. Buy a secondhand local cell phone for $20, outfit it with a local SIM card and keep it in your pocket.

9. When you arrive in a new city, don’t take an airport taxi unless you know it is safe. If you do take a cab, choose a scrawny driver and lock ALL the doors-- thieves may pull open the doors at a red light and run off with a bag.

10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex-- who now, alas, has only one hand.

11. Look out for fake cops or crooked ones. If a policeman tries to arrest you, demand to see some ID and use your cell phone to contact a friend.

12. If you are held up by bandits with large guns, shake hands respectfully with each of your persecutors. It’s very important to be polite to people who might kill you. Surprisingly often, child soldiers and other bandits will reciprocate your fake friendliness and settle for some cash rather than everything you possess. I’ve even had thugs warmly exchange addresses with me, after robbing me.

13. Remember that the scariest people aren’t warlords, but drivers. In buses I sometimes use my pack as an airbag; after one crash I was the only passenger not hospitalized.

14. If terrorists finger you, break out singing “O Canada”!

15. Finally, don’t be so cautious that you miss the magic of escaping your comfort zone and mingling with local people and staying in their homes. The risks are minimal compared with the wonders of spending time in a small village. So take a gap year, or volunteer in a village or a slum. And even if everything goes wrong and you are robbed and catch malaria, shrug it off-- those are precisely the kinds of authentic interactions with local cultures that, in retrospect, enrich a journey and life itself.

I'm not vouching for any of that, although in my preparations for a rapidly approaching trip to Bali and Thailand, I did dust off my "decoy wallet." Most of my preparations for Bali, though, are even more mundane. The best time to visit: dry season is between April and September, although last time I was there, it was November and December and it may have been more muggy than it is in June and July but I recall it being pretty uniformly gorgeous every day. I know I swam every day too.

I would have rented the same house I rented last time but it isn't available this year. So I asked a friend of mine who lives there to find me something similar-- away from the tourist hellholes on the south coast, up near Ubud closer to the center of the island. He came up with the Villa Di Abing. I made sure the cook can work with vegans and raw foodists-- the house actually has a dehydrator and a VitaMix!-- and then I booked my ticket, bought some sun block and we're ready for our trip. (The villa has a security guard.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

British Air Phasing Out First Class Service

At one time I worked as the president of a division of TimeWarner. I was always very proud that I never-- not once-- used one of the corporate jets to fly someplace, something my peers all did. I was happy to fly with them on their trip but I always had the feeling that using a corporate jet was a tremendous waste of shareholders money and that it could be used for more productive endeavors. And I was perfectly satisfied with first class on British Air, my favorite airline. The flight from L.A. to London left at night, so you could change into your pjs, settle into your relatively private cubicle, have a fantastic dinner, read for a while, get a perfect night's sleep on a comfortable flat bed and wake up in the morning in time to get to your first meeting rested and without a trace of jetlag. All for $10,300 (roundtrip).

Now that I'm retired. I've discovered the allure of business class. Apparently I'm one step ahead of my former flying companions-- or at least the ones without corporate jets at their disposal. According to yesterday's Guardian, the British Air first class cabin is going the way of the way of the dodo bird.
Business class passengers famously draw envious glances from the herd in economy by turning left when they enter a plane, but it is the first class ticket holders who are the most pampered. On British Airways' 747s they ascend to their Kelly Hoppen-designed cabin and don their free pyjamas and slippers before supping on the likes of lobster thermidor, pan-seared wild Scottish salmon or roasted Cornish game hen, then slip between the sheets of their roomy-- and extremely flat-- bed.

Now, however, this most opulent form of travel is under threat.

The global downturn has devastated demand for expensive seats, and even Hollywood stars and bankers are shying away from BA's extravagant first class prices. The airline, stung by a slump in premium bookings that helped push the company into its worst-ever loss of £401m, has removed first class accommodation from four of its new long-haul planes, and is to review seating plans for other new aircraft.

"The long-haul aircraft that we take delivery of this year will not have any first class cabins in them," said Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive. He insisted there was no direct link to the recession, but he added: "Longer term we will review the configuration of [all] new aircraft." BA is also launching a service this year from Heathrow to Las Vegas, a prime destination for high-rollers, with no first class option.

First class is the last remnant of the more romantic days of air travel when BA's predecessor, British Overseas Airways Corporation, offered first class tickets alongside the more down-at-heel tourist or economy cabins. Its upmarket reputation has become even more rarefied over the years following the introduction of slightly less luxurious business class seats in the late 1970s, and cut-throat competition on the transatlantic market.

Walsh admitted that the cost of ripping out seats in the existing fleet is too great to get rid of first class in existing planes, leading industry watchers to speculate that upgrades for economy class travellers might become a more common occurrence... The cost of refitting an aircraft, at millions of pounds per plane, means that airlines will have to turn to riskier strategies such as overbooking flights until their new aircraft orders arrive. Airlines can guarantee strong revenues from economy class passengers if they overbook the back of the plane. Under that scenario, any passenger who is the victim of an overbooking could be upgraded to one of the many empty seats in business class, or bumped to another flight.

Of course, there's always Air Emirates. I'm not sure if this price includes tax or not, but the L.A.-London run is $24,916.97. In any case, the food looks like it's probably not that different from B.A. Business class on B.A., by the way, costs $4,274 and you'd be surprised how comfy it feels when you think of the $6,000 you save by forgoing First Class (or the $20,000 you save by avoiding Air Emirates).

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

No Reservations Needed In Mexico During The Swine Flu Epidemic

El Zócalo, the heart of Mexico City's historic center, is generally packed

I wonder if PIA has reduced the number of flights into the Swat Valley's Saidu Sharif Airport this week. I suspect hotel rooms are going begging-- unless the Taliban militia has requisitioned them all. They don't need to though. Thousands of residents have been fleeing in every direction as the Pakistani Army prepares for a decisive military confrontation just a few hours northwest of the country's capital. Now Mexico is also in a touristic pickle. (The Swat Valley was one of Pakistan's most beloved tourist sites until the Taliban took it over and started brutalizing, raping and beheading women without head scarves and men without beards.)

In the midst of the drug-related violence and the swine flue epidemic, American Airlines is following the rest of the airline industry reducing the number of flights into Mexico. The tourist industry there is also in bad shape. Starting Friday and for the entire month of May and early June, American will reduce daily roundtrip flights from 42 to 31, citing "weaker demand." Continental is still flying, just using smaller planes and United is cutting its 64 weekly flights between the U.S. and Mexico to 24.

Generally flights to Mexico have been empty and flights back to the U.S. have been full, although today's NY Times is reporting that things are kind a/sorta getting back to normal-- if you think calling off Cinco de Mayo has anything to do with normal.
The authorities have been seeking to strike a balance between the health risk of widespread shutdowns and the economic cost of keeping parts of the economy shuttered. In Mexico, the nationwide impact on industries, including tourism, has cost about $2.3 billion, or between 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, Finance Minister Agustin Carstens said Tuesday.

The BBC reported this morning that there virtually is no tourism industry functioning in Mexico City right now. And its nearly as bad in the rest of the country. There are no foreign tourists at all and cruise lines have been canceling stops there.
Walk into the crisp, modernist lobby of the Camino Real hotel in the upmarket district of Polanco, and you will be treated as a bit of a novelty. Guests are far outnumbered by staff. The hotel has over 700 rooms. Less than 40 are occupied. The World Health Organization is the only regular customer these days.

...The closure of restaurants and other entertainment areas in the capital alone is costing as much as 100 million US dollars a day.

The Mexican economy, already devastated by a drop off in remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S., the second biggest source of income (between oil and tourists), is absolutely devastated now. This positively just kills the millions of low wage service workers involved with tourism-- waiters, musicians, maids, cooks, etc-- and it's spreading through the entire economy, which was already weakened by falling petroleum prices. The hotel occupancy rate in Mexico City is around 5%. That's also the estimated percentage that the economy is likely to contract by. Bloomberg is reporting that the swine flu epidemic is costing the Mexican economy about $145 million a day in gross domestic product. It's estimated that Mexico’s tourism revenue could fall 43 percent to $7.58 billion.