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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.