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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.