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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Al Qaeda Terror Alert! I Wonder If I Can Pick Up Some Cheap Tickets... Hotel Rooms?

As you can hear in the report above, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert-- one step down from a travel warning-- for Americans traveling in Europe. They have some nonspecific intelligence that Al Qaeda is planning a series of attacks on "soft targets" in France, Germany and England. But even Sweden and Poland have taken precautions and the alert is for the entire continent. Soft targets would be non-military, civilian targets, like hotels, tourist attractions, shopping areas...
Intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe have said an increase in activity in recent weeks suggests that a small cell of potential terrorists hiding in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region, are preparing an attack that could be as spectacular as the 2008 raids in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people.

Plotters could be planning to use "a variety of means and target both official and private interests," the State Department said, adding that Americans abroad should be careful riding on railways, subways and other transportation systems, and visiting hotels, restaurants and tourist spots.

...According to intelligence sources, the current threat apparently arose after the arrest and interrogation of a German man of Pakistani origin who was being held at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan. He reportedly has provided information about the activities of half a dozen other men from Germany and England who were linked through Al Qaeda and allegedly talking to other operatives in several European cities about upcoming strikes.

At this point I'm happy to not be at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi-- and not just because of how dirty and confused it is or because of the wild monkeys.
Monkeys are a common sight in streets, parks and trees and are known to make cameo appearances scampering through hospitals and government offices. The problem with their presence is twofold. As Delhi's nearby forest cover shrinks, monkeys migrate into business and residential areas.

Their survival is boosted by the devout Hindu belief the animals are sacred. As a result, they are fed which means they frequent public places and can end up biting people while carrying diseases like rabies.

Cue the langur-- and the langur-wallah. Langurs' bigger size and fierce nature means your average monkey has limited opportunities for mischief in their presence. They don't kill their smaller relations but scare them away... The New Delhi council has put dozens of langurs on duty outside venues to guard against a potential riot if a troop of monkeys invades.

I have a feeling the al Qaeda operatives aren't afraid of the langurs. And Delhi is a lot easier to get to than London or Paris. We'll see... or not. In any case, it would be hard to imagine that there aren't thousands of Afghans who have lost love ones-- soft targets or... what do we call them... collateral damage. And that doesn't count the ones our troops just kill in cold blood for sport. They might be jonesin' for some revenge. This kind of report goes over poorly in Afghanistan:
According to an internal investigation, a squad of US soldiers based in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, formed a “kill team” that murdered unarmed civilians for sport, sometimes keeping body parts as souvenirs.

When reports of torture first emerged from Abu Ghraib, it was the images that shocked: naked Iraqi captives in a pile on the floor, leashed, like dogs, or standing hooded on a chair. There are known to be photographs in this case, too, showing American soldiers posing with the corpses of their victims and brandishing the severed fingers they kept as trophies. The army has so far managed to prevent them from being published.

As with Abu Ghraib, the key question is whether the accused men can be dismissed as a rogue unit-- a few bad apples-- or whether failures of command created an environment in which some soldiers felt they could kill with impunity.

The first to appear in court, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, is accused of taking part in three murders. At a pre-trial hearing, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington State, prosecutors described him as an “eager participant” who killed for kicks.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Problem With Brazil...

Actually, I loved every second of my short trip to Brazil a few years ago when I visited the Iguazu Falls National Park, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. After much research, I decided to stay on the Brazilian side, even though that meant dealing with the hassle of getting a Brazilian visa, something easy for Europeans... but hard for Americans-- well, not really hard, but expensive and time-consuming. And it's a hassle, purposefully so. Simple explanation: tit for tat. The Brazilians are doing exactly to American tourists what the U.S. does to Brazilian tourists. I found an easy way-- well, relatively easy way-- 'round the problems, which I explained in the link above, that fit right into my schedule: the Brazilian consul in Buenos Aires.

Today Catharine Hamm, the L.A. Times travel editor, as part of a q & a grapples with it for pissed off Americans who aren't aware the Brazilians are simply responding to Bush-era restrictions on their nationals that Obama hasn't gotten around to fixing.
“There is some promise in this issue,” said Mario Moyses, vice minister of tourism for Brazil, noting that 600,000 Americans last year visited the emerging South American superpower.

But, so far, it remains a promise. Even if you’re visiting on a cruise and staying eight hours, you need a visa, according to the local Brazilian consulate. At $160, your visit will cost you $20 an hour.

Chalk it up to a little diplomatic tit for tat. What the U.S. charges Brazilians for a visa, Brazil charges U.S. citizens.
“It is not a punishment, but an international procedure between countries,” Moyses said.

Whatever it is, if you are going to Brazil, you’ll need to allow plenty of time to get that visa. It will take at least 10 working days, the consulate website says (www.brazilian-consulate,, and the application and pick-up must be in person, whether by you or a visa agency. “No exceptions!” the website says in several places.

I’m not sure why the tone is so cranky, but maybe travelers to Brazil have been trying to game the system. Or maybe Americans are pushier than the average bear. (No. Really?)

...Brazil does not require Western Europeans to have a visa. Of course, neither do we.

With Brazil slated to host soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, perhaps this is an opportune time to end this diplomatic tantrum. As parents often tell squabbling siblings, it doesn’t matter who started it, and it doesn’t really matter why. It does matter that travelers get caught, yet again, in affairs not of their own making.

Brazil's worth the hassle and we're planning a trip to the northeast -- Recife and Bahia-- where I have a large extended family.